Friday, June 13, 2014
The Sunday Sermon: Communicating the Spirit
It's party time in Jerusalem. Jews have come from all over the world to celebrate one of the three major feasts of the religious year: Pentecost. That's the name St. Luke gives to Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, a celebration mandated by Moses to take place 50 days, a week of weeks, after the first harvest, or in more urban environments after Passover, celebrating the gift of abundance as the spring harvest comes to a close.
It's like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or July 4 in Washington DC: tourists and pilgrims from all over, speaking different languages, bewildered by the city, crowds gathering to watch street artists, religious processions holding up traffic, souvenir hawkers, pickpockets, marching bands, fanatics on soap boxes. And all under the watchful eye of the Roman military authorities and the Jewish temple leadership, who share the goal of keeping the peace, squashing trouble, spotting and heading off terrorists.
And then, the twelve apostles, with their friends, waiting in an upper room, apprehensive, nervous, still grief-stricken from the events of the past seven weeks, waiting for something to happen. They weren't celebrating. They were simply obeying Jesus' final instruction: stay in Jerusalem, he had said, and you will receive power and the Holy Spirit. They had no idea what he meant, but they were waiting.
Can we begin to imagine what it was like, when those tongues of fire began their dance in and out of the group? Can we imagine the initial terror - FIRE! - the disbelief, the questioning as they realized that this fire didn't burn or consume; it wasn't fueled by anything material; it just danced? Or perhaps they were deep in prayer, eyes closed, hands raised to heaven, so that they didn't even see the fire when it began to descend, didn't know it until they felt a certain heat on their heads and in their hearts, until they felt the strange words and sentences start to bubble up irresistibly in their throats, until they heard each other speaking, preaching, singing out words of prophecy and proclamation, words they didn't themselves understand but that drove them out into the streets where passers-by stopped, stared, nudged each other and then realized that the words these humble men, these country yokels were uttering actually made sense to them, here in a foreign city where nothing had made sense to them.
In the glorious confusion of tongues people who were strangers became brothers and sisters as they heard and understood the message, the message of God's mighty power to reach across cultures and languages, to act and to save all people. Lives were changed that day; people discovered God's love in new ways; the apostles themselves were transformed; and the Church was born.
Has anything so terrifying and so wonderful ever happened in the history of the church since? Disparate people, mutually suspicious, mutually uncomprehending, brought together in a shared understanding by words of power, spoken by the servants of God, in a way that everyone could get the message; a message that demonstrates God's power to bring people together who were isolated, to heal the broken peoples of the world, to make one community of many communities, to fulfill God's dream of reconciliation for all people.
That should have been the happy ending of the Christian story: all people reconciled to God and to each other through the power of the Holy Spirit. But it wasn't of course: many of the first Christians and many since have suffered and died for their faith. Wars have been fought over different interpretations of our beliefs. The two thousand years since that first Pentecost Day have produced ample evidence that the mission is still incomplete, the unity still fractured, the communication still imperfect. And that means that there is work for us to do.
A couple of weeks ago I visited Dorcas House for the first time. I am making efforts to relearn Spanish after over a decade of not using it. I can read and translate from Spanish into English; I can understand you if you speak really slowly and clearly; but faced with a crowd of children all talking at once and at a mile a minute, I am stumped. I have to find other ways to communicate my joy to them: smiles, hugs, gestures to help with tasks. The children at Dorcas House are full of life, and the Spirit has blown a desire into my heart to be able to communicate with them more fully. But it's going to take some time: it doesn't come naturally, especially in middle age.
Human beings in general have more than a little trouble with communicating across barriers of language and culture. We divide ourselves up: into nations, tribes, first world and developing world, Anglos, blacks, whites, Asians, gay, straight, bi, Protestant, Catholic, Christian, agnostic, conservative, progressive, fundamentalist, middle-class, poor, co-dependent, clergy, lay, it goes on and on. Each little group has its own jargon, its own assumptions. Insider language is a way for us to reinforce our illusion of superiority and security.
Even Episcopalians do it, with our narthexes, transepts, deacons, Eucharist and all the rest of our specialized vocabulary. In these first months at St. Paul's I have had to interrupt many conversations to ask what something means in this context, to get an explanation of something that was so obvious to everyone else present that it was glossed over. You'll be glad to know I am having an easier time learning Cathedral-speak and San Diego-Speak than Spanish!
The gift of Pentecost is the gift of sharing the great good news of the Gospel in a way that everyone can understand it. On Pentecost the disciples are transformed from fearful refugees to uninhibited street preachers. They find the words to say what God has done for them, and the words are words that all can hear and understand. The apostles are launched headlong into a life of mission, of stretching outward, of risking their lives for the Gospel. This is where the Church begins its work, a work that continues today. We too may be transformed and sent, if we invite the Holy Spirit into our fearful lives.
In every age the Church has discerned ways to communicate the Gospel to the world, and each age has its own methods of communication. Whether it was through story-telling, dance, graffiti, architecture, martyrs' tombs, stained glass, printed Bibles, monastery hospitals and schools, legislation, music, medical and agricultural missions, the Church has constantly adapted to use the methods of communication that work best in each era of history. Sometimes we've been ahead of the curve: the Gutenberg Bible was one of the first items produced on a printing press and I am certain there were people who said it was too leading-edge, an inappropriate treatment of Holy Scripture, which should only be copied by human hand, with a prayer accompanying every word. Sometimes we've been a bit slow to get with the program: witness our current struggles over the use of electronic media in church and our reluctance to promote genderless language for God.
In a couple of weeks we will be observing Social Media Sunday in the Episcopal Church: I expect to hear some tut-tutting when we get creative with that, but I am still going to remind you now to Tweet or post on Facebook a sentence about what you hear of the Good News in this sermon.
There are some ways of communicating the Holy Spirit that have not changed through the ages, and I doubt they ever will. The New Testament gives us a whole lot of stories of Peter, Paul, and the rest witnessing the bestowal of the Holy Spirit on new Christians. There are several episodes where people have been baptized but they have not yet received the Holy Spirit. The only way to address this, Paul discerns, is in person. Paul's letters don't claim to transmit the Holy Spirit, but he writes in his letters of visiting a church and bringing the Holy Spirit to the congregation. The sacrament of Baptism is a hands-on ritual. We haven't figured out a way to do it electronically, and I dare to say that we should not ever figure it out. The Holy Spirit is a communicable entity, person to person. It rests on a foundation of relationship, and that is what we see developing in that second chapter of Acts: relationship among people who were strangers.
The statistics tell us that the single most effective way to grow the Church is through one-on-one invitation. Because Christianity is a religion of relationship, relationship with God and relationship with one another, mediated by the sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrated through his life and death. Our lives are changed by our relationship with Christ and his body on earth, the Church. We have received the Holy Spirit and we bear within ourselves the mighty power of God to act and save. We are living a life of abundance and joy, thanks to the presence of God among us.
So, how shall we share this life that we have been offered? How shall we communicate this power? We will do it by any and all means possible. We will do it by inviting people to join in our life here at the Cathedral. We will do it by making our space accessible and welcoming. We will do it by sharing our resources with those who have less than we do. We will do it by baptizing those who want to be a part of our community and by offering Communion to all who request it. We will do it by going to Dorcas House and Episcopal Church Center and Uptown Faith Community and Balboa Park and the courthouse and everywhere that there are people whose lives are not as abundant as they could be. We will do it by social media and leaflet and car magnet and bus stop ad and Youtube video. We will do it by being the hands and feet and heart of Jesus in the world, as the first Christians were. As we do this work we will call on the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with the fire of mission, as the apostles' hearts were filled. That is not without risk - our lives WILL be changed - so don't imagine that you can get involved and keep your comfortable life just the way it is.
In a few moments we are going to renew our baptismal promises, and on this Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the Church, I want you to focus on one particular promise, and I want you to put some thought into how you will deliver on that promise according to your own gifts, abilities, and communication skills. So here it is: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? ... “I will with God's help ...” OK, so that's the promise, and as you heard, there are two parts to it: WORD and EXAMPLE. So think about it - how are you going to do this? Word and Example. Will you tell someone about the great gatherings and celebrations we have here? Will you practice compassion, patience, and generosity with those around you? Will you ask forgiveness from someone you have been at odds with? Give it some thought, ask the Holy Spirit to fill your heart, and be prepared for things to change in your life. And just to make sure, let's practice that promise one more time: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? “I WILL WITH GOD'S HELP.”
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges