By Rev. Joan Kessler
Over the years, you have known me to share poetry as part of my reflection. So today (being the celebration of Pentecost) I want to introduce a new poet to you. Caedmon may not be a household name, but he holds the claim of being the first named English poet from the seventh century. He worked as a humble cowherd for the monks at the Abbey Whitby. Unfortunately, all his works were lost, but Caedmon was considered one of the best poets of his age. He wasn’t much of a talker or a singer as cowherds were known to spend the long hours singing to keep the cattle close and predators away. He was an incredibly shy young man, an introvert we would call him today. When he was out at a social gathering, he would leave as soon as the harp would appear and people began to sing. One night in the cowshed, however, the apparition of an angel inspired him to sing of creation and poetry became his means of self-expression.
Much more recently, British-American poet, Denise Levertov, wrote an ode to Caedmon’s fateful night in that cowshed. It told the story of an ordinary, humble person who learns how to cope in a noisy crowd, who finds the courage to speak among competing voices, to create, and to sing. Caedmon goes like this:
All others talk as if
talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet
would break the gliding ring.
Early I learned to
close by the door:
then when the talk began
I’d wipe my
mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn
to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds
of the simple ones.
I’d see by a twist
of lit rush the motes
of gold moving
from shadow to shadow
slow in the wake
of deep untroubled sighs.
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me – light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning
nothing but I, as the hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance.
There is a quiet prophecy to this piece by Levertov. It is not nearly as dramatic as the story of Pentecost and the wind of the Holy Spirit that blew through the house or the tongues of fire that rested over each of the apostles gathered together as we heard Penny read from Acts. And yet, haven’t we all been moved and known the experience of this humble and shy caretaker at one time or another? That something remarkable, out of the ordinary, full of the Spirit, comes alongside the quiet moments of our everyday life. We feel somehow changed and yet everything else stays the same. The angel’s visit saw sparks up-flying according to Levertov. It brought solace and yet was transformational. It drew Caedmon back into the community, the conversation, the ring of the dance. The tiny lit fire of a rush, a weak torch from the sixth-century, changes into a great fire that burned within him and gave him voice to speak and all the while the cows slept quietly in the barn, none the wiser.
The story of the first Pentecost from Acts of the promised Holy Spirit’s arrival to the apostles and early followers of the Way of Jesus moved them to speak their native languages in a great cacophony of sound and praise. There is a surrender and a humility I think that comes over the group in this hide-away room. And how terrifying that scene must have been. And yet they found the courage to speak across barriers of race, ethnicity, of differing cultural and political persuasions. They were already feeling very reclusive and fearful of their association with Jesus and his teachings and didn’t know what to do next, other than to pray in one place together. But now they are ready to talk to one another, to find common ground and celebrate differences.
The Spirit that came through that day in wind and flame was like a prompter saying stop this hiding away, throw open your doors and your windows and out you go. The Spirit gently nudged them out into public square to share their wisdom and quietly prophecy. There was no guarantee once they left the safety and security of that upper room; they had to surrender their fears and insecurities and find new words and a voice. And so, the church began to be born and take shape and this we celebrate today.
This year, I find myself wondering if the Holy Spirit might have an alter ego. Instead of the sound of the violent wind that filled that one place where all the apostles were gathered and divided tongues of fire that rested on each one of them, maybe Spirit is quietly challenging us. It does not always look like largescale protest; the spirit of gentleness moves the quiet prophets among us. This day celebrates discipleship and acting on our values and beliefs for the benefit of the common good. A quiet prophet speaks words of love and inclusion instead of alienation and division. A quiet prophet may not show up to march for a cause but rather commits to non-violence and speaking for the poor and those on the margins. The Other; to speak of God’s shalom of peace, love and justice in everyday life. The quiet prophet may be found working in the background rather than on the center stage of a particular cause or issue, always drawing us to hope. When we consider this expression of prophecy, we all have a prophetic voice to share our faith and work for justice, love and compassion in our community and make it the best it can be.
The little girl in the story I read to the children earlier is just one such example. The wind blew and the little girl responded. She had a concern for her neighbor living alone, high up on the windy hill, and she was moved to go up and help him by planting some trees. And over time those trees grew and so did their friendship. This is the Spirit’s nature, animating and enlivening our purpose in the world, to love and serve others. How do we as a faith community create and foster these opportunities?
We celebrate the Spirit’s presence among us this day. Our young see visions and our old dream dreams. We celebrate our spirit-driven life together. And we can have spirited conversations with one another about what is important to us, because when we lean in and listen and talk with one another, we learn to speak each other’s stories, we can do nothing but stand on holy ground as equals. May we like the young poet Caedmon, see a vision of community pulling us into the ring of the dance, lit with a sparks up-flying! May it be so and Amen.