May 27, 2012

Pentecost (B)

He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

– John 20: 22

   There is an all too familiar litany of accusations against the Catholic Church nowadays: the Inquisition, the Crusades, the bad popes, sinister bishops, Vatican conspiracies, clerical sex scandals, the degradation of women, dull masses, lousy sermons, money-grubbing clerics, & so on. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone blamed us for Donald Trump’s hairdo.

   The Church has had & does have many problems & too often is like a dysfunctional family. So why stay, why put up with such misery? Why? Because of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. His gift of the Holy Spirit is not just a one-time affair, but an on-going commitment. It is this always abiding presence of the Holy Spirit that makes the difference. Jesus promised to be with us no matter what we may be like on any given day, when we’re good & when we’re bad; when we’re heroic & when we’re cowardly; when we’re faithful & when we’re not.

   Now we can choose to believe or not believe in this presence of the Holy Spirit, but if we do, then we must look not only for signs of Church failures, but also for signs of the life-giving Spirit. Then you will begin to notice, with some regularity, in the worst of times & in the depths of misery, how God has a tendency, out of nowhere, to raise up holy ones who advertise the presence of the Holy Spirit: A Catherine of Genoa in the kitchen, a Charles de Foucauld in the desert, a Damien in the leper colony, a Mother Teresa in the slums, a reformed alcoholic priest in the debris of 9/11.

   Pentecost, friends, celebrates that. It celebrates the abiding presence of Jesus, the persistence & surprises of the Spirit that give us reasons to remain Catholic. Here is a folk-tale from Haiti for us to meditate upon:

Once upon a time there lived an old woman in the middle of a great forest who kept hives of bees. By the end of summer she had more honey than she could use, so she kept some for herself & poured the rest into a great pot which she lifted atop her head, & set off for market. But just as she neared the market place, she tripped on a tree root & went flying. There was a great crash as the pot smashed to the ground & spread honey all over the forest floor. The woman just sat there & began to cry.

   “Oh misery!” she moaned. “Papa God, you sent me too much misery!” After a long while, she finally got up, & trudged home with a heavy heart crying all the while. Now it so happened that a little monkey, sitting high among the branches saw the whole thing. As soon as she was out of sight, he swung down to the ground. He looked & looked at the strange sticky stuff. He had never seen anything like it before. Cautiously, he dipped one of his fingers into it & touched his lips. “Oh my,” he said to himself, “this misery is good! I’ve never tried misery before!” He ate & ate until there simply wasn’t any anymore. “I want more!” he cried.

   Then he remembered the old woman saying, “Papa God, why’d you send me so much misery?” He scratched his head, so that’s where misery came from! Maybe,” he thought to himself, “if I paid Papa God a visit he’d give me some more misery.” The more he thought about it the better the idea seemed.

   So off he went. Back to the trees then to the mountains, & he climbed & climbed until he came at last to Papa God’s house. And there was Papa God himself, sitting in the garden just watching the world. “Beg your pardon, Papa God,” he shouted. Papa God turned, saw him & smiled. “Ah, little monkey, what do you want?” Begging your pardon, Papa God,” said the little monkey, “more than anything else, I want misery.”

   Papa God looked puzzled. “You want misery, little one?” “Oh yes, sweet sticky misery. I want as much as you can give me, Papa God.” Papa God got up, thought a minute, & said, “Well, it just so happens that I have got some special misery made just for monkeys. Are you sure you want it?” The monkey nodded his head. So Papa God went inside his house &, after a spell, returned carrying a leather bag. He said, “Little monkey, this bag is full of misery. Now you must pay attention & do exactly as I tell you. First of all, you must carry this bag to the middle of a great sandy desert where there are no trees. Once you’re there, you will slowly open the bag & inside you’ll find more misery than you ever dreamed of.”

   The monkey was delighted & wasted no time. He ran to the edge of a great desert, & then ran some more until he came to its very center. Exhausted, he sat down. His hands were trembling in anticipation of all that misery. When he opened the bag, out came real monkey misery … dogs! Seven huge, hungry black dogs.

   The monkey screamed & then ran literally for his life with the dogs snapping at his tail. They were getting closer & closer, & just when he thought he could go no farther, a tree appeared! Out of nowhere a huge great tree appeared, right in the middle of the desert where trees do not grow at all. The monkey scampered up the tree as fast as he could, leaving the snarling dogs leaping up & down on the trunk.

   For the rest of the day he sat in the branches, quaking with fear until the sun went down. The dogs, frustrated, eventually went away. As soon as the monkey thought it was safe, he climbed down & ran for the forest as fast as he could & never looked back.

   Now the Pentecostal question is this: Where did that tree come from? Papa God put it there. Why? Because Papa God knows that too much misery is not a good thing, even for a monkey. We can view the Church as nothing but a pack of barking dogs baying at a silly monkey atop a tree. Or, we can rejoice in the mercies of our Church because we believe with all our hearts that, true to our Lord’s promise,  the always present Spirit continues to grow trees where they don’t grow.  AMEN!