Pentecostal Tears, Rain, and a River

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Day of Pentecost, May 31, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

The song “Fire and Rain” was James Taylor’s first hit, and it still seems timeless:

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again.[1]

That last line refers to a friend of his who died unexpectedly when they were both 19 years old. Taylor didn’t find out about it until months after the fact.

Those words reminded me of an article in the New York Times about Sally Rowley. She died of COVID-19 at the age of 88 a couple of weeks ago.[2] Nearly six decades earlier, she had been arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, along with other Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement. Freedom Riders traveled in mixed racial groups on interstate buses. They went through Southern states which were ignoring Supreme Court rulings that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. As the end of her life drew near, Rowley had to say her final goodbyes to family members through a window at a nursing home. Surely they thought they’d touch again.

I also thought of George Floyd, an African American who grew up in Houston’s Third Ward and played football at Jack Yates High School. He had moved from the Lone Star State to the North Star State “to be his best self.”[3] Most of us only know his name because of a video of a Minneapolis police officer, previously disciplined more than once, with a knee on Floyd’s neck while face down in the street.[4]

He told the officer he was in pain and couldn’t breathe. Then his eyes shut, and his pleas stopped, and an hour later he was pronounced dead at the age of 46.

Floyd lived in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. It’s the same first-ring suburb where my family and I lived for seven years in the Twin Cities. It’s also heavily Jewish. That’s because of the long history of anti-Semitism in Minneapolis, which accelerated Jewish migration to St. Louis Park in the postwar years. Most nearby suburbs had placed restrictions on Jewish access to housing, and Jews felt safe there. But citizens, then and now, ought to feel safe in neighborhoods throughout our cities.

Floyd’s girlfriend said, “He stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away. We prayed over every meal, we prayed if we were having a hard time, we prayed if we were having a good time.”[5] Surely she thought they’d pray again. Surely she knows the plague of racism has been threatening black lives for much longer than COVID-19, from our beginnings, when the Constitution counted a slave as three-fifths of a human being.

After a prayer service on January 4, 1861, my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., co-wrote this resolution in a church in Chatham County, NC, where he had served as a deacon.

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

Those words could easily be the prayer of many African Americans today who are angry, who are weary, who are afraid for their children. For James Taylor, his words described his own struggle with heroin addiction. But he wasn’t looking to the Savior. Taylor doesn’t believe in that. Jesus, for him, was nothing more than “an expression of [his] desperation . . . just something you say when you’re in pain.”[6]

Of course, his words can be a prayer. They can be your prayer in your anger, in your weariness, in your fears. They can be your prayer this week in your pain, your struggles, your desperation. And I would go so far as to say Taylor’s words were received as prayer, were heard as prayer, not because he turned to Jesus, but because Jesus turned to him long before those words were written. I believe that.

Today is the Day of Pentecost. It’s one of the great festivals of the Christian Church when we recall the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus. Jews from many different lands were in Jerusalem for a harvest festival known as the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of 50 Days or the Feast of Pentecost, a Greek word that means “fiftieth.” Jesus’ disciples were there too, although probably behind locked doors and not in the streets. Crucified and risen, Jesus had returned from whence he came. Jesus had not been abandoned by God. But what about Jesus’ disciples? Surely they could be forgiven for feeling as if they had now been abandoned.

There were so many things going on in the world around them, so many reasons to be afraid, so many uncertainties. It would’ve been easy to have forgotten that Jesus had promised he wouldn’t leave them comfortless. We heard one of those promises in today’s reading from the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John. The festival it talks about isn’t the Feast of Pentecost because in this passage we’re hearing Jesus at an earlier time talk about a future event. On the last day of this different festival, the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus says to all of the people around him:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”[7]

During the Feast of Tabernacles, Jews remembered God’s provision for their ancestors in the wilderness, that time of wandering between slavery in Egypt and a new life in the Promised Land. Jesus is promising an outpouring of God’s Spirit greater than water in the wilderness, which had quenched thirst only temporarily.

Jesus uses this metaphor at a festival that included water rituals.[8] Each morning a priest would draw water from the Pool of Siloam. Accompanied by musicians and singers, he then followed a road that ascends to the Temple Mount. Finally the water was poured into a bowl beside the altar as the priest prayed for the blessing of rain.

An evening celebration was also associated with all of this. Golden lamps on high pedestals that could only be reached by ladders brightly illuminated the outer courtyard of the Temple. Dancers carried torches, musicians played instruments, and people gathered there to praise the Lord with songs. As the Mishnah puts it:

He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life.[9]

It’s as if Jesus was saying everything you’ve seen here — the joy and the dancing and the abundance — is just a foretaste of the blessing you’ll receive when God’s Spirit is poured out. And you won’t have to travel great distances to have that experience here on the Temple Mount because the Holy Spirit will be poured into the hearts of believers wherever they’re gathered, overflowing into the world around them. And that gift will be carried to the ends of the earth like a mighty river, quenching your thirst, flowing through all the desert places, bringing life where there was no life.

Now some of you will appreciate the fact that our gospel reading isn’t set in the very moment when that happened. It’s a description of a promise waiting to be fulfilled. With everything that’s happening around us these days, maybe the best Pentecostal hope you can muster is a prayer of frustration, a demand for God to show up, to do something, and to come quickly. Maybe that’s how you honestly feel right now. I get it — and that would be an honest confession, a prayer of grace, a plea for help.

But I can’t stop thinking about something that happened last Sunday night. That’s when an Episcopal priest in Arizona invited friends to join her on Zoom for an agape meal — a shared meal within a community of Christians that isn’t Holy Communion. It’s something the early church practiced, and it’s something Christians can practice today, even while separated from one another physically. In the midst of the feast, another priest offered a brief sermon. The preacher said,

God’s grace doesn’t have an expiration date. Christ is as close to you now as at the moment you last left the altar rail.[10]

And the host of that agape meal, reflecting later on those words, said,

This, for me, is what it means to say that all things are possible with the Holy Spirit. The jar of meal and the jug of oil will not fail until the famine has ended. And God has promised to send rain.[11]

My Pentecostal hope is that the solemn prayer of the priests in the Temple will come true in our own lives in surprising ways, as the blessing of rain comes in its proper time. My Pentecostal hope is that we’ll also embrace the accidental prayer of James Taylor, as Jesus looks down upon us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, helps us to make a stand, perhaps standing first in front of a mirror to face our own racism.

My own prayer is for us to see in the rear view mirror that the Holy Spirit has been with us, even when we doubted it, and that the promise of Jesus fulfilled on this day will unlock the doors of our hearts, replacing fear with Pentecostal tears, rain, and a river of love, giving us wisdom and courage for the living of these days.

AMEN

BACK TO POST James Taylor, “Fire and Rain.” Anywhere Like Heaven, Warner Bros., 1970.

BACK TO POST Simon Romero, “Sally Rowley, Jewelry Maker and Freedom Rider, Dies at 88,” New York Times, May 21, 2020.

BACK TO POST Stephen Jackson, quoted by Alisha Ebrahimji in “George Floyd is remembered as a ‘gentle giant’ by his family and friends,” CNN, May 27, 2020.

BACK TO POST Dakin Andone, Hollie Silverman, and Melissa Alonso, “The Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck had 18 previous complaints against him, police department says,” CNN, May 29, 2020.

BACK TO POST Courteney Ross, quoted by Alisha Ebrahimji in “George Floyd is remembered as a ‘gentle giant’ by his family and friends,” CNN, May 27, 2020.

BACK TO POST James Tayor, quoted by Stuart Werbin in “James Taylor and Carley Simon: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone, January 4, 1973.

BACK TO POST John 7:37-38.

BACK TO POST “Water-Drawing, Feast of,” Jewish Encyclopedia: The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.

BACK TO POST Mishnah Sukkah 51a.

10 BACK TO POST Kara Slade @KaraNSlade, quoted by K.D. Joyce @MtrKDJoyce in The part of @KaraNSlade‘s sermon that’s going to stay with me for a long, long time is ‘God’s grace doesn’t have an expiration date. Christ is as close to you now as at the moment you last left the altar rail.'” Twitter, May 24, 2020. 5:22 p.m.

11 BACK TO POST K.D. Joyce @MtrKDJoyce, “*This*, for me, is what it means to say that all things are possible with the Holy Spirit. The jar of meal and the jug of oil will not fail until the famine has ended. And God has promised to send rain.” Twitter, May 24, 2020, 5:26 p.m. The reference to meal and oil and the promise of rain comes from the story of the Prophet Elijah and a widow in I Kings 17:8-16.

2 thoughts on “Pentecostal Tears, Rain, and a River

  1. Wonderful sermon, as always. We are truly blessed even with and in the hard things—God bless you for expressing it so well.

    Like

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