The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Pentecost, Year B, 2018
May 20, 2018
Then there’s the Spirit…
I rearranged my office again. I’m editing chapters for an upcoming book, and I got writer’s block—a big case of it—so I started dragging things again. Will helped me move my desk, and I took time moving chairs and files, the rug Lisa bought me when I first moved into my study, the computer, and books…lots of books.
That was early last week. By the end of the week, I had convinced Cynthia to rearrange her office as well. The impulse to move was spreading.
That is the way I operate, it seems, both at the office and home: when I get stuck, this urge comes up from within me to move things. Same furniture, same books, but adjusted for a new perspective, for new life. Shifted for a new field of vision.
I thought about this when we had our security training last week, as Officers Drew and Jessica reminded us of how we are such creatures of habit. He asked for a show of hands of who drives the same way to work and back home each day, of who comes in the same door. I thought of how I have my same routine of walking around my study to turn on my lamps. And, there are a lot of them. Cynthia laughs and says we need the choir to sing an anthem as I light the room because it takes a little while.
It’s my daily ritual, when I come in to this space that is, for me, home base, comfortable, my grounding spot. I never know what is going to land on my desk any given day. I never know what challenges and opportunities we will encounter as a parish community. To be honest, I never know what I will fail at, because I fail at something each and every day. So, I give myself a little slack to make the space warm, filled with light, candles, icons, and just a hint of incense sometimes.
We are creatures of habit, as we were reminded in the security training. We have our routines, and we stick to them. And, they serve us well in the ordering of our days. Our routines and patterns offer us a framework, a matrix, a trellis on which we can find structure. And that is a good thing.
Until it stifles, until the maintenance of our routines becomes the focus of our life and we forget that the framework, that structure is there to serve our life—not the other way around. Sometimes, we get confused about the order of things…
We are called to be mindful of how we are living in the world. We are called to be conscious, because as Walter Brueggemann reminds us, psychic numbness is a constant threat.
On this day, the Feast of Pentecost, our eyes and hearts focus on the Spirit of Christ that comes swirling into that room in which the disciples were gathered. There they were, after witnessing Jesus ascending into heaven. There they were, with confusion and questions, and an impulse to order their lives, to regain some structure. When, suddenly…the Spirit comes swirling in, flowing in around the edges of the door, through the cracks in the window.
We have a difficult time describing what the Spirit is, what She does, so we use words like “flames of fire” and “tongues of fire resting on heads,” to try to imagine what is going on. We also think of images of fields of dry bones beginning to rattle, coming together, with flesh coming back, enlivening…and the breath of life flowing in.
This energy, this flowing life, this force that sweeps into the room and…stirs things up. It causes the disciples to speak in a way they have never spoken before. Imagine a new life they could not imagine before. Take steps they could never have taken before.
When we think of God, in our Christian faith, we remember that we practice a Trinitarian faith: God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
With the Father, the Creator, we have safely relegated this away from us, far, far away out there somewhere. Distant God. This is unfortunate, but if we’re honest it makes us feel better, more comfortable. We so easily reduce God down to a mere Santa Claus figure who apparently likes to keep a scorecard for punishment and reward. What a short-sighted image.
And, with the Son, with Jesus, we keep him relegated to two thousand years ago there in Roman Palestine. Or, we keep him stuck in the words on the page. That’s safer, because we don’t like the things he says sometimes: talk about changing political structure and assumptions, talk about economic justice, talk about social bonds and self-sacrificing love, talk about greed, and our fixation on power and control, the habits we have that preserve the way we want to live. When it does creep in with the lectionary texts, preachers feel like they have to be a bit wary, a bit cautious, because we don’t want folks accusing us of being socialists. And, we don’t want folks getting upset and pulling their pledges because we are mixing politics and religion—as if Jesus ever shied away from naming what needs to be named in the life of the community and world. As if Jesus refrained himself from shining a light on the tension between how we live when anchored in our ego and grasping and greed on one hand and the Gospel’s call to lay down our lives, to empty ourselves, to welcome the stranger, the orphan, the poor, to seek and serve all people on the other hand.
So, when it comes to the Father and the Son, we prefer to keep them a bit distant. And, they feel more manageable. Perhaps we feel like we can keep going with our normal routines, our assumptions, our patterns.
But then, there’s the Spirit!
I remember when Lisa and I were in undergrad, we would go with our friend to her Pentecostal Church some Sunday evenings. She led the music there, and we loved it! We also went with other friends to Roman Mass on Saturday night and Presbyterian services on Sunday mornings, so to say our religious spectrum was wide is an understatement.
There was something about being in that space at the Pentecostal Church when folks would speak in tongues, when the music would swell, when they would walk forward, with tears…and hold one another, hearts pouring forth, being honest about struggles, being hopeful.
Then, there’s the Spirit.
There was, in that space, a feeling of ecstasy. And that’s not a word we hear a lot in worship, is it? Ecstasy.
Episcopalians may not be known as ecstatic people. That may be an understatement! But there it is, at the heart of our tradition: this ecstatic moment when the Spirit came swirling in among and within the disciples—and the Blessed Mother don’t forget—all gathered in the room wondering what came next.
There it is, that energetic force that inspired them to form a community of love and hope and peace that radiated out from that room to spread God’s love throughout the world.
If there’s a foundational element to the Church’s existence, it’s ecstasy.
Ecstasy. When you look at the word itself, you see the truth of what it means: ek-stasis, to be taken out of, to move out of, stasis, out of a static way of being and looking. Ecstasy. To be moved. To move. To be rearranged, reoriented, re-invigorated, re-energized.
With what? With Love. With the love of God. That is what the Spirit is: the Love of God that comforts us with the hope of everlasting life on one hand and challenges us to become aware of our tendency to protect our routines on the other hand. Comfort and challenge are not mutually exclusive when they are anchored in the Love of God. Enough with zero-sum games.
I think to what Bishop Curry preached yesterday at the wedding at St. George’s Chapel. I think of the camera shots with members of the royal family with mouths stuck open. The looks on faces, “Did he just say that?”
Yes. He did. He named it out loud: we are called to be Spirit people who are moved to share God’s love in the world. We are called to name out injustices, rigid frameworks, egoic postures, our tendency for greed and power and control. We are called to name the truth that all our political and economic beliefs, all those frameworks are to be seen and evaluated through the love and hope of Jesus Christ. Not the other way around. We need to get our priorities straight.
Here’s what I offer you today. Here’s what I think is a way to understand our struggle and vocation as the Church: we have become period people when we are called to be semi-colon people.
Here’s what it looks like:
We say to each other, there is pain and heartache in the world. There is injustice, greed, war, violence, manipulation, constant lies, misguided political posturing that is rooted solely in self-interest and special interests, toxic tribalism that leads us to believe if our team wins it doesn’t matter if we forfeit…our soul. There is hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression. When I have conversations with folks, we name these things. And then we so easily stop there. We say, “this is the way things are. This is the way the world is.” And we put a period on the sentence. And, we’ll often hear, we share our thoughts and prayers.
We put a period on the sentence when we should put a semicolon.
There is injustice, fear, greed, war, violence, manipulation, constant lies, mistrust; however! However.
Then there is the Spirit. Swirling in our lives, calling us to rearrange the staid furniture of our existence. Examine our habits, our assumptions. Examine our loyalties. Be honest about our resistances while we find courage in this community to name what needs to be named—not out of anger or frustration but out of love!
The power of love, as Bishop Curry described at St. George’s. This is what fuels us. This is what energizes us. This is what encourages us. “When love is the way, there’s plenty good room for all God’s children,” he said.
Then, there is the Spirit. Always the Spirit.
Then the bones came together, bone to its bone. Then, sinews began forming, connecting them. Then, flesh came upon them. Then….then….life was breathed into them and they lived.