DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
Exciting things are going on in the church of Jesus Christ. And I’m not just talking about the excitement I see in you men who are rolling up your sleeves to take care of our building; and those of you helping the people in need who come to us each week; and those of you who are eager to experience some other forms of worship in a few upcoming Field Trips we’re working on organizing during this transitional time in the life of this church; or those of you asking for a book study in people’s homes that we hope to launch in a few weeks! All of which are really exciting things among us! . . . I realize we can get so caught up in worry about declining numbers and church dogma fights and budget crunches. But lots of evidence points to a vibrant future for the Christian faith. While it’s true, as one author has said, that in the USA, the first decade of the 21st Century has been the “Great Religious Recession.” It’s equally true, according to that same author, that we’re living in the era of an emergence of “a spiritual awakening, a period of sustained religious and political transformation during which our ways of seeing the world, understanding ourselves, and expressing faith are being ‘born again’” (Cheryl Jones quoting Diana Butler Bass in Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2013, p. 3). It’s exciting! It’s a great, even if challenging, time to be alive! . . . Supposedly we’re in the midst of “moving from being a religion about God, to being an experience of God” (Cheryl Jones, Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2013, p. 4). From the what of faith to the how of faith. From what’s been called an Age of Belief to an Age of the Spirit.
It’s very good news for the church of Jesus Christ because more than ever in the history of this nation, spiritual experience is what people want. The research all points to a rise in those not affiliated with any church; yet craving connection with God. Unlike Americans of the past who weren’t a part of any religious body; when those of the past turned away from the church, they turned away from God all together. Atheists and agnostics used to abound. The what of belief was their crisis – and, in response, the what of belief was the church’s key witness. . . . But today we’re told those who won’t be a part of a church still seek some sort of experience of the Divine. They want wonder. They want awe. They want a glimpse into the mysterious. They want the rituals and practices that will bring them into deep connection with that which is beyond themselves. In other words, they want the how of faith. They just don’t think they can find that among us, the church. We, who religious non-affiliates of today seem to believe, spend more time propping up and preserving an institution than seeking to live the how of faith – than being in true connection with the living God.
And more than any other day of the liturgical calendar, today is a great day to celebrate the craving for the spiritual over empty religion. Today is Pentecost – the feast of God connecting with God’s people. Pentecost: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That uncontrollable force like the rush of a mighty wind. Something, we’re not sure what, but as best as it’s been able to be described, something like flashes of fire. Little flickering flames alighting around each believer present. As far as we know, 120 gathered together in Jerusalem on that day. Jesus had instructed them to wait together for the coming of the Holy Spirit. They were being given such a lofty commission: to go – be witnesses of the good news of God’s unmerited, redeeming love, shown fully to us in Christ Jesus. They were being sent to speak in the ancient halls of religious power in Jerusalem. To the first ring of those living a bit further out than that, and all the way beyond to lands they had no idea even existed. To places like Hermitage, Tennessee – which surely had to be the ends of the earth according to their world view. Those first followers of the Risen Christ were going to need more than their own abilities for such a commission. They were going to need POWER: the power of the Holy Spirit – God’s very self living in and among them. To keep them courageous and open and going when all the evidence in front of their eyes said: stop.
They, and most of the rest of the Jewish world, had gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot, “the third of the three great festivals of Judaism. . . . Shavuot was a joyful festival, in which the first fruits of the harvest would have been given to God” (Margaret P. Aymer, Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3, p. 15). It was the celebration of God’s giving of the Law to Moses and their ancestors. It was a significant commemoration of God’s covenant with them – the giving of the Torah, which would make Hebrew slaves into a covenant community for God. . . . And at that moment – as those excited about the Risen Christ were together for Shavuot – like an avalanche that cannot be stopped, the Holy Spirit came! . . .
It’s curious that images like wind and fire are recorded about that day. . . . A few months ago I saw a map of the United States that had Home of the Hurricane written across the Southeast, Tornado Alley written across the Midwest; and Wildfire Way written across the West. It was a spoof about the current state of our weather; but it makes a point: wind and fire are powerful forces. Two of the main elements of our earth that no matter what we do really cannot be controlled. In fact, they can be the source of such immense destruction. . . . Which leaves me wondering how many of us don’t have something within us individually – and collectively as a congregation – that needs some blowing out; some burning off in order to make us what is needed for God? Some of us harbor old understandings of ourselves and others that need to be cleared away. Some of us cling to hang-ups about our personal abilities – or maybe our collective abilities too. Some of us let life-long fears or worries steal our chance at living fully alive here and now. We need something like wind and fire to blow all that away; burn all that out of us kinda like John the Baptist said long ago. In the gospel of Matthew he was recorded as speaking of the fire that will be used to burn out of us everything that is not life-giving: the chaff. The part of the wheat that is inedible by humans. Wind separates the grain and the chaff in winnowing when it’s tossed up so that the chaff is blown aside and the grain falls to the threshing floor (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaff). Remember those words often lifted up in Advent: “His winnowing fork is in hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary” – that’s the good stuff in us that does feed others. “But the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” – the parts in us that are no good for God’s life-giving mission in the world, it’s like they are burned out of us with fire. Might that be part of the work of the Holy Spirit? To destroy in us what keeps us from the mission of God. Of course we know that wind and fire aren’t just destructive. They also can be powerful, uncontrollable sources that make amazing things happen. Think of full sails that can carry a ship far across the ocean. Think of the flames that can fire up an engine to move a massive train from one end of our country to the next. Wind and fire are powerful forces in this world that can put into motion magnificent things! That, we’re told, is what the Holy Spirit of God is like.
A few years back, I started getting really serious about the Holy Spirit – I realize not many Presbyterian preachers may make such a statement. But I just had finished teaching a year-long confirmation class with senior highs who said at the close of the year that they had no idea what the Holy Spirit was about. It was a wake-up call to me as their pastor and to that congregation as a church that whatever it was: our own lack of understanding, or emphasis, or fear, or something was hindering the spiritual life of our young people. I started doing some reading – the natural thing we Presbyterians do when we are confused about God. As an object, we study it. Soon my spiritual director was encouraging me to put down the books and just listen. Be quiet. Wait. Because God is not an object to be poked and prodded; God is a living subject in, among, and beyond us. I asked church members to join me as we did some contemplative prayer together; we practiced a few other kinds of prayer too that would attune us better to God. We even started singing songs about the Spirit from the hymnal. Somehow or another, the next time confirmation class rolled around, I was astounded to hear that class of confirmands heartily include the Holy Spirit in their personal statements of faith – they articulated not just what they believed about the Holy Spirit but how they experienced it. I kept the words they wrote about the Holy Spirit because I was moved so deeply by them. That group of young persons spoke about the Holy Spirit as: “The breath of God . . . everywhere . . . powerful . . . always with us.” One of them wrote: “You can’t see it, but it’s with us everywhere we go. . . . The Holy Spirit is like the air we breathe, because you need it to survive, and it keeps us going.” Another wrote: “I believe the Holy Spirit is kind of like the wind. You can’t see it, but you can feel it. That’s how (God’s) always with us – through hardships, (and through the) happy moments in our lives.” The quietest boy in the class wrote: “I believe in the Holy Spirit that is always with me, even though I can’t see it; I can feel it. I believe the Holy Spirit is the glue that keeps us believing and doing good deeds. (The Holy Spirit keeps) my faith in God when there is chaos around me.” And finally one professed that the Holy Spirit “is everywhere we go. It lives inside of us. It comes from God” (Quotes from 2012-13 COTC Confirmands).
Everywhere. Mysterious, in that we can’t really see it – but we can experience it. We can use metaphors like breath of God, air, wind, the glue of our lives that keeps us believing. The ever-present God that lives inside of us. A gift that comes from God. It’s still the power that sends us out into the world – bound together to one another to carry out the very same charge given so long ago to the first followers of the Risen Christ. The Holy Spirit is the church’s experience of God living in us every day to be the church – the presence of Christ’s very body wherever we go on this earth.
And the Holy Spirit is how we know an exciting future lies ahead for Christ’s church – if we’re willing to remain open to God’s living presence among us. For the Holy Spirit is God’s power in and among us to refresh and revive and re-create. The Guide that sends us out to live our faith – not just keep certain beliefs in our brain each day, but to enact the kind of behavior that shows God alive in us. . . . The Holy Spirit – the fire of God burning in us; the breath of God living in us – is our hope. . . .
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)