Transcript of Extemporaneous Sermon
Preached at: South Wedge Mission and Trinity Episcopal Church
Rochester, New York
24 May 2015
Day Texts: Acts 2.1-21
John 15.26-27, 16.4-15
An audio recording from Trinity Episcopal in Greece, NY can be heard here
Synopsis: While being "Pentecostal" can feel foreign and even intimidating, according to Jesus it's actually pretty practical; it involves learning to hear and discern the voice of the Advocate in the midst of the world of the Accuser, and becoming advocates on behalf of what God is bringing to life in the gifts and possibilities of others.
We pastors love Pentecost. Because the liturgical color for the feast is red. Which means we get to wear our red stoles. Usually, the stoles we received at our ordinations. And if there’s anything pastors love more than preening about in their favorite vestments, its preening with an added injection of nostalgia.
I’m no different with my red stole. And I especially love this image, the picture of the Wild Goose. See, for the Celtic Christians, the Wild Goose was a perfect symbol for the Holy Spirit, that mysterious, often elusive third member of the Trinity. The Wild Goose was, well, wild. Free. Uncontrollable. In John 3, Jesus compares her to the wind, blowing in unpredictable, untamable directions. The Wild Goose of the Holy Spirit refuses to be boxed in or defined.
Which is maybe why I personally also need a slightly more concrete avian concept to help me understand the oft-perplexing Holy Firebird. Which is why I turn to that other love of my life - my chickens.
As those of you who know me know, I love my chickens - even more than my ordination stole. There’s Stripey - because she’s striped. Red, because she’s red. Shrieker, because she shrieks…and, well you get the picture. But first among this noble brood of hens is my personal favorite: Puffy Face. Because she has feathers all over her face. Like a beard. Like me.
She also burned the top of her head this winter on the heat lamp. Not unlike the monks of old who cut their hair in a tonsure, Friar-Tuck style, to symbolize that, like the disciples on Pentecost, they too had been specially visited by the Holy Spirit, Puffy is slightly bald on top, and mostly burned in the brain.
And like the Holy Spirit, Puffy has one sole purpose: escaping to freedom. Every morning I go to check the eggs. Every morning, Puffy is casually crouched in the tulips, chowing away. Puffy is put back in the pen. I go inside with the eggs. I look out the window. Puffy is once more out and about, this time heading for the strawberries or the vegetables. No matter how many times I staple shut the gaps in the fence or secure the loose door, no matter how short we clip her wings or how often we thwart her, Puffy finds a way. She defies confinement. She seeks freedom. And often, tries to lead her sisters to liberation as well.
And while all of this talk of wild geese and chickens and tongues of fire may seem birdbrained in themselves, when it comes to the Holy Spirit, they’re often the best we have to go on. Particularly for those of us from more “introverted” Christian traditions, the Spirit is talked about often, encountered seldom. Certainly, she shows up when we bother to recite the creed; we invoke her over the waters of baptism and ask God to pour her out over the Eucharistic elements. We even call upon her as a kind of stamp of approval at the culmination of churchy procedures like committee meetings and ordinations, often paying her lip service - “it seems pleasing to the Holy Spirit that measure X should be enacted.” Because, after all, the Holy Spirit would never desire for us to go back to committee. Not even Satan would encourage that line of torture.
But in general, if you’re like me, you often wonder why we bother at all to play at the whole “Holy Spirit” thing. Certainly, other churches seem to have the market cornered as far as being Pentecostal and Charismatic goes. They speak in tongues. They display a fiery level of exuberance and passion that makes us Lutherans and Episcopalians blush and edge our chairs away uncomfortably. It’s not that I doubt for a second the reality of their experience - it’s just, I’d prefer them to experience the Spirit a little further away from me and my quiet, solitary contemplation of my prayer book.
And yet, if I’m honest, my real discomfort might also stem from a bit of jealously. Those churches seem to have a spark of life I often find lacking in my own faith practice. And, what’s more, it’s just plain confusing. After all, in my baptism, I was told that God anointed me with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Every week, during the blessing of the Eucharist, we ask God to “pour out your Spirit upon us; make us holy.” And yet, it’s kind of a let down to leave Sunday evening and head into the regular week of life and work and feel so…not-spiritual. Uninspired. Unempowered.
Generally, if you ask someone if they’re racist, they’ll always say “no,” when almost always, the truth is, “yes.” In the same way, if you ask someone if they’re “spiritual,” the general reply will be “yes,” when the reality is, “I’m not really sure.”
If you’re like me, perhaps you wish you could get a little bit of that Wild Goose power in you. After all, who doesn’t want a little extra power and exuberance in their everyday lives and practice? I don’t need to speak in tongues. But I’d like to know that the Holy Spirit is a practical promise for my life and not merely an imaginary number to balance the doctrinal equation of Trinity.
Luckily, in today’s Gospel lesson from St. John, Jesus Himself offers what I think is a really helpful starting point for embracing a more practical Pentecostalism in our lives.
As part of His farewell prayer to His disciples, Jesus promises not to leave the disciples abandoned upon his departure. Even though He’s going away (see: Feast of the Ascension - last Sunday), reinforcements are on the way. Help will arrive in the form of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus here refers to as “the Advocate.” And the Advocate will help, He continues, by leading them into all truth; by proving the world wrong “about sin and righteousness and judgement.”
Notice here that Jesus doesn’t mention speaking in tongues or anything externally supernatural. Instead, the words Jesus uses here sound much more to me like the language of discernment. As if to say, “there’s a certain way that the world thinks about these really important things - sin, righteousness, judgment - and it’s not the whole truth. The Spirit will help you see rightly. I’m sending you the Spirit so you can learn to see grace and mercy and love rightly in the midst of a world of lies and half-truths.”
And why exactly do we need such a vision, these “Gospel goggles?” Jesus drops another hint when he makes the powerful pronouncement: “about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” The ruler of this world, in scripture, is none other than Satan. And in ancient Hebrew, the word Satan actually means “the Accuser.”
So track with me here: Jesus has just drawn up a mini metaphor of the state of reality. It’s like a courtroom, and we are the defendants. One the one side stands the Prosecuting Attorney, the Accuser, the one who makes the rules of this world. On the other side, fighting for our freedom, is the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.
Something about living a practical Pentecostalism means grasping this dichotomy between the Accuser and the Advocate.
And it’s a matter of life and death that we do. Because if we’re honest with ourselves, we know what the world according to the Accuser looks like. It’s the world we live in when we leave church and head back to the workplace. The world where we operate on principles of fear and scarcity. Where things are valued according to success and failure. Where we have to compete with one another for approval, coerce one another for control, and persecute one another for power.
The world that the Accuser shapes in his twisted image is one in which there is no freedom, only the chains of calculation and measurement. It’s a world where some human beings are deemed more valuable because of their paycheck or their assets, while others are condemned to poverty and prison because of their race or their neighborhood or their orientation.
In the Accuser’s world, we don’t get a second-chance at marriage because that first divorce means we lost our chance at happiness. In the Accuser’s world, you are worthy of notice depending on how many Facebook friends and likes you have received, and anonymity and rejection are hells reserved for the unpopular the unbeautiful. In the Accuser’s world, you are judged righteous because of your accomplishments, and you are a sinner if you fail to play the game of blame, shame, slander and guilt that you’ve been rigged into since the day you started breathing.
We’ve all felt the lash of an Accuser’s scorn. And, if we’re honest, we’ve also benefitted from serving as the Accuser’s informants and co-conspirators. In the Accuser’s world, grace and freedom and love are beautiful ideals to aspire to on a Sunday afternoon - but are left behind as mere sentiment and weakness when we enter into the real world.
The Accuser’s world is not the world God intended. It is the world Christ came to destroy so that the world God loves can be reborn. And that is the promise when Jesus declares that the “ruler of this world has been condemned.” The Accuser is a liar. The Cross of Christ says that the Accuser is a liar. The Advocate is given to us so that we can remember who we are and whose we are.
No truth has made a bigger difference in my own spiritual life than the discovery that the Advocate is not the Accuser. A little over two years ago, I was brought to the point of having to make some major changes in my life before my decisions destroyed me. The very next day after finally surrendering, I heard this same Gospel lesson preached. I heard the Holy Spirit called “the Advocate.” And I suddenly realized: that voice of accusation I’d hear my whole life - it wasn’t God’s. The voice of shame, that told me I was finished because of my failures; that I would never be good enough for grace; that I was defined by my doubts and my destructive choices - this voice was not God’s, and was never God’s. It was the Accuser’s. And it was a lie.
Which meant that I had never actually really heard or listened to God’s actual voice. Tears of relief and amazement rushed over me as a I realized that God’s Spirit is an Advocate - that God wanted the best for me, wanted the encourage and inspire me to let go of the chains in my life, not to condemn me, but to set me free. That God loved me and had always loved me and was always in my corner, fighting for me and speaking words of kindness and forgiveness on my behalf.
The voice of truth and the truth of the Spirit is one of Advocacy, not Accusation.
And we live, not in the Accuser’s world, but the world of the Advocate. Just as, at the creation of the world, God took the dust and the darkness and formed it into a world, and breathed the Holy Spirit into that dust and gave it life, so, in the Advocate’s world, God is taking our dead ends and our failures and our brokenness and our shame and gathered them into this body, this community, this new creation, this church, and breathing the Spirit of Life into them.
In the Advocate’s world, shame does not exist, only second-chances and fresh improvisations. There is no condemnation, but possibility, and potential, and a new world about to dawn. In the Advocate’s world, we can live, not as if tonight might be our last night on earth, but as if tomorrow might be the first day of the rest of our lives. In the Advocate’s world, each of you, you and you, and me, has a gift and a contribution to make, and God’s Spirit is swirling about like the wind, waiting to inspire you and breathe the glory of your beauty into the midst of the darkness of the Accuser’s lies and declare a more splendorous truth.
The Holy Spirit is our Advocate, and this means that, truly, God is FOR US, on our side, and desires to see the world flourish and become wild and free, as God first made it to be. If you’ve ever had an advocate in your life - a coach, a teacher, a friend, or someone else - then you know what it feels like to suddenly come alive when someone believes in you. Well, even if you’ve never heard such a voice before, consider yourself informed this day: God believes in you. God has a plan for you. God has a gift to give the world for you. And God will advocate for you and through you, in order to bless the world with the goodness with which God created you.
Because, see, in the Advocate’s world, there is no competition or scarcity, only communion and abundance. Which means we are freed from having to play the game of life as if grace for you means scraps for me. God’s body, the Church, is called to be a community that Advocates. Believing God’s promise of abundance to be true, we no longer fear using our words, our actions and our lives to advocate for and encourage others. We are free to live in the real world - God’s world - no matter what the Accuser’s lies may say.
And believe me, while it’s a far cry from speaking in tongues, when we speak with the grammar of gift and grace, it’s going to sound like we’re drunk at nine in the morning like those first disciples. It’s a language of poetry and possibility that makes no sense to the cold computational calculus of the Accuser’s logic. In a world where some believe that black voices forfeit their right to be heard because of their rage, the Church advocates: listen to them, because therein, you might just hear the voice of God calling us to repentance.
In a world that predicts prison bed counts based on the failed test scores of third graders and consigns struggling children to lives of crime and poverty, it will sound like a rushing wind to suggest that perhaps our corporations would do well to invest in these same lives, because maybe, just maybe, their resilience, creativity and experience of oppression might be more valuable to a company and a world than another good boy in a suit and tie.
The Gospel of the Advocate will sound strange to a world addicted to the syrupy sound of the Accuser’s lies. And yet, it is precisely this Gospel, and this Spirit of Advocacy, that is the Church’s calling. It’s our mission, and it’s for each one of us.
And you don’t need to prophecy before the masses to embrace your anointing for Practical Pentecostalism. This week, maybe it starts with something simple. Take this practice suggested by my good friend Rev. Keith Anderson, the Lutheran church’s social media guru. What if, say, for every one facebook post or tweet about ourselves, we used our bandwidth to then offer ten posts highlighting the gifts and contributions of others? What if the Church stopped worrying about winning the Accuser’s measurement game - and simply lived the freedom of getting to live a life of encouraging and discovering and midwifing the beauty being born in our fellow children of God all around us?
Practical Pentecostalism is, in that sense, deceptively simple. And not a little bit challenging. It means, like Puffy Face the chicken, never accepting the chains and the locked gates of the coop as the final word. It means constantly inviting ourselves to self-awareness: am I acting out of trust in the Accuser’s promises right now, or out of a conviction of the Gospel of the Advocate? Are my words and actions and my life helping to lock doors and box in God’s children - or to break locks, magnify possibility, and unleash the potential freedom in the world and the people that God loves?
This week, courageously try playing the Advocate game. Ask God: who has been an advocate in my life? How did that person advocate for me, and how did that make me feel? Where am I calling to advocate on someone else’s behalf this week? And then, ask for the grace and the faith and the wild inspiration of the Holy Spirit to help love their life into being.
Like Puffy face, we are called to let no chains constrain us. We are children of God. We are made free by the Cross which has condemned the condemnation of the Accuser, and opened the doors to a world in which grace and peace are the way things really are. This is Practical Pentecostalism. Go out, in whatever language necessary, and proclaim it to the world. Live it into the world. Live. In Jesus Name. Amen.