On Ecstasy: A Homily for Pentecost

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

Pentecost, Year B

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; St. John 15:26-27 & 16:4b-15

May 20, 2018

 

On Ecstasy

 

Image result for brother roger of taize

 

I will never forget Brother Roger’s eyes.  They were the most incredible, sparkling blue.  Deep, deep blue.  He sat there in his chair, in a simple white alb, toward the end of the Tuesday Evening Prayer service, available to meet anyone who wanted to come and say a prayer with him, meet him.  He was almost ninety years old at that point, so another brother helped him get to his chair.

I had arrived in Taize’ the monastic community not far from Cluny, in France, two days prior.  I had wanted to go to Taize’ for a few years, to spend a week there, soaking up the rhythm of the place, this community soaked in prayer and community.  It amazed me that three thousand or more youth and young people travelled there each week to share in daily prayer and Bible study.

When I walked up to Br. Roger that evening, I sat down next to him and placed a set of prayer beads I had made in his hands.  His face lit up.  Then, he reached out both arms, opening up.  I melted.  I knelt down next to this incredible man and put my head against his chest as he brought his arms around my shoulders, just holding me close to him, as he offered a prayer for me.  At one point it felt like I had even put my head in his lap, just being held.

I only remember one phrase, in French, out of that entire prayer: “Je t’aime.”  I love you.

That one phrase was enough.

I thanked Brother Roger for all he had done, for what he meant to me and so many others around the world, and I walked out the side door of the Church of Reconciliation, leaving about three thousand other folks there chanting.  I found a few of my friends standing outside.  As I walked up to them, I realized that I couldn’t speak.  I felt something deep, welling up from within me.  Tears started flowing down my face, and I sat down next to the wall and cried.

They were not tears of sadness; they were tears of realness.  They were tears that come when you encounter something so authentic, so deeply true, that your spiritual heart fills up and spills over.  You become saturated by this Something More that we call God, the Spirit, Wisdom, Sophia, as a friend calls it.[1]  These are the tears that are present at a wedding, at the birth of a child—and in my case, at the birth of an awareness and clarity of my vocation to be a priest.  It was at this moment that I fully consented to transferring to The Episcopal Church to discern Holy Orders.  There, embraced by Brother Roger at Taize’.

It was like there wasn’t enough space within me for the realness, the fullness, of what I felt, so the tears had to carry the overflow outside of my body.

When I returned home, Lisa and I talked and we made the formal decision to transfer to The Episcopal Church, to be confirmed, and for me to take the risk of leaving the ordination process in the Presbyterian Church and enter into the process for the diocese, where nothing was guaranteed—except, and this is crucial—that I would be authentically living into this core story.

I wonder when you have had that feeling of being overcome from within, from having your heart spill over, saturated with grace.  What have been the moments in your life?

And, why don’t we talk about these more?  What don’t we share these stories with one another, these core stories of our lives?  They are, after all, what “make us up,” the stories that help nurture and encourage the life of each one of us—and the shared life of our spiritual community.

These core stories are the foundational narratives that articulate who we are as beloved creations of God, incarnations of God’s grace in our own particular lives.

The Pentecost moment is a core story for the Church: a pivotal, foundational moment that describes who we are, who God dreams us to be.

There, with the disciples, gathered in the room after witnessing Jesus ascending into heaven.  There, with many more questions than answers.  There, with anxiety and confusion.

In that space, the Spirit comes swirling in, saturating them with grace and presence.  It is hard to describe what that moment was like, so we use words like “flames” and “tongues of fire.”  We think back to images of dry bones coming together with the breath of life flowing in.  We think of all of creation groaning with the promise of new birth, waiting with anticipation for the fullness of God’s presence.

Flames, tongues of fire, bones and sinews and muscle, breath of life, groaning labor pains.  This is the realm of the Spirit.  Does it make us squirm? I hope so!

Last Sunday, Cynthia spoke of recognizing those times when we are invited to step out of “our comfortable corners,” and trust the movement of God’s grace.  In my experience, I would many times rather stay in my comfortable corner, but I know that my own growth is stifled if I stay there too long out of fear and anxiety.

In our Christian tradition, we understand the Spirit to be the vital force or energetic presence of God that connects, that weaves together, that inspires.  We imagine it as breath, as wisdom, even as creativity and imagination.  It is that impulse that lures us or even pushes us out of our comfortable corners into spaces where God wants to meet us, to fill us up, to overflow in our lives.

The Spirit births the Church, breaths life into it.

And that being said, I have been asking myself a question: do we have the power to thwart the Spirit?

It’s a crucial question to ask.

I don’t think we can stop the Spirit.  She has a tendency to squeeze around the edges of our locked doors, challenging our preoccupation with dignified customs when there is Gospel work to be done.  She shocks us with vivaciousness.

I don’t think we can thwart the Spirit, but I do think we can resist it.  In fact, I think we resist it all the time.  In fact, I think the Church has gotten pretty good at resisting the Spirit!

If we take the disciples gathered to be the icon of who we are as the Church—who we are called to be—then our discipleship is defined not be a retreat to comfortable and predictable corners but by an experience of profound ecstasy.

Ecstasy.  This is the core story of the Spirit, and we would do well to explore it, to open our hearts to it.

I would vouch to say that ecstasy may not rank highly on your list descriptions of our practice of faith.  And, I understand, believe me.  I remember when Lisa and I were in undergrad and we would sometimes go with a small group of friends to the Pentecostal Church on Sunday evenings.  One of our dear friends led the music there.  We would also do Roman Mass on Saturday night and Presbyterian worship on Sunday mornings, so to say our spiritual spectrum was wide might be an understatement.

But on those Sunday nights when we were there with the Pentecostals, boy was that outside my comfort zone!  For weeks they prayed that Lisa’s hair would grow, until we just politely told them that we were there to share in this experience but were not going to join and start growing out hair.

But those experiences of seeing these folks speak in tongues, shout out, and sing from their hearts.  It was like there was something that filled up their spiritual heart until it couldn’t hold any more and it just spilled over in song and word and….tears.

Years later there at Taize’ in France I think I got a taste of it myself.

Ecstasy.  They were moments of ecstasy.

You may know that the word “ecstasy” comes from ek-stasis, to be taken out of or to leave a stasis, a static experience.  To be moved.

This is Spirit language.  Dynamic, conversion, transformation, risk, swirling… This is Pentecost.

In the end, the Spirit blows where it will.

We hear the sound of it, but we don’t necessarily know where it came from or where it is going.

The creation groans with longing.

Bones rattle and are brought together, bone to its bone.

This is the Church’s struggle: to reclaim the ecstatic in a culture of fundamentalism and grasping out of fear and anxiety.  To reclaim the dynamism of the Living Spirit in a society that is fixated on power and control.

In theological terms, Brother David Stendl Rast, a phenomenal Benedictine monk, articulates this call for us to move from our acquiescence in Dogmatism, Legalism, and Ritualism into the ecstatic space of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  We are called to move from our rigidity, our comfortable corners, by purifying our heart.  And, in that conversion, we experience a Believer’s Mysticism that, in reality, connects us with the Founder’s Mysticism of our stories.

Put another way, our own ecstatic experiences of faith, the tears that overflow from our soul, connect us with the flames of fire that danced on the disciples’ heads.

Interestingly, Brother David imagines the movement in terms of a volcano.  There was an initial eruption, with fire, light, and heat.  And there was a flow that spread.  But, after time, there is cooling.  “The farther it got from its origins, the less it looked like fire,” he says.[2]

Fire turns to the stone of dogmatism, moralism, and ritualism.

“But,” he says, “there are fissures and clefts in the igneous rock of the old lava flows; there are hot springs, fumaroles, and geysers; there are even occasional earthquakes and minor eruptions.  These represent the great men and women who reformed and renewed religious tradition from within.  In one way or another, this is our task, too.  Every religion has a mystical core.  The challenge is to find access to it and to live in its power.  In this sense, every generation of believers is challenged anew to make its religion truly religious.”

So, perhaps we can ask ourselves this question: what is it in our lives that hinders the flow of the Spirit, that stifles the flowing heat of the Divine Presence of Christ that wants to overflow our hearts?  What in our lives stifles the flow of God?  How can we become more attuned to the presence of Christ?

That, my friends, is about ecstasy.  This is our core story.  I wonder, do we dare tell it?

[1] A deep bow to Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown here…for opening my eyes and heart to the reality of how the Wisdom of Christ, Sophia, fills our lives and hearts.

[2] David Stendl Rast, “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion” with the Council on Spiritual Practices.  http://csp.org/experience/docs/steindl-mystical.html.

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