Monday, May 12, 2008

Discomforter & Comforter

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the Day of Pentecost: Acts 2:1-21, John 7:37-39

How do we know when the Spirit shows up?

It’s an honest question, and an important one if this Spirit is God at work among us in the present time.

How do we know when the Spirit shows up?

We have a tendency in the church to claim that the Holy Spirit has shown up when things have gone our way, when God seems to be supplying our needs and clearing our path to something that we want.

But can the criteria for knowing when the Holy Spirit has been at work simply that we feel good about what has happened?

Being an Episcopalian I want to be a bit more rational about it than that. I have a suspicion of religious experience that is simply “feel good.” I want a bit more meat on the bones of the answer to the question.

How do we know when the Spirit shows up?

The images we use for the Holy Spirit are not very helpful to answer the question—they are at least confusing. On the one hand we have images of wind and fire, both things that move and change and shake up. On the other hand we have the image of the dove, all soft and, well, “coo-ey.” And then there is the image this morning of a spring of water within us and elsewhere John’s titles for the Spirit: Advocate and Comforter.

So which is it? Fire or dove? Wind or Comforter?

The answer must be both. But how? I want to propose that there is a kind of “cycle of the Holy Spirit”: the way the Spirit works using these contrasting images. The way we can tell that the Spirit has shown up in our lives.

The Holy Spirit is indeed the great mover and shaker of the people of God, and indeed the world. We can see this truth in the Acts reading this morning, the story of the day of Pentecost.

As the story goes, the disciples had been waiting in Jerusalem together for this promised Spirit after Jesus had taken leave of them. We are told they spent much time in “the upper room” together in prayer.

When the Day of Pentecost had come they were again together in that place of waiting and safety and calm. Then there came “a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” This was no soft summer breeze, but a hurricane. Suddenly things were anything but calm and safe. And what happened?

Among other things, they became exposed. They could no longer wait in that upper room. The Spirit “outed” them. And people took notice on the streets because these people were acting crazy, like they were drunk or something.

The Spirit always drives us out of our comfort zone, blows off the doors of our safe places and out into the streets. The most misnamed church I ever heard of was “the Ark of Safety.” I don’t think so. Not if the Holy Spirit is around.

We know the Spirit has shown up when we are not content just to be the Church in our safe and beautiful building dutifully at prayer. We know the Spirit has shown up when we feel literally shoved out the doors that have been blown off their hinges. Like those first disciples, the Spirit sends us onto the streets.

And then the Spirit sends us into community. That was the second sign of the Spirit in the Acts reading. First, the violent wind and the tongues of fire, and then the phenomenon of suddenly being given the gift of speaking in other languages, and being understood by the greatly diverse crowd that had gathered in pilgrimage for the festival. A new and wondrous community formed, but one so unlikely and so crazy looking that many bystanders suppose that a lot of people here began their latest binge with breakfast.

So the Spirit always drives us out the doors and into community. The Spirit forms unlikely, weird community—people together who don’t belong together.

This weird community into which we are called is, of course, the human family, the family of the streets. The Church as a community is meant to be a microcosm of that larger community. It is to its shame that it is often not.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury once said, “Baptism catches us up in solidarities not of our choosing.” We have a tendency to think of the church as a chosen community, because we do, by and large, choose which church we go to, and it is, naturally, one in which we feel comfortable. But Archbishop Rowan is quite right. The church is also a place of discomfort as we are put next to folks to whom we wouldn’t necessarily be attracted.

This ought to be true of the church at all levels. Despite the fact that we call a church like this one a “family,” I don’t think that all of you would actually choose all the rest of you to be members of your family. There is, and ought to be, irony in the air when we call one another sister and brother. It is why passing the Peace is such an important and profound act. We are wishing peace to all those around us, even those to whom we would not naturally wish peace—some of them our brothers and sisters that we wish God would give a swift kick in the rear.

But it is also why it is so important for us to be part of a diocese, and a worldwide fellowship of churches, because then the differences get very large and very stark. Yet the Spirit calls us into community with these very different people. It is why schism has always been seen to be perhaps the greatest sin in the church—it denies the work of the Spirit in bringing disparate peoples together.

So we know the Spirit shows up when we are driven out of our comfort zones and onto the streets and into community not entirely of our choosing.

But once there we find the Spirit to be Advocate and Comforter. In community we are upheld and given consolation. We need to seek this kind of community in all our communities, even the general civil society to which we all belong—the human family. We ought to be one another’s advocates and comforters. The Spirit seeks to empower us to be these things for one another.

This too is radical, because the world around us is deeply competitive and harsh. Instead of being one another’s advocates, we are encouraged to be one another’s accusers, and instead of being comforters we are encouraged to be autonomous. “The fewer people I depend on the better.”

Sadly the church can act this way as well, but we are called to a better way, the way of the Spirit, where we are all seen as deserving of this wellspring within and worthy of advocacy and comfort.

So there is a sense, at least for us in the church, that we are constantly being blown onto the streets and then being led back into community. That is the cycle of the Holy Spirit to which I referred earlier. We are sent into the world and called into community, made uncomfortable and given comfort.

Now this is not necessarily good news. It can seem like a never-ending roller coaster ride. It is no wonder that many churches seek to shut the roller coaster down and seek to be simply “arks of safety.” In this world of ours, after all, can we get enough comfort?

If we are truly to go deeper into union with God, deeper into our true selves, and deeper into relationship with the world around us, the answer is “yes.” We can get too much comfort. Held in ceaseless comfort we become increasingly self-centered and even greedy. The world becomes increasingly all about us and we lose any sense of justice. Our spirit, the Spirit, withers and dies.

But likewise we can see too much action and get lost in our own self-righteousness, pouring out our spirit so much that the well dries up because it is never replenished.

The cycle of the Holy Spirit that I have described is literally vital to our lives. Discomfort and comfort, action and rest, passion of the spirit and replenishment of the spirit. Both are necessary for the church and each one of us to live whole and full lives.

Let us thank God today for the gift of the Holy Spirit: Discomforter and Comforter, vibrant life of the world and the church, of you and of me.

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