Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Holy Spirit is as Holy Spirit does"

A sermon preached Pentecost Sunday – May 24, 2015
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal

Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And 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.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

`In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,                   
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' "

This Sunday is the Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, which is the day set aside in the church year to focus on Holy Spirit, and Holy Spirit’s role in our life.

The reading we’ve heard from the Book of Acts recalls the story of the first disciples gathered in Jerusalem, and all of a sudden a sound, like the rush of wind, enters the room, and tongues of fire dart around the room as well. The disciples are filled with Holy Spirit and began to speak.

Because this was a time of pilgrimage to Jerusalem many people – from all over that part of the world, an international crowd – they all hear what the disciples are saying in their own language. (There’s only one message – God’s deeds of power – but everyone understands in their own language, as if they were all wearing those earpieces you see at meetings of the United Nations, allowing everyone to hear one speech in their own language.)

My favorite story about Holy Spirit is the story told about a missionary, who was working in a faraway country. He’d been there about a decade, serving a local, remote village. He had a professor friend back home who kept asking if he could come visit and preach. He kept putting his professor friend off, because – while he liked him very much, he also knew his professor friend was very dry and boring. But the professor insisted and so finally the missionary gave in, and he schedules his friend to preach on a day he thought there would be very light attendance. But word gets out in the village and in the surrounding villages that the beloved missionary’s friend is coming all the way from America to preach, and so when the day comes, the church is packed, three or four times more people than ever.

The gospel is read, and sure enough, when the professor steps up into the pulpit, the very first words out of his mouth are

“In the history of human reasoning, there have been two types of logic: inductive logic and deductive logic.”

The translator looks up at him, looks back at the congregation – there are chickens and children rolling around in the dirt – and the translator says,

“I’ve come here today to tell you about my walk with Jesus.”

And the professor preaches one sermon, and the translator preaches a whole different one.

I honestly believe something like that happens (thanks be to God!) with the Holy Spirit each and every Sunday…I’m up here, or Rosemari or Michael, and we’re preaching, “bla-bla-bla” and the Holy Spirit looks back at the congregation and says, “oh NO, I love these people way too much, and starts translating, to each of you, what you need to hear.

That first Pentecost, there was a huge crowd gathered outside…
and all of a sudden – no matter what language they spoke,
and no matter what their background was –
everyone heard in their own language (in ways they could understand)
about the mighty works of God.

Pentecost is a celebration of Holy Spirit. It is a time, a season, to take Holy Spirit seriously, to invite Holy Spirit into, or deeper into our life.

But for many, this is difficult. For many people, Holy Spirit is the least comprehensible aspect of God’s personality.

We believe that God has revealed God’s self as a trinity of persons in one being – as we say in the creeds each Sunday, we believe God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Now many people have at least some understanding of God being revealed as  a loving, supportive heavenly Father.

And many of us can get our heads around God being revealed in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.

But knowing God as Holy Spirit? For many, that’s more difficult…

Perhaps this is especially true for those of us who grew up in the Episcopal Church. Episcopalians tend to like things done “decently and in good order,” and tend to think that Christians who take Pentecost seriously tend to be…well, Pentecostals, people who talk a lot about faith healing, prophecies, and speaking in tongues.

We love being in control – or should I say we love the illusion of being in control. ;)
And so Holy Spirit is threatening: there is, after all, something unpredictable and unrestrained and even wild about the Holy Spirit:
“a mighty wind…”
“…darts of fire!…”
…lots of languages being spoken all at once…

This suspicion of people who take Holy Spirit seriously has been around from the very beginning.

Remember from our reading from Acts, what was the first reaction was to those first Christians being filled with the Spirit that first Pentecost? 

“All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another ‘what does this mean?’ but other sneered and said ‘they are filled with new wine.’”

Holy Spirit comes to the church, and there’s amazement and perplexity and accusation: some sneered, mockedaccused the disciples of being drunk – not just drunk, but drunk on cheap wine. (“listen to ‘em -- they must’ve stopped at 7-11 and picked up some Wild Irish Rose…)

Peter stands and says no no no – “men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and listen to what I say: these people are not drunk – it’s only 9:00 in the morning. No, this is what God predicted and wants – God’s Holy, energizing, wild, unrestrained, free spirit poured out on all flesh, everyone, not just the spiritual elite, not just the religious professionals, but everyone. Your sons and daughters – both men and women will prophesy; young men will see visions, old men will dream dreams.

Access to God’s mind not just the carefully controlled secret of a few religious professionals, but everyone empowered, men and women, young and old enlightened, dreaming dreams.

So…this Pentecost, gathered here now, in Falls Church in 2015, why should we care? Why should we take Holy Spirit seriously? Why should we invite Holy Spirit into our lives?

Because look at what Holy Spirit is called in the Bible:

spirit of truth.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Holy Spirit is as Holy Spirit does.”

If you want comfort from God,

if you want strength in life – or just for the day…

if you need wise counsel from above,

if you’re looking for Divine guidance,

if you need power to overcome something because you’ve used up all your own strength, tried all 
you can, but it isn’t enough, 

if you need a word of truth to pierce some web of lies,

if you feel like you need an advocate – someone who appreciates you, applauds you…adores you…
well then, you need, we need, the world needs Holy Spirit.

In the creed, Holy Spirit is called the “Giver of Life” 

God desires a life for us lived out of abundance of spirit.

Barnard of Clarvoux said our spirits are either canals, or reservoirs.  A canal spreads out water as it receives it.  But a reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing, and without loss to itself (without running low or dry) it shares its super abundant water.

Think about it -- a canal runs dry so quickly after rains stop, like dry streambeds in deserts.  

Reserviors are deep and wide – people can go waterskiing on them.  We’re called to live in such a way that we store up reserves in our hearts, and then offer ourselves to others from a place of abundance.

Or take another example: John Eldridge, in Waking The Dead, points out that hyenas cannot take down a lion in its prime. What they do is run it, taunt it and wear it down to the point of exhaustion . . . once they see it cannot defend itself, they close in. 
The strategy of our Enemy, the Evil One, in the age we live in is busyness or driven-ness.  Ask people how things are going with them: 9 of 10 will say “really busy.” Strategy of enemy, Eldredge says, is to keep us running that way so we “never take care of our hearts, seldom pay attention to our spirit. Burn them out and take them out.” (p218)

How full is your reservior?

And how do you fill you reserves, your reservoir? How do you get filled with Holy Spirit and have an abundance of comfort, strength, wisdom, divine guidance, power, and strength?

There’s no one answer for that. It’s different for different people, and it’s different for us at different points in our life. What fills you with Holy Spirit might be draining to someone else, and vice versa, and what worked for you in the past might not work for you now.

But what it is that fills you, restores you? Some examples:

·         Every so often, on a long walk in the woods, in the garden, or here, in the silence between the prayers, you get the sense that all is well.
It’s a fleeting sense, like darts of fire. But it’s real, and it stays with you, and the memory of that feeling keeps bringing you back.
·         Every so often, you hear something in the sermon or in a prayer and it feels as if someone was reading your journal, as if the words were speaking straight to you.
·         Every so often, you come up to the altar…
…and the wafer is placed in your hands…
…and you sense “bread of heaven”
and you feel touched, fed, deeply fed…
…that this food is feeding your underlying hunger…
and you say “aw, God…more…thank  you.”

Listen for your translation.  What does your heart long for?  What fills your spirit?  What makes you come alive?

Now we hesitate to take time for these things. We think it’s a waste of time to fill our spirits when there’s work to be done.

But it isn’t crazy talk to be filled with Holy Spirit. It’s NOT selfish to do what you need to do to be filled…in fact caring for your spirit is MOST loving thing you can do, especially if you have others to care for or who are depending on you.

What can you give to others if you’re dried up? Afer all, in Galatians and in Corinthians, Paul describes the Holy Spirit by its fruits, by its effects; by the ways you see it show up in someone’s life. (Holy Spirit is as Holy Spirit does.) And the effects of the Spirit are:


The world is starved for that fruit. The world needs people, needs you and I, to bear that fruit in the world.

That first Pentecost, a large group of Jesus’ followers are gathered together, and there is the sound like the rush of a mighty wind, filling the house where they are sitting.  It seems like little darts of fire are moving around the room, shoulder to shoulder, head to head, chilled spine to chilled spine. And all are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in new ways, as the spirit lead them.    

There’s a huge crowd gathered outside our four walls: Falls Church, North Arlington, inside the Beltway. They want to understand, in their own language, what is going on between them and God. They want to hear, in their own language and in ways they can understand, about the mighty works of God.

So come, Holy Spirit, come. Inspire your gathered people today. Breath on us, fill us.

As the Holy Spirit took up residence in your early church and gave your earliest followers the fruits of the Spirit, take up residence in your church gathered here…in all our hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit, come…
       …fill us with your love…
              …feed us, touch us…
…send us out to speak in new ways to people hungry for your word.

Come, Holy Spirit, come. 
Empower, enliven, revive your church… one heart, one life at a time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Gumption, With Thanks

I'd like to thank my colleagues in ministry Rosemari and Nina and Jim and Julie and Michael and Terri for stepping up this past Sunday, which allowed me to take a few days off for what I'd call -- pick your metaphor -- a "relief cut Sunday" or time to "Restock the Over-fished Pond." 

The term "relief cut" comes from carpentry. It's a little trick woodworkers employ when using a band saw to make a curved cut in a piece of wood.  (Not that I'm a carpenter, but I'll take a good metaphor anywhere I can.) 

Relief cuts are preliminary cuts made in a piece of wood to keep a saw from binding. If you're really curious, here's a You-Tube video from the Woodworkers Guild of America. but all you really need to know is that "a relief cut is a great pre-emptive move to make if you're not quite sure your blade can make the radius." 

So in the world of work, a relief cut is called for when you feel you've been pushing hard and are about to push harder but are not quite sure you have the energy or good humor to make it far without "binding" -- getting overheated, stuck, jammed. A relief cut isn't as big or as long as a vacation. But it's not as small or as short as a day off. It's a few days off, in a row, of empty time. It's time to disengage from the ordinariness or routine of work so you can think thoughts. Re-discover your passion. To read. To purge files. To journal. To de-clutter one's spaces and one's mind.  

Or maybe the other metaphor works better for you: in the world of ministry, at least, we tend to over-fish our spiritual ponds. We're constantly casting our nets for sermon ideas, pulling in every possible one we're lucky enough to catch. We hook and reel in every inspiration or compassion-impluse we can find. This works for a while. Perhaps even a long while. But then we start noticing the nets are coming up empty more often, the nibbles less frequent, the reeling-in more work. (Or worse, we find ourselves in waters where the Evil One,  like a Barracuda, is robbing our bait or catch.) 

In such times -- ironically -- instead of fishing longer or trying harder, we need to stop. Take a few days off. Allow Holy Spirit to restock our over-fished pond. When we return, we find a miraculous, overflowing, can't-pull-the-nets-in abundance. (See Luke 5, John 21) 

Here's what "relief cuts" and time to "restock the over-fished pond" have in common: they fill us with gumption. 

Robert M. Pirsig writes that "gumption" is a modern-day term for what the Greeks called enthousiasmos, which is the root of our word "enthusiasm," which means literally "filled with theos," or God.

He writes that "The gumption-filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one's own stale opinions about it. But it's nothing exotic. That's why I like the word."  

"You see it in people who return from long, quiet fishing trips," Pirsig writes, "and often they are defensive about having put so much time to 'no account' because there's no intellectual justification for what they've been doing. But the returned fisherman usually has a peculiar abundance of gumption, usually for the very same things he was sick to death of a few weeks before. He hasn't been wasting time. It's only our limited cultural viewpoint that makes it so."

Our limited cultural viewpoint has all but obliterated the value of slowing down, of resting.  In the world of marketing and advertising, "faster" is practically a synonym for "better."

And so every once in a while we need -- I certainly need -- to be reminded what the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith had to say (Mark 6:30-32) when he saw his original followers working hard:   

"The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest."

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Second-guessing Things Said in Sermons

I haven't heard other preachers talk about this before, so maybe it's just me, but...

Sometimes -- such as this past Sunday -- I will say something in a sermon that I start to second-guess afterward. 

I'm not referring to something I've said in a sermon extemporaneously, because I rarely preach something I haven't written out. (In so doing, I try to follow Karl Barth's advice that preachers should write out and then memorize their sermon, "and not leave it up to the Holy Spirit (or some other spirit!) to inspire the words.")

And in saying I sometimes second-guess something I've preached, I'm not saying I regret saying it. (I more often regret the things I don't say...but that's a topic for another time.)  

No, I'm referring to those times when on Monday or Tuesday, I start second-guessing something I've said in a sermon because what I've said is so head-shakingly good news it's hard to believe. Difficult to absorb. 

Or I've preached something that while intended for a wider audience/congregation, was likely intended just to convince or convert one person -- and that's the preacher himself! (Who, if we're honest, needs conversion and convincing as much or more as those being preached to.) Sometime around Tuesday, the words have taken root in my heart and sprouts are already popping up in my behavior.   

Take this past Sunday, for example: 

At one point, when preaching on Jesus' saying "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love," I said this: 

"The word 'abide' means not merely to accept or act in accordance with something, but to dwell in, or live in, as in one's 'abode,' or as in 'I abide in a small town. Therefore there's a place -- a condition, a state -- called the Love of God which we are not just to visit from time to time, but we are to dwell there. Live there. Make it our home." 


Do you realize how radically different your life would be -- my life would be, our lives would be -- if we took that one concept seriously? Because if you're anything like me, you only visit The Love of God from time to time, like it's a nice restaurant. A place to get fed as a treat, mostly on special occasions. But enjoying the rich feast of God's love as our norm?!? 

Or at another point, when preaching on Jesus' saying "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete," I said this:

"He is saying these things to us for a purpose, a reason: namely, that his joy may be in you. Jesus was a joyful person. He was full of joy. The purpose of Jesus' teaching is that we have the same joy in us that he had in him. That his joy be in us. The term 'perpetually grumpy Christian' should be a contradiction in terms. An absence of joy is evidence of abiding somewhere other than The Love of God." 

 God wanted me to hear that. You, too? 

 And finally, this: 

 "This passage starts out with Jesus' followers being referred to as his 'disciples' but in just a few verses, they are being called -- we are being called -- 'friends.' Not servants, but friends. Friends of God. Friends with God. Do you think of God as your friend? As someone with whom you are friendly? Not because you chose God, but because God chose you. And appointed you to go bear fruit, fruit (of the spirit) that will naturally grow if you are abiding in, living in, dwelling in, Love of God and love for one another."

Yes, sometimes I second-guess things I preach. Not because I didn't pray them through before saying them. Not because I've preached something I regret. But because, flooded as we are with contrary messages of a distant or unloving god and subsequent Christian hand-wringing and grumpiness rooted in fear of that god, the Good News of the Gospel seems too good to be true. 

The Gospel may be upside-down and inside-out, but that just makes it unfamiliar, not untrue. 

So what I have to remind myself (and perhaps you?) is to turn my second-guessing into re-considering. 

A re-considering that -- sometimes even by Wednesday! -- leads to re-convincing and re-converting.