Monday, June 05, 2017

"We're taking her in"

Sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost, June 4, 2017 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.

O Holy Spirit,
By whose breath,
Life rises vibrant out of death;
Come to create, renew, inspire;
Come, kindle in our hearts your fire.

          Before I was ordained, I served as the Director of Christian Education at a parish in suburban Chicago.  When the Day of Pentecost was approaching, I decided to try something that had never been done in the parish before: a children’s sermon.

          As the day approached I was filled with anxiety.  More than one parishioner, when they caught wind of what I had planned, asked me directly not to do it. This was a congregation which used what we called then “The New Prayer Book,” but they used it exactly as they had used the previous Prayer Book, with not an ounce of difference from one week to the next save for the readings. Their reception of passing the Peace had not advanced beyond what I called the “glaring stage.”

          On top of this I had never done a children’s sermon before. You can see how the scene was set for disaster.

          The day came; I had a plan; but I also could barely remember my own name. The moment came and I called the children up. It took three tries amid facial expressions that ranged from skeptical to hostile.  I got the children seated around and reminded them we were baptizing little baby Joan this morning.

          My mind then went blank.  I finally blurted out, “What are we doing to Joan when we baptize her?” Immediately I wished I could take the question back. These were elementary school-aged children not first-year seminarians. There was silence.

          And just when I had determined the only sane thing to do was to rush them out of the service and take them to the parish hall out of harm’s way, a little girl, not much older than young Skylar, raised her hand. I winced as I called on her.

          And that little girl, at the top of her voice, in that cavernous old stone church cried, “We’re taking her in!”

          It took a moment for my rational mind to catch up with my anxiety-soaked brain. Then I said, “That is exactly what we are doing.”  And I sent them back to their seats lest something happen to overpower that answer.

          The Holy Spirit’s work in and through us is always what that little girl said. It is always about making and strengthening relationship, making our common life stronger, building it upon the foundation of love, the kind of love that often requires great courage if we are to participate in it.

          The little girl’s answer showed a level of spiritual engagement by children that I have experienced often since that moment.  It is not an engagement based on intellect. It has not come from memorizing the creed or Bible verses.  It is, I believe, innate and free from the rational system we adults try to impose on all this wonder, to the point where it is hard for us to see it at all.

          In a few moments we will pray over the newly baptized that the Holy Spirit will lead them in a life that is characterized by, among other things, “Joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.”

          When Jesus told us that we would have to be like children to enter the kingdom of God, he meant that we adults gradually come to control our spiritual sense, as a result of which the gifts of the Holy Spirit are dulled in us, include the gift of wonder.

          If the Holy Spirit works to take us all in to one family with Jesus our brother and God our parent by adoption, then wonder is one of the gifts we need to be able to see this great truth, which can be so horribly obscured by the seemingly infinite number of ways with which we come up to divide ourselves one from another.

          In the Nicene Creed we call the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of Life.” This gift of life is our most common bond. We share it with our friends no more than we share it with strangers, with those we love no more than with those who trouble or even frighten us.

          In the Latin version of the Nicene Creed, the phrase “Giver of Life” is one word:  vivificandem. It is where we get such wonderful words as “vivacious” and “vivid,” but also a word that we do not use much anymore, and we are the poorer for it:  vivify, “to give life to,” or “to brighten.”  Discovering this has led me to wonder if the English proper name for the Holy Spirit might actually be “Vivian!”

          The Holy Spirit’s first gift to all is life itself, followed close by our need for relationships that give us all those gifts for which we will pray:

Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.

          When we talk of the Holy Spirit in the church these days we often talk about those diverse and particular gifts given to each one of us that help make a body strong. Such is Paul’s point with the Christians in Corinth which we heard this morning.

          Those, however, are secondary gifts. The primary gifts of the Holy Spirit are what bind us together in a life-giving body, and, indeed which are life-giving to each and every one of us. They are gifts we all share (to put them in my own words):  curiosity and wisdom, courage and perseverance, imagination and love, delight and wonder. Put this way I hope you can see that we learn how to use these gifts as much from children as from any adult, for these things come naturally to children. The truth is they come naturally to all of us, but most of us adults need to work hard to let them come back to the fore of our life.

          Let us take these two persons in to share with us in the community of curiosity, imagination, wonder, and love which knows no bounds: the community of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, Vivian by any other name.

O Holy Spirit by whose breathe
Life rises vibrant out of death;
Come to vivify and to inspire;

Ignite our wonder with your fire.

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