The following is the text from the sermon I preached this past Pentecost Sunday. The texts for this past Sunday were Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:22-27 and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15. Photo from https://flic.kr/p/LVbxw.
The incredulous story of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost can catch us up leaving us with thoughts that the signs of the Holy Spirit have to be similar to this fantastical event leaving us with no doubt of the Holy Spirit’s work. In light of those extraordinary events, we forget that the Holy Spirit turned those fearful, cowering group of ‘believers’ who were gathered behind locked doors into courageous proclaimers of the good news of Christ’s love.
Those disciples went from hiding from the powerful out of fear to speaking truth to power, knowing that though they might face prison and even death that the risen Christ had given them the Holy Spirit to face what may be ahead of them and to be able to make sense of the death of the One who had meant so much to them.
Kevin Vickers in a speech to the graduating class of Mount Allison University told the story of how the Holy Spirit worked in his life. While he never said it in those words, I believe the reconciling work of the Holy Spirit is quite evident in what he says. He tells of the days following that fateful day in October 2014 when protecting the leaders of the government of Canada, Kevin Vickers shot and killed Michael Zehaf-Bibeau who had stormed the House of Commons.
He tells of his restless night after the shooting; his mother who persisted in calling him to come home, and the healing he found in his family gathered around him as they shared communion.
The morning after the shooting, he describes as the loneliest moment of his life when he awoke at 5:30 am, weeping. He goes on to tell us of his return home at the urging of his mother and shares where his thoughts turned in those moments surrounded by loved ones as they shared the Holy meal.
He said, “It kind of occurred to me that God, after he was crucified, the first person he let into the kingdom of heaven was the man crucified next to him — a convicted criminal and so with my grandchildren in my arms, I said a prayer for Michael. That point in time meant so much to me…I was ok now.”
The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, was beckoning Kevin Vickers home after a particularly difficult experience that meant he was the cause of someone else’s death. While most people would understand that there was justification for his act, coming to terms with the reality of inflicting violence on another person is another matter entirely.
However, understanding the Holy Spirit as just a comforter to us in our troubled times does not give us a full picture. There is more to the character of the Holy Spirit than that of a comforter. You might have heard the following expression: “the Holy Spirit comes to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”
We see both these characteristics in the ‘actions of the Spirit’ that day at Pentecost. We see that there was an uproar as the speaking in tongues caused a great disturbance.
People sneered and accused them of being drunk. There was amazement butt there was also confusion and fear.
Sara Miles in her faith autobiography, “take this bread” tells of the Holy Spirit’s role in her life as she made the transition from atheist and became a member of the congregation at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Diego California.
As a natural skeptic, Sara was unsure as to why she walked into that worship service in the first place. All the while she was participating in the service, her inner logic cried out within her calling the gathering that she was a part of ridiculous. Yet there was something beckoning her to remain. When she remained, she was invited to take part in the holy meal and in that moment she declares that “something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.”
And when Jesus happened to her, her life turned around and she continued to come back to be fed.
And when Jesus happened to Sara, the life of that congregation turned around as the winds of the Holy Spirit continued to blow into that place transforming them with her.
As a political activist, Sara was concerned with those in poverty and felt a call by the Holy Spirit to do something about it. She cajoled and disturbed the people in that congregation until she had convinced them, or in her own words, manipulated them, to host a food pantry in their church building to feed those very people that Christ called the church to serve.
The excuses were numerous. “Fundraising is difficult,” said one overwhelmed woman. The staff of the congregation discussed the idea and wondered: “What if we became a magnet for hundreds of crazy, homeless, potentially dangerous street people?” “What if thieves started coming back after the pantry to steal from us?” “How would our nice neighbours react to crowds of hungry strangers…on St. Gregory’s steps?”
Sara responded to the objections saying, “the first time I came to the Table at St. Gregory’s, I was a hungry stranger. Each week since then, I’ve shown up- undeserving and needy-and each week, someone’s hands have broken bread and brought me into communion. Because of how I’ve been welcomed and fed in the Eucharist, I see starting a food pantry at church not as an act of ‘outreach’ but one of gratitude. To feed others means acknowledging our own hunger and at the same time acknowledging God.”
In the end, the congregation agreed to open up their sanctuary to a weekly food pantry.
The Holy Spirit working through Sara shook up that congregation but it also gave them the strength to go out and do the work of continuing the welcome of the Eucharist in tangible ways in people’s lives.
David Lose, President of Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, in his blog says, “…take note, as in the readings today, so also in our world: if we heed the word and work of the coming-along-side Holy Spirit, we will inevitably be pushed beyond what we imagine and end up stirring things up. We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as the answer to a problem, but what if the Spirit’s work is to create for us a new problem…
As far as I can tell, nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus command us to go out and build churches, take care of old buildings, and devote yourself to crumbling institutions. No, Jesus says “go and make disciples” and “when you care for the least of these you are caring for me” and “love one another as I have loved you.” And this kind of work is inherently disruptive, difficult, and at times even dangerous. And so Jesus sends the Paraclete, the one who comes along side us to encourage, equip, strengthen, provoke and, yes, at times to comfort us so that we can get out there and do it all again.”
It’s easy to try to contain that powerful and somewhat fantastical story of the Holy Spirit to the history of the church but instead let’s begin to recognize that this story only tells of the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s work in the church’s midst.
The Holy Spirit is active here and now: provoking us to share God’s love in scary ways; demanding that we leave our comforts behind for the sake of the good news of Jesus Christ.
What is the Holy Spirit calling you to do?
What is the Holy Spirit calling us as the body of Christ to do?
Perhaps, just perhaps it’s that very idea that we’ve set aside with our own excuses, our own fears saying:
- We don’t have enough money.
- Who would do the work because it’s an immense job?
- What if I offend my neighbour?
- What if the church authorities feel like I’m stepping on their toes?
- What if…
When the heels get dug in; the excuses become more prevalent and the worries get bigger and bigger…well maybe we are feeling the power of the Holy Spirit coming to do his work in reconciling us and the world to God.
Maybe, just maybe, those impossible things, are the things that the Holy Spirit will help us do. And when we have our worst moments like Kevin Vickers…in the midst of it, the Holy Spirit will strengthen us and we will be ok.
 Sarah Miles, take this bread. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007, p. 58.
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