So I’ve slacked off with the sermon posting of late.
This isn’t because I haven’t been preaching; it’s because I’ve been busy writing about other things, finding a house for Canterbury.etc. Also, I am unwilling to inflict ALL SERMONS!ALL THE TIME! on you, because even to me, who loves sermons! That seems like a lot.
But last Sunday was Pentecost, which found me at St. Luke’s, in Prescott. Like last year, when I was spending Pentecost on the edge of the Wallow fire, this year Prescott was on the edge of the Gladiator fire which burned up the community of Crown King. (That whole ‘fire and wind’ metaphor is sort of agonizing in Northern Arizona, let me tell you.)
Here’s what I said:
Pentecost, Year B
I have a thought exercise for you: right now, as you’re sitting there, think of all the words we use to describe the Holy Spirit. All the different metaphors you can think of that you’ve heard of for the Spirit.
Go on, I’ll give you a minute.
For some of you long-time Episcopalians, this might be a trick, since we’re not what you might call a charismatic denomination. But we do talk about the Spirit a fair amount, even so, even if we don’t dance in the aisles, or speak in unheard of languages, or manage to clap in time.
So what you come up with? Show of hands. How many got wind? Which we definitely know something about in this part of the world. How many got fire? How about dove?
The Holy Spirit is that one aspect of the Trinity that we seem to love giving different names to. Even starting in Scripture– no one can seem to refrain from going off in lots of different directions when describing this thing. There’s the spirit that descends like a dove at Jesus’s baptism. There’s the spirit that moves like a breath over the waters at creation.
And in the gospel, that word that Jesus uses about the Spirit , “the Paraclete” in Greek is all sorts of complicated. Sometimes translated the Advocate, sometimes translated Comforter, it has legal connotations– like a lawyer in a court who comes to your defense, and argues for you. In a good way, not a slimy, ambulance chaser sue you into next week sort of way.
All of these images, all of these pictures we have of the Spirit’s moving in the world– what are we to make of them? This Pentecost, we remember the Holy spirit coming into disciples and forming them into the church, how do we follow in their footsteps and seek this elusive Spirit?
Frequently it seems that when we talk of the Spirit in church, we talk about the dove. Or that gentle breeze that comes on lazy summer days. We talk in terms of the Comforter. Calm, Happy, Peaceful, steady things. That old revival hymn– (sung) there’s a sweet sweet spirit in this place/ and I know that it’s the spirit of the Lord.
Good old hymn, nice picture…but is it a complete picture of the Holy Spirit?
Sure, the Holy Spirit is a dove, in the gospels, descending on Jesus at his baptism, but as that dove descends, the sky is torn apart. And a voice declares Jesus’ identity in a big scary booming voice, and his ministry begins.
And in John’s gospel today, when Jesus speaks of that mysterious Paraclete— he says that he will come and not leave us comfortless– that’s the part that the lectionary skips! And testify on our behalf, which also sounds good.
But then there’s this part about how Jesus has still much to say, but cannot say it, because the disciples cannot bear it now. So the Spirit will come and lead them and us into it, bit by bit, this new and ongoing revelation of truth. That sounds less warm and cozy by the second.
The spirit, when we see it in the Scriptures, isn’t just cozy, and it isn’t just safe. It doesn’t protect us from change and distress, and things that might annoy us– It comforts, in the truest sense of the word.
It gives strength. It fortifies. The spirit empowers for ministry.
And that’s not always a calm, or peaceful or particularly orderly experience. The Spirit in Acts comes like a blowing gust of wind, descending like tongues of fire. The disciples all of a sudden seemed like drunk people, all talking funny, in languages they didn’t understand themselves. One minute, quietly in a room together, the next, spouting off in Mesopotamian.
On the one hand, speaking a lot of different languages is a neat superpower to develop. On the other hand, it invited accusations of being drunk at 9am in the morning, and missionary activity to the ends of the earth. Because now, all the earth, all of those people were included in the embrace of the baby church. The fall of the Tower of Babel gets undone in the blowing wind of the Spirit. The disciples get a power, and they get it for a purpose. They get comforted, and sent, by the Spirit.
There are times we get lulled into wanting the Spirit just for the peaceful part. We want that pretty white dove, and not the wind and the fire that comes with it. Living in Northern Arizona, this is entirely understandable on a literal level, but that’s not how the Spirit operates.
The Spirit doesn’t lull us into passivity. It doesn’t take away all our problems–it helps us through them. It moves us to service. It stirs us, even when we are tired, and sure that we’ve done all we can do. It shows us a new path forward, when we’re sure that we’re caught in between the hardest rock, and the toughest hard place you can imagine.
It is our breath, as the body of Christ. When we were dead and raised again in baptism, we were sealed with the Spirit, we were empowered and called to serve the world in Christ’s name. Like those dried bones in Ezekiel (which we heard about/was also one of the readings today) we are pulled together by God, and enlivened by the Spirit’s breath.
So yes, at times, the Spirit may be unsettling, and yes, it may be startling. The spirit may, at times, take us by surprise, and point us into places, and challenges that look crazy at first glance. But that’s part of the journey, part of this relationship with a triune God that gives us not just “solace, but strength, not just pardon, but renewal.”
And if we want to be faithful to that early, frightened, exuberant church so many years ago, then we have to be ready of all of it.