February 3, 2019
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
1 Corinthians 12: 12-13, 29-13:13
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. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
It was my first funeral as a Student Pastor, serving with Pastor Beth in South Brunswick, New Jersey. As was her practice, we gathered that cold morning to go over the order of service in her office. Soon, it was time to put on our stoles. Pastoral Stoles are an interesting wardrobe accessory; they come from two very different traditions; the Jewish Prayer Shawl, and the Roman Stoles of Authority for Civil Servants. Beth has a closet full of pastor costumes, albs, a Franciscan Habit, prayer shawls, collars, Robes of all kinds, each for a different function, to signal different things to those we ministered to. Some were to comfort and encourage, others, to assert a higher authority alongside those who often feel silenced, in courtrooms, at protests, while speaking truth to Power. As we stared at her closet, we considered our uniform.
For those of you who are new to the Liturgical tradition of mainline protestant churches, the Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodists and Presbyterians try to use our pastoral outfits to draw attention away from us, and towards larger truths about God. So, at Funerals, Baptisms, and Easter, Reformed folks traditionally wear white. It’s supposed to harken to the burial shawl that was wrapped around Jesus, and the dazzling white garments of the angel that met the Women who came to Jesus’ tomb.
Beth gently took out her beautiful quilt fabric stole, every shade of white you can imagine, all kinds of textures and patterns on it. It’s the kind of fabric that, when you wear it, you touch as you pray. Children reach for it when you sit down among them. The texture of it grounds you when you’re at a graveside. It’s the kind of cloth a baby is fascinated with as you hold them and Baptize them, whispering in their ear that they are loved beyond their imaginations ability to dream. As Beth put this stole on over her head, we looked for something for me to wear.
The only option we found was the most boring, uninspiring white stole. She could tell I was disappointed as I put it on. It was so ordinary. That is, until we realized that this was a double-sided stole. On the back of the white, was a dazzling swirl of Red, the color and symbol of the Holy Spirit. We don’t often wear red Stoles in Worship like the one I have on today. We only wear Red for Pentecost Sunday, which only comes once a year, or when we ordain Elders, Deacons, and Pastors, install new Pastors in their Churches, or like today, when we welcome new Members.
Beth and I looked at each other and laughed. “I guess you never know when the Holy Spirit Might show up,” I said. She looked at me. “Always be ready for the Holy Spirit in the midst of the ordinary, David.”
It became a prayer for our two years of serving together. Always be ready for the Holy Spirit to move, among the everyday experiences of human life.
It was a lesson I needed to learn. You see, before showing up with Beth, I had spent nearly a decade chasing after the Holy Spirit in the extraordinary.
As a Religious Studies major, I read a lot about Religious Communities throughout the millennia who created Spirit filled communities where people tried to live in touch with Holy Mystery. Many of these communities created wild societal change, pursuing justice, fueled by mystical experiences of the divine. I read about St. Francis and his wild band of little brothers, and St. Clare and her poor Sisters, who saw the world set aflame with the Holy. I made it my goal to experience communities like these, wherever they could be found. I started asking around and discovered that there was an entire world full of progressive Christians creating spaces of radical hospitality and Spirit filled experiences that folks could be a part of. From summer camps to outdoor centers, to dispersed Monastic Communities of people who lived by a rule of life that saw everyday as an opportunity to encounter God. I became what I called a Logos Bum. It was a play on Jack Kerouac’s term, a Dharma Bum, except, being the Bible Nerd that I am, I used the Word, Logos, referencing the Greek word for “The Word”, the mystical Spirit infused term used to describe Jesus in the Gospel of John.
I realized pretty quickly that you can live a life chasing after where The Mystical Spirit can be found, and before I knew it, I was signing up to study abroad in Scotland, in search of Spirit filled places and experiences. From there, I ended up at the Greenbelt Festival, a progressive Christian gathering in the UK, and met speakers and a community of folks who followed the Holy Spirit, who they referred to as the Wild Goose, a Celtic image of a Wild, free, noisy creature. I wanted to chase Her as she winged through the world. My spiritual journeying took me to Israel and Occupied Palestine, to see the Spirit’s work among the occupation, and hear the Spirit filled non-violent resistance of our Palestinian Christian Siblings. I stayed in the West Bank, and wandered the streets of Bet Sehur, a Palestinian Christian town right next to Bethlehem, and encountered the Holy Spirit meeting folks with stories to tell, and a deep welcome of the stranger in their midst. I spent a summer in Japan working at a farm that trains rural leaders from the global south ways to farm that empower women, and provide food without the use of artificial fertilizers, spending my days farming with counter-cultural Japanese Christians, hanging out drinking plumb wine by coy ponds, and talking about spirituality. I ended up in India studying preaching, exploring Hindu Shrines and wandering marketplaces with my friends from Seminary, and after graduating, I took a tour of innovative Faith communities across the US and UK that had caught my interest.
I was in love with the Holy Spirit and spent years chasing the Wild Goose where She was active. After nearly a decade of traveling and volunteering, getting interesting jobs and being part of more than my fair share of Holy troublemaking, I felt a little, well, shallow. I had been skimming across the waters of the Mystery. Now I wanted to dive deep.
I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but the Holy Spirit is probably the Person of the Trinity that I like most to explore with folks. I think we have a lot of baggage and default ideas about God the Creator. Jesus is someone most of us have pretty strong ideas about, if we think he’s the Son of God, or a super cool dude with some great ideas about nonviolence and loving people. But the Holy Spirit, She often feels like the part of God we add on because three is an aesthetically nice number, and in our creeds and confessions, we need a person of the trinity to say all the things about we didn’t get to with God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer.
And yet, I think the Holy Spirit is where most of our understandings and experiences of God take place, even if we don’t have the language for it. The Biblical Witness is full of stories about the Spirit.
Throughout Scripture, Spirit is a key character in the dramatic love story between God and creation, the Holy one and Humanity. The Spirit of God, the Ru’ach, the Breath of God, or of life, sometimes called wisdom by the poets of the Hebrews, is present at the beginning. She hovers over the watery chaos that is the Earth at the beginning of Genesis. I like to think She’s dancing. There’s literally nothing that exists but possibility, nothing but the building blocks of all that can be, and that’s exactly where She revels.
It’s the Holy Spirit that sojourns with the Liberated Israelites as they wander the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, a whirlwind by Day, a Pillar of Fire by night. This road tripping God is deeply accessible to the people. She’s a reminder of the Liberative power that brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and She reminds an argumentative people that they are not alone.
It’s the Spirit that sets David dancing before the Arc, all modesty flung aside in his ecstasy of God’s presence among the people. And when the Temple is built by King Solomon later, when order is brought to the life of the people, when the institution of Religion is Established, the prophets show up, cultivating a deep relationship with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit takes on the form of the World of the Lord, and speaks through them, in the midst of human life. The Prophets are led, not to the temple, but outside of its gates, literally outside the bounds of holiness, to the gates of the city walls, to call attention to those that the systems of power and religion are failing and leaving out of God’s dreams. She gives them songs and poetry to remind the leaders not to forget the poor, the refugees and immigrants in their midst.
And when the people are taken into exile in Babylon by the invading army, the Spirit goes with them. The writers who create the book of Isaiah, they encounter and listen to the Spirit in a foreign land, they listen as She guides them to be a new people, who have learned hard lessons from trusting, not in God, but in political power gained through threats of violence and acts of oppression.
In Jesus’ ministry, these themes are revived in a new time. The gospels are written after the destruction of the temple, and the exile of much of the Jewish People from Jerusalem. There is a rediscovery of the traditions of the Spirit, the words of the prophets. For Jesus, and his early followers, these teachings hold a key place for a people in Diaspora who are trying to make sense of a confusing new reality.
Jesus seems to have been a student of the scriptural texts about the Spirit. Almost all of the scripture he quotes comes from the traditions tied to the Word of the Lord and the Spirit of God, especially the prophets. The writings of the early church, especially the Gospel of Luke, and the Book of Acts, is focused on the Holy Spirit. In these writings, the Holy Spirit shows up in the lives of people who are overlooked, and the powerful are brought low by The Spirit.
When I think of the Faith we live out in this place, we seem to be a Holy Spirit kind of place. The centrality of poetry, our embrace of God speaking through a wide range of music, the love of spiritual practices like Lectio and Visio Divina and centering prayer, and our welcome of folks who have encountered the Holy in surprising ways and places, are all traditions that come from robust theologies and trust of the Holy Spirit.
We can chase after the Spirit, and indeed, I think the Spirit has brought many of us here by chasing after us, showing up in disruptive ways that led us to leave the communities that raised us, to question the traditions we saw around or inherited.
The paradox though is that the Wild Holy Spirit is who leads us into community and helps us become rooted; bringing in the voices of people we haven’t heard before, and then pouring power and vision on them so that our communities are transformed, a new society, a Beloved Community is formed. To help us do this work, She gives us gifts, so we can risk going deeper together in the Holy Mystery, and tap into love, especially when the ordinary day to day concerns and fears make it hard to be loving, and gracious, and trust in God’s Abundance.
Beloved, we are entering a season as a Church where the Spirit is going to challenge us to do deep; deep into relationship with one another, deep into the struggles of those who She’s already at work in the lives of beyond our walls, by being in relationship, and already empowering leaders we can partner with.
Putting Down Roots can be hard. It is for me. I want to jump from new thing to new thing. But Beth, and the Holy Spirit, taught me that when we look for the Holy in the Ordinary, there are greater gifts, and powerful growth that can take place, by the power of Love.
In March, we will begin to learn a practice of diving deep into the everyday experiences of folks living in our wider community. I truly believe there is a new calling for us in our midst to get involved in the Holy Spirits mischief in our midst. But it’s probably going to surprise us a little bit, in its ordinariness, in the ways we can show up and encounter the Spirit through relationships, and cultivating love of Neighbor, and God, among people who are easily overlooked.
I pray that we can train our eyes to see the ordinary aflame with the Holy Spirit, to accept invitations to love, and be loved, in ways we didn’t think were possible among the day-to-day. May we say yes, and enjoy the ordinary wild ride the Goose has in store for us.
May it be so.