Pentecost: A tangled mess

The tangled mess that is this long, electric cord takes me time whenever I cut the grass. I stand there pulling the ends through loops and ties, slowly unravelling the serpent-like wire until it stretches straight. Each time I cut the grass. Sometimes I am impatient and frustrated. But I do it time and time again. How can I resolve this problem of a tangled cord?
Sometimes our lives may feel tangled. In truth, our youth and those teenage years often may feel quite tangled, as you sort out sometimes messy contradictions and conflicts in your life — figuring out your sexuality, clarifying your vocation, discerning what you want to do “when you grow up”, finding your place in this world, and navigating the often bumpy road of relationships and friendships.
Dear confirmands, you are entering a most complicated, challenging and exciting period of your life. And through it all, your life may sometimes feel, frankly, a tangled mess. How to even begin un-tangling it?
Today, the colours in the church are passionate, powerful, fiery red, because it is Pentecost Sunday — the birthday of the church. It is the day we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, in dramatic fashion I might add: Tongues of fire alighting upon peoples’ heads, and a sound like the “rush of a violent wind” crashing around them (Acts 2:2-3). Then, when the disciples address the diverse crowd in their native languages, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel describing what is happening in these “last days” — when God will show “signs on the earth below: blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” (v.19-20). Indeed, we are seeing red!
Living amidst all this drama could feel kinda tangled, messy, chaotic. But, I thought being a Christian was supposed to be all neat and tidy, ordered and predictable, comfortable and nice. The coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives suggests something altogether different! Birthdays are supposed to recall who we are, our identity. How do we even begin un-tangling meaning and purpose of our existence as a church, from this crazy picture?
I purposely did not iron my red chasuble for today’s service to remind myself that following Jesus sometimes feels ‘dis-ordered’. And, I purposely left alone two small holes in this old, Pentecost garment to remind myself of something Saint Paul gets at in the second reading for Pentecost Sunday: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness”; and, that the whole creation, including you and me “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:22-27). 
What I often ‘see’ in my life are a lot of holes — many weaknesses. What I often see in other peoples’ lives are their weaknesses. What I often see is me trying so hard to keep my life untangled, compared to others. What I see is all my toiling and fretting and striving to make things right and straight. But, hope that is seen is not hope. If I pretend how good everything is — or ought to be — all of the time, that’s not hope. That’s just me toiling in vain pretending I will be saved by my own efforts.
You might have heard illustrations of some old cathedrals in Europe especially built with holes in the ceiling. They were built purposely so, in order to provide an ‘imperfect’ entry point for the Spirit of God to descend into the lives of the Body of Christ on earth — the church. The entry point of the Spirit of God is precisely through the imperfections, the tangled messes, of our lives — not through our vainglorious, self-righteous, pull-myself-up-by-the-bootstraps efforts. Remember, the Spirit of God helps us in our weaknesses. At ground zero. When on our knees we fall and confess, “I need help and I cannot do it on my own.”
We don’t find God by doing it right. God finds us by our doing it wrong. That’s not to say we ought to go out and try to sin. It is to say that when we find ourselves — as we all will — in moments of our greatest weakness, that’s when Grace happens, when we provide entry points through the ‘holes’ of our ego, our bravado, our pretences of ‘being right when everyone else is wrong’.
You would think that after fifteen years of home ownership and being the person who cuts the lawn in our household; and after ten years of cutting the lawn with an electric, corded, lawn-mower, I would have already figured this out and just purchased one of those roller-thingies for the cord. The strange thing is, I haven’t and after I am finished cutting, I still just crumple the cord and throw it into the garage on top of the mower.
Maybe that says something about the reality and truth of our lives. No matter how much we may grow, and mature — I would hope — over life, we are still stuck in some ways, and will still get into messes from time to time. Youth is just the beginning!
The scriptures for Pentecost are very clear that the disciples of Jesus did not ‘invoke’ the Spirit or earn God’s coming by saying and doing the right things. The Spirit came to them, freely, surprisingly and despite their weaknesses. And what is more, Saint Paul further specifies how that Spirit comes — when we do not know how to pray as we ought (v.26). Not a very impressive picture of humanity. And yet, God still has faith in us, and comes to us!
On the cross, as Jesus hung dying, he said, “It is accomplished” (John 19:30). The victory is won. In Jesus’ human suffering and death, he says this. Not on Easter Sunday, when we celebrate his resurrection. But the victory is won in the moment of God’s fullest identification with human humility, shame, vulnerability, weaknesses — at the moment of what signifies and is in reality our greatest defeat: death. There, “It is accomplished.”
Jesus, God, identifies with us in our tangled messes. In some ways — although this may not be comforting — being a teenager is the best time of our lives to know God, precisely because it is a time in our lives when we have permission to be most honest about the struggles of our identity and purpose in life. 
Even when you feel most distant from God. Even when you feel your faith is not ‘all there’, and you wonder if you have any faith in God at all. Even when you make a mistake, which you will. Being confirmed today is not a perfect ‘affirmation’ of baptism and faith you are making. And it never will!
These are the ‘holes’ so important that we acknowledge — not deny! — and we see as the entry points of the Spirit of the living God into our hearts. It is exactly at those moments of greatest vulnerability and honest weakness that Jesus walks closest to us: That was the purpose of the Cross, the accomplishment of the Cross. That in human suffering and entanglement, God’s grace and power abound. It is God who saves us. Not our work at being ‘good’ or ‘perfect’.
Traditionally during the liturgy of Pentecost, and specifically right after the reading of the Holy Gospel, the “Paschal” light is extinguished. You will recall that this candle was first lighted at the Great Vigil of Easter fifty days ago. And for each of the subsequent Sundays of Easter it has remained lighted — a sign of Christ’s living, resurrected and eternal presence.
Now it is extinguished. Would anyone suggest, why? Isn’t Jesus still alive? Where is he now? With the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church, and with Jesus ascended into heaven, the presence of God and Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit alights in our own hearts. Through the ‘holes’ of our ego, in the imperfection of our lives, the flame of God’s Spirit washes over us in patience and in gentleness. The Spirit purifies and clarifies our hearts upon which God’s stamp still rests from our baptism. The Spirit encourages and reminds us of who we are and whose we are, forever, and no matter what.

Black is Gold

The black colour is normally associated with the sobriety and austerity of Lent. Priests, pastors and worship decor are draped in the ashen dark to remind us of our common mortality. The visual symbols enwrapped in black point to the crucified Christ and the path of suffering and death.

I think some of us who wear the black clerical shirts year round do so mindful of the unimaginative simplicity and seeming pedestrian quality of this colour.

In the German tradition of worship on Good Friday, special effort is made to emphasize and cover as much as possible with the colour black. In the common understanding of this practice, we have taken this to mean ‘black is mournful’. Indeed, do we not wear black at funerals? And is not Good Friday about the death of Jesus?

We therefore come to worship on Good Friday with heads hung low, faces heavy with sadness, shuffling mournfully down the aisle. An interpretation about the colour black has led to this predominantly sorrowful approach to Good Friday worship.

While I appreciate a collectively mindful appreciation of Jesus’ self-giving sacrifice, I’ve also appreciated a colleague’s clarification of the history of manufacturing black colours in clothing and art. The reason behind bringing the black colour, especially on Good Friday, stems from pre-industrial, organic processes of pigmentation.

In late medieval times, the colour black became the popular fashion choice for royalty in Europe. The most common, least expensive methods of pigmentation resulted in a brighter array of colours. But ‘vine black’ — obtained from burning the twigs of grape vines — was according to the 15th century painter Cennino Cennini “the perfect colour”.

To extract even a little bit of this perfect colour, hard, laborious work was employed. In order to yield the perfect result on a canvas or in clothing, a sacrifice of comparable worth was made. Thus, the colour black was suited for the observance of Good Friday: Not just so that worshippers would feel dour and down on Good Friday; Not only to inculcate a depressive, mournful mood on Good Friday.

Black was gold. Black indicated a valuable and, above all, worthwhile, expression of faith especially on “Good” Friday. The day’s name suggests another paradox: While black can signal temperance and penitence, it also points to a greatness beyond any human effort — the greatest, most perfect, sacrifice of love by God that yields the greatest power even over death itself.

Worth celebrating. Worth our thanksgiving.