Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Holy Spirit's "Basic Plan"

Pentecost Sunday: the day we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Of all the significant holy days in the liturgical year, perhaps this one feels the least “Episcopalian” of all.  In fact, it might not even measure up to the days we remember the metaphysical poets John Donne and George Herbert (or maybe that is just me).  We Episcopalians (known in some circles as “God’s frozen chosen”) are not likely to start dancing in aisle, swooning in the Spirit, or babbling the language of an unknown dialect.  Batting balloons in the air at the Passing of the Peace will push us to the limit.  No, this seems like a day for other Christians – for Pentecostals and Charismatics, for faith healers and snake handlers.
Is the Holy Spirit for us?  Is there any way we can claim this day for ourselves, given our less than ecstatic experience of the third Person of the Trinity?
Pentecost is an ancient Jewish festival – one of the three most sacred of the year.  Falling fifty days after the Passover, it celebrates the first fruits of the spring harvest and commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  These links are largely lost to us today because it is also the day the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples for the first time and gave birth to the Christian church.  That day, the Spirit transformed a rag-tag, quizzical, and lost group of bewildered followers into gifted, energized, and passionate leaders who proclaimed the Gospel with such power it changed the world.
Every Sunday, before the beginning of the early service, I gather with the lector and offer this prayer:
Gracious heavenly Father, we thank you for this opportunity to worship you and to praise you most holy Name.  Bless us now, so that all that we say and do – every thought, word, act, and gesture – might bring honor and glory to you and to your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  We ask these things in his name.
And then a couple of years ago it dawned on me that the prayer addressed only 2/3rds of the Trinity so I amended it:
We ask these things in his name, mindful of the power and presence of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.
I really do believe in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, here, in this service and in every aspect of our lives. 
As best as I can tell from Scripture, the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to all people in all times and places.  The more dramatic manifestations of the Spirit – tongues and the like – seem to be isolated and local, appearing in the New Testament in just a few specific communities.  Much has not changed over the centuries.  The Spirit is present throughout the church, but only here and there is it manifested in what for some are spectacular ways, while for others are curious at best.  I suspect that those of us who are on the Holy Spirit’s ‘basic plan’ do just fine with our faith without having the ‘premium package’ and all its special and exotic features.
Let me describe the ‘basic plan’ by naming two primary ways “the power and presence of the Holy Spirit” is at work in our midst.  Each flows from a distinctive meaning of the word paracletus – the Greek word used by the bible to describe the Holy Spirit.   
The more common use of paracletus means ‘advocate’ – one who draws close and stands with us in a time a need; one who takes up our cause as his own.  In the Greek usage, this person could be a defense attorney, a doctor, or a supportive friend.  Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, once wrote that there are three times when the Holy Spirit is most present in our lives: “In the unpredictable, in the place of risk, and in those areas over which we have no control.”  Are not these the times when we desperately need God by our side. 
I see the power and presence of the Holy Spirit time and again when a family pulls together to face a crisis, when prayerful church leaders determine to meet a challenge head-on, when an individual at the end of her rope entrusts herself to God’s care and keep.  These are the kinds of moments we allow God to do for us and through others what we cannot possibly do on our own.  It is the strength we find in grief, the courage we find in fear, the trust we find when faced with something beyond our abilities.  This is the Holy Spirit we all know and this is the Holy Spirit we celebrate today.
There was a second use of the word paracletus.  It was a military position of sorts.  Once a general determined to go to battle, he would gather the troops and call upon a skilled orator to address them.  This person, known as the paracletus, was charged with delivering a rousing speech that would make even the bleakest situation appear to be winnable.  It is from such moments that we get the expression “It is time to fire up the troops.”  The paracletus was today’s equivalent of the coach speaking to the team at halftime or the motivational speaker brought in to address a company’s employees.  The goal was to lift up morale and to prepare the audience for the work ahead.
Look at the disciples gathered in that closed room.  They lack leadership, drive, purpose, initiative, and direction.  This is hardly a fighting force to take on the world, let alone preach is such a way that 3,000 people will be baptized by sundown.  All of that is before the paracletus goes to work bringing fire, but more importantly lighting a fire is each one of them.  The Spirit becomes in them what Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel reading, “out of a believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
I see this living water and this passion moving in and through our congregation.  I see it when the choir attempts an anthem I might have thought beyond their ability and yet they dive in with confidence and perform it beautifully.  I see it when a father, son, and son-in-law stand a grill and with great joy cook burgers and hotdogs for our picnic.  I see it at all the odd hours I stumble in here and find Miko hard at work cleaning a place that she deeply loves.
But the Holy Spirit as paracletus does much more than light a fire in us for ministry.  It also lights a fire in us for life itself, in all of its many glorious and divergent manifestations.  Bishop Hollerith is fond of saying to the clergy of the diocese that if we don’t have a passion in life for something that exists beyond the bounds of the church than we are going to be pretty boring people and priests.  My colleagues are passionate about things like bird watching, sustainable gardening, kayaking, cooking, playing the ukulele, creating graphic novels of biblical stories, flipping houses, running, drinking Starbuck’s coffee, hanging out with grandchildren, writing poetry, hunting, fishing, golf, and tennis.  The bishop himself has spent years making a steam powered boat, machining all the parts by hand.  Me, I am known for bike riding and home renovations.  I suspect that each of us finds in our particular passion a fire for life as God intends it, lived in goodness, thankfulness, and enthusiasm.
William Blake, the 19th Century Romantic painter and poet, who had a deep, mystical bent running through his spirit, wrote this in a poem about Pentecost:
Unless the eye catch fire, God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire, God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire, God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire, God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire, God will not be known.
This is exactly the work of the Paracletus – Advocate and Energizer.  It is this Spirit that we celebrate today and invite anew into our lives.  It is this Spirit we depend upon for counsel and comfort when times are dark and demanding.  It is this Spirit we welcome as the fire of our eyes, ears. tongue, heart, and mind so that life might be for us truly alive, flowing with rivers of living water.