Holy Spirit

Who will separate us?

A sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

At the end of that statement, St. Paul drops the mic and leaves the stage. But what is he talking about? Paul is talking about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community. It’s easy to have vague and misleading ideas about the Holy Spirit, so let’s look at what the Bible has to say about it. The Gospel of John calls the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. What that Greek word means is “one called to the side of someone.”  So, as a priest, I might be called to the side of a person in the hospital or to someone who is grieving. A lawyer might be called to stand alongside of someone with legal problems; or a friend to stand along with a friend in need.  In the church, where Jesus is no longer physically present, God’s Holy Spirit stands alongside us, enabling us to love one another, incorporating our lives into God’s compassion.

Paul says, “The spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought…” It’s common to think that good prayer is somehow an output of a well-informed or disciplined mind, or that somehow if we just pray with enough fervor in the right way we can get God to do the things that are important to us.

Actually, prayer does not work like that at all. In prayer we stand, or sit, or kneel in God’s presence; our desires, our feelings, our needs are there. Our care for other people and perhaps even our words are there.  But it is the spirit of God’s love, the Holy Spirit, that joins us to God in prayer. We are joined, upheld and helped in our weakness, even when we are unaware, even when we may feel that our prayers are going nowhere—indeed, God’s presence is not based on what we feel or perceive at all—often, it is at times of dryness, desolation or even despair that we are being transformed into the compassion of God—into Christ. It is in God’s design that God’s children are formed together for the sake of the good of this world—in Jesus’ resurrection he is the firstborn of a large family.

But this good—the growth of God’s love—is not happening in a world where everything works out easily, where people can do whatever they want and it’s just fine. Paul lived in a world where truly advocating the mercy of God and the good of God’s most vulnerable could trigger the anger and even violence of a world that valued the self-interest of those who wanted to keep power and privilege. So do we. Being formed in the love of God does not protect us from the consequences of this world—of loss, or ostracism, or anger, or attacks by those filled with self-pity.  Paul was arrested more than once, for telling about Jesus. Standing courageously for the values of Christ’s compassion in this world takes a similar risk of real loss, at least if you actually mean it. The Christian life in the Spirit is not happy talk, or silver linings, or magical wishes coming true. It is living by choosing what is valuable, true and permanent over the illusory and the selfish. It is in this context that Paul says,

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies, who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

The reality of Jesus’ life and death make it clear that the truth of Christian life takes place in a world where there is suffering and death, indeed in a world where there is cruelty and injustice near at hand. The Resurrection of Christ isn’t something that takes away the reality or the permanence of death; the Resurrection is new life, in which the love of God’s Holy Spirit overcomes the fear, anger, cruelty and despair that bind people into the compromised existence of a selfish world. Paul continues:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or nakedness or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

The thing that has distinguished the Christians whose wisdom has most influenced me over the years is that they share in a complete lack of self-pity. Some are great theologians and others regular parishioners. At another church where I was serving I visited a woman in the memory unit of a nursing home. She was a lifelong devout Episcopalian and a tough businesswoman. The church remembered that thirty years ago, she told them that that congregation would never realize its building fund goals unless it dedicated ten percent to outreach to the community. Now she has no memory, except what her friends remember for her. But her character is intact, with no trace of self-pity.  I would visit her, and ask her to pray for the parish and people in the parish, and she would sometimes say something insightful and loving about one of them. The last time I saw her, I asked her to pray with me for the vestry deliberations. At the end, she said, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Called to our side

A sermon for the sixth Sunday in Easter, May 21, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”

Jesus is talking here about the sending of the Holy Spirit. The word that Jesus uses that is translated as Advocate, is parakletos—Paraclete. Greek likes to make verb constructions into nouns and in this case, what it means is “one called to the side of someone.”  So, as a priest, I might be called to the side of a person in the hospital or to someone who is grieving. A lawyer might be called to stand alongside of someone with legal problems or a friend to stand along with a friend in need. So, Jesus is talking with his disciples about his own departure, his crucifixion, and he says, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another one to stand with you.” Jesus stands with us and God calls the Holy Spirit to stand with us in our life.

But what does that mean? The Holy Spirit is understood and misunderstood in many ways by many people, Christian and otherwise. And even those who claim direct experience of the Holy Spirit—surely most of them have some experience—but how do we know it is the Holy Spirit? What does Jesus have to say in our Gospel today? It starts, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And the passage ends, “and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” The description of the Holy Spirit is about the love of God.

And it has to do with following Jesus commandments—but what are they?  If we have been reading directly through the Gospel of John, we know. In the chapter that has just ended, where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he gave them a commandment. In fact, it is his only commandment in the Gospel of John: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Period. That’s it. Easy enough. Of course, the way that Jesus loved his disciples and this world was costly indeed—that evening he was led away to be tried and executed. We are invited, commanded really, to become part of God’s love by loving God’s children, in the most costly way, by giving of ourselves.

Love is not grandstanding, it is seeking the good of someone. You don’t have to die to do that, and no one has to know what caring for another person might cost you. Love is not how we feel, it is helping another, it is being called to stand along with them. Perhaps we do feel good when we do that, but the feeling is not the love, not this kind of love.

The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, is God’s love. Simple as that: God standing with us, upholding us when we don’t know how to stand, for ourselves or for someone else. The Holy Spirit supports us and holds us together.

Jesus says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” The Love of God is the Truth—as I talked about last week.  In the face of all the un-love, hatred and violence in this world, the Truth is the Love of God. Why can’t the world know this? First we should know that in the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John, that term “World” has a specific and special meaning.  It refers to that realm that looks to itself and its own benefit—to succeed in that world makes one powerful and wealthy, and in the world’s eyes those things are all that count.  It was pretty much the values of the Roman Empire, at least of the ruling elites of that empire, but sharply distinct from the values of Christ and Christians.  The values of the world, of course, reassert themselves from time to time, and it is pretty easy to see that now is one of those times. The World has no room in its values for the love of God—it encourages love of self and protection of self, not being called to support those who are poor, or sorrowful, or passionate for justice. The World cannot receive the Holy Spirit because it cannot open itself to love—if it did, it would cease to be the World.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, it is much larger and more inclusive than the Spirit of the World, which rules by fear, and even those most successful in it are fearful, perhaps even more than those who are less successful. We can all be distracted and drawn in by the Spirit of the World from time to time. It’s possible to even try to steer the church by guides of worldly success and measurement. I’m not talking about good management here—the worldly success measures by power, money, and security—Christ measures by the commandment of love: are we living in love.

That’s the reason that the Holy Spirit can be so surprising—it’s not that the Holy Spirit is whimsical, or arbitrary. It’s not that the Holy Spirit is some sort of whoosh of feeling. The thing is, distractible as we are, pre-occupied with our own concerns as we are, we sometimes miss the love that God has for us, and for all God’s children. There are opportunities to be generous or compassionate that are suddenly pointed out—movements of the Holy Spirit—God’s love moving into the world. When we see it, and are incorporated in it, and able to act in the generosity of God’s compassion, it can be a wonderful feeling—but that feeling is not the Holy Spirit. The Love of God moving in this world is the Holy Spirit.

Take a moment to reflect over the past year. In your mind, picture how you have seen or experienced the love of God here at St. James. …  I know that I have. I have received healing and growth. I have seen good people reach out to care for others at times when it was important for someone to stand by them. I have seen the prayerful dedication of those working in the discernment process, seeking how God’s love can be manifested in the years to come in this church. It is fair to say that the movement of the Holy Spirit has been in many ways surprising to many of us. Not arbitrary, not unreasonable when you look at it, but yielding unexpected things that build God’s love in this place, as we follow Jesus’ commandment to love one another.

He says, “I will not leave you orphaned… because I live, you also will live.” All of us are called at one time or another to stand with someone, to be their comforter or their guide.  It’s been a privilege to be called to be with you this past year. All that we have shared together we carry within ourselves.  We share in Christ. So for a time we sojourn together, but the Holy Spirit remains here, and in that Holy Spirit we live in Christ’s love, each of us, wherever we are called by God.

Heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ

A sermon for Pentecost, May 15, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Today is the feast of Pentecost when the church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. One version of that is the story in our lesson from the book of Acts. The Spirit alights on the apostles like tongues of fire and they are understood by everyone in their own languages, while the apostles preach the Gospel.  But the coming of the Holy Spirit is not just about a dramatic public event of evangelism. The Holy Spirit has always been regarded by the church as the presence of God, enlivening and guiding it. But we are like Philip—we can’t see it, even when it is standing there staring us in the face: “Lord, show us the Father.” “How long have you been with me Philip, and you still cannot see me?” Jesus answered him. “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

This is the promise and the reality of Jesus to us, to all of us. But there is no cause to be complacent about that, or to pat ourselves on the back, or to think that God abiding in us makes us or our decisions better than anyone else’s. The World, pre-occupied in serving self, cannot receive the Spirit because it does not see or know him—too often the Church paradoxically becomes that World, pre-occupied with fears and schemes, rather than the courage and love of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the Spirit does guide us, in our weakness and our blindness.

St. Paul says this, just a few verses later in his letter to the Romans following our epistle lesson for today: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sights to deep for words.” The Holy Spirit is not something superficial, nor is it something emotional; rather it is the power of God among us, between us and within each of us, guiding and healing us in his love.

The passage appointed from this same chapter today starts: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” I’ve been recently reading a couple of very good books about the Roman Empire. In one by Mary Beard [called SPQR] which has little to do with religion and almost nothing about Christianity, it is clear that everyone in the Roman Empire at this time was very familiar with slavery and with adoption. The economy of the empire was based on slavery, from the lowest and harshest of menial labor in the mines to very high functionaries in the households of the wealthiest aristocrats.

Three slaves tend their Roman mistress

Three slaves tend their Roman mistress

Wealth and comfort for the owners proceeded from the work of the slaves, yet they counted as nothing, they were regarded as invisible and of little or no worth. Any slave could be beaten or even killed, without the master having to even explain. Many early Christians were slaves and a substantial number of other Christians at the same time were owners of slaves. Everyone intimately understood the fear that dominated the lives of the slaves. Jesus, described himself as a slave to all—a most extraordinarily radical thing. Equally radical was that the church asserted that they followed this man, and honored him as God.

Adoption was also common in the Roman Empire, though not nearly as many people were adopted as were slaves. Many Roman emperors were the adopted sons of the previous emperor. If a man of wealth and property did not have a son who he judged satisfactory to be his heir, he would choose someone to adopt as his son.  Today, wealth is more often handled through corporations that have complicated succession plans. In the Roman Empire being adopted was a typical succession plan—those who were adopted achieved higher status and security than they had had previously.

So St. Paul says, “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” The Holy Spirit, which the church receives on Pentecost takes us out of fear and slavery through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And not only that, every one of us is now adopted, not by a wealthy landowner, or by a Roman Emperor, but by the God who created heaven and earth. When we boldly and audaciously sing, “Our Father…” at the breaking of the bread, that Holy Spirit is bearing witness “with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” as St. Paul says. And he continues, “If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Suffering is indeed real, we can expect it, and the Holy Spirit enables us to face it squarely–without fear.

We are glorified with God as we live for others. We know the blessing of Christ’s presence through being generous and welcoming. We know God by looking Jesus in the face.

As it says in today’s psalm:

O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them

all’ the earth is full of your creatures.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in all his works.

He looks at the earth and it trembles; he touches the mountains and they smoke.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;

I will praise my God while I have my being.

May these words of mine please him;

I will rejoice in the Lord.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Hallelujah!

Can these bones live?

A sermon for Pentecost Sunday, May 24, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

Today is the Feast of Pentecost, the great feast of the Church that celebrates the coming and abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. It is among the most important days of the church year. But this has been a distracting week for me, with all the festivities of Commencement at the General Theological Seminary, and everything associated with leaving a job after twelve years and moving my household at the same time. So I haven’t been able to focus in the kind of depth that I usually do on writing a sermon.

Fortunately, a graduating student, who is also my friend, preached a marvelous sermon last Wednesday, so good that I posted it on the Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania’s Facebook page. A part of that sermon has to do with today’s reading from Ezekiel. Here’s what Hershey Mallette has to say:

God

Is Not A Microwave

But! Slow work does not mean you can say No to the work.

“God is not a microwave. What I mean is, God seldom does anything instantaneously, rapidly or straightaway! I’m sure you know this, especially after spending any amount of time at General Theological Seminary.

God didn’t make the world in an instant.

God didn’t flood the earth, or recede the flood water the day after it rained.

God didn’t make Abraham a nation in prompt fashion

God is not a microwave

God didn’t deliver the people of Israel from Pharaoh instantaneously

God didn’t deliver Moses from the wilderness directly

God didn’t make Israel, Hear O immediately—how many times did the prophets say that to the same people? And Poor, poor Job … how long did the restoration of that one household take?

God is not a microwave

God didn’t restore Jerusalem over night

God didn’t make the dry bones live in an instant … it took time!

First they rattled,

Then the bones came together

Then the tendons and the sinews attached themselves

Then the flesh appeared

And the skin covered them

That’s four or five reconstructive steps and they still had no breath!

God is not in the business of rapidly, and carelessly creating or restoring things.

God didn’t bring any of us through our respective discernment processes quickly.”

That’s a piece of what Hershey said.

The Holy Spirit does build us up, as a community, as a wider church, as individuals and families. The Spirit reassembles broken apart bones and spirits that have been discouraged and downhearted. But the schedule is God’s not ours, we have to become those patient, faithful, grown-up human beings that God wants us to be. The prophet Ezekiel wrote over 2500 years ago, and every generation has needed to hear these hopeful and challenging words, because every generation is not finished, and all of us need persistence in serious hope, not quick magic.

The description of the first Pentecost in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles is, “each one heard the disciples speaking in the native language of each.” They mention Pontus, Phrygia, Egypt, Libya and Pamphylia and other places. I had to look up Pamphylia—who has heard of Pamphylia? Anyway it was in what is now south-central Turkey. It doesn’t mention Jamaica , Antigua or Idaho. But I think they would be included if they had existed at that time. The Holy Spirit comes and bursts open the narrowness of human connections; human communities that were kept separate from one another were bound together in Christ. But look how they were bound together—it was not through magical thought transmission or a single language that somehow everyone was able to understand. Each heard the Gospel in her own language, in his own culture. In this scene in the Gospel it seems as if it was instantaneous. Who knows, maybe it was for those disciples at that time, but for us it can take time to understand those who aren’t the same as us, people with different language or customs, people who we haven’t met before, people who aren’t used to our way of worship. You see, it takes change in us, and that change is the same as the reconstruction of those dry bones into a living community of human beings. There is great opportunity for enrichment in our lives, but it is not without the pain and loss of change, and it is certainly not quick. And we embark on the adventure of becoming one with all sorts of people, even Pamphylians.

The Holy Spirit comes as a surprise, even when we think we expect it. It comes as a surprise and it changes us, and part of the surprise is that that change keeps happening all of our life, just when we think we have it under control, the spirit is there challenging us to change and to hang on and have the stamina to do it.

Because God … is not a microwave.