Called Out of Our Smallness: A Sermon on Pentecost
This sermon is available in audio format.Download Audio Sermon: Barbara Mraz - Jun 09, 2019
Gracious God, help us to feel the sweet, sweet Spirit in this place and to seek it in our world. Amen.
I was beyond embarrassed,
It was my first year of high school teaching and one morning as I was about to enter my classroom before school started, one of my trendy, three-inch red heels slipped and I almost fell.
But as I righted myself, the “fall,” the hairpiece I was wearing to make my big hair even bigger (Don’t judge; it was the late 70’s) flew off and catapulting like a flying squirrel, landed at the feet of some students standing nearby. They gazed open-mouthed at the pile of hair in front of them, but before they could speak, I snatched it away and drawing myself up to my full 5 feet ten inches (more with the heels and the hair – oh wait) walked into the classroom with all the dignity I could muster. I was mortified.
Today I am embarrassed for different reasons: embarrassed not to have accumulated more financial resources at this point in my life; embarrassed to have so many resources when I look at the standard of living in much of the world; embarrassed to sometimes walk like I’m drunk as a result of chemotherapy-induced neuropathy in my feet; sometimes embarrassed to be older in a youth-obsessed culture.
Beneath embarrassment is fear, and fear is in the air today in the lesson from John. The disciples are afraid; more persecution looms, and Jesus is leaving. But he promises to send a spirit, a messenger who will teach them, comfort them, and empower them, and on Pentecost (which means 50 days after Easter) when the disciples are celebrating a Jewish harvest festival, that Spirit arrives as a strong wind, making it possible for everyone to understand each other. This is called the Birthday of the Church as the final person of the Trinity take her place with God the Creator and God in the person of Jesus; she is called the Holy Spirit (the Greek word is feminine).
I wonder if the Spirit is speaking to us today when we feel embarrassed to be living in a country where our president mocks the handicapped and calls people names – even a leader of the country in which he is a guest – calling the mayor of London “a stone-cold loser”…. And “Crooked Hillary” ….. “ Lightweight Joe.”
Is the Spirit speaking to us when we are afraid and embarrassed to be a Christian? In the Atlantic Monthly, Michael Gerson, himself a conservative and formerly chief speechwriter for George HW Bush wrote: “Many Evangelical leaders have associated the Christian faith with racism and misogyny, with corruption and routine deception, with moral confusion about the surpassing evil of white supremacy and neo—Nazism, with intolerance, guns, and hostility to science.” So much of the public face of the faith has been largely hijacked by extremists and I am embarrassed I might be taken for one of them.
I am afraid for myself and for the future of my country. I am scared and deeply sad that so much of my faith no longer wears the face of reason, moderation and Scriptural authenticity. I’m scared that I’m scared. As were the disciples that day of Pentecost, and it was the political realities of the day that were scaring them as much as anything.
There is so much going on in the service today that I’ve decided to focus on two basic questions: How do we recognize this Spirit and how can we trust it?
The Holy Spirit is an activist; a translator, the way God speaks to us in the present. She brings God to us in physical ways: in words, in music, art, nature, behavior, or internally as intuition, feelings, conscience. It’s not that God’s spirit was never present before Pentecost, or in faiths other than Christianity, but it takes a particular form this Sunday.
The Spirit reminds us how connected we are. Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Our gorgeous blue-green planet is wrapped in a protective veil we call the atmosphere, which separates the air we breathe from the cold vacuum of outer space. Beneath this veil is all the air that ever was. No cosmic planet-cleaning company comes along every hundred years or so to suck out all the old air and pump in some new. The same ancient air just keeps recirculating, which means that every time any of us breathes, we breathe star dust left over from the creation of the earth. We breathe dinosaur breath. We breathe air that has circulated through the rain forests of Kenya and air that has turned yellow with sulfur over Mexico City. We breathe the same air that Plato breathed, and Mozart and Michelangelo, not to mention Hitler… Every time we breathe, we take in what was once some baby’s first breath, or some dying person’s last. We take it in, we use it to live, and when we breathe out it carries some of us with it into the next person, or tree, or blue-tailed skunk, who uses it to live.”
We also experience this connectivity here, in community, as we come and share the ancient stories, sing, pray, and are fed by the Sacraments and each other. Today we baptize Oliver and Lillianne, initiating them into this community, where they will be sustained by God’s spirit and by us, and we by him.
Scripture tells us clearly how to recognize the Holy Spirit. According to the book of Galatians: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The best definition I’ve heard is this from the Benedictine Joan Chititser: “I know it’s the Holy Spirit if it calls me out of my smallness.”
So how do we trust that spirit?
A week ago I went to a 50th wedding anniversary celebration for my best friend from high school. Didn’t want to but I was in the wedding. For many reasons, the whole thing just did me in, especially standing next to Pam for the renewal of vows. I couldn’t help but flash back to other times in my life when those promises were made. As I looked around I was also impressed with how much Pam and Dale had built together in 50 years.
So for the next twelve hours of so, I reverted to my default position of self-criticism, revisiting decisions made decades ago: Why hadn’t I make better choices? Why didn’t I go for it with a career beyond “just teaching”? Why had I squandered this and ignored that?
Going to the computer the next morning, as usual I went right to the daily meditation by my favorite bishop, Stephen Charleston, whose first three words were: “Don’t doubt yourself, not after coming this far. Believe in yourself, now more than ever.”
Was it coincidence these words appeared when they did? Accident? Serendipity? Holy Spirit? They were hardly just for me, since self-doubt is a staggering cultural phenomenon but they were for me. They called me out of my smallness.
However, when I voiced this coincidence to a friend I got the blank look. “Really?…..You think that? Well okaaaay then.”
You can’t make an experience into an argument, Kierkegaard said decades ago. Your experience will not necessarily make a case to someone else for a spiritual reality they will accept but the challenge is not to use your own reason to defeat it, minimize it, and ultimately reject it as foolish, especially if it calls you out of your smallness.
Last week was the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of France that began the end of World War II. Moral boundaries seemed so clear then, good and evil clearly defined, so much less dissention and ambiguity —at least for those of us who didn’t live through it.
“Saving Private Ryan” is about to be re-released this year, a movie about D-Day and its aftermath. Captain John Miller, played by the actor Tom Hanks has been shot and is near death. Miller is the platoon leader who saved Private James Ryan at the cost of three other lives in his unit. He draws James near to him and whispers, “Earn this.”
At the end of the movie, many years later, an older James Ryan goes to the massive military cemetery at Normandy, bringing his entire family with him. He finds Miller’s grave, kneels down and tearfully thanks him for what he did for him. He rises, salutes. and tearfully asks his wife, “Have I lived a good life? Have I been a good man.”
“Yes, James, you have.”
This kind of self-awareness, this kind of questioning, speaks to my spirit.
Soldiers who came home from this War almost never talked about it, including two of my uncles, and there was more than the movie romances, the Big Bands, “Casablanca,” and the words of FDR and Churchill.
For 12 years, when I was a liturgical deacon here, I sat at the prayer desk where Margaret sits now. I would plop my books down on it, be preoccupied with this or that, and paid no attention to the inscription on the the top. Eventually, the words caught my eye: “In memorium: David Hallam Armstrong, Lieutenant, US Army Air Corps, 1918-1944 – the year of the D-Day Invasion. He would have been 26.
Was he killed on Omaha Beach? Did his parents or wife or children sit in one of these pews where you sit today, wracked with grief, breathing this air, sanctifying this place with their tears?
There is a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place (some times bittersweet), that is holy, that is part of the fiber of who we were and who we are, and who we are becoming. It is part of the legacy we pass on to xxx today and to all of you who are joining us.
Some times you just have to open your eyes to see what’s right in front of you, on a prayer desk or in the newspaper or in your neighbor’s eyes. And like so many before us, sometimes you have to get up and speak out because God knows some things are right and some things are wrong, and like the Spirit called the Disciples, you may be called out of your smallness to change yourself and to help change the world.
Vance E Morgan, “When Christianity Becomes and Angry and Fearful Faith, June 3, 2019, cited on “Brain Pickings,” week of June 2.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit,” Home by Another Way, 1999.