A sermon for the Day of Pentecost, May 23, 2010. The lectionary readings are Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:14-17 and John 14:8-27 .
Some of you know that I’m a big fan of the religious art of Andy Warhol. If it sounds like I just mis-spoke, you may have a little of the surprise I had when I first learned that Warhol had actually DONE some religious art. His own religious experience—of attending Orthodox worship with his immigrant parents in Pittsburgh, or attending Mass very frequently at a Catholic church in New York City— Warhol’s own religious experience can be surprising, until you see it in some of his art.
The first religious art of Warhol I saw was in 1999 (the Soho branch of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City). There, they had 26 paintings of Warhol’s version of the Last Supper. Jesus and his disciples in camouflage colors, or in the bright colors of Warhol’s imagination. Sometimes contemporary advertising icons are interspersed with the Warhol’s take on the famous Last Supper by da Vinci. My favorite of these illustrates the Holy Spirit using the dove from the Dove soap icon. So, as Jesus sits in his customary spot, in the middle of the disciples at the Last Supper, there, hovering just over his head is the Dove from the soap ads. Just to underscore the point, Warhol includes that familiar, whooshy, word in its soapy script: Dove.
There are many ways to interpret Warhol’s juxtaposition of the contemporary images along with the sacred, but one suggests that he is pointing to the cheapening of religious images. He is point to how easy is it to confuse a deep, symbolic, religious idea with a shorthand symbol of that idea. But if we confuse the Holy Spirit with a Dove bar of soap, we have the Bible to blame, in part.
In the description of the baptism of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove. In Matthew’s Gospel the Spirit descends “like a dove,” so it may not have really looked like one, but in a quick reading picked up by much of art history, we have inherited this idea that the Holy Spirit can be represented by a dove. Some suggest this reminded the early believers of the dove that Noah sent out to search for dry land, or that (like in the Prophet Hosea) the dove represents Israel. Andy Warhol’s use of the Dove bar reminds us that at baptism, when we are washed clean, the Holy Spirit is present, and so we might not be so far off, after all, if we gave bars of Dove’s soap at a child’s baptism. But don’t worry. We’re not going that far.
On this Day of Pentecost, we (again) try to open ourselves more fully to the gift of God’s Spirit, and we, like most of the Church, struggle with the images. The Spirit of God at the beginning of creation is like a wind, or like a breath. This Spirit hovers over the creation of all things. In the Wisdom Literature of the Bible, the Spirit is personified as a woman running through the streets, Lady Wisdom, seeking for any who will stop and listen to what she has to say. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit descends like tongues of fire and does quick work at helping all of the disciples who have gathered—disciples from all directions and languages and cultures and backgrounds and differences—understand each other. Of all the work of God’s Spirit, helping people who are very different from one another be able to understand each other while retaining their individuality and difference—that is surely the work of God, and work we should pray for and welcome.
The Holy Spirit sometimes comes in overpowering ways, like a wind that clears away all that is old and needs to go, making way for God’s new life among us. And sometimes the Spirit is like that still, small voice heard so long ago by the Prophet Elijah. Elijah has run out of options. He’s tired of doing all the talking, the authorities are after him, he feels alone and afraid. But when he finally slows down, when he finally gives up, there in a cave God’s Spirit comes like a whisper, like a breeze that only slightly stirs, and Elijah, himself, finds a second wind.
Though there are many images for the Spirit, this idea of God’s Holy Spirit being like a “second wind” is one that resonates for me.
A second wind comes sometimes in surprising ways. I remember when I was a teenager and I used to mow the grass and take care of several yards in our neighborhood. Sometimes, because of thunderstorms or my own doing other things, the grass would get really tall and I would have just a few hours to get a whole lot of work done. On several occasions, I remember being furious with the world, mad at everybody, hating the lawnmower, and wishing I were a rich kid and could be sitting by a swimming pool somewhere. As I was struggling with tall, wet grass, my brother would show up. He would have a story or two and would talk my ear off. He might infuriate me by suggesting a quicker way to get the work done (which I would resist, but then see was, in fact, a better way). Eventually he would leave, but I would finish up my work really quickly. His visit gave me a second wind. Whether he was motivated by his own need to have an audience for his stories, or whether my parents suggested he stop by, or whether it was the Spirit of God—it worked like the Holy Spirit for me.
A “second wind” can come in the form of a friend, or a colleague, a stranger, or even a family member. And (of course) sometimes WE are urged by God to be the second wind for someone else.
I think this idea of a “second wind” is what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel. Philip wants to see God and Jesus tries to explain to him that by being in the presence of Jesus, Philip has seen God. But Phillip worries about what will happen when the vision fades. What happens when it doesn’t feel like God is around? What happens with faith fails? And Jesus promises that the Advocate will come—the Holy Spirit of God advocating for us, advocating for the way of love, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit will teach you, remind you, be with you. God will bring you a second wind that will bring peace.
In just a few minutes we will offer a strange prayer. It is a prayer for the blessing of a machine, in particular, a prayer giving thanks and asking God’s blessing upon the church’s Automated External Defibrillator. It’ is appropriate that we do this on the Day of Pentecost (though it was tempting to wait until Sacred Heart Day – (get it?) We hope we will never need to use this machine here, but if we do, and wherever such machines are used, we give thanks for God’s gift of a second wind—whether that comes through a person or a machine.
However we picture or imagine the Holy Spirit, may we be open to the Spirit’s power in our lives. May we be alert to the second winds that give us strength, and may we be alert to God’s spirit when we are called to offer that support and strength for one another.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.