Homily: Pentecost, June 8, 2014
Today we lift our voices in song to celebrate the birthday of the Church,the baptism of Christ’s own with the fire of the Holy Spirit. The cycle of the seasons turns and we enter into the long, rich, green Sundays of growth in Christ, worshipping, learning, serving, planning, leading.
It is no fluke that this is the longest season of our liturgical year: 26 weeks, six months, in this year’s liturgical calendar. I think that’s the perfect metaphor for our lives, our journey of faith. We spend some time on the celebratory heights of Christmas and Easter, some time in the contemplative preparation and self-assessment of Advent and Lent, but we spend the bulk of it in the trenches of Pentecost. Here is where we experience both the ennuie and the ecstasy of our faith. Ennuie, because let’s face it: it’s boring sometimes! But also, and I hope more often, ecstasy. The Pentecost event shows us that vital faith begins in being grasped by God, the human spirit suffused in the coming of the Divine Spirit. When you follow the story as told in Acts, over and over as the good news spreads the people realize that a new reality has come into their midst; they experience new life in the Spirit.
We need to remember that just as with the resurrection, Pentecost is not merely some historical event stuck way back there in the past and happening to a bunch of people long since dead. It involves us, too; it is still a living, life-changing phenomenon. Pentecost power means that a Divine, new-creating reality indwells the community, this community, just as the Spirit dwelled in Jesus and in the early church.
Which leads me to a question. Usually Pentecost is an opportunity to offer special prayers that the Holy Spirit will fall afresh on us. But do you think we really mean it? I'm not always so sure.
When you get home, read the passages appointed for this day again. Notice that while each of them talks about the Holy Spirit in a distinct way, they are all in harmony on one point: when the Holy Spirit comes, things change. In each case, the Spirit's presence is as at least as disruptive as it is comforting. Why? Because resurrection isn't more of the same, it's life from death. So I'll ask again: Is this really what we want? I mean, while I've never heard anyone actually pray, "Come Holy Spirit that we might remain exactly as we are," that's often how we act. Most of the time we resist meaningful change in favor of "the way things have always been done." The thing is, there is no "the way things have always been done," only "the way we've done them in recent memory" – which of course really means "the way I've gotten used to them being done." I appreciate this focus on tradition – it's not just a matter of comfort or personal taste, it's also a matter of confidence. Lots of the things we do – our church practices, if you will – we do, quite frankly, because they've worked. And so we trust them. But my hunch – actually, it's stronger than that – my conviction is that if we only do things "the way I've gotten used to them being done," then we are ignoring the promptings of the Spirit, which always lead us to innovating, and wondering, and exploring, and experimenting and in all these ways trying to figure out together what works in this day and age... for the circumstances of now…and for the future. As we sang in our closing hymn last week, “The church of Christ in every age, beset by change but Spirit-led, must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead.” Which means, I think, that we should always pray for a heavy dose of Holy Spirit to grant us both the creativity and the courage to enter into this spirit of invention and experimentation. And, believe me, it takes both. We need creativity to help us think outside the box and courage to not give in either to our insecurities or to the insistence of others that we can't change because "we've always done it this way." Here are four thoughts about living into this vision of Spirit-led change: 1) Creativity, I'm learning from a variety of sources, is highly combinatorial – that is, it's not nearly as much about having original ideas (is there really any such thing?) but rather paying attention to what others are doing and being surprised and inspired and applying that creatively to your own context. 2) While we're on the topic of creativity: I saw a documentary on the late Steve Jobs not too long ago in which he said that the most significant moment in his life was when he realized that "reality" wasn't a given but rather was constructed by a previous generation of folks who weren't, in the end, any smarter than he was. Once he realized that, he was willing to poke the "is" to see "what might be." What would it be like for us to recognize the same about many of our church practices? What might we dream up to help us share the gospel with others?
3) Keep in mind that you don't have to come up with all the innovation yourself. Lots of folks are innovating in their personal lives and businesses and have a lot to offer us if we invite them. 4) When folks resist changes in favor of the tradition, I find two things immensely helpful: a) honor the tradition in question as something that has been meaningful not only for your dialogue partner but most likely for you – many of these practices nurtured us in the faith and deserve our respect; b) then ask if they are still working for the children (and perhaps grandchildren) of your dialogue partner.
As the revered theologian Jaroslav Pelikan has sagely written, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.” I find that many conversations turn markedly when we shift from the "what" (the proposed change) to the "why" (reaching out to those we love and to the world and wish to reach with the Good News). If pressed to choose between the "church of our parents" and a "church for our children," most of us will choose our children...hands down. This change stuff is hard. It makes us nervous. But we are called to be a people of faith and hope and trust in God. The Holy Spirit we celebrate on Pentecost has a way of not only shaking things up but also granting us the courage and confidence to see things through. And we never go through them alone. God is always with us and we walk together, filled with, led by, the power of the Spirit, as Jesus promised. In a moment, after we have renewed our baptismal covenant, I will sprinkle you with holy water, a reminder of that event in which you were sealed by the Holy Spirit and turned toward the light, toward new life in Jesus Christ.
Here is my prayer for us in this season of Sundays after Pentecost: May we breathe deeply of the fire, drink deeply of the water of life; may we be open to the renewing wind of the Spirit as it stirs up our hearts, and boldly claim the promises we now renew as our own. May we show forth our faith with truly thankful hearts, praying not only with our lips, but in our lives: "Come, Holy Spirit!"