Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Feast of Pentecost

A prayer from Walter Brueggemann: To make new things that never were

We name you wind, power, force, and then, imaginatively, "Third Person." We name you and you blow...
blow hard, blow cold, blow hot, blow strong, blow gentle, blow new...
Blowing the world out of nothing to abundance,
blowing the church out of despair to new life,
blowing little David from shepherd boy to messiah,
blowing to make things new that never were.
So blow this day, wind, blow here and there, power, blow even us, force,  Rush us beyond ourselves, Rush us beyond our hopes, Rush us beyond our fears, until we enact your newness in the world. Come holy Spirit, come. Amen. 
(From Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, for Pentecost.)

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Today is the feast day upon which we celebrate the arrival of this "Third Person" of the Holy Trinity—perhaps the most elusive one. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and Son is worshiped and glorified.

Listen with me for a Word of the Lord from the readings that are appointed for this day. The reading from Acts speaks of the Spirit like the rush of a violent wind. We know how powerful the wind can be—and while the Spirit may sometimes feel like a cool summer breeze that’s not how it’s described in Acts. It stirs things up, pushes people out of their comfort zones, whirls about like a tornado, before there is a kind of United Nations’ experience of many different languages being spoken. The Spirit brings understanding, breaking down walls that divide. Imagine the many different “tribes” where there is conflict in our time and you have a sense of what that first reading is about. Think Palestinian and Israeli, North Korean and Taiwanese and Chinese and Iranian and Iraqi and American and Sudanese and Liberian and Chilean—all in one place. Move beyond tribe and race to consider young and old, male and female, gay and straight, Democrat and Republican. And then imagine a process of reconciliation where each is heard sharing his or her dreams and visions, as the Spirit beckons to the dawn of a new day and new possibilities.

The Psalmist speaks in a more existential way: our very breath is of God. When that breath—that ruah of God is taken away—we die. It is as simple as that. The difference between life and death is in our breathing. And so as Anna Nalick puts it, “cradle your head in your hands [and] breathe—just breathe.” If you want to find God then you don’t have to look far; look within. Learn from the Buddhists who also remind us to just breathe—in and out. That same Spirit of the living God, says the Psalmist, is at work in the creation as a whole, not just in each creature. The Spirit is unleashed and springtime comes and the face of the earth is renewed. The Spirit hovers over all things to make them new again.

St. Paul reminds us that it is the Spirit who helps us in our weakness. When we can’t pray (or feel that we can’t pray) and are out of words and maybe even out of hope,the Spirit is there. The Spirit intercedes, to use the big theological word. The Spirit acts on our behalf when we are paralyzed, calling us back to the God who has created us in love as Abba and who has redeemed us in love through Jesus.

Finally, in John’s Gospel, the imagery used comes from the legal profession. The Spirit is our Advocate, Jesus says. The Advocate leads us into the truth. Notice that Jesus is clear: while he is no doubt the Way, the Truth, and the Life we always see that Truth through a glass darkly and the journey is a kind of never-ending story. God is not finished yet—not with us, not with the Church, not with creation. Those who claim to possess the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (and by implication suggest that those who disagree therefore have no truth) delude themselves and miss this point. At best we are moving in the right direction, guided by the Spirit. We seek this Truth who is a person, not a set of doctrines, not in isolation but within community where we are both loved and challenged.

While there are no doubt connections between these four readings—these four ways of speaking of the Spirit—there are not all identical. One of the most important lessons we can learn in reading the Bible is to see and to celebrate that it represents a community of voices—that the “Word of the Lord” is not one-dimensional, flat word but a pluralistic, diverse, and multi-cultural Word. It’s like a chorus singing four-part harmony: they are all singing about the Spirit, but they aren’t all singing the same notes.

That realization, when it comes to us (or comes to us again) can be liberating and beautiful but it can also be a little bit scary, too. There is a part of most of us, I suspect, that wants to know the “right answer” and check off that box.

So does the Spirit come as comforter, or as the one who pushes us out of our comfort zones? As Mighty Wind or as Gentle Breath? What if the answer is in fact “all of the above?”

That makes community messy. I just laugh when people talk about “organized religion” because I don’t really have any experience with what they are talking about. Most faith communities I’ve been a part of really haven’t been all that organized and are often chaotic. They often take one step forward and a half-step back. They begin to move this way and then a new vestry comes in and there is a mid-course correction. Someone suggests a new hymnal and there is experimentation with new music and then someone else says “can’t we have a little more of that old time religion?” And so it goes…

The only way any of it makes any sense to me whatsoever is to say that somehow the Spirit is at work in the midst of all the mess—all of the chaos—ordering it when necessary, but just as often stirring the pot when things get too settled and comfortable. My experience of the Spirit is that She never rests. Above all, She keeps life interesting—keeps the Church ever new—keeps it alive, gives it its breath—keeps us moving toward the dawn of a new day.

I have a little framed card in my office, given to me by the head of the pre-school my oldest son attended when I was the Associate Rector of Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, CT. That card is now twenty years old, and my sons are adults, but it pretty much sums up my philosophy of parenting: 
There are two things parents can give their children—roots and wings.
I wonder if that isn’t true about the Church’s vocation as well: the Spirit works in ways that give us, as both individuals and as congregations, roots and wings. We teach our children the stories of the faith and we ground them in a tradition that goes back not only to the communities we read about today in Jerusalem and in Rome, but back further still to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—back to the very beginnings of God calling a pilgrim people. The Church is a place with very deep roots.

But the Holy Spirit—sometimes imagined as a dove—reminds us that discipleship is about learning to fly. Following Jesus is about learning to trust God enough to soar like an eagle, knowing and trusting the wind to blow us where She will, to blow us where we need to go.

Just breathe.

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