theolog cabin

Hosted by semfem, this is a warm, cozy place to curl up and ponder theological matters.

Monday, March 13, 2006

May 30, 2004 (Pentecost Day C)

[preached at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Everett, WA]
Acts 2:1-21 (primary text)
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b NRSV
Romans 8:14-17
John 14:8-17

I still can't believe they let me preach on a major festival! Click the time link below for more.

At seminary, you get lots of practice in trusting the Holy Spirit, whether you want to or not. Just the decision to go at first means that you have to trust that God really does want you to leave your life, your job, your family, your home behind. Going to seminary is not just like getting any other degree. It’s about trusting the Spirit to transform you into someone that can lead God’s people. My most difficult challenge at seminary was to realize that no matter how late I stay up studying, how many papers I write, how much I try to do the right thing, all my efforts by themselves are not enough to make me into the right leader.

As I and my fellow students were placed in internship sites this spring, the guidance of the Holy Spirit became even more necessary. After all, students choose which seminary to attend, which classes to take, and how they will conduct their academic lives. Not all of us were lucky enough to choose where to go on internship. It was daunting to think that filling out and reading applications would be enough to choose the right site. Some people felt the need to circumvent the system entirely and arrange their own internship. A friend of mine recently visited her internship site and the town where she would be living for the next year, and instead of being excited, she was disappointed. This is when it’s hard to trust that the Spirit really is at work.

Trusting the Holy Spirit can be even more difficult when you graduate from seminary. The ELCA has this large assignment process, and it isn’t always clear why people are sent to certain places. Students requested specific regions and then found out that they were assigned somewhere completely different, somewhere they specifically did NOT want to go. This is when it’s really, really hard to trust that the Spirit is at work--when life seems to be sending you somewhere completely opposite to where you want to go. This isn’t limited to pastors, however. Maybe you’ve experienced this in your own life. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out if the Spirit is sending you somewhere or calling you to something, or if something else is at work--someone or something higher up in the system, your boss, your manager, the economy, the government, your family, your own shortcomings. Sometimes we try to separate the Spirit from the ordinary people that influence our lives, so that when we get conflicting messages about where to go and what to do, we can sort out which are from God and which are not.

This might lead us to ask a basic question: So, just who is the Spirit anyway? In our gospel lesson today, Jesus has a few things to say about that. He uses the Greek word “parakletos”, which has a lot of different translations. Comforter. Helper. Counselor. Advocate. Exhorter. We cannot understand who the Spirit is without understanding what the Spirit does. This is not a Spirit that drains us dry or demands what we cannot give. This is not a Spirit that lets us remain in the safety and comfort we have created for ourselves. This is a Spirit that will be our companion, and will also work on our behalf. This is a Spirit called alongside us to help. This is a Spirit that does not just swirl aimlessly around us, but abides with us and in us.

This is a Spirit that gives us words to speak, words that turn the world upside down. It calls us to do the impossible and gives us the strength from God to do it. In the story of Pentecost, Peter quotes the prophet Joel, proclaiming that God will pour the Spirit upon all flesh. Those considered least qualified in the community--the children, the teenagers, the elderly, those who are not free--will be those who speak the word of God to the people. The separations of language and culture will be overcome by the Spirit working through not only the words, but also the ears of each person.

I love hearing the long list of nations and languages. It reminds me a little bit of the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremonies for the Olympics. Nations you didn’t even know existed, and nations who will probably never receive a medal, for one brief moment, they are all equal and united together as fellow members of humanity, even if they can’t understand each other.

Some of you probably know that I spent two weeks in Mexico City this winter as part of a required cross-cultural experience. The group of seminary students from across the ELCA learned some important things about language. My hypothesis is that language is built in layers in our brains. The first layer is the one that determines most how you interact with others. For most of us, that first layer was English, and for some like me, it was a very thick layer. The layers of language below this first layer are the different languages you have learned in your life. Usually in order to get to the next layer down, you have to go through the layers in sequence. For example, my second layer was Japanese, the language I learned in high school. For the first few days, I would find myself wanting to speak Japanese in Mexico. It took nearly the full two weeks before I had a Spanish layer operating above the Japanese layer.

While I still was nowhere near being fluent in Spanish, by the end of the trip, even those who were at the same level as me were able to understand a great deal of Spanish without translation. We attended a church service that was completely in Spanish and were all able to pay attention and follow basically what was going on. We visited people in their homes--people who could not afford to purchase the land they lived on or build sturdy homes that weren’t made of scrap metal--and although we always had a translator close at hand, the real communication came through their faces, the looks on their faces as they talked about their family or their garden, when they talked about the policies of intimidation that kept them chained to lives on the margins for decades, when they talked about the violence in their struggle for survival. These places that would normally seem God-forsaken to us suddenly had beauty and dignity, revealed through a language deeper than the spoken word.

This is a Spirit that cannot be shown to us as a single entity. Just as Jesus explains to Philip that God the Father cannot be seen apart from what has already been shown in Christ, the Spirit is seen and known only because it abides with us and with the entire people of God. The Spirit teaches us and reminds us of Jesus’ message of radical love because it dwells within us, around us, and beside us.

Pentecost, our festival of the Holy Spirit, is for the Jewish people a remembrance of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses. They remember how God gave the law as a guide and an advocate to Israel, and established a relationship between God and the people. For us as Christians, at Pentecost the Holy Spirit writes a new law on our hearts and makes our bodies into living temples of God. The grace of God that dwells with humanity consecrates our lives and makes them holy, transforms our everyday interactions into places where the Spirit can shine forth.

Luther wrote in his Small Catechism that the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us and our efforts to live as God intended. On our own we cannot begin to succeed, but with the Holy Spirit abiding within us as a community, we can hope that God will work through us to be the presence of Christ in the world today. This is a world that Jesus says cannot receive the Spirit, because it neither sees nor knows it. Our calling as a community of faith is to recognize it dwelling within us, and to follow its guidance even when it turns the world upside down.

When you think about the vast diversity among the human race, sometimes it’s pretty mind-boggling that we are called and gathered by the Spirit to be one. Think of your worst enemy. Think of people who have done something terrible, something unforgiveable. Think of people you would rather not even touch. Think of people you fear, or people you are disgusted by. Think of people you can’t even begin to understand. Think of people you have a hard time respecting. Think of people who can’t seem to listen to you. Now think about this: the world we live in seeks to separate us from each other. The world is unable to see or know the Spirit’s work to make speaking and listening really possible between people. This is the radical love Jesus talked about, love that turns the world upside down. This is what the Spirit of truth is about.

I think we would be missing something if we thought that the church as a whole is always about the work of the Spirit. Let’s be honest. Sometimes it isn’t. Even though the Spirit abides in us and with us, we are still part of the world that is beloved by God, yet remains blind. We still struggle to see where the Spirit is leading us and receive its guidance. It’s difficult to remain in fellowship when our convictions and opinions seem opposed. It isn’t always pleasant to be taught or reminded that we are called to walk in the ways of peace.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Jesus’ words of farewell here are both comforting and disturbing at the same time. If the peace of God is not the peace of the world, we ask uneasily, then how can we attain it? That’s exactly the point. We can’t. Peace according to God is not the absence of conflict, or the relieved feeling of security. God’s peace is not about cease-fires or treaties or alliances. If we live in peace, but others do not, then it is not the peace of God. We genuinely want the world to have peace. Our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers have given their lives for peace. But the peace of God requires something more.

While we were in Mexico, we watched a movie entitled “Romero,” about the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Perhaps some of you have seen the movie as well. If you haven’t, I strongly recommend it. Archbishop Romero was assassinated during the civil war in El Salvador because the Spirit led him to seek the peace of God for all of his people, not just for the wealthy or the privileged. He had this to say about peace:

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.

The world gives peace that can be erased in the push of a button. But the peace of God, which is the fruit of the Spirit, abides with us. My time worshipping with Anglicans at my first theological school taught me a wonderful doxology that I still repeat to myself every now and then: “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” That power is the Spirit, working to gather us and lead us in ways that do not depend on our own motivation, ways that defy the ways of the world.

When we share the peace in worship services, we are sharing a sign of the peace of God that is breaking into the world as we know it. We share a sign of the peace that brings us together in opposition to the forces that work to keep us apart. We share a sign of the peace that we are called to extend to all. We share a sign of the peace that would be impossible without the Spirit working within us and through us. We share a sign of peace that goes beyond safety and security, and a sign of the Spirit that sometimes guides us into uncomfortable or dangerous places. And when we do so, we remember the words of Jesus: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Simple words for complicated problems. Perhaps they are just simple enough.

Because we are not sharing in Communion this Sunday, passing the peace is not part of this worship service. But it seems fitting to do so on this festival of the Holy Spirit. And so I invite you right now to rise and share the peace of God with each other.
The peace of God be always with you.
Let us share that peace with one another.