Sunday Sermon: Breaking Through

Prof. Stephanie PaulsellSunday Sermon by Stephaine Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, May 23, 2021. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



By Stephanie Paulsell
Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School

When I was a child growing up in my parents’ house, I often woke to the sound of my mother’s typewriter. My bedroom shared a wall with our living room, where my mother had set up a desk, and where, in the early morning before my sister and I got up, she would write. Having left college after her sophomore year to put my father through the rest of his education, she gradually finished her B.A. one class at a time at the college where my father was a professor. When I was a teenager, she drove a couple of times a week to North Carolina State where she earned a Masters degree in English Literature. By the time she began working on her PhD, I was out of the house and trying to follow in her footsteps. The sound of her typewriter in the early mornings of my childhood often meant she was writing a term paper—interpreting a poem, analyzing a story, considering the relationship between religion and literature.

But just as often the sound of her typewriter keys smacking the page meant that she was writing scenes from her memories, her life, and the world around her. I remember her telling me that she’d had a teacher who encouraged her to write first thing in the morning, while the house was still quiet—to show up every day at the typewriter whether she thought she had something to say or not. Do that, her teacher told her, and you’ll find that you have quite a bit to say. And so a stack of pages in her middle desk drawer grew higher and higher, filled with her observations of the world and the people around her.

I only know this, of course, because I snuck into the living room, pulled my mother’s middle drawer out as silently as I could and read those pages, a fact that my mother may only be learning now as she listens to this sermon. I actually can’t remember much about the content of those pages anymore, but I do remember the way certain sentences, certain combinations of words shone out. Those places where my mother had obviously found the right word to put next to another word and another and another made me want to get up early, too, and try to put my world into language. Those places were the traces of moments where my mother had broken through to something precise, something beautiful, something that sounded the way she wanted it to sound.

I expect all of our graduates know this experience—that moment when you’ve been slogging through your problem set with no end in sight and suddenly the path to the solution opens. Or writing a term paper, laboriously eking out every sentence, when suddenly you hit a vein of words that spills out onto the page in just the right order.

The story of the day of Pentecost that Lily read for us this morning is a story of a breakthrough like that, although one that has not, apparently, been prepared for through study. It’s the story of my own most longed-for breakthrough, actually—when suddenly Jesus’s disciples are able to speak fluently in languages other than their mother-tongue. I’ve often had dreams where I’m fluent in French or Italian only to wake to find that I am my usual tongue-tied self in those languages. In our story from the book of Acts, Jesus’s disciples begin to speak in other languages and—what feels like the real miracle to me—to be understood by native speakers of many places—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome.

The spirit can blow where it will, Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel of John. For God, all things are possible. But I don’t think this is a story about the spirit blowing through the house and activating a group of people completely immobilized by fear. As Matt Potts put it last week, when the spirit shows up it joins us in our life and work. What life, what work, did the spirit join on Pentecost?

The first chapter of Acts tells us what the disciples had been doing since Jesus died, and reappeared, and then disappeared again. They have been “praying constantly,” the author says, praying with women, including the mother of Jesus and also with his brothers. An important feature of the earliest forms of the church had begun to take shape: men and women in prayer and in ministry together. They were also trying to find the words to tell the story of what they had seen and heard as witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They’ve also chosen a new disciple to replace Judas, whose death Peter recounts in what seems to be his first sermon--Peter, who had been so afraid in the wake of Jesus’s execution that he had denied he ever knew him. Even without the promised Holy Spirit, Jesus’s followers are beginning to create something together: a community of prayer and story and service.

When the Pentecost wind fills their house, their capacity to tell the story of Jesus multiplies like the loaves and fishes Jesus fed to a crowd of thousands. I wonder if this breakthrough happens not just to demonstrate God’s power or to assist in the work of preaching but even more to shape the disciples themselves. Trying to speak and be understood in a language other than our own has the potential to change us, radically, by introducing us to ways of describing and interpreting our existence that are new to us and that move the boundaries of our perspective further out. Maybe this is the kind of breakthrough God wants for the followers of Jesus, including ourselves—a larger view of our faith, that takes into account the lives of others.

It’s rare, I think, for a breakthrough to happen that has not been prepared for in some way. My mom at her typewriter, a student hunched over a problem set or a term paper—even breakthroughs that feel sudden come out of some sort of sustained attention over time.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the movement that erupted after the murder of George Floyd one year ago this Tuesday. When people who had not left the house other than for work or groceries poured into the streets to protest the killing of Mr. Floyd, it felt like a sudden breakthrough. But of course that breakthrough has been prepared for nearly four hundred years by everyone who has struggled for freedom for Black people in this country. Through their faithfulness and determination, those whose names we know and many more whose name we don’t, passed their commitment and wisdom down through the generations, creating the space that the rest of us stepped into last year. It felt sudden, but it wasn’t sudden. It was prepared for, over long and violent centuries, by all those set on freedom.

The long and often hidden preparation that undergirds crucial moments of breaking through is also visible in the work of Dr. Kati Kariko, a scientist who was faithful to her research on messenger RNA decade after decade, even when her work was being ignored, even when she wasn’t getting the grants her colleagues were getting for theirs. That faithfulness gave us the miracle of the coronavirus vaccines, which came in record time because Dr. Kariko had focused her entire career on messenger RNA; she had done the work that made those vaccines possible. Kati Kariko never had academic security and was never paid well. But she changed all our lives and saved many of our lives, too.

The real breakthrough of Pentecost is perhaps not the flashy language acquisition of the disciples—as fantastic as that is—and more the shaping of a community—diverse in languages, in cultures, and even in the particularities of belief and practice—that cultivated a way of life within which the Spirit could move and from which love and justice could break through. A community that devoted itself to study and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer. A community that held its possessions in common and distributed them to those in need. A community that ate together, as Acts says, “with glad and generous hearts.” The breakthroughs that would come from this daily ordinary work of caregiving, prayer, fellowship and the joy of meals shared with others would change the world over and over again and still have the power to change us.

Even as they understood all the words the disciples were speaking, those who heard Jesus’s followers speaking to them in their own language had to ask, “What does this mean?” Comprehension does not necessarily arrive when we have looked up all the words, or taken all the classes, or received our degrees. The place where we glimpse the meaning of what we’ve learned is in the life we share with others. Those who heard the disciples preach on Pentecost understood the words they spoke. But that was only the beginning. It was in the life they lived together that their answers to “What does this mean?” begin to take shape. It was in the life they lived together that the spirit broke through.

If there had never been a pandemic, sharing in our life together as your minister would have been one of the greatest privileges of my life.

But to have been on pilgrimage with you through these days has been one of the most profound experiences of my life, one from which I hope I will never stop learning. Like all of us, I think I’ll be asking “What does this mean, what did this moment in history that we walked through together mean?” for a very long time.

But I know this already: that every meeting of the Faith and Life Forum, every gathering of the Student Advisory Board, every meeting of our book group, every pilgrimage we made together, every worship service I listened to on the radio with you, and every staff meeting I was privileged to attend inspired me to long not for the way things once were but to imagine and work for the way things could be. Aidan read from us from Psalm 104 that when God sends forth God’s spirit, new life is created and the face of the ground is renewed. As this creative, intergenerational community regathers under the leadership of a wonderful new minister and renews once more its life of prayer and music, study and service, care for one another and for those beyond our walls and gates, I look forward to seeing all the ways you continue this pilgrimage of faith, in which deep calls to deep and the creative, creating Spirit of God breaks through.