At the end of last Sunday’s sermon, I asked this question: “Where do you see God’s presence today?” We talked about recognizing the presence of God in big things like sunsets and star-strewn skies and little things like the veins of a leaf and our breath. Today, I’d like to follow up last week’s sermon with a very simple concept that I’m then going to talk about for ten minutes. The simple concept is this: God’s presence is everywhere, so we must be careful not to limit the places where we look for that presence.
Today is the day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit inspiring the first disciples of Jesus to spread his message of love and reconciliation to people of all nations. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit happened for the disciples in the wake of Jesus’ ascension. In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells his followers that when he is no longer physically present among them, he will send the Holy Spirit to lead them into all truth. Today, on the day of Pentecost, we celebrate this sending of the Spirit. And we believe that the Holy Spirit did not just descend on those first disciples, but fills each of us with the creative imagination of God.
I can think of no better feast day of the church to share Holy Communion for the first time since March 8, 2020. Every celebration of Holy Communion is a miniature Pentecost because we believe that the Holy Spirit descends upon the gifts of bread and wine, filling them with the presence of Christ and making them his Body and Blood. Later in this service, we will pray: “Gracious God…send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.”
Sermon for Sunday, May 20, 2018 || Pentecost B || John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Since before my time at St. Mark’s, the readers of our biblical lessons have concluded their readings with this line: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” Before coming to St. Mark’s I had never heard this response to the lessons, and I fell in love with it immediately. At my previous churches, the more traditional line was always used: “The Word of the Lord.” Let me hastily say the traditional response is just fine in its own right, but there’s something about what we say at the end of our readings that really gets my blood pumping.
A few weeks ago at our Episcopal 101 class, they asked me why we say, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” This was a new formulation for them just as it was for me back in 2014 when I came to St. Mark’s. And their question got me thinking. Why do we say this? What are we proclaiming about God and God’s Holy Spirit by ending our readings with such a bold statement? “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.”Continue reading “What the Spirit is Saying”→
Pentecost and Youth Sunday combined at St. Mark’s, and we had a graduating senior give the homily, so no sermon from me today. Instead, here’s an article about the season following Pentecost. It is an update to a piece I wrote many years ago for Episcopal Cafe.
Every February of my college years, the entire student body suffered from a mass case of seasonal affective disorder. The campus of Sewanee is one of the top five most beautiful spots on the planet, but the beauty of the Domain was difficult to appreciate during that dreadful month. What neophytes mistook for simple fog, veterans of Sewanee winters knew was in reality a low-hanging raincloud that hovered over the campus, sapping students of the will to do anything besides curl up under a blanket and nap. The weather lasted for weeks, and when the sun finally broke through the clinging barrier, we students discovered our vigor once again, as if by some sudden leap in evolution, we had developed the ability to photosynthesize. Continue reading “Green and Growing”→
Sermon for Sunday, May 15, 2016 || Pentecost C || Acts 2:1-21
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve started describing God’s presence while writing a sermon and then realized that I accidentally quoted Obi-Wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars movie. It has happened at least a dozen times. So today, instead of accidentally quoting him, I’m just going to quote the dialogue delivered by the legendary Alec Guinness in 1977. He says this about the mysterious energy field that gives the Jedi their power: “The Force…surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Continue reading “On the Holy Spirit (With Help From Obi-Wan Kenobi)”→
Sermon for Sunday, May 24, 2015 || Pentecost B || Romans 8:22-27
Today, on this day of Pentecost, I’d like to tell you a story about the Holy Spirit. It’s going to sound like a story about me, but if I tell it right, you’ll see that the Holy Spirit is the main protagonist of this little tale. The story takes place a stretch down River Road about three miles from the Middle of Nowhere, West Virginia.
The summer before my senior year of college saw me driving down this stretch of River Road toward Peterkin Camp and Conference Center, and my job as counselor. The first day of camp, about a hundred high schoolers descended on the camp, and strangely enough, their enthusiasm and laughter and hugs of reunion were unhindered by the lack of a cell phone tower within 50 miles. Right away I could see their love for the place in their wide expectant eyes as they queued up to turn in medications and decorate nametags. They loved Peterkin because they got to be themselves around other kids who also got to be themselves. Places where teenagers are unafraid of coming out of their shells are few and sacred. Peterkin was one of them.
We shared Eucharist every day of camp, and with each day the volume of our singing increased as the more reticent campers started joining in. By Friday, the passing of the Peace had reached epic proportions because everyone tried to hug everyone else. The service that day included special prayers for healing, and I volunteered to assist with the laying on of hands because I’d never done it before. After communion, I walked to the back of the chapel with the priest Zach and a pair of sisters, Kenan and Leigh. We circled a metal folding chair, and Zach beckoned the first camper towards us. I remember looking down at my hands, seeing the dirty fingernails and calluses cut by guitar strings, and wondering: “What are these supposed to do?”
The boy sat down, and Zach leaned in close. “My parents are divorced and I keep thinking it’s all my fault and I feel sad all the time.” The truth of the boy’s words startled me out of my self-centered musings about my hands. Here was someone hurting profoundly, with his whole world crumbling around him and misplaced shame eating him away. And yet he trusted the four of us to place our hands on him, to whisper words of healing, which would never make everything all better again, but maybe just maybe might allow him to breath with a bit more space and by God’s grace start letting himself off the hook.
As Zach dabbed oil on the boy’s head, I touched his shoulder, lightly, like I was testing a bruise. Doubt gnawed at the back of my mind: how am I qualified even to be standing here, let alone be expected to participate in healing? The self-centered feeling of inadequacy threatened to wash over me again, but then a prayer blossomed in my mind and in my heart, a prayer that I had no hand in writing. I exhaled slowly, and the Holy Spirit carried her words on my breath: “Lord, make him whole, make him holy, make him wholly new.”
This became my breath prayer. As the campers kept coming and coming, the Holy Spirit kept speaking these words through me and I prayed with a fervor I didn’t know I possessed: “Holy Spirit, fill me and flow out of me, down my arms, into my hands, and into these broken, beautiful boys and girls. Make me your conduit. Make me your vessel.”
Their need for healing was so great, these young people in so much pain: depression, suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, eating disorders, the urge to cut themselves, feelings of abandonment, grief, loss… Lord, make her whole, make her holy, make her wholly new.
I kept asking the Holy Spirit to fill me to overflowing so she could spill out my fingertips and the campers could know the healing presence of God. When the service was over, the campers filed toward the dining hall, but we who had manned the three healing stations gathered around the altar and said a final prayer. As I backed away from the altar, I felt a tear moisten my cheek, then another and another. Suddenly, I was crying. I sat down in the second pew and just as suddenly, I was no longer crying. I was weeping. For twenty minutes, my chest heaved and fell, and I knew nothing but my ragged breaths and fat tears…and the truth.
God granted me exactly what the Holy Spirit had prompted me to I asked for – an abundance of that same Spirit, an excess, a proportion so much bigger than was meant for me alone. The tears puddling at my feet were the Holy Spirit spilling out of me. When the tears stopped, I noticed a hand on my back. Leigh, one of the sisters I had partnered with, had stayed behind and sat with me in silence. She had said nothing. She had not tried to hand me a tissue. She had let me weep, alone and yet not alone, laying her hand on me as we had done for the campers. Remembering that act of kindness still brings tears to my eyes.
I tell you this story because it taught me about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does not come at our beck and call. We come at hers. We would be unable to ask for the Spirit’s help if she were not already helping us in the asking. Paul speaks this truth to the church in Rome: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
At Peterkin, the Holy Spirit made her presence known in my life, and I fervently hope in the lives of the campers as well. That experience was so overwhelming, I expect, because the Spirit knows me well enough to appreciate that I need to be whacked upside the head in order not to misunderstand my role in all of this. But even when the experience doesn’t leave us pooling tears on the chapel floor, the Spirit is still ever present, interceding for us, helping us in our weakness.
Remember when you stood on the beach at dawn, and the first rays of sun turned the ocean to liquid gold, and gratitude unbidden caused you to raise your arms to the heavens? Your prayer of thanks rose from the Holy Spirit prompting you to notice – to see with more than your eyes – God’s glory in creation.
Remember when you had to take your daughter to the emergency room because her stomach flu just wasn’t getting any better? The unimagined patience you showed in the hours of waiting rose from the Holy Spirit speaking peace into your panicked heart.
Remember when your mother died and you never thought you’d take another breath? And then you did. The breath that came when tragedy squeezed all the air from your lungs rose from the Holy Spirit leavening your agonized grief with a dash of hope.
Remember when the Holy Spirit showed you the person in need? Remember when the Holy Spirit stirred you to help? Remember? If you don’t remember something like this in your own life, I challenge you to look again. Ask the Spirit for help in the looking. The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to a lucky few or just to the people who ask for her intercession by name. The Holy Spirit has always been moving through your life like the wind through the trees. And she still is. I wonder what your next memory of the Holy Spirit will be.
Sermon for Sunday, May 19, 2013 || Pentecost, Year C || John 14:8-17, 25-27
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes one of his biggest promises ever. He is in the middle of his discussion with the disciples, which takes place on the night of his arrest. You can tell from their questions that they are worried, anxious, and fearful. So Jesus promises them this: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth…[the Spirit] abides with you, and…will be with you.”
Jesus made this promise, and if there’s one thing I can believe in, one thing I can rest my weight on, it’s that Jesus never breaks a promise. The Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit, has been and will be active in the lives of God’s people forever. But the trouble for us followers of Jesus comes, rather paradoxically, in the very constancy of the Holy Spirit’s presence. We humans are so much better at noticing the things that change. The constant things tend to fade into the background of our lives.
Take breathing, for example. Breathing just happens. I’m breathing right now, and I’m not giving my breath a second thought. I can be unconscious all night, and yet my breath keeps going, independent of my control. For the better part of each day, I am completely unaware of my breathing, and yet my respiratory system continues to function with constant efficiency.
But in one of God’s marvels of human engineering, if I decide to, I can focus on my breath. I can choose to take in a deep lungful of air, or I can choose to hold my breath underwater, or I can choose to let my breath out slowly to calm myself down. Breathing is an unnoticed constant in our lives until we decide to focus on the air entering and exiting our lungs. Then the act of breathing becomes something that we consciously participate in.
Do you know what is the same word as “breath” in the ancient biblical languages? You guessed it. Spirit. Just like our breath, the Holy Spirit is a constant presence in our lives, active within and around us. Because of this constancy, we have a tendency to overlook the Spirit’s presence and to allow the Spirit to fade into the background. But also just like our breath, we have the opportunity to focus on the Holy Spirit’s presence, to breath in a deep lungful of the Spirit, so to speak. When we do this, we actively participate in the transformation that the Spirit is subtly working in our lives.
I’d like to spend the rest of this sermon speaking about several ways the Spirit moves. This won’t be an exhaustive list by any means, but I encourage you to listen for a way in which the Spirit has moved in your life, or a way you pray the Spirit will move.
If you’ve ever had the impulse to create, then you’ve felt the Holy Spirit move in your life. If you’ve ever penned a poem or sang a song or played an instrument or stepped a dance or planted a garden or written a love letter or experimented with ingredients or built an imaginary world or raised a child or made a dream a reality, then you’ve participated in the Holy Spirit’s movement.
The Spirit connects with us via the creative spark, which God implanted in each of us. Being made in the image of God means that God gave us the gift of imagining. The Creator made us to be creative. And just as the Holy Spirit was with God, brooding over the depths at the moment when God spoke creation into being, the Holy Spirit is also with us when we access our own creativity. In fact, the Spirit catalyzes the creative process in us. God has never stopped creating; therefore, one of the ways the Spirit keeps us in relationship with God is keeping us creating too. In my own life, whenever I sit down to write a song, I know the Spirit has prompted me to do so and will guide me as I create new music. So that’s number one: the creative impulse.
If you’ve ever sensed which direction to go, then you’ve felt the Holy Spirit move in your life. If you’ve ever been lost – not on the map, but in your heart – and then felt a subtle beckoning down a new path, and at the moment you took the first step in that new direction you felt your heart shine with the rightness of it all, then you’ve participated in the Holy Spirit’s movement.
The ancient biblical languages use the same word for breath and spirit and for another word: wind. The Holy Spirit is the unseen wind, which subtly pushes us in one direction or another. The wind is both constant and unpredictable, always blowing, but perhaps blowing in a direction we might not expect. When we are lost, the Holy Spirit is present, and we have the opportunity to trim our sails and catch the wind. In my own life, I’ve experienced the Spirit’s presence in this way at the rare times when I have actually been able to give up control. That’s number two: sense of direction to go along with the creative impulse.
If you’ve ever had a sudden sense of peace wash over you, then you’ve felt the Holy Spirit move in your life. If you’ve ever been rushing around, moving to and fro, trying to keep up, trying just to keep your feet in a maelstrom of activity, but then something prompted you just to stop, take a deep breath, then you’ve participated in the Holy Spirit’s movement.
Each time Jesus gives his friends the gift of the Spirit, he also gives them his own peace. Peace is not just the absence of conflict; rather, peace is the soil in which new wholeness grows out of old fragmentation. The Holy Spirit nurtures this growth in us, always pushing us away from brokenness and towards wholeness, towards peace. In my own life, the Spirit has encountered me in this way when I have stopped doing, stopped acting, and have just existed for a spell, just abided in the Spirit’s constant presence. That’s three: sense of peace. Sense of direction. Creative impulse.
Finally, if you’ve ever felt deeply connected to another person, then you’ve felt the Holy Spirit move in your life. If you’ve ever held another’s hand or embraced or laughed together and known in a place deeper than normal knowing that your two souls are connected, woven together, then you’ve participated in the Holy Spirit’s movement.
The Holy Trinity is the perfect relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — so perfect, in fact, that there is only one God, though we name God as three persons. There cannot be a Father without a Son, nor a Son without a Father. Nor can there be the perfect relationship without love. This love connecting Father and Son in perfect relationship is the Holy Spirit. Whenever we feel a deep connection to another person, we are participating in our own small way in the divine relationship of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit makes our loving connections possible. In my own life, I’ve felt this deep connection since the day I met Leah, and I expect I’ll feel it again when we have our own children. That’s four: deep connection.
The creative impulse. Sense of direction. Sense of peace. Deep connection. These are only four of the vast expanse of ways the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives. Like breathing, the Spirit is active whether or not we recognize the Spirit’s movement. But God engineered us to be capable of focusing on our breath and on the Holy Spirit. So I invite you this week to celebrate the Spirit’s movement in your life. Engage in an act of creation. Catch the wind blowing you in a new direction. Stop for a moment and embrace a sense of peace. Rejoice in the deep connections in your life. And know in the place deeper than normal knowing that God the Holy Spirit will abide with you forever.
The following post appeared Monday, May 3rd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.
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Every February of my college years, the entire student body suffered from a mass case of seasonal affective disorder. The campus of Sewanee is one of the top five most beautiful spots on the planet, but the beauty of the Domain was difficult to appreciate during that dreadful month. What neophytes mistook for simple fog, veterans of Sewanee winters knew was in reality a low-hanging raincloud that hovered over the campus, sapping students of the will to do anything besides curl up under a blanket and nap. The weather lasted for weeks, and when the sun finally broke through the clinging barrier, we students discovered our vigor once again, as if by some sudden leap in evolution, we had developed the ability to photosynthesize.
A version of this same seasonal affective disorder hits Episcopalians every year within a few weeks of Pentecost. We look out over the vast expanse of the upcoming liturgical calendar, and we see nearly a month of Sundays with seemingly no variation, with nothing peculiar to distinguish one day from the next. It’s a sea of green, and without the concurrence of wedding season, the Altar Guild would forget where the paraments are stored.
We call it the season after Pentecost – even the designation gives it the sound of an afterthought. At first glance, those legendary church year framers seem to have measured the year wrong. They only programmed six months! What’s there to do with the rest, those twenty-odd Sundays after Pentecost that stretch on interminably during the dog days of summer and into the heart of autumn? Truly, we blanche at the long months and wonder if the Holy Spirit has enough juice in those Pentecost batteries to get us to the first Sunday of Advent.
The other liturgical seasons are nice and short; indeed, no other season creeps into double digits. Epiphany gets the closest, sometimes reaching as high as nine (watch out 2011!), but it can’t quite get there. And the short seasons always (and satisfyingly) lead somewhere: Advent moves to Christmas Day; Christmas season to the Epiphany; Epiphany season to Ash Wednesday; Lent to Easter Day; Easter season to Pentecost. Each season is like crossing a river or lake to the next feast or fast on the other side. But the season after Pentecost is an ocean, and Christ the King Sunday is in the next hemisphere.
So what do we do to combat the spiritual lethargy that can result from so many Sundays of unvarying green vestments? Well, we could try to split it into more liturgical seasons. So, starting with the Sunday after Pentecost, we’d have the season of the Trinity until mid-August. Then, beginning on August 15th, we’d have the season of the Blessed Virgin Mary until the end of September. Then, we’d have Michaelmas until Advent. There: three more manageable seasons for us modern people with our tweet-sized attention spans.
While this divvying up of the calendar has a certain appeal (especially to all the Anglo-Catholics reading this), I doubt the Church would go for it. So, where does that leave us? Our churches are still stuck in six months of monotonous green! The seasonal affective disorder will attack. Parishioners will fall away! (I know, I know – mostly because of summer holidays, but just go with me on this whole long liturgical season thing.)
Instead of lamenting the six months of green, let’s use the green season to our advantage. Don’t completely shut down program for the summer. Rather, take your cue from the liturgical color. Spend time each week or each month discussing how both the church and the individual can become more environmentally friendly. Devote education time to the intersection between theology and environmental sustainability. Set goals for the parish to meet by the end of the season after Pentecost to reduce consumption. Go paperless for the entire season to cut down on waste. Move service times to earlier in the day and turn off the A/C. Encourage people to bike to church or carpool. Have a light bulb changing party and replace all the lights with CFLs (the curlicue ones). Check out websites like nccecojustice.org for more ideas.
By taking positive steps to live into God’s pronouncement that we are stewards of creation and by staying active through the long days of the season after Pentecost, we can stave off that seasonal affective disorder. Even when the liturgical color hasn’t changed in four months, each Sunday is still a celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. Every Sunday we worship God, who through the Word brought all creation into being. The best way to praise God for that mighty creative act is by preserving it so countless generations to come can also praise God for God’s creation.
It’s a good thing the Green Season is so long. There sure is a lot to do.
The irony was unbearable. A theology paper about the Holy Spirit due in less than twenty-four hours, and Aidan Davies had less than nothing. No topic. No thesis statement. No inspiration. No inspiration for an essay about the Spirit, the source of in-SPIR-ation. Davies snorted and shook his head. I hate irony. He focused again on the glow emanating from the screen in front of him. He and his laptop had been engaged in a staring contest for the better part of the morning, and the blank document on the screen was winning handily. He reached into the empty bag of pretzels, forgetting about the last half dozen failed attempts to discover untapped sources of pretzel crumbs from the bag’s darker recesses. No thesis statement. No inspiration. And now no pretzels either.
Davies stood up abruptly. Black spots appeared in the corners of his eyes. He swayed and grasped the back of the chair to steady himself. He shut his eyes, willing the oxygen to double time it to his brain. A deep yawn built in his chest, which he exhaled in a frustrated groan. Then he stretched, and his fingertips brushed the ceiling of his dorm room. He looked up and pushed the square tile with his middle finger. He knew that by evening he wouldn’t be tall enough to touch the paneling above him. No oxygen in my brain. No inspiration. And I’ll be getting shorter for the rest of the day.
Davies looked down at the screen. “You win,” he said aloud to the blank document before shutting the laptop with perhaps more force than normal. He stuffed the computer into his messenger bag and cast around for his trainers. He laced up his shoes, slung the bag over his shoulder, and stalked from the room. He didn’t know where he was going. He had only a vague notion that he might walk a bit before lunch. He passed Mark Riley’s room, whose door was ajar as usual. Mark looked up from a comic book (He calls them ‘graphic novels,’ Davies reminded himself) and said, “Where you off to, brother?”
Davies poked his head into the room, “I dunno. It’s just this Holy Spirit paper. I’ve got—” He cupped his hand into a zero. “Zilch.”
“Same here,” Mark said grinning. “That’s why I’m doing some background reading.” He held up the graphic novel and tapped the title: The Spirit. Davies grinned back, appreciating Mark’s ability to justify his procrastination.
Leaving the dormitory, Davies drifted up the twisting sidewalk. He inhaled the perfume of freshly-cut grass and felt the early spring sun warm his hair. He wandered past the library, down the stairs behind the academic building, and across the parking lot. He watched a pair of squirrels zig and zag up a tree trunk before losing them in the budding canopy. He followed his shadow to the sporting field, its rolling expanse dotted with the stragglers of the flocks of migrating geese.
The moment he stepped onto the field, the geese took flight. Davies watched them until he could no longer distinguish their honking from the ambient noise of lunch hour traffic. As his eyes lost the geese to the distant clouds, a sharp breeze reminded Davies that winter hadn’t quite given up yet. He watched the breeze spiral through the trees, the new leaves spinning and dipping with their unseen partner. Words echoed across Davies’s empty mind: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”*
Wind and Spirit, Davies thought, remembering his Greek class from the first semester of seminary. They’re the same word. When Jesus tells Nicodemus about the wind, he could be talking about wind or Spirit or both. Wind and Spirit act the same: you can’t see the wind until it moves the leaves. You can’t see the Spirit until it interacts with us. You notice the Spirit when you see the change, the movement in our lives.
Davies raced back up the hill, his messenger bag bumping his back with each stride. He reached the bench outside the administration building and put his hands on his head. His breath came in ragged gasps as his lungs and heart protested the sprint after a winter of idleness. Several minutes later, he was able to catch his breath. Catch your breath. What a strange phrase. It’s not like a baseball or anything. More words echoed in Davies’s mind: “Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ ”**
Breath and Spirit, Davies thought, reaching all the way back to high school Latin. Respiration comes from the same root as Spirit. When Jesus breathes on the disciples, they ‘catch’ the Holy Spirit. Every time I take a breath, the Spirit is breathing life into me. The Spirit is always with me, changing me, moving me, giving me life. ‘Giver of life’ – that’s what the Creed says.
Davies sat down on the bench and opened his laptop. No staring matches this time. He looked up at the leaves pirouetting in the wind. He took a deep breath. And he began to write.