“Folio 2v, The Pentecost” – The Four Gospels in Armenian, Armenian (1434-35). Tempera on gold and paper.
John 7:37-39 New Revised Standard Version
37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and 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.” ’ 39Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Acts 2:1-21 New Revised Standard Version
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
I took the better part of last week off to get the garden in at our new home. My wife and I have kept a garden every year of our lives together with a few rare exceptions.
I see the planting of the garden as an essential marker in the year, a ritual of sorts that announces the arrival of our warm season here in Vermont, when we spend more hours outside, made happier by the warm sun. Where we live now, in the mountains, spring comes a little later, but when it happens, it seems like everything turns green overnight.
This year with new land, more space, and more wildlife, we’ve spent a great deal of time together clearing, digging, putting in fencing, planting, chasing away chipmunks, and watering. I find all of this exciting and hopeful, a reminder that even during these strange times of pandemic, there is a cadence to the natural world that goes mostly uninterrupted.
Throughout human history, the planting and harvesting of crops have been celebrated with festivals and religious rituals, acknowledging the deep connections we have to the land. A festival celebrating the harvest is the context for our Pentecost story.
It is the first century CE, and you live in the Judean countryside. You have been busy these last seven weeks. You have gone up to Jerusalem recently for the Passover feast. And this year there was a lot of commotion. Jesus, a prophet from the sticks of Galilee, has caused a ruckus in the temple and emboldened a crowd. He was arrested and crucified. You heard rumors about his body disappearing from the tomb he was laid in, and some even said they saw him, that he was resurrected.
But you didn’t have time for your own investigation of events. The barley you had planted last autumn was ready for harvest. So, you rush home and for the next three weeks, its barley, barley and more barley. Cutting and gathering, threshing, winnowing and sifting, and putting away for the year, a good harvest for sure. And after the barley is finally done, around the middle of May, you look on your other fields, and the wheat that you also planted last autumn is ready. It’s a stressful time because most of your year’s earnings come from the work done during these seven weeks. So, you go out again and cut and gather, thresh and winnow and sift. And you put away the grain. And you are tired, but you are thankful for a good year.
And out of gratitude and because of your religious tradition, you load your donkey or maybe a cart with some barley and some wheat, and you go up to Jerusalem again. When you get to Jerusalem, you make arrangements to stay with a friend, and you take some of your grain to a baker – who mills the grain and makes two loaves of bread. And in the early, early morning on the day of Pentecost, called Shavuot, you join the procession and festivities.
People from all over the known world are waking up in the city. Parthians and Medes, Elamites, and people from what was once Babylon are there. Folks from Cappadocia and Pontus and from the far east and from places in Modern day Turkey and from Egypt and further south in Africa and from Western Africa make the journey as well. And people from the Mediterranean islands and even people from the capital of the empire, Rome are there to celebrate the harvest.
It’s loud, and people are talking in different languages, and it’s such a busy place. Farmers like you take baskets woven with gold and silver and fill them with wheat and barley, grapes and figs, pomegranates, olives and dates, all symbols of the bounty of the land. This is the start of the festivities. They load the baskets on oxen whose horns were gilded and laced with garlands of flowers, and who are led in a grand procession through the streets toward the temple. There is music and laughter everywhere – a time for merrymaking. When the procession gets to the temple, the baskets are taken in, and everyone follows with their two loaves of bread as an offering of the first fruits of the harvest. In the temple, there is preaching and readings of the Holy Scriptures. And the community sings the Psalms and other hymns together, and people go out of the temple and enjoy the festivities.
After the ceremony, you are sitting down for a late breakfast, enjoying the company of friends, when you hear something, a loud wind like a tornado, and in Jerusalem! You run out of the house and see a great commotion just down the street. People are gathering to see what has happened. Among the gathered crowds, some are talking about the deeds of God and the work of Jesus, the prophet that was killed a few months ago. They say that he has risen and that the spirit of God has fallen on them. And one of them speaks, and the others translate and the speaker who calls himself “Peter” a weird name you think meaning “Rock,” but not like Dwayne Johnson, more like “little rock” or “pebble” talks about a faith that is available to all people, one where everyone has the spirit of God in them. Someone says that these guys are drunk – but Peter says that that’s not the case. It’s too early in the day for that. That makes the crowd chuckle.
“What about it?” you think, “Imagine a God that is always with me, and not just here in the temple. Imagine a God that is with me in my fields and in my home, in my travels and in my planning. In my community and in the world.”
I love the story of the day of Pentecost because the Holy Spirit is described as the full presence of God that meets people where they are. The charismatic gift described here allows Jesus’ disciples to speak to people in their own language. They didn’t need to learn Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, or Latin to have access to God. And the Spirit of God, described here by Peter, is for everyone – children, and the elderly, free men and women and those in slavery.
Religion, true religious faith, is to be lived out every day in a wide variety of expressions and experiences. And this day, Pentecost Sunday is celebrated in Christianity as the birth of the church. It serves as a reminder of the diversity and inclusiveness of God’s Holy Spirit. When we gather, we are made better by each person’s talents, gifts, perspectives and understandings, drives, and causes. We are better because God is in our lives in a variety of different ways, and when we gather, we get to share our lives with one another.
I also think that it is vital for us to understand the context of Pentecost and it’s roots in an agrarian festival that celebrates God’s provision at the harvest. The COVID-19 pandemic has gotten many people thinking about our food system and how we interact with our environment. This year, people in the US are planting more vegetable gardens than in previous years. Seed companies are seeing a spike in sales, and some garden centers around here are running out of starts.
During World War II, governments in the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Germany encouraged people to plant vegetable gardens to supplement rations and boost morale. These “victory gardens” or “war gardens” were used to help relieve some of the pressure a long and drawn out war placed on the country’s food systems. The government posters from this era are worth googling and have catchy phrases like “Dig on For Victory” and “Your Victory Garden Counts More than Ever!” It is often assumed that planting vegetable gardens is done only by people with land, but little gardens popped up all over cities during World War II. There are images of Londoner's growing vegetables in bomb craters, turning a scare into new life. Today, with the growth of community gardens and the rise of guerilla gardening, many folks can plant a few vegetables.
The pandemic has also helped people get out in nature. I know my family and I have spent a lot of time outside exploring woods, taking walks, and visiting trails. We often see others, too, making sure to keep our distance, which is easy to do when you’re outside. The outdoors have been a reprieve for all of us who have had to stay at home, a way of breaking out of our four walls without endangering ourselves of others.
During the crisis of the Great Depression, The WPA, or Works Projects Administration, hired unemployed artists to make paintings, murals, and other graphic art to promote everything from museums to public health. Perhaps the most iconic posters, though, are the National Parks posters. Chances are, you’ve seen at least one of them before. These wonderfully crafted prints encouraged folks to explore the National Parks and advertised the free services provided by the Department of the Interior.
During times of human crisis, upheaval, and uncertainty, it can be difficult to find gratitude, or be thankful. It can be tricky to see God as always with us, providing and supporting us along the way when we are isolated, jobless, or hungry. These feelings are not new to humanity, but are, perhaps feelings we are experiencing these days to some degree. Yet, on this day, when God’s presence in everyone is announced, and in the context of harvest and nature, we might do well to remember the long game. Seasons change. The earth produces what we need for nourishment and beauty. And there is still a bright future.
May God bless you and keep you close to the land this week.