Here’s the sermon I preached at High Mass this morning.
Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.24-34; 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13; John 20.19-23
I’ve been watching with interest the media coverage of and social media backlash against Richard Dawkins’ recent comments about fairy stories and the imagination. He was quoted as saying at the Cheltenham Science Festival: ‘I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism — we get enough of that anyway’.
However, he later clarified, ‘I did not, and will not, condemn fairy tales. My whole life has been given over to stimulating the imagination, and in childhood years, fairy stories can do that’.
Now I don’t often agree with Richard Dawkins, but I do want to believe that he means what he says about imagination. Partly because I think any scientist without imagination is not a very good scientist. After all, what is science but viewing the world with wonder and curiosity, and inspired by visions of what it could be, seeking to make it a more just, abundant, healthy, beautiful place? But also, I hope for his sake that Dawkins means what he says about imagination because, not only would a life lived without imagination be terribly dull, but also rather sad and joyless. A world without imagination would be a mere hollow shell, a lifeless shadow.
Today, Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, is a celebration of the divine imagination.
On that first Pentecost, Jews had come from all four corners of the world to celebrate the harvest and give thanks for the bountiful gifts they had received from the Creator. But on that day, God said, ‘If you think this is abundance, if you think this is creativity, you haven’t seen anything yet.’
And the same wind that blew across the chaos at the start of time began to blow. And the light that was created in the beginning of the world began to fall in tongues of fire. And the apostles gathered there began to speak. And as they found their voices, the noise grew, and, as they spoke, the words from the ancient scriptures began to dance and sing around them, blown about by the wind and the fire.
And the people who had come from all over, looked on in bewilderment and fear and wonder, until out of the chaos of wind and voices and flickering flames, the words began to drop on them. They began to recognise, in their own languages, words of justice and peace, of righteousness and forgiveness. Words of the prophets and words of the man some people called the Christ. And when anointed with those words of goodness and mercy, they were amazed but still perplexed.
Because what they did not know, is that before he ascended to his Father, Jesus had breathed his Spirit of peace on those whom he loved. ‘Peace be with you,’ he said. ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And so we also celebrate today that moment when the disciples (those who follow) became the apostles (those who are sent).
And the peace that he gave them, the Spirit of peace with which they were filled that first Pentecost day in Jerusalem, was anything but tranquil. It was a peace that had disrupted their lives, unsettled their expectations and often left them rather confused.
It was a peace so passionate and seductive and playful that it drew them back time and time again whenever they began to look wistfully at their fishing nets and money bags and the mundane lives they had left behind.
It was a peace which came from knowing firsthand both the agony and ecstasy of forgiveness, knowing how it feels to have, in the words of the prophet Ezekiel, their hearts of stone ripped from them and replaced with soft, beating hearts of flesh.
The peace their Lord gave to them was a peace which, on that first Pentecost day, was so disorderly, it looked like drunkenness to those who didn’t know any better.
And as if the wind and the fire and the voices and the crowds weren’t a mad enough expression of God’s imagination, it gets even more incredible. Because up until then, God had hand-picked the characters for the divine drama. They were admittedly often rather peculiar: murderers and adulterers, a peasant girl and a carpenter, a tax collector and some bumbling fishermen.
But that day, God said, ‘I choose all of you: Parthians and Medes, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women. Even you Romans. Even, dare I say it, even you lot from Old St Paul’s. I will pour my Spirit upon all flesh. And you and your children will prophesy, and dream dreams, and see visions. Come, share in my imagination’.
Soon we will celebrate the Eucharist, and we will pray, ‘Hear us, most merciful Father, and send your Holy Spirit upon us’. And what then? Do we know what power we so blithely invoke day after day and week after week?
Because emerging from the babble and clamour and chaos and noise of the world, if we listened, we might hear the words of the prophets dancing again on the howling wind. We might hear the voice of Amos:
I take no delight in your solemn assemblies….
Take away from me the noise of your songs….
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5)
We might realise that the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah, the words read out by Jesus in the synagogue at the start of his ministry, have since Pentecost, become words for us:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon you,
because he has anointed you
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent you to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4)
And we remember then why, when we pray for the Spirit to descend, we remind God to be merciful because it seems too great a demand.
And God replies, ‘Here is my Spirit, and with her, I gift you with wisdom. And you with knowledge. And you with faith. And you with tongues. And you with healing. And you with discernment. And to you all, to my dear Church, I give imagination, curiosity and wonder. Don’t just dream. Don’t just envision. But join me in creating a world that is more just, more abundant, more healthy and more beautiful’.