The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Pentecost Sunday
4 June 2017
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Today’s image of the Holy Spirit is not what we have come to expect as a church that has sought for centuries to tame the Holy Spirit. In art, and iconography, we paint the Spirit most often as the innocuous dove that alighted on Christ at his baptism, we sing hymns of the Spirit as sweet, precious, and comforting. We like to think of the Holy Spirit in terms of something we can control, something we can cage, something that keeps it at arms length from us. Today… that bird has flown.
Today, we heard the spirit described as a violent wind, and as fire. It brought language out of Galileans that was heard by residents of myriads of nations as if it were spoken in their own native tongue, and it brought thousands of hearts into the knowledge and love of their creator in an instant. Our Gospel tells us that Christ breathed on the disciples – the living receiving the very breath of life itself – intensifying life, doubly blessing the disciples and coupling this awesome reality that had just been infused into their being with a similarly awesome responsibility – as the father sent me, so I send you… if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any they are retained. Paul, himself a powerful testament of the life changing nature of encountering the Spirit on the road to Damascus where his world, his life, and his whole identity was turned upside down, tells us of the myriad different and equally life changing talents sparked in recipients of the Spirit. Is it any wonder that we seek to tame this profoundly and radically transforming force?
This is not a controllable phenomenon. This is a spirit that wreaks havoc on our complacent lives, shakes us up, turns us around, and recreates us in a new image in the same breath that it sends us out in a new calling to do God’s work in the world in new and frequently frightening ways.
Today, the Holy Spirit is not God at arms distance – sweet, controllable, complacent and innocent as a dove, but God in our faces – meddlesome, frighteningly involved, and constantly pulling us toward new life and away from what we have always known as comfortable. This is God as bringer of New Life, of frightening and life-altering change.
Our first reading tells us “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” And without skipping a beat, Jesus’ slow to understand, quick to despair, and constantly misunderstanding disciples suddenly, profoundly, and inexplicably find themselves in front of a crowd of thousands, speaking to each represented people in their own native tongues, and sharing their encounters with the awesome power of God.
Peter, who after his first encounter with Jesus fell at his knees and said “go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man,” who first proclaimed Jesus to be the messiah only to be told, “get behind me Satan” when in the next breath he demanded that Jesus be the messiah the disciples expected him to be, who was first to draw blood in the garden of Gethsemane only to deny Christ three times in the succeeding hours before dawn, and who had returned to his life as a fisherman in the wake of Christ’s crucifixion—Peter not only finally got it, but becoming the Rock Christ foretold him to be, he takes the lead in addressing the crowds, and never falters in continuing on in the ministry Christ began with him and the other disciples.
In our second lesson, Paul recounts some of the many abilities imparted by the spirit. It becomes easy to read through these almost by memory, glossing over the profoundly unsettling consequences and awesome responsibilities tied to each of what we have come to lump together under the heading of the “Gifts of the Spirit.” Equally life changing is Paul’s reminder that when we truly understand our work of continuing Christ’s ministry in the world, there truly are no longer any boundaries between any of God’s children – slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek… or perhaps in our world today: wealthy or homeless, gay or straight, Christian or Muslim.
Paul himself is another profound example of the unsettling work of the Spirit. As Saul, he was a zealot so dedicated to his cause that he was hunting down Christians to ensure their deaths, only to become, after his run-in with the Spirit on the road to Damascus, the most influential Christian apostle to the Gentiles and the biggest contributor to our knowledge of the early Christian church.
In the gospel version of the Pentecost story, the risen Christ appears for the first time to his frightened disciples, huddled behind locked doors for fear of the religious authorities who just three days before had crucified their leader, friend, and messiah. After greeting them, he passes the entire enormity of his task on to them – “As the father sent me, so I send you.” – then breathes into his living disciples that divine Breath of Life that is the Holy Spirit – vivifying his already living disciples to a more intensely alive state of understanding and purpose. As Christ was sent – to bring about God’s kingdom by living and serving as an example of the inexhaustible, reckless, and fearless love and forgiveness of God – so too were the disciples sent, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, to continue Christ’s work of sharing God’s abundance with a world that so desperately needs it. Frighteningly, we too are called, sent, and blessed with that exact same task, and with that same wily Spirit calling us, too, ever deeper into God’s love and service.
This is the Spirit that we celebrate this day – the Spirit that brings us new life so abundantly that we cannot help but to glorify God through our response – no matter how scary it might be!
Forty-one years ago there was a little boy who was stricken with a deadly staff infection in his cheek. He had contracted the infection through a careless mishap at his grandmother’s house when he tripped over his cousin’s foot and fell into the corner of the family’s television set.
While there was no apparent break in the skin, thee days later the boy had a 105 degree fever, and his cheek had swollen so that his eye was swelled shut. His parents took him to the hospital, but they refused to treat him, thinking the child was the victim of child abuse. While the family stood helplessly in the waiting room, the child woke from a troubled sleep, looked up into his mothers eyes, and said “I’m going away,” and slipped into unconsciousness.
Thirty-three years ago there was a little girl who drowned while her terrified sister stood panic- stricken on the shore—unable to even scream for help. The girl had been feeding the ducks by the lake as her parents conversed further up the shore in her aunt’s parents’ back yard, when she leaned too far out to try to get a piece of bread to a duckling that wasn’t being fed and fell into the lake. As she struggled to the surface and sank back into the green water for the third time, she lost consciousness and the rest was silence.
Eighteen years ago, a young woman and her four friends flipped trunk over hood three times in a terrible car accident on Highway 580 in Oakland. As the vehicle fell off the overpass, the passengers felt a profound and inexplicable sense of peace. The vehicle landed roof down on the street—150 feet below.
Sixteen years ago, a young man was flying home from a weekend trip to Hawaii when an engine on the commercial airliner exploded over the middle of the Pacific. In the panicked cabin he found that he had that same profound and inexplicable sense of peace.
When the little boy from the first story was stabilized, he was released for a daytrip before he was scheduled for surgery to drain his cheek. The family dog scratched his face to the center of his cheek, and the wound opened up and drained, leaving only a small dimple-like scar on his face.
Moments after the drowning little girl slipped into unconsciousness, her father bolted down the hill. Fearing the worst, he pulled his lifeless daughter out of the water and, after expelling the water from her lungs, successfully resuscitated her.
When the young woman and her four friends climbed out the shattered back window of the unidentifiable remains of that fallen vehicle, unharmed except for minor cuts and bruises, every one of them was changed forever.
When the airplane with the exploded engine touched back down in Honolulu, the ground crew marveled that the plane hadn’t been torn apart by the explosion. The passengers applauded the pilot—none of them would ever be the same again.
Fifteen years ago, that first little boy, who had grown up to be that same young man who survived the exploding jet engine, fell in love with the little girl who had drowned, and who just four years before had survived that car crash as a young adult. They were married a year later just a month before the young man began seminary. Neither of them has ever been the same.
They lost eight pregnancies before their first child came home to them. Just as they were about to relocate to their third home together, their second child came home to them. Just as they were accepted into a doctoral program and were making plans for surviving as a family of four on a grad student’s budget, their third child came home to them. And just this past December 23rd, as their combined savings and checking dipped down to their last $26, they finally received a call offering a full-time job—not a tenured faculty position as we’d thought, but God pulling us back into parish ministry with me as priest-in-charge here at Calvary (a position I had written off as a possibility in my life—but apparently God had not).
The spirit moves as the spirit wills. And as the pieces continue to fall into place after the most recent change that has turned my family’s world upside down after we finally reexamined God’s call to me as a parish priest, we’ve followed the spirit’s call to Santa Cruz to start the next major chapter of our lives. And we find yet again that at every new turn, we are changed forever, made new, and as frightening as it all is, we are as ever finding ourselves glorifying God again and again.
I don’t know a Holy Spirit that flies on silent wings and coos God’s sweet, precious, comforting words in my ear. I know a Holy Spirit that calls me back from death, turns my life on its head again and again, remakes me at least once per decade, and has taken me on the ride of my life!
This is the Spirit we celebrate this day. The violent wind, tongues of fire, breath of the risen Christ that turns our world upside down—uncontrollable, frighteningly involved, meddlesome, and constantly pulling us toward new life and away from what we have always known as comfortable, all so that we can finally understand just what it is that God wants for us and from us—to allow ourselves to be loved, profoundly, fearlessly, unconditionally, and to share that love with the world. With the Pride parade currently going on outside our doors, and the celebrations that follow, we as a community have rededicated ourselves to being a place of radical welcome, of demonstrating the kind of Spirit this day is all about, and which the Pride celebration echoes as a place of radical welcome. Our flags of welcome fly in the wind this day, as a symbol of the Spirit’s call to all of humankind. Our welcoming statement echoes the call. This is a place where relationship happens. This is a place where love abounds. This is a place where lives are transformed. Come—whoever you are and just as you are. The table is prepared. Just be ready—the Spirit may draw you into the dance.
May it ever be my prayer to follow where the Spirit leads and never to become so comfortable and complacent in my faith that I become more fearful of the changes than I am excited for the journey ahead!