May 20, 2018: Fire by Rev. Beth Hayward (Acts 2: 1-21)

Theologian Karl Barth who famously said that a preacher should have the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. In that vein, I can’t help but begin by asking, who here has listened to the social media meme of the week? You know the one: the computerized voice speaking a word three times. Do you hear Laurel or Yanny? Admit it, who’s tried it? Now tell me, the first time you did it, because I know you’ve done it more than once, tell me did you hear Laurel? Yanny? According to the satirical news source the Babylon Bee, “only the elect can hear “Yanny”… and those who can only hear Laurel are vessels of wrath, set aside for descruction.”[1] Too bad for me!

I find it rather curious that this is the meme that showed up the week before churches around the world celebrate Pentecost and recall that moment when the church was born. As people from every nation were gathered in Jerusalem, speaking in their own languages and understanding one another as if there was no language barrier. If we were to take a pentecostal approach to interpreting this meme we’d say that the Holy Spirit enables the Yannys and Laurels to understand one another, in spite of our different languages, or our different ears as the case may be!

On that first Pentecost day, Jesus’ followers had grown from about a dozen to 120 and they were hold up in a room wondering what in the world to do next. As they waited, suddenly the Spirit showed up, like this Spirit tends to do, un-invited, catching you off guard with a presence that overwhelms while at the same time making things surprisingly clear. It makes me think that perhaps the Holy Spirit is a far more accessible entry into the Christian faith than God or Jesus. God comes with so much baggage, it’s hard to shake the all powerful supernatural figure in the sky intervening in the world in ways that can only be described as random and unfair; try as we might to redefine that three letter word, the baggage remains. Jesus comes with his own baggage: are we talking about the man from Nazareth, or the risen Christ and was he human or divine and is he really about love or sacrifice? But the Spirit, the Spirit seems intended to be mysterious, making it a bit more difficult for anyone to lay claim to a true understanding of what or who Spirit is. Spirit doesn’t belong to any one of us and yet is available to all.

When Jesus was baptized the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit landed on the disciples like tongues of fire. In countless places scriptures refer to the Spirit as breath. But still I like the way the Celts describe the Holy Spirit best. They say that Spirit is like a wild goose. It comes from this idea that you can’t tame the Holy. Think of it. The stunning V-formations in the sky, the way they find their way back to the same place to nest each year, even if they’ve never been there before. Geese, lovely Holy Spirit geese, they squawk incessantly, stop traffic with their sense of entitlement, chase you down even when unprovoked and of course the most notable thing about geese – poop.

The Holy Spirit is like a Canadian goose – leaving a trail of excrement on an otherwise perfectly enjoyable lawn. Pulling your attention from the beach you’re trying to access as you test your dexterity in an effort to avoid landing a foot in it. Spirit -the unwelcome dumper of gifts! Now, don’t you think that’s an idea that could sell?

Spirit is a holy presence that never sleeps, always at work, that can’t be tamed. It’s the fire in your belly just when you thought it has been permanently extinguished, it’s the jolt in your heart that turns it from stone to living flesh again, it’s the air that fills your lungs like a last gasp and wondrously turns into a first breath. The Holy Spirit is what causes those releasing, healing tears to flow apparently out of nowhere. And yes the Spirit lands in your path, unbeckoned, often unwelcomed leaving the offerings of a wild goose.

On Pentecost, Spirit arrived in a torrent like a wild goose insisting that each one be touched by its gifts: there was no escaping the presence of Spirit that day. And perhaps that’s what makes Pentecost so terribly ordinary and remarkable:  perhaps that day serves as a loud reminder that Spirit is in our midst, sweeping through our very beings all the time.

There’s an American Lutheran pastor who leads a church that can best be described as a gathering place for misfits and outcasts; the entire identity of her congregation was built on being a church for those who felt unwelcome in other churches. As word spread about the church people started coming for whom it was never intended. Joining this motely crew of misfits trickled in a bunch of white haired suburbanites and the pastor says: “I started to resent that my precious little indie boutique of a church was turning into a 7-11 and I was terrified that the more edgy, marginalized people who we had always attracted would now come and see a bunch of people who looked like their parents and think well this obviously isn’t for me.”[2]

The pastor sought the support of a friend who she was sure she could count on to help her sort out how to get the suburbanites back to the suburbs. But instead he said to her: “You guys are really good at ‘welcoming the stranger’ when it’s a young transgender person.  But sometimes ‘the stranger’ looks like your mom and dad.”[3] It’s advice she didn’t really want to hear yet as it turns out her congregation of marginalized misfits welcomed the 7-11 moms and dads. In fact one transgendered youth said “I’m really glad there are people at church now who look like my mom and dad. Because I have a relationship with them that I just can’t with my own parents.”

Any community that gathers because it feels right, because there are people in it that feel like “my kind of people” runs the risk of becoming a community that creates walls that are not porus enough for the Spirit to easily blow through. Maybe that’s when the Spirit shows up and lands flames on our heads and leaves a dump on the floor, leaving us absolutely no choice but to be present in this moment. The Spirit calls your attention away from the regret of the past and the fear of the future. Calls your attention back from nostalgia or dreaming and lands us squarely in the heat of this moment.

This is the season for graduation addresses at universities, colleges and schools. In some of those speeches graduates will be told to “follow their dream”.  David R. Henson, an Episcopal priest once wrote that is probably the worst advice you could ever get upon graduating. He said:

Dreams are no longer what they once were. Today, they are merely clever coverings to clothe naked ambitions. In the pursuit of your dreams that you’ve likely held for years by the time you graduate, you have already poured yourself into a mold to fit your dreams. You’ve attended summer camps, maybe even elite or far-flung institutions. You’ve tailored extracurricular activities to your specific dreams. You’ve focused your electives to reflect your interests. You’ve taken trips, shadowed professionals, and perhaps even subscribed to professional organizations as a student to show the seriousness of your dream.

…your dream has become like a prison. Because that’s what happens when you fashion yourself into the shape of a resume.[4]

Henson could also have been describing what might have happened to the followers of Jesus had that wind not blown or the fire on their heads not danced them out the door. They had been locked inside dreaming; trying to fit into the mold.

Henson offers a different approach for new graduates (and I think the disciples too): Don’t follow your dreams. Don’t even trust them. Follow your curiosity. Follow your questions. “These are the things that lie at the heart of our identities, of our deepest souls.”  Don’t dream about where you will be in five or ten years, but what questions you will be asking then, what you will be wondering about.

Spirit is that Holy presence that comes along when we start thinking we have ourselves and the world all figured out, when we appoint ourselves the judge of everything, the source of all truth and wisdom, when we start thinking the world is out to get us, the Holy Spirit swoops in and dumps right on our path, and you have a choice when that happens, you can walk through it and pretend that everything is just fine thank you, but even then your friends will eventually ask you to clean the bottom of your shoes. Really the only choice when the Spirit shows up is to stop and pay attention and to put your well orchestrated plans, your claim to know the reason for everybody’s actions and to stop and find a new way to get where you’re going or perhaps to change course completely.

I don’t mean that the Spirit invites us to throw our hands in the air and walk away, no in fact quite the opposite. Spirit invites us to stop a while, take a deep breath, recharge for staying the course, for going deeper, for pushing through our certain answers.  Our sense that we have it all figured out.  Do you feel it? Is Spirit trying to get your attention? Is the current big of dung on your path a nuisance or a wake up call?

The Hindus have a word for faith that comes from the words heart and put. Sraddha means placing one’s heart on. The word permeates Hindu literature and religion. “This tradition has said that the religious life… is one’s finding within that life (one’s being found by) something to which one gives one’s heart.”[5]  That first Pentecost day a few thousand people were found by something that gave them their heart so that they could place their hearts on.  It wasn’t something new. It wasn’t even something extraordinary. It was about getting in touch with the fire in each one’s heart and recognizing how that heart passion connects us. It’s from that place that things really begin to happen, that we begin to become the people and community we are called to be.

Sometimes when Spirit pulls your heart out it can feel like the end but it’s just that Spirit is putting the fire back into what’s become stone. Sometimes a wild goose can seem like a traffic stopping, pooping nuisance. What if Spirit just wants you to put your heart on, to reignite the fire in your belly, to put a little poop on your path to remind you to walk intentionally in this moment? Do you feel it? Do you sense it? Will you dare to trust it? The Holy Spirit is here, right here, right now…

[1] https://babylonbee.com/news/calvinist-declares-only-the-elect-can-hear-yanny/

[2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2012/05/the-pentecost-sermon-i-preached-at-the-festival-of-homiletics/

[3] ibid

[4] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/05/dear-graduate-do-not-follow-your-dreams/

[5] Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions Worthy Dreams, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2000. p. 24