Text for Liturgical Poem: Briefly it enters and briefly speaks by Jane Kenyon
This is a strange sermon
but it is not my fault – let’s hang it
on the readings and the occasion.
On the one hand,
we have tongues of fire
landing on the noggin of unsuspecting folks,
suddenly provoked and endowed
with multilingual heads and hearts.
On the other hand,
we have Jesus giving a speech
about sending some spook from “the other side”
as an advocate for the truth.
In the middle we have poetry
we know for certain is meant as metaphor,
and so for me, is easier to digest the poem.
“I am the one whose love
already with you
when you think to call my name…” – that is God,
the sustainer, always present and never leaving.
“I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden…” – that is God,
present no matter how horrendously
we muck up the world around us,
steadfastly with us even if not saving us from ourselves.
“I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . .
I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills. . .” – that is God,
who modeled for us a love so exquisite
as to extinguish itself on our behalf.
You get the point.
The Book of Acts tells us a story,
The Gospel of John delivers a speech,
and Jane Kenyon’s poem points and maybe even evokes,
the same thing Acts and John proclaim.
Pentecost is our origin story,
or at least that is how it has been used by the Church.
It harkens to an experience
more widely encountered than the empty tomb.
It marks a moment when people who knew Jesus
and those who didn’t,
stumbled into a strange and whacky
communal, mystical experience.
It was strange, bizarre, weird, and just plain odd.
But look, we are so preoccupied
with the basket of mundane things we believe
are important and amazing and spectacular,
while the genuinely astounding in our midst
does not even register with us.
LIFE is so outrageously astounding
and yet we stand around so accustomed to it
that we do not
stutter with amazement the way we should.
We just came through a nasty winter,
one that just about everyone complained was long
Then spring hit, literally, overnight.
Perhaps we took notice at first,
of the green popping out, followed
by pink and white and blue pedals
of blossoms that stayed too briefly among us.
Now we’re into cutting grass
and we may already be close to losing
that sense of savoring
the sensual blessing of warmth,
the incomparable kaleidoscope of greens,
and the increasingly orchestral songs
of birds returning from faraway places.
We just do not have whatever superpower is required
for us to sustain raw sensitivity
and acute awareness of LIFE.
As the wonderful Polynesian saying goes,
we are riding a whale while fishing for minnows.
Poetry aims to be that flame,
to ignite us in its blossom of fire
so that we too, suddenly and inexplicably,
are consumed in the experienceof LIFE.
It aims to capture us just for a moment, take us up
in a shirt of flame, consumed
but not perishing, babbling but not speaking,
gushing with awe and amazement
over not merely our Life, but LIFE itself.
And doesn’t all art
hope to give us a moment like that –
whether with music, dance, sculpture,
words, or paint?
Art aims to take us up,
as if in a tongue of fire, into
an experientialmoment that captures us
and suddenly our awareness is more wide-eyed,
and we know something
we did not know before or had been asleep to.
In the end, art is revelatory – a sacrament
of ordinary materials
render in such a way as to
point toward something we cannot speak about
with words that make sense.
Once I sat in front of a huge Willem de Kooning
abstract painting in a nearly empty museum gallery,
just staring at it in hopes of understanding it.
Then, suddenly, it came to life.
It was as if the colors had a heartbeat
and for just a second, I was taken inside it,
overwhelmed by the experience of its substance.
Now maybe, any object could deliver such an experience.
Maybe it had nothing to do with being great art.
And indeed, I have stared at an ant colony
and been similarly mesmerized into awe;
and tried to count the varieties of green while
staring at a summer landscape;
and other such strange acts of meditation
I might even call…prayer.
All of which is to say,
the Bible is full of mystical and revelatory experiences
like the Pentecost one we read about today,
but no-more-so than LIFE itself.
Our routine, silly, mundane lives
driving up and down Route 14
or Exchange Street,
or bending over and picking dandelions from the grass,
hold within them the opportunity
for exquisite, mind-boggling,
render-us-stupid kind of moments.
And really, this worship thing we do
is the practice of opening ourselves to such moments.
I would even go so far as to say,
that is the difference between highly ritualized traditions
like Episcopal and Roman Catholic worship
and those of a more Protestant kind of sparseness.
Ritual is the practice of opening ourselves to the holy,
the holy that is in our midst at every moment.
Of course, we get confused and think the ritual
is the holy itself instead of the practice.
But ritual, when we do not become obsessive-compulsive
about making it always just the same;
and we do not mistake it for the thing it points to;
then ritual can sensitize us
and open us
and enhance our awareness
to the holy that is in every moment within
and around us.
So on this day,
on the Day of Pentecost,
that first generation was consumed
in its grief for the tortured and executed messiah
they had hoped would bring them home;
and they were ripped from that grief
and taken up into a hot moment of communal ecstasy.
On this day, when we remember that moment
of bewildering mystical fire,
all I really know to do
If I were a really wonderful poet,
I could write something that might deliver the experience.
But I am only a priest, and
all I can do is point and invite us to remember
the times that flame ignited
in us or around us or through us.
And then, because I am a priest,
I can point to the table
and remind us what Jesus did
when he was still alive,
and invite us to gather our desires
and practice our gratitude
and enter into a ritual
that has lighted the fire for thousands of years –
even, on occasion, in times of total darkness.
So if, as many people do with poetry,
you have listened to this sermon and wondered,
“what the heck is he talking about?” –
all I can tell you
is that strange things are afoot
and have been
ever since the beginning of human consciousness.
If we are lucky,
and we practice our grand variety of rituals,
and we try really hard to be amazed
even by the ordinariness of LIFE all around us,
we might just be taken up
into the strangeness.