Gil Rosenberg’s Anniversary, Jesus’ Pentecost (Sunday Homily)

Gil

Readings for Pentecost Sunday:Acts 2: 1-11; Ps. 104: 1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34; I Cor. 12: 3B-7, 12-13; Jn. 20: 19-23. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/051913-pentecost-mass-during-day.cfm

A couple of weeks ago Peggy and I were blessed to attend an extraordinarily powerful spiritual gathering. It was at the home of June Widman, a friend of ours in Berea, Kentucky who lost her husband, Gil Rosenberg, in a tragic car accident one year earlier (See my “In Memoriam” blog entry for Gil under the “Personal” button just below this blog site’s masthead). Our friend’s daughter and son (Jessie and Greg), some co-workers and friends like us were all present at this commemoration potluck. There were about 20 of us in all.

Before eating we gathered in a circle. The “priest” among us – a former Mercy Sister who has a real gift for this sort of thing – started us off reminding us of why we were there and of how quickly (and painfully) the intervening year had passed. There were some readings – most moving for me “Death” by Pablo Neruda, read in both English and Spanish. A recorded musical selection followed.

And then people began sharing memories of Gil – an extraordinarily beloved member of our church community in Berea. (His funeral had been attended by an overflow crowd rarely seen in our Catholic church – and this for a man who was himself Jewish, though a faithful attendee at weekly Mass along with June and their children.) Gil was smart, quick-witted, and very funny. A teacher at a local community college, he was also a soccer and basketball coach for many of our children. Everyone loved him.

And that’s what we talked about. But more than that, Gil’s friends told stories of how they continued to experience his presence during the past year. People told of actual “conversations” they had with him (mostly humorous) as they faced problems or were taking themselves too seriously. They told how memories of Gil’s quirky wisdom helped them muddle through otherwise overwhelming circumstances. It was entirely inspiring.

The whole experience made me think of that first Pentecost experienced by Jesus’ followers after his resurrection. What happened then stemmed from an attempt on their part to keep Jesus’ memory alive. That’s what June and the rest of us were going for in relation to Gil as well. And like June’s gathering (and like Gil himself), Pentecost blended Jewish and Christian elements. “Pentecost,” of course, was originally a Jewish feast. It was celebrated fifty days after Passover.

Whereas Passover celebrated the Exodus from Egypt, Pentecost (seven weeks later) commemorated the giving of God’s Law at Mt. Sinai. Also called “the Feast of Weeks,” Pentecost was a harvest festival like our Thanksgiving. And like the Passover, the feast drew Jews from all over the world to Jerusalem and its Temple. The evangelist, Luke, takes time to make this point. He lists Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene. He refers to travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs.

Because of the events recorded in today’s readings, Christians have come to consider Pentecost the “birthday of the Church.”

I used to think of Pentecost as taking place among Jesus’ disciples (the 11 apostles and about 110 others, they say, including many women) who had stayed in Jerusalem following Jesus’ death and resurrection simply awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. However, now that seems unlikely.

Jesus’ followers and inner circle were poor working people. They needed to earn their daily bread. Even John 21:3ff indicates that following the tragic (and later hopeful) events in Jerusalem, several of them returned to Galilee to resume their labor as fishermen.

Then as the feast of Pentecost approached, they must have decided to return to Jerusalem along with all those other pilgrims I mentioned. No doubt they wanted to re-experience “on location” their final hours with Jesus, even returning to the “Upper Room” to do what June and the rest of us did a couple of weeks ago in commemorating Gil on the anniversary of his death. Surely they wanted to break bread together as Jesus had told them to do – but there in the Upper Room. That would make it truly special.

So they returned to Jerusalem at some risk to their own safety. Luke tells us that they kept the doors locked because they were afraid of the same powers that had arrested, tortured and executed Jesus. After all, Jesus’ disciples had been responsible for circulating the rumor that their Teacher was not really dead. They told their friends that he somehow survived the Roman’s attempts to eliminate him. He was alive.

Evidently, word of that “resurrection” had gotten back to officials of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish court whose members were collaborators with the Romans, working with them hand in glove. The Jewish sell-outs well remembered how the carpenter from Nazareth had “stirred up the people” (Lk. 23:5) with his message about God’s revolutionary “Kingdom.” They especially recalled how just before his execution, he had entered Jerusalem to popular acclaim and led that notorious demonstration in the Temple.

As a result of all that, the people took Jesus for their messiah, which meant he was the enemy of Rome and collaborators like the Sanhedrin members. If word got out that “He lives!” the trouble could well start all over again during the Pentecost feast. So the Sanhedrin mobilized its brutal police to hunt down the members of Jesus’ Galilean terrorist gang and solve the Jesus problem once and for all.

Despite such threat, Jesus’ followers gathered in the Upper Room (or perhaps, some scholars say, it was even in the Temple). There in that place so full of memories, they must have recalled the Master’s words and deeds, and how he continued to influence them even in his apparent absence. I’ll bet their stories were just as dear and humorous as June’s friends’ recollections of Gil.

Then suddenly (in John’s version of the Pentecost event) Jesus is standing there in their midst. He tells them not to worry about the police. “Peace be with you,” he says twice. Jesus shows his friends his pierced hands and wounded rib cage. Don’t be worried, he implies, they can kill you and torture you, but like me, you will not really die.

Then Jesus breathes on them all, and they receive his own Spirit – of forgiveness and discrimination in the sense of discernment. His spirit, Jesus promises, will instruct them about forgiveness — and about what they should never overlook. He tells them to continue his work despite any threats from Rome and its collaborators.

Luke’s version of the same event is recorded in the familiar story from Acts which we heard in today’s first reading. Luke calls on imagery from Exodus – wind and fire – to describe the transforming event of Pentecost. Instead of Jesus appearing personally to bestow his Spirit, Luke says the Spirit came in the form of a mighty wind. It was like the wind that dried up the Sea of Reeds in the Exodus. The Spirit came in the form of “tongues of fire” like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites during the dark nights that followed the initial euphoria of liberation from Egypt.

In both cases (John and Luke), the result of receiving Jesus’ Spirit is the same. The disciples are literally encouraged. Their fear entirely disappears. Doors are unlocked. Jesus’ friends are suddenly are out in the street. And everyone can understand the import of their words: Jesus lives! Everyone can understand because Jesus’ message (as always) is about the Kingdom of God. No matter where people come from, famished stomachs speak the same language of hunger. Calloused hands speak the same eloquent “sign language.” Mothers weep the same tears for their sons tortured and victimized by empire.

According to Jesus’ Spirit, it’s the Romans and their collaborators, not Jesus’ followers, who have reason to fear. Their days are numbered. God’s kingdom is at hand. Once again, Jesus lives! The old order is about to be overturned. The first will be last; the last, first. The rich will be poor; the poor, rich. Those laughing now will find themselves in tears; those in mourning will at last find joy.

In their sheer numbers of converts (3000 says Luke that very first day) the crowds from all over the Jewish world protect Jesus’ friends from the Sanhedrin police. We can picture the lawmen on the edges of the crowd rendered powerless by the crowd’s solidarity.

And what’s to be learned from that first Pentecost experience? Could it be that we must keep Jesus’ memory alive – as the prophetic preacher of God’s Kingdom in the here and now, not in the sky somewhere after death? (Shouldn’t that be the purpose of our weekly gatherings for worship and the Lord’s Supper?) Is the lesson of today’s feast that believers must insist on speaking in language that anyone can understand – the language of the working classes, the hungry, and of mothers in mourning? Is it that a measure of the truth of our beliefs is the degree of threat we feel from empire and its collaborators as a result of the beliefs we fearlessly profess? Is it that followers of Jesus should refuse to accept division but unite instead with a solidarity that protects us from the same forces of empire and its collaborators that threatened Jesus’ first followers?

The truth is that there’s much to learn from Pentecost. June’s and her children’s devotion to Gil Rosenberg along with his friends’ recollections and experiences of Gil’s “real presence” remind us of the nature and purpose of that first Pentecost gathering. It was not only to recall what Jesus said and did in terms of resistance to Rome and its oppression on a macro-level. For us it can also be about creating Kingdom in our personal lives and with our families as Gil himself did. Besides bringing gifts of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit was the basis of Gil’s humor, non-conformity, attention to the needs of the exploited, and refusal to take himself (or others) too seriously.

If we open ourselves wide, we too can receive all of those gifts. The Spirit can make us fierce advocates of God’s Kingdom. It can help us overcome our very selves, along with our fears of the Empire, its police and religious collaborators.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

12 thoughts on “Gil Rosenberg’s Anniversary, Jesus’ Pentecost (Sunday Homily)”

  1. How sad that you have lost a dear friend. What a lovely testimonial that your recent gathering provided him. It must have meant so much to his family.

    I do appreciate the history that you have given here for Pentecost and the Jewish Festival of Weeks and the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. Most Christians, I suspect, do not realize the similarities between Jewish-Christian feast days, commemorative celebrations and other rituals — especially those present in our liturgy.

    Thank you.

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    1. Thanks, Aliceny. I also think most Christians do not realize that the Jerusalem community was Jewish in every way. It did not represent a new religion. Rather it was composed of Jews who thought they had found the Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth. That began to change following the destruction of Jerusalem (and its “Yeshuaist” community) by the Romans in 70 CE. Afterwards a gentile form of Yeshuaism called “Christianity” gained ascendency — to finally triumph completely in the Council of Nicaea in 325.

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  2. Mike, How amused Gil would be to read your correlation of the gathering in his name and that of Jesus’ friends at Pentecost! He would surely have some wonderfully witty remarks about it! Thanks for this fine piece and for the support all have shown June, Greg, and Jessie.
    Jeannette

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    1. You’re right, Jeannette. Gil would surely have something witty and self-deprecating to say. But by now I’m sure he realizes that Jesus too was Jewish and had no thought of starting a new religion. That would probably be the basis of Gil’s joke..

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  3. Hi Mike
    I must admit I am not a great reader of the Sunday Homily series. At most a browse. Maybe it has to do with the fact our Japanese PP requested the bishop after I had resigned the priesthood and married in church in ’67 that since my wife and I were a “cause of scandal in his parish” he would prefer we worshiped elsewhere. Since then, on the odd occasion I might accompany my wife, in Irish tradition I throw my cap in the door first! (Figuratively). If it comes back out I know the fix is still in.
    Sorry for the aside especially considering the occasion of today’s special blog and your thoughtful testimonial. In respect to you and particularly your friends I read it in full, with sadness and empathy.
    I had not noticed there was an invisible thread hidden there with a spark of flint at the end until I came to the last few lines – and then there was a huge explosion went off in my brain.
    Courageous! Stark, honest, pointed and true.
    Forgive me again Mike for using this sad anniversary to make what some may regard an untimely, if most important point.
    Jim

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    1. Dear Jim, Your comments are always so appreciated. They’re invariably insightful and delightfully humorous. My experience at St. Clare’s in Berea, Ky. has been quite different from yours in your own context..When I first arrived in Berea, there were 4 of us ex-priests in the parish (all married). And we were all pretty much welcomed into parish activities including teaching. — As for the Sunday homilies . . . I’m contemplating limiting my blog activity to focusing more or less on them with an occasional one dealing with current events. My pieces on Hitler and “Critical Thinking” don’t appear to be stirring that much interest. So I’m thinking of abandoning them in favor of making my schedule less crowded. The homilies, on the other hand, give me the feeling that I’m doing a (very) little bit to counter the irrelevance of most things we hear from the pulpit these days. Spiritually, I’m trying to be less attached to results. Thanks again, Jim.

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      1. Never could understand the big deal about married former priests (laicized or not). I personally know two — very happy husbands and proud daddys in long-term marriages. The companionship and intimacy they have found in marriage speaks well for their decision to leave active ministry. They have not been struck by thunderbolts of lightening as far as I know. Mandatory celibacy is a crock! It is a man-made institutional “law” imposed upon clergy in the 12th Century — for economic reasons! To me, it infers that our God-given gift of sexuality is dirty and is to be used only for procreation. God forbid that any one would actually ‘enjoy’ it! That attitude is responsible for the low esteem in which women continue to be held (including nuns) within the Catholic church. It goes back to the early church fathers and their belief about women — starting with poor Eve (she of ‘it’s all your fault, you evil woman; you made me do it.’

        (Most people who have read the well-documented truth about such matters know that Thomas Merton had a long-term relationship with a woman whom he loved deeply. Same is true for Karl Rahner.)
        Undoubtedly, there are (were) many, many others.

        In no way am I dismissing the beauty and the sacrifice that is made, voluntarily, by those who wish to maintain the gift of celibacy. As Jesus was quoted as having said, “Let those who can do it, do it.” I don’t have my NT handy so I can’t quote exactly.

        It is also a well-documented fact that our Catholic seminaries are rife with homosexuals — celibate and practicing.

        Someday, perhaps, psychiatrists and geneticists will have an answer to ‘why.’ In the meantime, I think it may occur in utero; some people are just ‘wired’ that way.

        The late Irish poet, John O’Donohue, said that the reason he left the priesthood after long years in active ministry was, in part, because the Church “had a problem with Eros.”

        Finally: I am glad that you have decided to limit your blog postings to your sermons. I find them informative and inspirational — a window to a world that we don’t hear much about because so much of our news is ‘censored’ by the puppetmasters (lay and ecclesial).

        In truth I did not follow your postings on “Hitler” and “Critical Thinking.” Too much! They hurt my brain. For a peer readership they may have worked well. For a ‘general’ audience, not so well. I worked as a librarian for the NY teachers’ union for over 30 years. Critical Thinking was the ‘new kid on the block’ for a while, faded, and was replaced by other educational theories — some made sense, some were ‘off the wall.’ None of these theories seemed to have taken root or have been effective. Now we’re back to ‘teaching to the test’ and penalizing teachers if their students don’t learn. Students still cannot read, write, do simple math, think, express themselves in more than a few syllables. How could they? Their minds are incessantly bombarded by blips on a screen and in their plugged-in earbuds. They get their info from Google (very commercial), Wikipedia (often incorrect) and other subjective, biased sources.

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  4. in the summer of 1980, I met Gil and June in Kentucky when they were volunteering with the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP). At that time it was headed by Father Ralph Bieting (sp?). There were three of us who came from a little town in North Florida called Crescent City, from Saint Johns the Babtist Catholic Church. I have thought about Gil and June often over the years and I was thinking about Gil this morning when I decided to perform an internet search to try and locate them. I must say I am heart broken to hear of Gil’s passing. Gil and June were the nicest and the coolest couple I have ever met. Funny, intelligent, hard working, dedicated. I was watching Gil eat an apple one day. He got out his pocket knife, cut pieces and then flipped them up into his mouth. I tried for years to master that skill without much success…lol RIP Gil. June, I hope you are well and life brings you all the happiness you deserve.
    Tony Kepics.

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    1. Thanks, Tony for your note. I’m sure June and her family appreciate it. I also worked for CAP with Fr. Beiting in the early ’70s. Several key members of our parish in Berea, KY are also former CAP volunteers. A great program.

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