Sunday, June 12, 2011

Come, Holy Spirit!

The following is an extended excerpt from the Pentecost sermon I preached at St. Francis Church this weekend. The full manuscript for the sermon can be found here.
The familiar Pentecost story comes to us from the second chapter of Acts, but there is an alternative narrative that comes to us on this day from the seventh chapter of John's Gospel, verses 37-39... 

John’s story is told in the future tense: it’s about the Holy Spirit that Jesus promises he will send after he has been glorified, after he has finished the work he came to do. 

Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths—in Hebrew, the Feast of Sukkoth. Originally Sukkoth was a harvest festival, like Thanksgiving. But it also became a time for Jews to remember the central narrative in their life together: the Exodus, and particularly their forty-year sojourn through the Sinai Desert. There they had begun to learn how to put their whole trust in God’s grace, one day at a time. There they had begun to learn that God would be faithful to the Covenant, even when they were not. Building those booths, or tabernacles, was a reminder of what it was like to be a people “on the move”—a people who lived in tents. Our Jewish friends celebrate this festival to this day, often building dwellings in the back yard of their homes where they eat their meals and sometimes even camp out. 

For John there is a word-play here as well. In the opening chapter of John’s gospel, he puts all his cards on the table when he speaks of the Incarnate Logos: the Word that has become flesh to dwell among us. Literally, that word for dwelt among us is “pitched tent” among us. That verb form is the same as the word tabernacle in today’s reading; these “booths.”  John is putting his readers on alert that on this the last day of this great festival, we should pay close attention to what this Word-tabernacled-among us is going to do at this festival of tabernacles. 

One of the liturgical practices that occurred on the last day of this festival was a kind of parade. As I imagine it in my mind’s eye it would be something like a Palm Sunday procession: the priest would lead a procession of the whole congregation to the Pool of Siloam and draw water into a golden vessel. People would be singing and scripture would be read, perhaps words such as these from the prophet Isaiah: 

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. (Is. 12:3) 

And then the water would be carried to the temple and poured into silver bowls around the altar. To people remembering their time in the desert, water is a very powerful metaphor. And even to people who have never spent time in the desert, we all know that water means life. An absence of rain at this time of year and there are no tomatoes and cucumbers in August. The right combination of both water and light is crucial: and Sukkoth is all about both water and light. It is written in the Mishnah (the oral traditions of the Torah) that “whoever has not seen the joy of drawing water has not experienced joy in his life.” This festival was about that joy, and about God’s abundant blessings.

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. This metaphor reminds us of that encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at the well, where Jesus tells her that he is the living water, and those who drink the water that he offers will never thirst again. 

What comes next is important, though, and the punctuation is tricky in Greek. In fact, scholars have been arguing about it since the second century. It’s unclear in Greek: is Jesus is saying that he is the river of life? This would ring true and fit in nicely with that conversation he had with the Samaritan woman at the well. 

But he may be saying something much more radical than that, and in fact there is a very strong case to be made for the more radical reading agreed upon by the translators of the NRSVout of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water. Not just out of Jesus’ heart, but out of the disciples’ hearts—out of the hearts of ordinary people like you and me shall flow rivers of living water. 

What if you and I are called to become rivers of life, and to allow these living waters from God to flow through us and into our homes, our faith community and the world around us? Wow! But I think it is precisely what John’s Gospel does mean to say, not just in this obscure little text, but from those very first words about the Word that has tabernacled with us until the hour when “it is finished” on the cross and he is glorified, until he sends the Holy Spirit—who will do these amazing things. If the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father and if we are in Christ, then we participate in the Divine life. That, Jesus says, is what the Holy Spirit is sent to do.  

Isn’t that scary? But of course even though John tells the story differently, it’s what Luke is getting at as well. It’s what this Feast of Pentecost is all about. Amazing things begin to happen when the Holy Spirit shows up. People like Peter, who was a bit of a screw-up before, is now equipped to do “infinitely more than he could ask or imagine.” Persecutors of the Church, like Saul, are transformed into committed disciples. Ethiopian eunuchs and Roman soldiers start finding their way into a community where women and men have an amazing story to share. Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water. 

Now I know we don’t feel like that every day. Sometimes we feel parched and tired and weary. Sometimes we lose hope. Sometimes we feel like sinners who are unworthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table. But the Spirit comes to blow through us, bubbling up inside of us to heal and renew and strengthen and comfort and prod and transform us. The Spirit comes like wind and like fire, and yes like rivers of living water: to lead us into all truth and health and joy and peace.  

Marianne Williamson has written these words, sometimes incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela. Some of you may remember them from the film, Coach Carter. I think they have everything to do with these words from the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel, and with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves: who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

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