May 27, 2012 “ Day of Pentecost
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.
And you shall renew the face of the earth.
O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy his consolations, through Christ our Lord.
In many ways St. John’s is just like most every other Episcopal church. Other churches might not have the sense of history that we do, others might not be quite as elegantly beautiful, or have such warm and attractive parishioners, or such a charming and lovable rector, but in many ways we’re all the same. When you go elsewhere to an Episcopal church, there is a similar feel to the liturgy. We’re all reading the same lessons, receiving the same sacraments, hearing the word proclaimed in a similar context. That helps us know that we’re part of something bigger than us. As good as each parish is, none of them could exist without the rest. We’re all in this together as the Holy Spirit leads us into the mission of the Church.
There are some differences though between St. John’s and most other churches. One of them is the way our altar is situated. In most other churches, the priest stands behind the altar facing the people. Here the priest stands with the people facing the altar. Both ways of placing the altar are good, I will hasten to say. And one day ours may change. When I first arrived here I told the Vestry I was probably going to move the altar but then I decided I liked it the way it is. The next rector may well have a different preference or I could well change my mind one day. But there are certain advantages in the way it is now, one of which may be especially recognized on the Feast of Pentecost, that time when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
One of our great struggles in life is that we are so weighed down by our sin and the pain we have experienced that we can’t move on. We carry heavy burdens around with us that keep us from living into this moment as fully as we could. We resent things that have happened to us. We feel we have missed opportunities. We regret past behaviors, our own and others’. We can’t forgive others. We can’t forgive ourselves. If only those things had happened differently, then things would be better. Much of life is wasted looking backwards. How can I be in this moment or imagine a future moment, when all I can see is the pain and regret of past moments?
Every time we gather for corporate worship we proclaim the truth that all those burdens we carry have already been taken care of God. God, we proclaim over and over, forgives us. God, we proclaim over and over, doesn’t even remember the sins of the past. God has wiped the slate clean through the abiding act of the cross and God starts brand new with us every day. The problem is not that God is vengeful or full of wrath and needs appeasing. The problem is that we cannot let go of the burdens of the past. We cannot see ourselves as God sees us. We’re looking backwards. God is always looking forward. The Holy Spirit blows freshly in our lives to renew the face of the earth but we sometimes miss that because we’re looking in the wrong direction.
One of the advantages of the way our altar is situated is that there is that strong visual given to us as we celebrate the Eucharist that we are all looking ahead. The advantage of the other way of situating an altar is that we are given the visual of gathering around a table and I’m not trying to say that other churches should change their altars to be like ours. But there are advantages of the way ours is situated. As I stand at the altar facing with you, we are being thrust into what lies ahead. We are receiving fuel for that great journey. We are being sent into what could be.
Churches were designed long ago to look like upside-down ships. The word nave, this part of the church where the people sit, comes from the same root as does navy. If we take that visual, then as I stand at the altar, it’s like I’m on the bow of the ship and we’re all going out to sea together to see what’s there, to play with the Leviathan as our psalm says, to ride forward to discover uncharted territory. I’m on the bow looking for icebergs or the distant shore.
Or maybe it’s like we’re on an airplane together. I’m up there in the cockpit, steering. Maybe it’s like a big car and I’m the hood ornament. Some days it feels like we’re a Mack truck hurtling down the road and I’m the bug screen or we’re a big locomotive and I’m the cow-catcher out front.
You get the point. We’re on a vessel and we’re being propelled into what is next, what could be, what God has in store for us, into the great adventure lying before us. We’re built for movement. We’re not built to just stand around and look at each other. We’re going somewhere, or at least we should be. That’s the invitation of the Holy Spirit. We are a great vessel with the wind at our backs, or we can be if we will allow it.
Those burdens are pretty heavy though and they create a lot of drag. If we’re trying to anchor down, there’s not much chance of moving forward. In some ways the Holy Spirit is an inviting sort of presence, gently giving us new opportunities to set down the pain we have held onto too long, giving us a new chance to start fresh. In other ways the Holy Spirit is a gale force and it will eventually break those moorings we have constructed and thrust us out to the high seas. Sometimes life invites us to let go the past. Sometimes life wrenches the past out of our grasp. And it is all good. We are built for forward movement and the Holy Spirit is designed to propel us.
So what does that mean for you this Day of Pentecost? What burden might you be invited to let go of? Nothing you have done or failed to do, nothing anyone else has done to you or not done for you, none of that means squat to God. The very worst things become the means by which we learn and grow and are enabled to meet what lies ahead.
What sort of obsessive-compulsive approach might you need to let go of? The mistake of the Pharisees and the Sadducees was that they thought repetition and rules were what God wanted. God is certainly about order over chaos, but God craves adventure for us, not just the same dull approach day after day. What sort of fears might be holding you back? Sometimes we just have to let go in order to find trust and faith.
Today the Holy Spirit moves in our lives to carry us into all that could be. The great triune God “ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit “ acts in such a way that the horrible things about the past are transformed into that which gives us wisdom for the future. God is moving ahead and would love for us to follow. The Holy Spirit invites on this day of Pentecost to grow into the image of Christ.