Read and Hear Martha’s Sermon from May 27, 2012
(To print out this sermon, click here for a .pdf file.)
Click here for a podcast of the sermon.
St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church
Day of Pentecost, Year B
May 27, 2012
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Ps. 104:25-35, 37; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
You may have heard or sung this at one point in your life —
The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone…
But did you know that the song actually begins like this
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Don’t you hear the word of the Lord?
Toe bone connected to the foot bone,
Don’t you hear the word of the Lord?
It’s not a nursery rhyme, or an anatomy lesson, but a spiritual with its roots in American slavery. In the story from the prophet Ezekiel of the dry bones brought to life by the breath of God, the slaves saw the promise of their own emancipation, when they would be liberated by the breath of God and brought into new life.
Ezekiel’s story is a story of the freeing of the Israelites from bondage. “O my people, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” The restoration recalls original creation, a cycle that promises rebirth and renewal, and comes from God’s breath. And it is a promise not to an individual, but to an entire community. God wants this community to know that only God gives life and has the power to restore the community to fullness. God wants Israel to know that feeling powerless and hopeless is a form of death that sucks the life out of them. God breathes life into them, and they live.
And then we’re with the disciples, just after Jesus has left them and ascended into heaven. They are together in one place, and the spirit of God descends on them in wind and fire. No calm breeze either, but a rush of violent wind that filled the whole house. First the spirit descends on the disciples. And then on the larger crowd. Some are amazed and moved, some think they’re drunk. Transcendent experiences are almost always that way when they are witnessed. Some simply can’t accept an experience that doesn’t comport with their idea of reality.
This spirit of God. Some people see it and some don’t. It’s a mystery, defying logic or rational explanation or proof. And things that are beyond material, tactile experience will always be denied by some who simply cannot apprehend.
The spirit of God. In Hebrew the words are Ruah elohim. “Ruah” can mean spirit, or breath, or wind. It blew over the face of the waters as part of the creation process in the first chapter of Genesis. It blows into the dry bones of the Israelites and brings them to life. It descends on the disciples and they start speaking in tongues and praising God. It speaks to Peter and to Cornelius, and Peter gets his idea of the church blown open, and the gospel is extended to the gentiles. The spirit/breath/wind directs Philip to go and speak to the Eunuch, and the gospel reaches out to the outcast, the unclean, those who might understand themselves as excluded. John 3:8 reads “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
This tells us something important about the nature of this spirit/breath/wind from God. It can’t be contained. It is always going over, under, around and through boundaries that we would construct. It is always surprising us. It is unpredictable, often disruptive.
Who and what is the Spirit, this third person of the Trinity? We have a lot of arguments about who God is and is not. Humans try to contain God through creeds and doctrines and ideas of orthodoxy and “right belief.” We do the same thing to Jesus. And then there are the images. There is God as a grey bearded figure reaching to touch the finger of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There is the portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ, and the thousands of fair haired, blue eyed Jesuses that adorn the walls of churches everywhere. But when you think of the Holy Spirit, does an image appear? And if so, what is it? Could you conger up a picture? All the pictures are symbolic representations – dove, fire, wind. But the Holy Spirit can’t be pinned down by image or doctrine or language. It simply can’t be contained, by anything. It blows where it pleases. The Holy Spirit is not thought about. It is experienced. It is felt. It is known by its fruits, which are always in the direction of reaching out.
So what is the Holy Spirit doing in our lives today? Article on the Bangor Daily News last week about how Maine is the most “unchurched” state in the United States. “Maine has fewer residents who claim a religious affiliation than any other state in the union” the paper declared. Less than 30%. If you’re looking at mainline Protestant the percentage is just over seven. This is not news, but it was startling nonetheless. What are we to do with that? What does it mean? What does God want us to do with it, if, indeed, anything?
My thought is that we get tangled up in the wrong questions. We (I’m using the royal “we” here) we often ask questions like “how can we bring more people to church? Or, back to church? We can sink into the “why” questions. What are we doing wrong? Where did we go wrong? Are we too old? Too boring? Too staid? Not friendly enough? Do we need new programs? New music? Cheerful and engaging fund raisers? Better advertising?
I do think there is something to these questions, but I don’t think they get to essentials. And I have to say there is something in this that reminds me of when I was in grade school and I had a friend who went to the Church of the Latter Day Saints. She kept pressing me to come to church school with her, promising that “we have ice cream every day!” My mother said no. They lure you in with things like that,” she said, “and then try and press you into their way of thinking.” Another girl went though. And then reported back the following day. “No ice cream.”
But we don’t want ice cream. We want an experience of God. We want to know God in our lives. People may not be in church, but a great many of them would describe themselves as spiritual. Barbara Brown Taylor begins her book “Altars in the World” with “if I had a nickel for every person who told me they were ‘spiritual but not religious” I’d be rich.” There is plenty of room to critique this amorphous spirituality, the tendency to cobble together a set of things one has already decided upon without challenge or discipline, and without a community to wrestle with and alongside. But there is something important going on here, nevertheless. Something important that I think we are being called to engage.
People do have a sense of transcendence, a sense that there is more than their perceived reality. It is my own belief that every one of us is born with a God-shaped hole, a yearning for God. But many people feel this but can’t name it. So they try to fill it with a lot of things that pretend to fill that hole but can’t. The hunger persists. There are times when I become acutely aware of this. Two weeks ago I spoke on a panel in Portland about EPA’s new proposed rules on green house gas emissions from power plants. I was one of about 25 speakers, we each had about 3 minutes. There was a physician and a scientist and an engineer and a college president and a hotel owner, a high school student and a former attorney general. They all had important points. But there was different energy in the room when I talked about global climate change as a faith concern. I was speaking a different language. And they were listening.
The various forms of organized religion may be going through whatever they are going through, but the Spirit of God is very much alive and at work. Not just here on Sunday mornings, but out there too.
So the questions are: where is the Holy Spirit at work in our lives? And how can we make that spirit manifest to others? I suspect if I were to ask each of you; where is the Holy Spirit at work in your life? you’d have plenty to say. Seeing people’s minds and curiosity engaged at Senior College. Being present with the healing and the dying in the hospital. Working with men at the reentry center rebuild their lives. Asking after someone’s kids at the food pantry. Feeling the breath of God at your back out on the ocean in a sailboat. All of these are opportunities to make the spirit known. Not to press a point of view or a theology, not our thoughts about God. But to convey and share an experience. This is a way we make the spirit known.
The Holy Spirit leads the church, not the other way around. One thing we know about the Holy Spirit is that it cannot and will not be contained. Not to a people or a place or a time of the week. Not to a doctrine or a way of thinking. Not to a mode of operating or a creedal statement or a form of worship.
I love church. I love this church. I love being here, and I want other people to love being here too. I found God in the Episcopal Church in a much deeper way than I had before. I want people to find God here. But the church isn’t the end game. It’s not a destination, but a connector. The question always is how can we connect each other to God? Our job is to have our eyes and ears open for the work of the spirit in ordinary life, and to name it. Amen.