Benediction Online

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Promise of the Holy Spirit

Many people in this church value the use of language which doesn’t limit our understanding of God. We particularly don’t want to limit God to being male or make it seem as if only men are made in God’s image. Language which attempts to express the divine as beyond the limitations of human sexual differences is known as ‘inclusive language’. Although there are some really good things about using inclusive language – language which includes both masculine and feminine aspects of God – a downside is that we can lose sight of some other, important aspects of God. When we just use the name ‘God’ in order to avoid the Father language it’s easy for us to accidentally forget about the Holy Spirit.

Today I am going to redress that a little by talking almost exclusively about the Holy Spirit. In the reading from John, Jesus says ‘the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.’ But the Holy Spirit was active long before this. Back in the first story of the Creation we are told that the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. In the second Creation story, God breathed into the form he had made and it became alive as the first man. God’s breath and God’s spirit are the same. So, if God’s breath, God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit was present and active in the Creation, how could Jesus tell his disciples that the Father was going to send the Holy Spirit in His name?

In Luke’s account the disciples and the resurrected Jesus were at Bethany when he told them that they were to wait in Jerusalem for the power from on high. A power whom he called the Promise of My Father. Then after he had blessed them he was carried up into heaven. They returned to Jerusalem with great joy and spent time together in prayer and worship. At that point there were about 120 disciples, not just the twelve.

On the day of Pentecost, they were gathered together when the Promise came. The whole house was filled with the sound of a violent wind and it seemed as though flames of fire appeared on their heads. Then they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak other languages. A crowd gathered and was amazed because people from all over the known world heard them speaking in their own language.

One of the readings we could have used this morning was from Genesis, the story of the tower of Babel. In this ancient Hebrew story, the people tried to build a tower tall enough to get them into heaven, but God was not amused. In fact God was alarmed at the possibilities. What might these people achieve if they continued to cooperate together? In order to prevent their attempts to climb into the heavenly court, God confused their language. As a result they scattered across the earth with different groups speaking different languages.

Why would we want to hear that story today?

Because it is like a book-end to the Pentecost experience. At Babel our languages were separated so that we could not become like God. At Pentecost our languages came together again with the gift of the Holy Spirit. And it is the Holy Spirit whom we are told will lead us into all truth… it is the Holy Spirit who enables us to come to God. We don’t have to build a tower to climb into heaven, the Holy Spirit is given so that we may experience the Reign of God.

The Reign of God was actualized by Christ’s life, death and resurrection but it is up to God’s people, the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit to make the Reign of God a reality in the world.

What that actually means is open to debate.

Some people believe that the Reign of God will not be realized until this world has passed away, so the work is to hasten the end of this world. So for them, it is important to fully understand the prophecies of what must take place before the end of the age and work to make those prophecies come to pass.

Others believe that our work is to bring the Reign of God into being in this life. This is the reasoning behind the Episcopal Church adopting the Millennium Development Goals as a mission priority - surely the Reign of God will include enough food, education, clean water and health for everyone. Of course there are critics who think the Reign of God is more spiritual and is about bringing everyone into discipleship. They accuse the church of mistaking the Reign of God as being about people rather than God.

However you understand the Reign of God, there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit was given in a new way as a gift at Pentecost to enable us to live quite differently from before.

So how do we experience the Holy Spirit today?

Those who belong to Pentecostal churches or charismatic groups have a specific understanding of the gift of the Holy Spirit as being a second blessing in the life of the believer. The first blessing is the experience of salvation through Jesus and the second blessing is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Spirit is usually evidenced by speaking in tongues or by one of the other charismas or gifts of the Spirit. There is evidence of this second blessing in the New Testament, but it was not consistent. There is no one-size-fits-all experience of the Holy Spirit. To expect the Spirit to always work in the same way with everyone would be to limit God.

While I critique some of our sisters and brothers for limiting the Holy Spirit by expecting her to act in specific, predictable ways, I suspect that we are guilty of an equal failing. That of not expecting. Of not expecting the Holy Spirit. Period.

The disciples didn’t know what to expect. They were promised a helper, one who would lead them into truth; a comforter, one who would strengthen them. Jesus said ‘I will not leave you orphans’ so the Holy Spirit would be close to them in the way Jesus had been. Remembering the prophecy of Joel, they may have expected to dream dreams and to see visions but I doubt that any one of them expected the sound of wind and the tongues of fire.

We don’t know what to expect. Should we expect to speak in tongues? Should we expect to see visions? to hear a rushing wind or see flames of fire?

We don’t know. But we can wait in expectancy. We can pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us, or as Joel says, to be poured out upon us. That’s such a rich image isn’t it, of the Spirit of God being poured out upon us so that we are full, drenched, dripping, laughing, dancing in the Spirit?

It is my deepest longing that this church will be filled with the Holy Spirit. That God’s Spirit might be palpable here. That each one of us might be enabled to pray and worship as never before. That we might be enlivened, transformed, healed, filled to overflowing with God.

It doesn’t matter whether we speak in tongues or have the gift of healing. It doesn’t matter whether we dream dreams or see visions. What matters is that we allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us in powerful, unexpected ways. Then we will know how to work for the Reign of God in this place, in this community, among our friends and family, among strangers and enemies. Then we will be shaken to our very core by divine love.

That is what it is all about. Our yearning is to know God. Our yearning is to be filled with God’s Spirit and to be centers of healing not only for ourselves but for all those around us. Our yearning is for this building to be filled with God so that all who come here are deeply touched by the Spirit.

We have the yearning. We have the promise. Now let us expect God to move in our midst in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

“As I have loved you…you also should love one another…”
Mary Elizabeth Pratt-Horsley

Jesus’ words to us are pretty clear – Love others with the same type of love Jesus has shown …. to others… and to you…
It seems clear – yet I think we need to unpack those words just a little bit – to grasp the fullness of their meaning.
The love that Jesus is talking about has nothing to do with sentimentality … or with Hallmark cards. It is a love that can be enfolding, affirming, uplifting… and it is a love that can also be difficult, demanding, not always joyful…
Love can mean taking a risk – having the courage to do what is right – even when that means being countercultural…
One group that demonstrates love in just that way is the Border Angels. Founded as a Non-Profit in 1986… the Border Angels are a group of volunteers who want to stop the unnecessary deaths of men, women and children traveling as immigrants through the desert and mountain areas near the border of California and Mexico. Throughout the desert, where summer temperatures have been measured as high as 127 degrees… the Angels have provided 340 watering stations.
In mountain areas near the border, where freezing winter temperatures have killed immigrants – the Angels have provided storage bins…containing winter clothes, food and water.
They are energized by the passage from Matthew’s Gospel – where Jesus declared: “I was hungry and you fed me – I was thirsty and you gave me drink…Whatever you did for the least of one of my brothers or sisters you did for me.”
We are all called to live in the borderlands – We are all called to live in the borderlands -not the geographical borderlands of our country – but called to live in the borderlands of our culture – and of our personal lives…we are called to move beyond the comfortable limits we have placed on our lives … into areas where change and positive transformation are possible – not only for ourselves, but for others.
It is in the borderlands that Jesus meets us and challenges us… It is in the borderlands that we are invited to look seriously at the way our culture treats different types of people… It is in the borderlands that we are challenged to speak up for those whose voice is never heard…
God asks us to move into the borderlands …beyond the edges of our comfort zones … beyond: “This is the way I’ve always done it” – beyond feelings of inadequacy… or feelings of self-satisfaction.
The borderlands is a place where differences can meet – and exist in mutual respect …
It is a place where all may find acceptance – where all may experience God’s love for the whole of creation – God’s love that crosses all boundaries and barriers…
In today’s lesson from Acts – Peter met … and crossed … his borderland…
In First Century Judaism – ritual and the law were everything… At that time it was much more a matter of right action than right belief… The Apostles and Christian leaders in Judea were taking Peter to task because they heard that Peter had eaten with Gentiles in Joppa, just South of present day Tel Aviv.
Peter traveled to Jerusalem to answer his critics. He explained his dream of every kind of animal, bird or reptile … how God’s voice told him: “It’s OK…it’s OK …eat! Peter assured them that the Holy Spirit fell on these Gentiles…just as it had fallen on the disciples. And he finished by saying: “Listen…if it’s OK for God … it’s OK for me!
Through history … and in this time and place… the Spirit falls on us … challenging us to love beyond our self-made or culture-made borders and barriers… The Spirit falls … urging us to carry the message of God’s compassion…love….and justice… beyond our comfort zone … into the borderlands.
Love is dismantling the unjust or artificial barriers that our culture…individuals… and we ourselves… put up to separate and de-value certain individuals and groups.
Love is breaching borders which perpetuate injustice and oppression…
Love is refusing to stand by, go along or collaborate with – the voices and messages of the dominant culture – when they are spoken by groups and individuals who absolutely will not see the damage caused by economic and social inequality and injustice – the damage caused by racism – the damage caused by the attitude which implies that for you to succeed in our society that means I can’t… so I better make sure I’m ahead of you.
The passage we just heard from today’s Gospel – comes at the Last Supper. Before he left them to be crucified… Jesus was trying to help his disciples understood the meaning of his life and ministry … and what it meant for their lives.
Jesus had just finished washing their feet … and he says to them: “Love one another as I have loved you” He’s not talking about reciprocal love – he doesn’t say “Love me as I have loved you”. He’s talking about love that is directed outward in service to others, in advocacy and support for the powerless and voiceless in our midst.
Good servants are a vanishing breed… They’re mostly found on Masterpiece Theater or in Regency novels. If they perform their work properly…no one notices them. They do the work that needs to be done without fuss… often they do the work that no one else wants to do.
This is the kind of service and love that compelled Jesus to spend himself for the outcast and marginalized, for the mentally ill, for the belligerent and for those who rejected him. It is the kind of love to which we are called: a love offered with an open hand and open heart… a love that moves us into the borderlands beyond our comfort zone… a love that is without question, condition or limit.
The late Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who was assassinated as he distributed communion in the cathedral… once said: Ours is not a sky God…who only looks down at us from a distance…Ours is not a pocket God- who can be manipulated to sanction whatever our heart or the culture desires… Ours is a real God who lives within the blood and guts experiences of our daily lives. Ours is a living, loving God who is truly present.
We can love and serve others as Jesus did…not because we are virtuous of ourselves. Rather we can do this because we have deliberately opened our lives to the active, living God in our midst. We have made a decision to let God love others…through us.
And of course, we are challenged to love ourselves as well… and to understand that we are all loving and working with our own imperfections and frailties as we serve and love others.
All of us…without exception…have at one time or another been held captive by our fears…by our thoughts…by our prejudices. God through Jesus wants to set us free from all that. Once freed…we can love authentically and serve with real commitment.
In freedom, we can live in the borderlands… crossing barriers that divide… We can envision…proclaim…. and work towards … a new future – following in the footsteps of Jesus, Peter and Paul… following the path of Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, the Border Angels, the volunteers at Habitat for Humanity, or Doctors without Borders.
As followers of Jesus, who loved unconditionally… we are not to be known by our creeds, by our rituals, or by our Canon Laws. We are to be known by our love for others. That will be the sign that we are children of the living, loving, transforming God who brought us all into being.
A wise man once said: “The only Gospel some people will ever read…is the way we live our lives.” Amen.