Thursday, May 28, 2020
Place a new song in our mouths and our hearts, O Lord:
let us sing our praises from the deeps of our souls.
Give us a joy in doing your will:
to act justly,
to love mercy,
and walk humbly with You in love, O God.
You have lifted us out of the pit we ourselves have dug;
You have delivered us to abide in your light.
Take us by the hand and lead us for joy;
may your healing radiance shine through us.
Knit us together in justice, reconciliation, and peace,
loving each other as ourselves.
Spirit of Peace,
spread the wings of your redemption and grace
over all who call upon You as we pray.
The last ten days I have been back in my hometown, caring for my mother who has suffered a stroke. I’ve been working with my sister to get her medical care and to clean, update, and prepare her house for her release from rehab, doing all within our power to keep her out of a nursing home or assisted living. One of the things we had to do was go through old photographs and assorted detritus from our childhoods. Born in the 60s, I am a child of the 80s, and there have been many fashion experiments that we have discovered in old photographs that have brought fits of laughter in the midst of our anxiety and exhaustion.
I found a box out in the garage of a lot of my college stuff—posters of Magnum PI and the Beatles, a calligraphy print of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, old notebooks, and cassette tapes. When I was in college Christian pop and rock had just become a big deal. Although I didn’t listen to a lot of that type of music (my tastes ran more toward classical, new wave, and indie artists), I did like Amy Grant, and she did a lovely, simple song based upon Psalm 104’s celebration of creation. It’s a simple song: the sound of night insects, then a legato guitar arpeggio, and then the simply sung lyrics and melody, straight from our portion of Psalm 104 we will hear on the Day of Pentecost. You can listen to it on YouTube. Each layer of sound is reminiscent of the steps and stages of creation, from simple to more complex.
One of my favorite lines of this section of Psalm 104 is “In wisdom you have made them all.” When I was a kid, sitting in science class and learning about the amazing diversity of life was a religious experience for me. There are creatures that live in extreme cold, extreme darkness, extreme heat. There are giant amoebas called xenophyophores that live six and a half miles below the surface of the Pacific. There are bacteria that eat oil that have developed in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a species of walking stick insect in Borneo that grows to over a foot long. There’s the Venus Flytrap. There’s the seahorse. There’s the platypus. There’s the sea urchin. There’s a plant called “dancing grass” that visibly moves in response to sound.
The psalm celebrates the splendor and order of creation and the absolute generosity and sufficiency of all the works of God. Once again, as in Psalms 8 and 9, we are reminded that all that we have and all that we are are gifts from God. In this reading, we see mountains being turned into something insubstantial by the power of God—this time they smoke. God is the seat of ultimate power-- but that power is used for blessing far more than for curse. There are abundant images of plenty- use of words like “manifold,” “all,” “full,” “great,” “wide,” innumerable,” “filled,” “endure forever.” All of the images but one remind us of gifts. The one reminder that this generosity is in itself something that we enjoy but do not earn is found in v. 29: “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to dust.” Our time on earth is short in our sight but is nonetheless a gift.
The first 24 verses of this psalm retells the story of creation from Genesis, but we get the SparkNotes version here. The order in verses 25-29 echoes Genesis --as well as evolutionary theory (I’ve always felt that the laws of physics are some of the most amazing miracles and signs of God’s love for us). First there is the sea, full of life, then come crawling things out of the water and onto the land, and some things become great. I have always thought of the Leviathan as a dinosaur-like creature, so that’s the image I get there, as well. And then there is the mention of the breath of life as in Genesis 2. The sea here is represented as a place of creation, which is different than how it is often depicted elsewhere in scripture, as a place of chaos, disorder, and storms.
I have heard people claim that they don’t believe in miracles. And yet, they are all around us: the blaze of a rainbow against a dark prairie sky after a thunderstorm of percussive force. The firing of synapses, electric impulses timed just right, as a baby stands upright and toddles her first few steps. The frilled beauty of wildflowers, so easily discounted, but greater in loveliness than Solomon in all his glory. And this week, watching my mother relearn words and go from simple demands to sentences and paragraphs and names, finding creative ways including drawing and metaphor to attempt to get around the roadblocks the injury to her brain has created. In the same seven days that reminds us of the breadth and beauty of creation, my mother has been recreating her connection with language and speech, facing her long recovery with realism but also with hope, faith, and perseverance. I know that her deep faith informs it all, for my mother’s relationship with God has not been shaken one bit. These small but consequential miracles remind me of God’s ongoing creation and care for us, granting us comfort and peace in the face of struggle and trial. The works of God are indeed without number, and the grace of God undergirds each miraculous moment.
O Lord, how many are thy works! In wisdom thou hast made them all!
Wednesday, May 27, 2020
O God of Hope,
accept our prayers and praises
as we lay them before You in morning's light.
Our times are in your hand, O Creator,
and our trust is in You
as we navigate the pathways of life.
With your benevolent help, Lord Jesus,
teach us to walk the good road,
and reconcile us to each other.
Make us humble,
aware of our own manifold faults,
especially our seeking advantage over each other,
rather than rejoicing in the bonds of love and mercy.
Pour out your peace and grace
like oil upon the turbulent waters,
that we may be unified by love.
By the power of the Holy Spirit,
renew our hearts and minds in holiness
and bless and keep those we remember before You.
Tuesday, May 26, 2020
We raise our hearts before You,
O God Our Rock,
who births creation into being,
who calls us to renewal and repentance.
May we walk in integrity, loving-kindness, and charity
before our God and Savior,
the One Who Sees all our works,
the Supporter of the Fallen who calls us to compassion.
Beloved Savior, Blessed Jesus,
guide us into your way and truth,
and protect those who do what is right
even in the face of corruption and evil.
Strengthened in love and upheld in wisdom,
may we use this day to your glory
and the comfort of the suffering around us,
O Spirit of the Living God.
Bestower of Faith, bless us this day,
and extend the awning of your mercy,
we humbly pray,
over those for we lift before You.
Monday, May 25, 2020
Most Merciful God,
we worship You and give You thanks,
delighting in the blooming proof of Your love
in fields alight with wildflower
and in loving hearts that share our burdens.
Your gracious hand sustains us and shelters us;
Your sheltering wing draws us near and shields us.
Your love forever will we sing and share.
Grant us wisdom and empathy
to make each other's wellbeing our duty,
to use our freedom for the defense of others
as did those gallant dead who offered their all
in defeating tyranny, racism, and hatred.
May we be worthy to honor their memory
by purifying our hearts,
taking up the cause they leave to us to finish.
In their memory, O God,
strengthen us in truth,
and make us noble, self-sacrificing, and brave,
a people who stand for peace
founded upon compassion and hope.
Holy One, fill us with a Spirit of Integrity and Faith;
bless us with wisdom and discernment
to do what is right for the most vulnerable.
Send your angels
to comfort those who remember and mourn,
and grant your blessing to those we now name.
Sunday, May 24, 2020
One of the things I do to prepare for worship each week is spend the week in conversation with our texts for the following Sunday. Early in the week, I normally begin to look at artwork, listen to music, and read poetry that touches upon the upcoming readings. Over the years I have gathered quite a collection of these items.
One of my favorite, strangest images I have for the Feast of the Ascension is one a friend of mine shared from a shrine on the east coast of England in Norfolk. The backstory to the image is this. In 1061, a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a local nobleman, and a shrine was soon built there, and became a major pilgrimage site in all of Europe. After Henry VIII’s break from Rome, the shrine was demolished, but was later restored when the Anglo-Catholic movement was launched within the Church of England in the 19th century, Anglican veneration of Mary became popular again. In the 1920s, the Anglican priest who oversaw the Anglican parish in the town built an Anglican shrine to Mary and included a chapel devoted to the Ascension of our Lord.
Rather than depict the scene with a painting or a statue, on the ceiling over the altar there is a gilded piece of art that depicts two pierces feet and the hem of a golden robe ascending into the clouds overhead. This depiction is certainly unique. For as often as it makes me laugh, this sculpture also comforts me. It’s a reminder of the fact that Jesus is still with us, even after the Ascension, just not always in a way we might expect.
It’s a funny thing that the ascension of Jesus gets little descriptive mention in the gospels—and in fact the best description we have is in the Acts of the Apostles, believed to have been written by the same person who wrote Luke’s gospel. As you recall, Luke and Acts work together as a whole, and they are both believed to have been written by the same author, whom we will call Luke. Although Easter lasts 50 days, there is a notable event at day 40—the Ascension of the Lord. It is traditionally observed on a Thursday; this year, that was May 21, even though the celebration of this event is usually moved to the following Sunday as we are doing. Then ten days after that Thursday, next Sunday, we will celebrate Pentecost, which has two overlapping events associated with it as we see in Acts: first, it is the Jewish Festival of Weeks, or Shavuot, a harvest festival, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples as foretold in our reading today.
After 40 days of explaining to the disciples, of them hearing Jesus constantly reminding them that he is leaving them but comforting them with the promise of the Holy Spirit, the disciples still have questions—kind of like an audience that keeps calling for encores to keep the concert going just a little longer. Jesus has spent an additional 40 days after his resurrection explaining to the disciples what is essential. And once again, the disciples miss, spectacularly, understanding what that means. Just like we do all these years later.
The thing they ask him-- again-- is whether he is going to finally re-establish the independent monarchy to this tiny country groaning under the burden of yet another occupying army. They try to turn Jesus into a partisan hack. Even after all this time, they cannot resist trying to get Jesus to be the warrior king they had been waiting for, asking him to restore the monarchy to Israel. The oppression that Israel has endured throughout most of its history—save for the brief moment of the reigns of David and his son Solomon, frankly—is something they always believed would be ended with the coming of the Messiah.
Yet forgotten within the request for a king is the particularity of the request. When Israel first asked for a king, their prophet warned them that the only king and allegiance they needed was God, and that in choosing a human king, they were choosing to be oppressed by a strong man rather than be led by God into true freedom and equality. Yet they insisted—and it didn’t turn out too well. If you read between the lines, you see that even by Solomon’s reign, for all his supposed glory and wisdom, the people were being deprived of the right to their own labor as the king sought ever grander wars and palaces to showcase his own vanity.
The other problem with making Jesus a national king is that they are still passively waiting for Jesus to do things rather than understand that Jesus is calling them to their work as disciples. Once again, Jesus has to remind them that there is something more important that they will be empowered to do: to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” and then BUILD the kingdom of God by “being my witnesses… to the ends of the earth”. They are not to wait for God to transform the world. THEY are God’s hands to transform the world. The disciples are given the power. The disciples will have the ability to utilize that power and will need to be willing to take risks to fulfill that commission.
And we are the disciples today, as member of Christ’s body in the world- the Church. As the Church, Christ is with us and we are in Christ, as we were reminded last week in our gospel reading. They are reminded by two angelic figures not to stand around all day gawking but to get to it (a literal paraphrase of v.11). This is our essential nature as the Church. It is our charge and reason for existence. Not worship for our own sakes. But discipleship and action for the sake of the world.
Jesus’s response to them reminds them that he is the Savior of the entire world, not just for Israel. Disciples of Jesus are called to let go of trying to make a God a tiny, nationalistic God. Instead, they—and we—are called to our own work, making disciples of every nation not through force of arms but through force of faith, hope, charity, and love, bearing witness through the power of being a Spirit-filled people. When Jesus ascends, he breaks free of nationalist expectations. When he ascends, the disciples are then empowered to carry his message to Israel and beyond.
Jesus doesn’t sit at the right hand of God as the representative of one nation. The incarnation is meant to remind us that these human-made boundaries only serve to divide us. It is an important reminder to us, especially on this Memorial Day weekend that aggressions against these human-made boundaries, and the jealousies, oppressions, and tyrannies they encourage, and especially the wars they foster, unfortunately lead to death and destruction.
The Lord of Life is not the property of any one nation or people, but is a universal Savior one who gathers all the nations of the world not through force of arms or conquest but through love, compassion, and wisdom—to an ethos of sharing rather than hoarding. The reign of Israel is restored through Jesus via their gift of the Messiah to the world, but not as a conquering king riding at the head of armies or empires. The kingdom of God is never directed at granting an advantage to any one people or nation. Attempting to make God a national symbol—or worse, setting God lower in our hearts than divisions we make for ourselves in terms of our devotion. As Calvin noted, Jesus reigns over all creation, to overcome both the distance between us and God and between each other.
As the disciples watch Jesus ascending, we see a parallel scene from Easter morning. Then too, in Luke’s retelling, two angels in dazzling white appeared, and asked the disciples gathered why they are looking in the wrong direction for the wrong thing. Jesus is not simply to be gazed at and adored. They are not to stand there dreading his absence, but look amongst each other and see Jesus in each and every face they see—to see Jesus everywhere. Not just among the “good” or the “righteous,” but among the lost, the forsaken, and the fallen as well.
The repeating of this symbolism reminds us of the hope of Easter enduring. Even after Jesus’ embodied time on earth ends, his embodiment continues, uniting us with God as much as we are united with each other, loving as God calls us to love, without barriers of the heart. And in this time of pandemic, the only barriers God calls us to maintain are those of the masks we wear to protect those around us, to the barrier of self-control and love of other that puts limits on our own selfishness and use of others as tools for our own petty wants and desires.
The early disciples had no desire to start an institution like the Church. They wouldn’t have started one, either, if they had continued to stand around, mouths agape, staring up into the glory of heaven revealed as Jesus ascends. And indeed, the early disciples after the ascension were certain that Jesus was going to be back within their lifetimes—you see that hope reflected in the earliest Christian writing we do have from St. Paul. That’s probably why they didn’t bother writing down any of their first-hand accounts of Jesus in any formal way. The four gospel accounts that were selected for the biblical canon, plus the book of Acts written by the same person who wrote what we call Luke’s gospel, were written by necessity as the generation of witnesses passed away.
And even today, we get people who believe that there are things that THEY can do to cause the second coming of Jesus. And yet, the reign of God was inaugurated by Jesus’s coming to earth and taking on human flesh calls for us to cast aside our support for anyone who calls us to do things that would hurt others, even as accidental casualties.
Jesus is not a possession or a talisman. We who claim Jesus as our Savior cannot clasp him only to ourselves as a personal possession any more than we can hold water in our hands. Just like love, we only get more Jesus by sharing his good news and his invitation to wholeness with others.
There’s been a lot of talk about “the Church” in the news, especially this week, as some of our political leaders have been weighing in on whether worship services in person should resume immediately. And so, it got me to thinking about how we were going to conduct worship this week, while I am down here in Tulsa with my family caring for my mom after her stroke last week. I haven’t been able to be outside much, and so I thought this would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves that worship doesn’t only take place in buildings.
And what a blessing that is—even in this time of COVID-19, we are forcefully reminded that we can worship across distances and that without walls, our worship but more importantly our witness is seen by hundreds of people who would not have come through our doors previously.
I steadfastly agree that churches are essential. The most essential way for the church to exist is as people devoted to action, not to see ourselves as walled away in buildings. What’s essential is using the reason and science and wisdom God has implanted within us to have faith enough in God to know that God is wherever we are gathered in love and charity, no matter how we do that.
But this is also a good time to remind ourselves that worship is not the be-all and end-all of the Christian life. I am convinced it is impossible to “close” the Church. We are not called to just stand around looking up to heaven. It’s so alluring, I know, to want to look to heaven to solve all of our problems. Jesus’ ascension is NOT about Jesus abandoning us to go back to heaven. Our readings remind us that God is right here, within us, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The story told in Acts is meant to build up our courage so that we may joyfully take up the mission he loves us enough to entrust to us: to take up our call not as observers but as disciples; to actively proclaim Jesus’s gospel of love and reconciliation in the world.
It’s about hearing that question directed at us: "Why are you standing there, looking up at heaven?" This is a question posed in love and in encouragement. With Jesus’s ascension, WE are Christ’s Body in the world. It is up to us to literally embody Jesus’s gospel in our lives, our attitudes, our words, and our actions. And that means not endangering each other—and the untold people with whom we come in contact with—by ending our fast from in person worship at this time.
Faith that discounts love and concern for others is no faith at all, as we discussed last week. Being a Christian is NOT a spectator sport. Being a Christian calls us to not only transform OUR own lives, but to make visible to the world the possibility of its transformation and restoration. Now more than ever this is so needed. Being a faithful disciple is a social and political act, and act of hope, bravery, and enduring willingness to see the potential and the beauty within this Earth and within every inhabitant of it. That’s the work of the Church. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, it cannot be contained within four walls.
Preached from The Gathering Place in Tulsa for the 10:30 am worship from DSt. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO, on May 24, 2020.
who laid the foundations of the earth,
and filled the sky with light both by day and by night,
we ask that you bless us this day.
Bless the fields,
that they may thrum with the song of the diligent bees,
who help make our harvests bountiful.
Bless the skies, dappled with dawn,
that they may bring forth sunshine and rain in good measure,
sustaining the tender plants as they burgeon and bud.
Bless our toil
as we offer it up for the sustenance of your people,
that we may gratefully care for the earth
and for each other.
Enclose us within your bounds, O God,
and call us safely into your fold,
especially those we now name.
Saturday, May 23, 2020
Lord, we are your children:
accept our prayers and praises
as we lift them before you.
Spirit of Life and Light,
move over our hearts and our souls
as you moved over the waters of creation.
trace a message of love upon us with your fingertips,
inscribe upon us the gospel of love,
that all who sees us know the beauty of You.
May we let your love heal us,
may we relax into the embrace of your Eternal Compassion,
grateful and content like a child sleeping
on her mother’s shoulder.
Protect all those in the path of storms,
those that rampage within and without,
and gather beneath your sheltering wing
all those for whom we pray.
Friday, May 22, 2020
Let all creation sing a song of praise to you, O Love Divine,
for we depend upon your mercy.
Give us discerning hearts, Merciful God,
to do your will in our lives today,
for we are your hands in the world.
Imbue us with the energy we need
to meet today's challenges,
for we know that you are the source of all power.
Blessed Savior, govern our hearts and minds
and help us to persevere,
just as you never give up on us
even when we stumble.
Guide, guard, and protect those for whom we pray this day.
Thursday, May 21, 2020
(For Ascension Day)
Blessed Lord Jesus,
you are our Shepherd and Savior:
remember all those for whom
you lived and died and rose again.
Help us to spread your message
of love, service, sanctity, and compassion
throughout the world
by our words and our deeds.
Help us to be a testimony to justice and peace,
and bind us together
in the name of love, amity, and charity.
Send the Holy Spirit to empower us
to serve the weak and outcast
and to make disciples of all who seek you.
Through your example, let us unfailingly act
with love and mercy,
even to those who set themselves against us.
Let us always be witnesses to your truth,
and servants of your truth.
Lifting our eyes to heaven,
where you are enthroned in glory,
we lift our prayers and petitions before You, Lord Christ,
especially for those we now name.
Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Let us bow before the Lord of Life,
with gladness and joyfulness of heart:
We know that no power
in heaven or on Earth
can separate us from your love, O Holy One:
your grace is everlasting.
forgive us our failures of heart;
strengthen us to love fully,
each breath a prayer,
each footstep a step toward holiness.
Make us a joyful, loving people,
that your glory in the world be revealed
in the compassion and care we have for all living things.
Let us seek reconciliation
over vengeance and enmity,
following the example of our Savior Jesus
as loving disciples.
Lift us up, Blessed Lord,
hold us within the hollow of your heart:
for your mercy is wide as the sea.
We lift up our loved ones,
our thanksgivings and our concerns, O God:
bless and keep them as we pray.
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
(Inspired by Psalm 30)
In the midst of struggle and heartbreak, O God,
you abide with us,
and set your kiss upon our hearts.
The Holy One lifts us up
and calls us to strength and courage,
for your faithful love is neverending,
O Savior and Redeemer,
who shares our joy as well as our pain.
You, O Merciful, Life-giving One,
are our sanctuary and our home;
make us true disciples,
aflame with your love
and filled with your Holy Spirit.
May we set out from your altars
rededicated to embodying your peace and justice,
and bearing your light to all corners of the world.
Sealed by your promise of mercy, Lord Christ,
we ask your blessing
as we dedicate ourselves to your Way.
Gather within your embrace
all who call out to you,
and grant your peace to those whom we lift before you
Monday, May 18, 2020
Most Merciful One,
we lift our hearts to You in joy
and sing out our praise:
gather us within the bounds of your mercy,
and center our hearts on You, we pray.
May we live lives worthy of you, O God,
and let our lives testify
to the beauty of your love,
active and healing
in the shattered places of the world.
May we let the Spirit lead us
into faithfulness, integrity, and hope,
that we may generously proclaim the year of Jubilee
against the forces of division and oppression.
Make us fertile fields
for the seeds of your truth to take root, Lord Christ,
and make us verdant fields,
rejoicing with your abundant grace,
tended tenderly by your healing hand.
Precious Savior, take us by the hand and lead us,
and place the comfort of your blessing
upon all those for whom we pray.
Sunday, May 17, 2020
In 1939, an incredible cinematic masterpiece burst onto movie screens all over America and all over the world. It was called The Wizard of Oz. The story of a simple, orphaned Kansas farm girl named Dorothy who was taken up in an enormous tornado to a land beyond the rainbow enchanted millions. And those millions needed to be enchanted. The entire world was in the grip of the Great Depression. The evils of totalitarianism, militarism, and fascism were sharpening their fangs and claws over much of Europe and Asia.
Transported from her dull gray world to a land of vibrant hues of yellow, red, and green, all Dorothy wanted was to go home—to her familiar life, even if it had been filled with hardship and misunderstanding. It was a longing that resonated with everyone whose lives had been changed by the worldwide economic downturn. Dorothy was Everyone. The story of her adventure offered hope for those suffering under the challenges and trials of that time.
There was promise embedded in this fanciful story. Even as Dorothy longed for home, she also kept and gained friends who accompanied her on her quest to find the person who supposedly had the power to return her to her home. Her little dog represented loyalty. The tin man, the lion, and the scarecrow represented wisdom, courage in the face of fear, and compassion. And they walked alongside her, loyally being willing to lay down their very lives to protect her from danger. Along the way, they defeated a malevolent presence, the wicked witch, and her minions.
Yet what they learned in the end was the most powerful magic of all. Dorothy learned that her power to return home resided within herself all along—she just needed to be strengthened and supported as she embraced her own abilities. She found out she had advocates and companions who championed her when she needed it most. And when she did return home, home seemed more loving and beautiful than she had previously imagined. But it wasn’t that home had changed. It was that Dorothy had been changed—changed by assurance of the steadfast love and companionship of her friends along the way.
Today in our gospel, Jesus too realizes that his disciples are afraid they will be orphaned, abandoned, unable to find their way home. And Jesus offers his followers the assurance that they too, will have an abiding advocate to remain with them always and to lead them to new knowledge about themselves and their abilities to see the world through eyes of hope. That advocate would be a teacher, a comforter, a companion. We know that advocate as the Holy Spirit.
Many of us have a sort of misunderstanding and even possibly aversion to the Holy Spirit. I know I did, growing up in Oklahoma, especially after my mom took me to some charismatic churches. A charismatic church is one that professes to invite speaking in tongues, prophecy, and other so called spiritual gifts. I know that this kind of worship is uplifting for many people. But as a small child, having a lot of adults all around me shouting, screaming, and dropping to the floor in a faint absolutely terrified me. I thought about those “tongues of fire” over the disciples’ heads in the Pentecost scene from Acts, and said a quick “No thank you” to God when it came to the Holy Spirit, at least. And so I spent a large part of my youth afraid of the Holy Spirit, mistakenly believing that the Holy Spirit’s work within a person was more like a possession or invasion and less like cooperation, a sparking of potential, and teaching.
In other words, I wonder if too often we have equated the Holy Spirit with the tornado that carries Dorothy away from all that she knows and loves. Instead, we need to see the Holy Spirit as being like Dorothy's companions on the yellow brick road: loyalty, wisdom, courage, and compassion.
Because that is exactly what Jesus is promising here. And the use of the word “Paraclete” is helpful, for its English translations are gentler, and comforting: Advocate. Comforter. Helper. This holy presence will remain and sustain us after Jesus’s ascension. The gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives reminds us that there is more to Easter than just the empty tomb. That resurrection isn’t just a moment in time but an ongoing reality and promise to us as Christians that eternal life is rooted in the present, not some distant future. And it is always, ALWAYS rooted in love. Love as an action and a force of life, not as a mere emotion.
As noted in the very first verse in our gospel today, Jesus links love and obedience to commandments together; love is the mark of obedience and discipleship. As Galatians 5:22-23 reminds us, the gifts of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. The presence of any of these characteristics can be seen as a sign that the spirit of God is present and active in a person or a place. Symbols used in the Bible to depict the Holy Spirit include wind, flame, a dove, pillars of clouds and fire, and, in 1 Kings 19: 12 a “still small voice.”
In fact, that reminder is important. Too often, we think of the flames bursting out over all the disciples’ heads at Pentecost, and of the Spirit seizing control of someone and possessing them, like when we’ve seen depictions of people speaking in tongues. And so we fear the Holy Spirit—its power, its unpredictability from images like those.
But the gifts of the Spirit are all gifts that comfort rather than frighten or threaten a loss of control and independence. These are gifts which call us even deeper into ourselves, so that we may be empowered to continued Jesus’s work in the world. It is the Spirit that empowers Paul to give his great sermon at Athens that we heard in our first reading. It is the Spirit that gives him the wisdom to appeal to them not through castigating them or trying to frighten them. Paul knows he is in the center of learning and reason in the entire known world.
We have a lot in common with those Greeks. We worship all kinds of things— power, money, beauty, youth, celebrity being the most common in our culture. We see each one of these things as a highly desirable commodity, often one we are willing to risk our very lives or souls to obtain, when really they are a responsibility. And frankly that is our greatest challenge in this time of pandemic. We are hearing too much about people proclaiming, angrily and sometimes violently, their rights. And yet each right comes with an equally compelling responsibility—otherwise, chaos and destruction ensue.
How can we recover the sense of community necessary for our mutual flourishing in this time of pandemic? What if we circled back to those gifts of the spirit again?
What if we resolves to be motivated not by anger, ignorance, and self-defeating self-interest, but instead by
Think of those gifts as filters and checks on the selfishness of those who insist in their rights regardless of the impact those rights have on others. We must meet the challenges of this time not with fear, resentment, anger, or lashing out. Instead, imagine how our world could change, even beyond the challenge of this pandemic, if instead, we rooted all our actions in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.
We have an opportunity right now to examine the parts of our lives before this pandemic that didn’t work, and dedicate ourselves to making our society better. Times of upheaval can be times of blessing if we use them to critically examine places where we were told we had to accept the inequalities and injustices of the times in which we lived as the cost for our own comfort. And that is okay to some people so long as it is other people who are suffering. But Jesus calls us to stand for true justice and peace for all. Jesus calls us to be an advocate for those who have no voice.
That’s why “Paraclete” may be a good synonym for us to get used to using when we talk about the Holy Spirit. The literal meaning of Paraclete is itself comforting—para means “alongside” and kaletos mean “to call.” In other words, the Paraclete is a tangible reminder of a leader who walks alongside us in empathy, in support, in sharing all our burdens—and who strengthens us to be able to be advocates and strengtheners for others, too. The leadership exhibited by Jesus and reinforced by the Holy Spirit is non-hierarchical. It’s balanced and compassionate. When have we ever needed such a model more than in a time such as this?
Jesus promises us an Advocate in the Paraclete—but other meanings of the word include Counselor or Helper. In the other mentions of the Paraclete in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus further defines the functions of the Holy Spirit to include teaching, reminding, abiding, and testifying to the truth of Jesus. The Paraclete is also not the property of an individual, but is sent to continue creating community. This is why the Church is mentioned in the section of the Nicene Creed that deals with the Holy Spirit.
God knows, many of us wouldn’t turn down the offer of an advocate to promote our cause, especially in times such as this. And to make sure we feel comfortable with the advocacy being offered, we are reminded that the Holy Spirit is ANOTHER Advocate to abide with us—the first Advocate is Jesus.
In our gospel today, one of the most touching things Jesus says about the Spirit is that she is sent to us so that we would not imagine ourselves abandoned, or more pointedly, as orphans. Any of us and those around us are struggling with that feeling right now. Those are important words for those of us living 2000 years after Jesus’s physical and historical life ended even in the best of times—and this time of uncertainty and fear only strengthens our tendency to lose faith in the love of God when times are in crisis. The Spirit is a powerful way we experience God’s presence, especially in times of turmoil or uncertainty—in other words, right now in the midst of this ongoing pandemic.
Jesus’s words in our gospel today speak to us precious comfort as we, just like those disciples, hang suspended between real and imagined and dreaded losses. That’s why we need to hear that God is always accompanying us—especially in times of fear and anxiety. We need to remember that Jesus is God’s way, truth, and life, as we heard proclaimed last week—especially in this time when some people profit off of truth-denial and fear-mongering. Instead, the Holy Spirit gives her powerful witness to a leadership model that does not seek to enforce the leader’s will, but walks alongside others in love, compassion, and empathy.
This is a time for us to call the Holy Spirit alongside us and lead us into wisdom, courage, and compassion. Not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of each and every person whose life we may inadvertently touch. In welcoming the life-giving power of the Spirit into our lives, we, like Dorothy, can be empowered to fight the forces of fear and greed that endanger all of us, and instead be empowered and encouraged to walk alongside each other—especially those who are vulnerable.
Come, Holy Spirit. Strengthen us to be people who joyfully bear each other’s burdens, and who proclaim the comfort of truth in the name of love. United in love, we know you can lead us all home.
Preached at the 10:30 service broadcast online on Facebook Live from St. Martin's Church, May 17, 2020.
1 Peter 3:13-22