Risking the horizons of possibility


Pentecost Sunday

23 May 2021

Acts 2.1-21

Psalm 104.26-36

Romans 8.22-27

John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15

Risking the horizons of possibility                                                 ©Suzanne Grimmett

Sometimes, I have to go looking for poetry.

Sometimes, if I am not going to serve up from the pulpit a bland reconstruction of the texts with a bit of historical criticism thrown in, I need to search through commentary after commentary and troll the internet for the inspiration of someone who has dived deeper than me and found not only truth, but life-giving metaphor that hopefully we can take into our own lives and nurture the emergence of something new.

But not this day.  At Pentecost, the poems find you. The poets turn up in every corner and the poetry arrives involuntarily as we seek to put words on the appearance of the Spirit amongst us. Ordinary words may not be enough, so we might need, like the writer of Acts, to use images like tongues of fire, or evoke sounds like pneuma; rushing wind or breath or speech of the Spirit. I won’t be able to create the hip-hop vibe, but this excerpt from the poem tongues-talk by jim perkinson seems to be finding words that capture the felt reverberations of Pentecost within and amongst us;

what is the gift of gospel-funk?

did the twelve hear horns in the ear

like a 120 instrument chorus

did you think this was an orchestra?

is the ghost-groan a gift of incorporation

fixing prices on the scheme of sanctification

like salvation in a k-mart package?

the spirit comes without instructions for assembly

this is

surgeon-general’s warning of

“no-way-to-anticipate-it” effect

a break-out of jubilation

on the tongue of mute child

the logic of laughter-belly

the jump of frozen-limb

the shout of deaf-mouth

the vision-explosion of blind eye

the collapse of consternation

the crash of shame

the size of flesh-on-the-rise

against every bullet of can’t

the final demise of helpless!

this is the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl

making love on the tongue

like fourth-of-july between the teeth

spitting flames of reconciliation

in the sky of war

making messiah-praise out of the air itself!

this is pentecost in your head

like becoming what you never dared

for the first time and forever.

                                                                      From tongues-talk by jim perkinson

Jim Perkinson has here, I think, found words and sounds he loved to create an effect of raw energy and to point to the open-ended invitation that is Pentecost. It is a recognition that when we speak of Jesus as the Word made flesh, we know that the Spirit coming to us is also the Word made flesh in each of us, an invitation to incarnation that has lit up human history down the ages. The invitation holds the truth that while we imagine and dream, it is God who speaks our future into being.

But in case we are in danger of lapsing into so many metaphors that the experience of Spirit becomes totally disconnected from our grounded reality, we would do well to notice how the apostle Peter raises his voice above the cacophony of tongues to point to the words from the prophet Joel. The prophetic tradition is one that speaks to each age a present day warning against the evils of greed and the kind of violence that enforces any totalising regime. Small wonder then, that as Peter experiences and witnesses the release of the Spirit, the words that come to his tongue are ones which speak of the liberation of ‘the last days’ where God proclaims a word of love and mercy, causing an eruption of new beginnings. The last days in a sense then, are the first days, where God’s Spirit is poured out upon all flesh, taking away their shame and prompting, in the words of the prophet Joel, male and female slaves to prophesy, the old men to dream new dreams and the young men to see fresh visions. This is language of new birth where voices previously unheard because of racism, classism, sexism or ageism are able to give prophetic voice to justice and truth. There is a distinctly practical edge to this Spirit, which transforms social consciousness to renew the face of the earth.[1]

George Eliot said “it is never too late to become what you might have been.” Certainly courage and imagination is required if we are live into our own best selves and our communal capacity for love and goodness. These last days of the Spirit and first days of a new beloved community, give a vision beyond the present to the horizon of a new heaven and a new earth. But this is not an apocalyptic image of destruction but a revealing of how things actually are and an empowerment to dream and act for the possibility of a world built around love, justice and peace. As the poet chants, this Spirit works;

against every bullet of can’t

the final demise of helpless!

Partnering with the Spirit, we are to be active agents in bringing this new life to birth.

But in real and practical terms, how? If Pentecost does tell of the new beginning of the kingdom life on earth through the Church, how are we to know how to continue the story? One thing is clear- there is no “one size fits all” approach in the Spirit. Neither can we try to force the Spirit of Truth which Jesus promises into a simplistic formula of how to be saved or the way to get to heaven. The many different tongues that erupt on the day of Pentecost remind us that the Spirit works against uniformity and conformity. Our poet raps out this challenge;

is the ghost-groan a gift of incorporation

fixing prices on the scheme of sanctification

like salvation in a k-mart package?

The spirit comes without instructions for assembly

One thing that living prayerfully in community should teach us is that the Spirit works in process through relationship, bringing growth and change that ripples out as we deepen our love and commitment to one another. We are given the gift of community, scripture, the prophetic, incarnate Word and the Spirit, but we have to work out the instructions for assembly ourselves.

And so, with due caution that this is someone else’s story in the Spirit and not our own, I would like to share how one US community worked out their own instructions.

The Georgetown Gospel Chapel is in the heart of one of Seattle’s most economically challenged neighborhoods. Twenty years ago, the Chapel faced a decision of whether or not to pay two thousand dollars to repair their lawn’s sprinkler system. They decided instead to tear out the sprinkler system and the lawn. They turned the church property into a large garden that could nourish the broader community. Its beautiful produce is free for the taking, supplementing the diets of the economically stressed neighbors. The Chapel’s rainwater reclamation system helps to water the garden, saves on the utility bills, and prevents storm water from running into the adjacent, salmon-bearing Duwamish River, carrying chemicals from lawns, industries, and leaked oil from cars. Among the many ministries provided, Pastor Hedman offers his skills to the community as a certified master gardener and a composter. He and Chapel members help build gardens for neighbors and provide them with seeds and gardening/composting training. They also host a recreation/tutoring/mentoring program for children and youth—one that (in addition to being fun!) also introduces dozens of young people to basic Earth-care principles and activities. The Chapel has “adopted” their street. Not only do they keep it litter-free, but they’ve also distributed hundreds of tree seedlings to residents there. The trees greatly enhance beauty, air quality, and habitat for other creatures. [2]

This is only part of the Georgetown Gospel Church’s story, and the direction of their communal life was determined both by the needs of their unique context, the resources they had available, and the gifts and talents of their members. It does not tell us what we should do, how we should do it, nor who we should become in our local neighbourhood. But what I think it does illustrate, is the way the thrum of the Spirit progressively opens up more and more possibility for life and relationship in ways that cannot ever be anticipated. Our story and our context is also unique, but the Spirit poured out at Pentecost continues to work here and will continue to surprise and delight us as we pay attention to the endings and new beginnings that lure us on when we are prepared to risk the adventure. The way Spirit-life unfolds is full of mystery and wonder, which is probably why we need our poets to express it best.  And what is it like, this coming of the Spirit to us? Our hip hop poet tells us it’s;

like becoming what you never dared

for the first time and forever.

May we all have the courage to risk the adventure of Spirit, and allow the risen and ascended Christ to lead us together, on to the eternally open horizon of possibility.


[1] Keller, Catherine. On the Mystery (p. 162-163). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] As quoted in Keller, Catherine. On the Mystery (p. 171). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

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