Pentecost: Art, the Holy Spirit, and “Bennie and the Jets”

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Just a little of Our Savior’s Pentecost art show.

Acts 2:1-21

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”

Full disclosure: the best Pentecost sermon being preached in this space today is not here in this pulpit. Thanks to Jackie and Dave and Dan and Sue and everyone who made art for the show and everyone who helped hang it, the best Pentecost sermon is all around you. 

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability….And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in their own native language.” 

There are moments when the best preaching is done simply by calling people to look around. So look around. See how Dan’s artistic voice is different than Lisa’s, which is different from Sue’s, which is different from Jackie’s, which is different from the Terkelsen family’s, but how they all capture beauty and pain and jubilation and serenity on canvas. Notice how Dave Pueschel uses his camera differently than Dave Bogia, who uses his camera differently than Ken, but how each of them capture moments in time and in places the rest of us otherwise would never get to see. They’ve each spoken as the Spirit gave them ability, and we each hear in our soul’s own native language. 

The Holy Spirit sometimes comes in wind and flame. And sometimes, it comes in paint and photo, charcoal and pencil, and rumor has it — sometimes even Lego. The beauty around us has all been produced by the hands of people we know, inspired by a God who is always creating and loves it when we create things, too. 

I’ve always believed that artists know a little more than the rest of us simply because their work calls them to pay attention to the shape of trees and flowers and mountains and human hands and human faces — to see the world a little differently. They use color and shape and light with precision to show us something new. To artists, art can be academic and technical and painstaking. For most of us, however, it’s just about looking around and paying attention to what the artist is saying.

Artists can turn a seemingly unremarkable scene or object or animal into a gorgeous image simply because of the way they look at it. Maybe listening to the Holy Spirit is just perspective. Or maybe it’s just paying attention. 

I’ve always loved music, too — for its ability to move us, to make us dance and make us cry, to bend and suspend time, or to ingrain things in our minds. The whole idea of hymns, after all, other than the artistic aims, is to get our ideas about God and set them to music so that we always remember them. Musicians, like all other artists, use a combination of talent and tedious precision to move us and show us something new. Sometimes, they do it so well that all we need is a few notes to throw us into a whole set of memories. 

While I was down in Alabama, my cousin and I went to see the new movie Rocketman, about Elton John’s journey in recovery. And this is where I’m going to tell you about how the Holy Spirit is a lot like an Elton John song. You see, preachers and theologians tend to make this whole Holy Spirit thing into something rather complicated. I’m not saying that it isn’t — it is — this whole three in one and one in three and the Holy Spirit is a person and also sort of a thing in the scheme of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or if you will, Parent, Child, and Special Effect scheme. 

But in most of our every day lives, the Holy Spirit usually not an academic exercise. It’s more like art. Or like a piano ditty. It’s about looking around and paying attention and knowing what you see and hear. Let me demonstrate. You see, sometimes, all you need is a few notes, or maybe even one chord, and you know a whole song. 

[Play the opening chords of “Bennie and the Jets”]

Anywhere in the United States of America, the UK, heck, most of the world, people will immediately tell you based on those few notes that that’s the opening riff of “Benny and the Jets.” How do you know?

Is it an academic exercise? Do you name the chords in your head or tell me about how you knew what song it was because you heard a quarter note here and an eighth note there and a rest there with a half step up?

Do you even know the words to the song?

If you’re like most people, when it comes on the radio, you sing, “He got electric boots, a mow-how suit, you know a set a little pack a saEEEEEuuhhOOOOH…. b-b-b-Bennie an the Jetssssss” (1)

“Bennie and the Jetsssss” are literally the only words to that song that most of us know.

Our immediate recognition of the song is not academic or complicated, even if the music is. You know this song because it’s ingrained in your consciousness. Because you’ve heard it over and over on the radio and in restaurants and bars and in your friends’ houses for years and years — since 1973, to be exact. 

Elton John himself certainly wrote the song with a ton of technical knowledge. He moves us, like all artists, with that combination of know-how and practice and talent and precision. But for most of us, we enjoy the art not for its complexity, but for its simplicity. Because of the flood of memories and the desire to dance or maybe just tap your foot a little. Because of the way it suspends time and calls us to pay attention. 

So art and music are like the Holy Spirit. Or maybe, the Holy Spirit is like music and art. You don’t even have to give it your full attention for it to move you. Just being in its presence will move you, but you’ll also find that the more you pay attention, the more you’ll see and hear. Like music and art, it’s as complicated as it is simple, and it’s as simple as it is complicated. 

In the Acts reading, the Holy Spirit is wind and flame. It’s the Holy Spirit speaking the Gospel in every language — sort of like Dave Pueschel’s photos on this wall tell us very human stories in languages we’ll never speak. 

And in the John reading, the Holy Spirit is a friend, like in Dan’s painting of Jesus. This past weekend, at synod assembly, our preacher was Pastor Leila Ortiz from the Metro DC synod. She described God this way: that God looked down at the humans God had created and said “I’m gonna have to go down there. I’m gonna have to show up.” And so Jesus did — and now the Holy Spirit continues to show up — in wind and flame and music and art and the still, small voice you can hear sometimes if you just pay attention. 

The Spirit shows up, reminding us how God is, among many things, the master creator, the accomplished artist. Just as God patiently created life as brilliant as a New England summer, God’s creatures, our artists, have created the art you see around you. So take some time after the service to take it in. Talk to the artists about what inspired them — I’m sure they’d love to tell you. Thank them for helping us to see the world a little differently.

Pay attention, and you can see the Gospel in this art — not “Gospel” like “you do this and you’ll go to heaven.” It’s much bigger than that. I mean “Gospel” in its truest meaning: “good news.” It’s “Gospel” like every sermon you see on the canvases and in the photos around you, where we can each hear in our own language. It’s “good news” like the teaching and learning and piety and human beauty in Dave Pueschel’s photos. It’s “Gospel” like the playfulness in Dave Bogia’s photos. It’s capturing moments like the fleeting dragonfly (named Drogon) in Ken’s photos.

It’s “good news” like the brilliant landscapes and natural phenomena all around the room painted by Jackie and Sue and the Terkelsens, telling of God’s beauty. It’s “good news” like the beauty of the messages painted by Dan and Lisa in their own unique voices. It’s “good news” like the pure joy and loyalty and beauty and piety all around this room and in the fellowship hall. 

The Gospel isn’t a simple formula for how to go to heaven. It’s here, in this room. It’s glimpses of heaven right here, and outside in the brilliance of a landscape come back to life after a long winter. It’s life and joy and God showing up, loose in the world, everywhere, if you just pay attention. If you look for long enough, if you just pay attention, you can see the good news of God’s love on every canvas and in every photo in this building. 

So pay attention this Pentecost. Let this art move you. Listen to the opening chords of your favorite song and let it move your feet. Art is as simple as it is complicated, and so is the Holy Spirit. I believe that letting art move us is good practice for listening to where the Holy Spirit is leading us. I believe that finding the good news of the love of God in art is good practice for learning to see it in a world that’s increasingly filled with bad news. God’s love will reach you no matter what, but the more you look and listen, the more you’ll see and hear. 

So let’s listen in the coming days and months, as individuals and as a church. Let’s dare to see hope and beauty and life int his world. Let’s hear the opening chords to the song God is singing to us. And maybe, just maybe — let’s dance. Amen.

1. I owe this “‘Bennie and the Jets’ is immediately recognizable from the first chord” idea to linguist and podcaster John McWhorter, who hosts a podcast on language called Lexicon Valley. You can listen here.

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