Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Pentecost: Who's Your Mama? The Holy Spirit Is

The following sermon was delivered by The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, Oregon. Rev. Anne is a clergy member of the Diocese of Oregon Deputation to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church USA, Columbus, Ohio. This sermon is reprinted with permission.

"Come Holy Spirit, come. Come as the fire and burn. Come as the wind and cleanse. Convict, convert and consecrate our hearts, until we are wholly thine. Amen."

Once upon a time – this is a true story...Once upon a time, back in the 1970’s,a mad scientist – well, he wasn’t really mad, he was just a little quirky, like most scientists, at least the scientists I know and love – Okay. I’d better begin again.

Once upon a time back in the early 70’s a scientist rented a huge, empty building way out on Long Island. The building was actually left over from the World’s Fair of 1964 and had not yet been torn down or renovated or leased.

The scientist’s area of study was the weather: specifically, whirlwinds. He wanted to do a controlled experiment in the confines of the big empty building, so he rented it for a day and brought in his equipment – monstrous fans, as I recall, and he set them up in strategic spots to create his mini-tornado.

The moment came. He turned on the fans. He felt the air move. But he couldn’tsee a doggone thing. There might have been a host of whirlwinds twirling all over the vast expanse of the building, but the whacky scientist forgot that air is invisible. We see the effects of wind -- the rustling of tree leaves, the bending of grass, the filling of sails on a boat, the turning of a windmill’s blades, the destruction of a city – but we do not see the wind itself.

So the scientist brought in a bucket of water and set it in just the right spot, and then turned on the fans again. This time the movement of the air picked up droplets ofwater, and the sunlight coming through the windows lit up the flying drops of water –made them tiny fragments of flying blue, purple, green, red -- and all of a sudden, there it was: a stained-glass whirlwind, dancing with grace and power, visible to the human eye. The scientist laughed with delight. (Okay, I made that up. But I hope he did. I know I did the first time I heard this story.)

Here's my point. Today is Pentecost, the feast day of the Holy Spirit. I want to scatter from this pulpit a fistful of brightly-colored images of the Holy Spirit, images from Scripture and tradition, to sparkle here among us, so that together we might perceive how God the Holy Spirit moves among us, whether we see Her or not.

Our older brothers and sisters in the Jewish faith called the Spirit Wisdom, who was present at the creation and active in it. She is honored in the Book of Proverbs, personified as the wise woman who teaches her children in ways that give life and keep us on the path to God. She shows up as the Shekinah, the visible manifestation of God’s glory that lights up creation itself and announces the Presence of the Divine.

In Hebrew Her name is also “ruah” – which means wind. Or breath. Or spirit. Take your pick. That’s how multi-layered, multi-valent the Hebrew language is. You can’t put the Spirit in a box, for She shape-shifts all over the place and in and out of time. In the Christian scriptures, the Hebrew name for Wisdom becomes, in Greek, Sophia. (The young leading lady in the DaVinci Code is named Sophie Neveau: New Wisdom.)

The Greek word for the Holy Spirit is pneuma, meaning: spirit; or, breath; or, wind, the air itself, as multi-layered, multi-valent as the Hebrew. Think: numinous. Think: pneumatic drill. Ah, sometimes that’s how She works on us, is it not? When God comes to us as Spirit, the action is not always soft and gentle. Her comforting caress may alternate with a pneumatic drilling of our souls, to heal us or at the very least to capture our attention. Don’t put the Spirit in a box or in a corner. She simply won’t stay there. That is not God’s way. She will not be managed.

Jesus called the Holy Spirit the Comforter, the Counselor, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth. Those are some of Her other names. At his baptism, the Spirit descended “like a dove” (that’s a metaphor) and then drove Jesus into the wilderness so that He might learn who He was and how He was to be. So we can add Dove and Driver to our growing list of names.

In every Eucharistic prayer we ask the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread and wine to make them holy, so that in the mystery of the Eucharist we may experience Christ Himself, with us, among us, here with us, as close as our own breath.

And then we ask the Spirit to sanctify us as well – to make us holy. We invite the Spirit in, inside of us, to do Her work of making us whole and alive. So the Spirit is the Sanctifier, making whole, making holy, making us one with Christ, making us Christ’s own Body.

Just like the invisible whirlwind, the Spirit, we say, is ever present, though usually invisible to our human eyes and hearts. She works deep within us whether we are aware of it or not. Often it is only the effects of Her work that we perceive in our lives, the fruits of gentleness, self-control, compassion, courage, patience.

I remember many years ago confessing to my spiritual director that my prayer life was in shambles. I spelled out just how undisciplined I really was, how often I said my prayers on autopilot, how frequently I found my mind making “to do” lists instead of being still and centered. My director reminded me of St. Paul’s words (never underestimate St. Paul!), which he wrote to the church in Rome:

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray aswe ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."

Think of that! Take it in! The Holy Spirit is praying for you, praying in you,bidden or not unbidden, felt or not felt, doing her healing work of reconciliation, whetherwe are aware of it or not.
In the ancient Nicene Creed we describe the Holy Spirit as the “Giver of life.”The Breath of God breathes in us, gives us life, brings us new life when we’ve managed become as dry as a dried up prune or a field full of old dry bones; (the field of bones image is from Ezekiel; the dried-up prune image is from me).

The Holy Spirit gives us life. Gives us life! She breathes in us, guides and comforts us, teaches us, makes us holy, intercedes for us, gives us life and brings us back to life...oh, and one more thing: She also sets us on fire.

Come, Holy Spirit. Come as the fire and burn. I suppose it is a good thing thatthe whacky ‘70’s scientist on Long Island was working with air instead of fire. God knows what he might have started.

On this day of Pentecost, our normative story – don’t you love that word? I do; our normative story, the one we say tells the mystery best, even though it’s still, of course, inadequate because it’s a story told in human language, and human language, even with the most brilliant of metaphors, can never capture God, because God will not be managed by the likes of us, will not be captured in our language, but we still do the best we can...But I digress.

Our normative Christian story about the Holy Spirit comes on the day of Pentecost, when the disciples were all together in one room. And in my spiritual imagination, where they were is the same Upper Room in which Jesus had washed their feet, as if he was their servant, and fed them bread and wine with words they did not then comprehend. After Jesus had died upon that awful Cross, I think it was to that same room to which they fled and where they had hunkered down in the days and nights that followed, straining to hear the dreaded sound of heavy footsteps coming up the stairs, a pounding on the door, soldiers come to get them, too. I bet they closed the windows, and the air in that room must have reeked of their sadness and their fear. It was into that room that the risen Christ entered into, though the door was locked (as He enters still, through the doors we lock, closed up and isolated in our fear, which is sometimes even fear of Him). It was into that room that Christ came among them and said “Peace.”

Peace. Into our sadness and fear comes Christ with his peace. And then He breathed on them and gave to them the Holy Spirit, as we have been given Her, the breath of life, the gift of grace and power of reconciliation, that we might reconcile with each other and the world to God.
Then the disciples were told to wait. So there they were, no longer afraid, all together in that upper room, the windows now open wide, saying their prayers when, as Luke tells the untellable, there came a sound the rush of a violent wind which filled the whole house. And then...and then little lights began to appear, to flicker over each of their heads – there was one above Peter’s head and Mary Magdalene’s, also one for Andrew, John, Susanna, all of them – flames like fire, divided like tongues.

And then the followers of Jesus began to speak in languages they didn’t know they knew – it was the Tower of Babel in reverse! Filled to overflowing with the Holy Sprit they poured down the stairs, out the door, into the street, talking in their newfound linguistic skills, telling strangers that they too are beloved children of the God who is ever creating life out of death, even at nine am on a summer Sunday.

I know an Episcopal congregation who has a liturgical tradition on Pentecost of processing up the long center aisle a magnificent, humongous birthday cake, flickering with a hundred candles. Written on the bright, white icing in red frosting: “HappyBirthday, Church!”

This liturgical eccentricity is not one that, frankly, I wish to imitate, but the point is well taken: that the Holy Spirit birthed the church on Pentecost. Today is our birthday, as the church, and the Spirit is our Mmother. (I know another Episcopal congregation whose Pentecost tradition is to celebrate with a strawberry shortcake festival on the lawn after worship. Now that’s a tradition we should consider!)

Because the Spirit is our Mother who has made us one in Christ, we are siblings. And as siblings we share similar but hardly identical spiritual DNA. We have been given different abilities, capacities, “gifts of the Spirit.” Some of us here are born listeners, counselors, spiritual directors who can listen to the stories of our lives and help us find God’s presence in them. Some of us here are skilled with our hands and so we do the work of our hearts by primarily using our kinesthetic gifts – cooking, cleaning, serving, repairing, folding, driving, nursing, doing. Some of us have the gifts of teaching, preaching, praying, pastoral care. Others have the gift of being with our children, and others the gift of hospitality, of welcoming the stranger; and others the gift of music to help us worship, and others the gifts of leadership, of seeing the hand of God at work among us, and discerning how the Spirit may be nudging us here at Trinity.

Wind. Breath. Flames. Fire. Like a dove descending. Giver of Gifts. Intercessor. Mother. Comforter. Pneumatic drill. Wisdom. Restorer of dry bones. Dancing whirlwind of light and life.

Come, Holy Spirit come. Come and give us hope. Surprise us with your grace. Heal us. Unify us. Empower us. Be with your Church this day, for we sorely need your guidance and your wisdom, we need to remember we belong to you and therefore to each other.

Come Holy Spirit, come: convert, convict and consecrate us, until we are wholly Thine.


The deputation from the Diocese of Oregon also includes from southern Oregon, Anne McCollum, a member of the church laity at Trinity South. Our deputation is led by The Rt. Rev. Johnncy Itticy, Bishop of Oregon. We wish them Godspeed, travelling mercies, good health and well-being while witnessing Christ's grace, joy and love to all with whom they come into contact while at convention, and, all the benefits of fellowship and communion with our sisters and brothers in Christ. We will miss them but know they will return to us, tired but happy. We will keep the "home fires burning" [the barbeques, tiki torches, citronella candles] in their absence. Happy trails, y'all!


SingingOwl said...

I just read this. I'm a bit late.

It was FABULOUS! Thank you so much for sharing it!

Catherine + said...

I always say, better late than not at all! You are most welcome. I was so inspired by it when I heard it in church, I thought, if we can be so moved by hearing it live, just think what it could do for others. And here it is!

May the message and Spirit of Pentecost bless you and keep you. She is a wonderful Mother!

PS: And just love owels, especially snow owls!