A Pentecost sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian in Boise, Idaho
May 14, 2016
1 Corinthians 12:1-13
Pentecost is the birth day of the church, the day the Holy Spirit showed up to a room full of followers and breathed God’s own breath on them, as if it were a mighty wind or a rush of fire.
Jesus had died. Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to them. And then he ascended in to the clouds after telling them something else would happen, and they needed to wait for it. God created the church out of people who were willing to wait, people who would trust the unknown future would turn out to be loving.
As we celebrate the birthday of the church, we recognize we are still living into the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift that makes us who we are. The gift that is hard to accept.
One might think we’d be eager for the gift of the Holy Spirit. In John’s gospel, Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit as a comforter, a supportive presence to people who are already mourning Jesus’ upcoming death. Who wouldn’t want a gift of comfort?
As the Acts passage continues past what we heard tonight, though, the Holy Spirit is also a dislocating gift, bringing people together of all different languages and beliefs. Language, politics, culture, faith—the things that divide us and send us fleeing into camps of like minded people are what the Holy Spirit seems to disregard altogether.
The Holy Spirit does not have time for our division, our futile belief that we don’t need each other, or our notion that ideological doctrine matters more than unity.
She’s like a border collie, herding sheep into one corral, bringing them together to deal with each other, even as they try to separate, divide, and set off on their own.
Maybe that image is even too tame.
This week, I pulled out the leaf blower. I just couldn’t rake enough of the leaves and the spring tree debris out of my yard. And there was something so rewarding about blowing my yard waste away. Of course I couldn’t exactly control where it went. I could aim the blower, but leaves, dust, pollen, and those infernal elm seed pod things went flying everywhere.
Wind, or in this case, directed air out of a leaf blower, can be helpful. But it is not tame.
With the Holy Spirit, we’re given a gift that we can’t really control, and that blows us places we might not choose to go on our own.
The prayer of the church is “come, Holy Spirit, come.”
But we need to remember that on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit showed up as a rush of violent wind. She didn’t follow our script. We can’t harness the Holy Spirit on a holy wind farm. When we pray for the Holy Spirit to come, we need to buckle up and get ready for the ride.
We also need to expect the Holy Spirit to land on people we wouldn’t necessarily endorse.
And even with our reservations, and our control issues, we still pray for the Holy Spirit to show up, to blow through our lives and our work here together.
Because even if we are a little leery about things we can’t control, the truth is, we can’t do it by ourselves. No matter how many wonderful committees we have, we have to pray for the Spirit to work through us. No matter how much money we give to the budget, we have to pray that the Spirit will use our gifts. No matter how super awesome we are, we need to pray that the Spirit will focus our gifts and combine our strengths with another’s weakness. We need to pray the Spirit will take our weaknesses and combine them with another’s strength. Because without the Holy Spirit, we are just a group of people gathered in a room. Waiting.
We’re still living into this gift, aren’t we?
We still seek sameness, even as we’re reminded to treasure ‘otherness’.
We still value gifts that resemble our own, while we discount gifts in others that we don’t quite understand.
We still rest in our privilege, ease, and comfort, refusing to listen to voices who tell us their health, their flourishing, their lives, matter too.
It’s human nature to be how we are. It is Holy Spirit nature to shake us out of our comfort and clear the dust out of our preconceptions of others and ourselves. It is Holy Spirit nature to empower us to live toward our better natures.
And thank God for that gift.
I think, when I’m at my best, I believe in the unity of the church that exists despite our differences. I claim there is enough room in God’s family for people who understand faith very differently than I do. And I trust that between us all, we somehow come closer to the Truth than any of us could do on our own.
I think, though, that when I’m at my most honest, what I really functionally believe, is in the gift of two different holy spirits. The gift WE have received, of a spirit of inclusion, love, and welcome. And then there is the gift THEY have received, of purity that leads to exclusion, and that isn’t very welcoming. I know I’m wrong about this. I know there is only one spirit.
So, maybe I see the same spirit, but calling us to two very different gifts. Because the people who experience faith SO VERY DIFFERENTLY than I do….I mean. Really. What do we have in common? I’m willing to welcome them as brothers and sisters, and worship with them, and all that. And some of them are willing to extend that same half hearted welcome my way. It’s hard, is what I want to say.
I’ve been working for unity in the Presbyterian Church for years. Back when we were still fighting over ordination equality, as our Methodist brothers and sisters are doing this week at their General Conference, I stayed in our church despite my disagreements with our polity. Now that things have changed, I’ve been seeking to hold space for evangelical Presbyterians who feel they need to leave. I want them to know they can stay, that there is room for them. I don’t want them to agree with me. But I sure as heck don’t want to have to agree with them either. We’re one, but we’re not the same, as theologian Bono says.
It doesn’t feel like there is unity in the Spirit these days.
I trust it goes without saying that what is true in denominational politics is 4,000 million percent more true in actual politics.
Come, Holy Spirit, we pray. Your people are tired of division and dissension, even as we know it is of our own making. Come, Holy Spirit. We need your power and guidance.
In Acts, chapter 1, Jesus, before his ascension, tells people ”But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”.
Paul talks about the power of the Holy Spirit too, but in the NRSV, the word is translated as “activates”.
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”
It is the same God who turns on the power, who activates, who energizer bunnies, spiritual gifts in each of us, in all of us.
I don’t talk often about spiritual gifts. I think I have told you I’ve had bad experiences in the past when other Christians, people I love and am even related to, have tried to use spiritual gifts as a litmus test. Before I went to seminary, a few of them cornered me at a gathering and asked me about my spiritual gift.
“Have you received the HOLY SPIRIT?”, they asked me.
“I couldn’t tell you a date.”
Clearly, that was the wrong answer. I could tell they saw a crack in my supposed call to be a lady preacher.
“Well then, what Gift did you receive?”
I confess to you that at this point in the conversation, I was not having many charitable thoughts. We can all tell when someone is trying to discount your experience and invalidate you.
My first thought, of course, was “SARCASM”, but I knew that wasn’t the right answer to give, even if it were true.
I’m not sure my actual answer was better.
I told them, “Preaching”.
Which was a lot of chutzpah from someone who had only preached a handful of times. It didn’t feel like a lie, exactly. But I confess I said it because I knew it would tick them off. It’s a gift they don’t believe lady ministers should have.
So, I’ve experienced Christians using gifts of the Holy Spirit as spiritual weapons,
And I’ve not experienced the gift of the Holy Spirit as a one time event. I recognize other people have a different experience, but in my life, it has not been a case of one day I had no gift and the next day, shazam!, I had a gift.
It has been my experience, however, that my gifts are God given, not Marci created.
In the nature vs nurture sense of spiritual gifts, I lean toward the nature. Yes, there is nurture involved in helping us discover of our gifts. But if we think of the things that make us who we are, we recognize how deeply encoded into our selves they are.
I confess I’ve had a conflicted relationship with my own gifts. I’m strong, when women are told that’s a bad thing. I’m a leader, when women are often told that makes them a cough-bitch-ahem. I cannot help but stand up for people facing injustice. It has taken me most of my life to live into the gifts I’ve been given.
In researching my birth family, I’ve discovered that on my birth mother’s maternal line, I’m related to John Ogden, one of the first European settlers of New Jersey colony in the 1600’s. He literally built the first Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth Town. He’s described in ridiculously superlative ways in a biography:
‘And now, ‘good old John Ogden’ whose wanderings for forty years had justly entitled him to rank with the “Pilgrim Fathers’—the acknowledged pioneer of the town, in whose house the first white child of the settlement was born, the accepted leader of the people, a pillar in the church and in the State, honored and trusted by all….lies down and dies, leaving the impress of his political and religious principles, not only upon his children, but upon the community that he has so largely aided in founding….”
I was a history major in college, so I’m a little skeptical about such praise in a biography. It was the next part, though, where I recognized that my particular gifts come from somewhere deep inside my DNA. Listen to this description of my 10th great grandfather:
“He was called a ‘malcontent’, and ‘regarded as the leading malcontent of Elizabeth Town’… but ‘he is not to be ranked with restless agitators because of his persistent opposition to an arbitrary government…”
Now, some of you might not like such a description in your family tree, but any of you who know me at all can perhaps understand how that description sang to my very soul.
We all have gifts. Some of us are born to be malcontents with persistent opposition to an arbitrary government, even.
The question isn’t whether you have gifts. You do. The question is—-do we allow God to activate them in us?
I’m not talking about some Spidey-sense, Super Hero thing, where our gifts turn into super powers like x-ray vision or being able to eat carbs and be skinny.
Although that would be fun.
We all have gifts. And when the Holy Spirit moves among us, those gifts are amplified, activated, powered up, the dial turned to 11, and they become MORE.
We aren’t gifted so we can let other people know how great we are and how sad is it for them that they don’t have our particular gift. We are gifted because God needs us to get busy.
Do we allow God to use our gifts to make a better world?
“….it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Our gifts are activated by God for the common good. When we come together, activated by the Holy Spirit, who we are individually is amplified into something greater together.
As Paul says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
Which gets me back to my first observation, that no matter how different our gifts are, there is still only one Spirit who gives them and one God who energizes them in us.
We can’t keep living as if we aren’t connected, one to the other. Our giftedness is unplugged, not connected to our power source, when we pretend it is for us, that we are the only ones who need/deserve/want our gifts. Our gifts are unplugged and remain unused when we think our gifts don’t matter.
Yes, personal responsibility still matters. The community can’t do everything for people. We can talk about people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, as long as we make sure everyone starts out with boots.
We are all made to drink of one Spirit.
We are about to gather at a Table. This is a Table that doesn’t allow for walls that divide, or ideologies that separate. When we come to the Table, we remember we drink of one Spirit, and are called by the same Lord, and our many gifts are given for the common good by the one God.
As we prepare to set aside what divides us, here’s a Pentecost blessing by poet Jan Richardson.
Here’s one thing
you must understand
about this blessing:
it is not
for you alone.
It is stubborn
do not even try
to lay hold of it
if you are by yourself,
thinking you can carry it
on your own.
To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone
does not look like you
or think like you,
a place where they do not
believe precisely as you believe,
where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes
of your own.
Bring your sorrow. Bring your grief.
Bring your fear. Bring your weariness,
your pain, your disgust at how broken
the world is, how fractured,
by its fighting, its wars,
its hungers, its penchant for power,
its ceaseless repetition
of the history it refuses
to rise above.
I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.
But in the place
where you have gathered,
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.
See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom
or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones
in your heart
that tells you
this is the reason
we were made,
for this ache
that finally opens us,
for this struggle, this grace
that scorches us
toward one another
the blazing day.