FIRST LESSON: Responsive Reading from Proverbs
EPISTLE LESSON II Timothy 4:1-8
SERMON: “Growing the Gifts of the Spirit - Patience”
From the time we were infants, wailing for our mothers to come and attend to our need -- whether it was for food, or comfort or a dry diaper, until the last days of our lives, when we come to the point when we are just waiting, perhaps even anxious for God to receive us into heaven, from our first days until our last days, again and again we need the gift of patience.
When I was a little girl -- about third grade I think -- my mother had sewn an outfit for me that I really liked -- a skirt and top (This was back in the days when girls had to wear skirts or dresses to school). After quite a few wearings and washing's the hem came loose on the skirt, so I put it in Mom’s mending pile, and well -- what happened after that made me really identify with a story in this month’s Reader’s digest about a boy named John who had outgrown some relatively new underwear, so he threw the unwanted items in the wastebasket. His mother found them and put them back in his bureau drawer. So John put the clothing in the family’s bag of items to donate to charity. But again his mother retrieved it, and again John found it stacked neatly in his drawer. But John finally solved the problem. He put the items in his mother’s mending basket and never saw them again! I never got to wear that skirt again either.
Any of us who have waited for something to get done from the mending basket, know something about how important patience is.
If you've ever sat in the doctor’s office you know that some doctors’ offices seem to move slower than turtles. There’s a story about two big turtles and one little turtle who decided to have a picnic on the river bank. They packed a lunch basket with sandwiches and headed for the river. When they arrived, it began to rain, and the two big turtles ordered the little turtle to return home for an umbrella. The little turtle agreed, on the condition that the others should not begin eating the sandwiches until he returned. Then the little turtle left and the big turtles began to wait patiently for his return. A day passed, then a week, then a month, then a year! Still there was no sign of the little one. So one of the big turtles said to the other, “He’s not coming back. I think we should start eating without him.” Whereupon, the little turtle stuck his head out from a nearby rock and said, “If you do, I won’t go any further!” We have all had to wait for other people, and sometimes we feel like we’re waiting on a really slow turtle.
Discover Card has recently aired some commercials to inform customers that when they call, they will get an actual person – without having to go through a lot of button-pressing. That’s a real selling point for many of us! I can remember times when I have had to call the Board of Pensions about insurance coverage. 1-800-773-7752 “Thank you for calling the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) . . . If you know the extension of your party, you may dial it now. All callers desiring assistance, please stay on the line for the next available representative. (music) Thank you for your patience. Please continue to hold and a representative will serve you as quickly as possible. (more music) Thank you for your patience. Please continue to hold and a representative will serve you as quickly as possible. (more music). . . . I once got that recording seven times before a human being answered my call. Normally I wouldn't bother to count, but having started study for this sermon on patience, I did count. And I timed how long I had to listen to music between each recorded message -- 45 seconds. That means I waited more than five minutes to talk with a real person. I think that’s why they invented cordless phones, because we hate to be tied down to a phone for five or more minutes waiting for someone to talk to us. And yet, what is five minutes compared to waiting for weeks, months or even years for some things to happen?
Dateline NBC did a piece a few years back in which they posed a question to viewers: “How long do you think people will wait for an elevator without becoming visibly agitated at a delay. 15 seconds? 30 seconds? 40 seconds? a minute? How long do you think? The answer right after these important messages.”
We are an impatient people - instant coffee, fast food, microwave ovens, channel surfing with our remote controls. Now and then I think my computer is really slow, but compared to the manual typewriter I learned to type on - my old -- 2 year old -- laptop is fast. How many of you have heard someone say, “I can’t wait for . . .” (you fill in the blank: I can’t wait for Christmas; I can’t wait for my birthday; I can’t wait for school to get out. When the kids were little and they would say “I can’t wait for . . . “ we used to answer, “Guess what!” And they would with eager anticipation say, “What?!” And we would calmly answer, “You’re going to have to.”
The fruit of the Spirit is patience. How long will most people wait for an elevator before becoming visibly agitated? 40 seconds. That’s all. And I waited 45 seconds seven times for a representative to come on the phone line.
How do we learn to be more patient? First of all, by getting things in perspective. What is waiting for 40 seconds for an elevator when compared to climbing ten, twenty, thirty flights of stairs? How do we wait over five minutes to talk to a real person at some company with whom we do business? One way is to plan for it – focus on something else while you wait, even if it’s just reading an e-mail or surfing the web, do some paperwork, read a book or magazine, or write a note. A five minute wait is really nothing in the great cosmic chain of events. Am I always patient? No. But keeping things in perspective and focusing on something else do help.
There are lots of things in life we have to wait for, and so we pray “Lord, give me patience, ––– and I need it now!”
Sometimes it’s not so much a matter of time, as that we are called upon to be patient with the things other people say and do, like the teacher who had just finished putting the last pair of boots on her first-graders -- thirty-two pairs in all. The last little girl said, “You know what, teacher? These aren't my boots.” The teacher removed them from the girl’s feet. Only then did the little girl continue, “They are my sister’s, and she let me wear them.” The teacher quietly put them back on her pupil. Now that calls for patience!
Patience isn't about waiting. It is how we act while we are waiting. How can we learn to act patiently with the annoying things our children, spouse, parents, friends, co-workers and other people do? It takes practice.
As a young Frenchman pushed his infant son’s carriage down the street, the baby began to howl with rage. He checked, the diaper was dry, no pins sticking the baby, who had just been fed. Nothing seemed to help, but the child continued to scream. “Please, Bernard, control yourself . . . Easy there, Bernard, keep calm!” the father kept repeating quietly.
“Congratulations, Monsieur,” said a woman who had been watching. “You know just how to speak to infants -- calmly and gently, and with great patience.” Then she said, “So the little fellow is named Bernard?”
“No, madame,” corrected the father. “His name is André. I’m Bernard.”
Self-talk is one way we cultivate patience. “Easy Bernard!”
Think about it. Raise your hand if you talk to yourself. Just about everyone. A couple of you are sitting out there going, “Do I talk to myself? I don’t think I talk to myself. Nah, I don’t talk to myself.” The truth is we all talk to ourselves, and what we say when we are waiting makes all the difference.
“How can that idiot go 54 miles an hour in a 55 zone? Doesn't he know I’m in a hurry?” And then we talk to the other driver, as if he or she could hear us: “Move it or park it!”
Or we could say:
I’d like to go a little faster, but in the great cosmic chain of events this won’t make much difference. Even if I could pass, I wouldn't get to my appointment but a minute or so quicker. Relax! It’s not worth getting excited about.
Patience is often required in much more difficult situations than dealing with a fussy child or a slow driver. Patience is something that frequently grows in our most difficult situations. Waiting for a diagnosis, or for a treatment to work. Waiting for a job to be offered, or a legal situation to be settled. Waiting for healing of grief after a tragic loss. So often we do not feel patient while these things are going on, but afterwards we know that our ability to endure trials has grown.
I’m not always patient. Many of you are probably more patient than I. Who is our perfect example when it comes to patience? God. In the words of our first hymn for this morning, “When I think that God, His Son not sparing, sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in; That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin; then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee How great Thou art, how great Thou art!” That’s what’s important in the great cosmic chain of events!
God sent his only Son, that through his earthly life, sacrificial death and glorious resurrection, all the world might be saved. And for two thousand years God has patiently waited for us all to receive Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord of our lives. God does not push us. God does not honk at us, yell at us, or hang up on us. God does not threaten or abandon us. Our loving God sits with us in the waiting room, walks with us through our difficult times. And our indefatigable, unfailing God still waits patiently for us to accept the good news of resurrection, grace and unconditional love, and waits for us to reach out, to teach it to others with care and love. God patiently waits for us to finish the race, to keep the faith, and promises to welcome and receive all who love the Lord.
FIRST LESSON: I Corinthians 13:1-13
GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 5:43-48 and I John 4:13-21
SERMON: “Growing the Gifts of the Spirit - Love”
In years past, I have done Lenten messages about things to give up for Lent. This year it’s time to take a look at what we receive from God as we prepare ourselves to celebrate the resurrection on Easter Sunday. As followers of Jesus Christ we are recipients of God’s Holy Spirit, and with that Spirit come gifts – fruit – that we are meant to grow. According to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the fruit of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Let’s begin with love – a very good place to start.
At this very moment in your life there are people who need you, need your help, need your support, need your love. For whatever reason, perhaps fear of rejection, perhaps being too busy, or simply being focused on our own needs rather than the needs of others, we human beings tend to hang back, afraid to touch, to talk with people, to listen with understanding, to give support and hope. But the fruit of the Spirit is Love!
What we are talking about here is “agape” the kind of love that Christ showed us and gives us through the Spirit.
“Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” This “agape” is the love that comes to us from God and demonstrates that God’s Spirit is in us. The fruit of the Spirit is a selfless love.
There is an old Jewish folk tale about two brothers who farmed together. They shared equally in all of the work and split the profits exactly. Each had his own granary. One of the brothers was married and had a large family; the other brother was single.
One day the single brother thought to himself, “It is not fair that we divide the grain evenly. My brother has many mouths to feed, while I have but one. I know what I’ll do, I will take a sack of grain from my granary each evening and put it in my brother’s granary.” So, each night when it was dark, he carefully carried a sack of grain, placing it in his brother’s barn.
Now the married brother thought to himself, “It is not fair that we divide the grain evenly. I have many children to care for me in my old age, and my brother has none. I know what I’ll do, I will take a sack of grain from my granary each evening and put it in my brother’s granary.” And he did.
Each morning the two brothers were amazed to discover that though they had removed a sack of grain the night before, they had just as many.
One night the two brothers met each other halfway between their barns, each carrying a sack of grain. Then they understood the mystery. They embraced, and loved each other deeply.
The legend that says God looked down from heaven, saw the two brothers embracing, and said, “I declare this to be a holy place, for I have witnessed extraordinary love here.” It is also said that it was on that spot that Solomon built the first temple. Such self-giving love is the love of God that is the fruit of the Spirit.
“In this the love of God was manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation (sacrifice) for our sins.”
It seems to be human nature that when someone does us wrong, we hold on to it. Oh, maybe if they apologize, if they “make it up to us.” But God loves us with a love so great that God sent his Son so that by his life, sacrificial death and resurrection we might be forgiven. The fruit of the Spirit is a forgiving love.
It is said that once St. Francis of Assisi and Brother Leo were staying together and found that they had no book with the liturgy to say their morning prayers. Francis decided to improvise and so said to Brother Leo, “I will say like this, ‘Oh, Brother Francis, you have done so much evil and sin in the world that you deserve hell.’ You, Brother Leo, shall answer: “it is true that you deserve the depths of hell.’ It is very important that you repeat this phrase without changing a word.”
Brother Leo, who was as simple and pure as a man could be replied, “All right, father. Begin in the name of the Lord.”
St. Francis began, “Oh, Brother Francis, you have done so many evil deeds and sins in the world that you deserve hell.”
And Brother Leo answered: “God will perform so much good through you that you will go to paradise.”
St. Francis was quite upset. “Don’t say that, Brother Leo! Answer exactly like this, ‘You certainly deserve to be placed among the damned.’ “
“I will do as you say,” Brother Leo replied.
Then, beating his breast, St. Francis cried, “Oh, my Lord, I have committed so many evil deeds and sins against you that I deserve to be utterly damned.”
Brother Leo answered: “Oh, Brother Francis, God will make you such that you will be remarkably blessed among the blessed.”
“Why don’t you answer as I have told you?” St. Francis scolded. “Under holy obedience I command you to say, ‘You are not worthy of finding mercy.’ “
“Go ahead, father,” Leo said meekly. “This time I will say just what you tell me.”
Kneeling down and lifting up his head, St. Francis prayed sadly, “Oh, Brother Francis, do you think God will have mercy on you, for you have committed so many sins?’ But Brother Leo answered, “God the Father, whose mercy is infinitely greater than your sins, will be merciful to you and grant you grace.”
St. Francis was angry and said to Brother Leo, “Why have you dared to go against my wishes and to answer the opposite of what I told you?”
Then Brother replied gently and humbly, “God knows, dear father, that each time I resolved in my heart to answer as you told me, but God makes me speak as pleases him and not as pleases me. Dear father, try as I do, the only words that God gives me are ones of grace and loving forgiveness. I can’t say anything else because God is speaking through my mouth.”
When God speaks through our mouth, the fruit of the Spirit is a forgiving love.
“By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” The fruit of the Spirit is a selfless love, a forgiving love and an everlasting love. When we say that God abides in us, we are saying that God “remains” in us forever. God does not come and go, here one minute, gone the next. The gift of God’s Spirit is not a temporary loan, but an eternal gift.
Sometimes the Bible is challenging to understand. Sometimes it is absolutely clear, and we like what it says. And sometimes it is clear, but we’re not so sure we like it. Part of the last few verses of today’s reading from I John is like that:
20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
The fruit of the Spirit is love – and we are called to grow that fruit, to be loving (agape) even towards those who seem unlovable to us. Paul gives us a litany of wonderful things we may have, the ability to speak in tongues, the ability to prophesy, to have great faith or be generous, and tells us that if we are without love these abilities are a big fat zero.
It was a dark and stormy night.
You could hear the thunder in the distance. Bats flapped their wings in the darkness of the night.
There the castle stood. Inside the castle, a faint light shown… from a laboratory.
This was the laboratory of the one and only, the maddest scientist of them all…the laboratory of the infamous Dr. Christianstein!
A rat ran across the granite floor as a daunting figure appeared in the light. It was Dr. Christianstein himself with his white lab coat stained with the evidence of his notorious experiments.
His eyes were glowing with mad delight as he gazed upon the table in the middle of the room, covered with a white sheet.
Under the sheet lay a human-like form. Suddenly, Dr. Christianstein shouted: “Igor, come quickly! We have much to do!”
In a moment Igor appeared, a hunchback with tattered clothes, a candle in one hand and a big cardboard box in the other.
“Yes master…here is everything you ordered. All is ready!”
“Very good. Bring all the materials to the table Igor. Now we begin….the experiment!
Thunder was heard in the distance while Igor dragged the box towards the table.
“Tonight I will conduct the greatest experiment of my career. Doctor Christianstein raised his fist towards the sky: “I shall achieve what no man has achieved before. Tonight I create spiritual life! This shall be my greatest hour for I shall create…. Christianstein!”
“They say that I am mad Igor. But Christianstein shall be the greatest specimen of spiritual life the world has ever seen! He shall have everything Igor, EVERYTHING!”
“The moment has arrived. Igor, my gloves!.”
“Give me the voice of a great evangelist Igor!”
“Yes master” and he handed him a jar from the box.
“The courage of Stephen!” Igor produced a dusty vial.
“The patience of Job!” the doctor commanded and he given an ancient-looking flask.
“Now the hypodermic and the serums I distilled!”
Igor’s hands trembled as he presented a long, steel syringe and bottles filled with different colored fluids.
“Double doses of daily prayer and Bible reading,” murmured Dr. Christianstein while he withdrew liquid from one of the bottles and injected it into the lifeless figure’s arm.
“Then faithful church attendance…generous giving … temperance…volunteer work…ability to resist temptation… witnessing…”
The doctor paused for a moment, then filled the syringe with fluid from the final container.
“And last-but not least-a triple injection of …orthodoxy!
The mad doctor consulted his list once more.
“Examine the box Igor. Have we forgotten anything?”
“Oh no master…Everything must be in place!”
“Excellent! This is the moment the world has waited for. This is the moment for….Christianstein!”
The doctor dashed to the nearest wall where an electrical control panel waited.
“A million volts of lightning will bring my creation to life. Now stand back Igor while I throw the power switch…and prepare to meet the perfect Christian…CHRISTIANSTEIN!”
Doctor Christianstein threw the massive switch as booming thunder shook the castle.
The figure began to tremble.
“Doctor! shouted Igor…it’s….moving!
“Yes, yes, my creation lives!
The creature called “CHRISTIANSTEIN” sat up slowly. Then, stiffly, it climbed from the table and stood to its full height.
“Oh, my creation…..Speak to me, speak to me!”
The figure looked down at the doctor and frowned. Finally it began to speak in a low and hostile growl:
“If I speak in the language of angels but have not love…”
“LOVE?” asked the doctor, examining in perplexity his list once again.
Slowly the creature lifted his hands towards the doctor who was still consulting his list.
“If I have the gift of prophecy and can understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have faith that can move mountains and have not love….”
“LOVE?” Igor, what is he talking about?”
“I, I don’t know master! answered Igor as he hid himself under the table.
“If I give all my possessions to the poor and give my body to the flames to be burned and have not love…” Suddenly the figure, growling, picked up the doctor by his coat off of his feet….”I gain nothing!”
“Nothing?” said the doctor.
“Aaarrggghhh!” the creature bellowed throwing the doctor to the ground and reaching for his throat.
“Igor you fool! I knew that we forgot something! And such a small thing!” While the doctor fled for his life with the creature CHRISTIANSTIEN in hot pursuit.
A few minutes passed before Igor finally had enough courage to come out from under the table. Finally, looking this way and that, he whispered:
“I, I think….we have created a monster!”1
1Ray Navarro on sermoncentral.com
FIRST LESSON: Exodus 34:29-35 (p. 142)
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 9:28-34 (p. 1609)
SERMON: “Face to Face”
When I was a senior at McCormick Theological Seminary, I discovered that the Synod of Lincoln Trails (Illinois and Indiana) along with many other synods, sponsored a program they called “Face to Face.” It was designed to be a training exercise for pastors and Candidates for ordination as well as for Pastor Nominating Committees. Instead of using your full 15-20 page PIF (personal information form) you developed a one-page version, and the PNC’s condensed their CIF (church information form) to one page. A couple of weeks before the 24-hour event, each pastor/candidate received the forms of all the churches participating and the PNC’s received all the one-page forms about the pastors and Candidates. Each chose 8 to 10 of the most appealing /best matches, and sent that information in to the synod office. Those folks then sorted it all out and paired Candidates and churches for five one hour “face to face” interviews.
The program was really designed to teach both potential pastors and church folk how to do a good interview, but it was also quite effective in getting some good matches made. Five interviews in 24 hours was a bargain for both groups. Sadly, I don’t know of any synods that still do Face to Face weekends.
Why not just read the forms and choose a church or a pastor based on what you get on paper? Because there is nothing like being in the same room with someone, seeing their body-language, hearing their tone of voice, interacting on a deeper level than résumés and dossiers can offer.
In this age of technology we have some great opportunities to connect with people that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. Our children and grandchildren can hardly fathom what it was like when we were growing up with rotary dial telephones, party lines and astronomical charges for long-distance. Texting is their preferred method of communication. A few years ago the confirmation class kids looked at me like I had just landed from Jupiter when I told them I didn’t own a cell phone. They can’t imagine it. Today if you need to meet with someone who just happens to be hundreds of miles away, that’s okay. You set up a FaceTime or Skype connection. We can take webinars for various kinds of training sessions, be in a class with hundreds of people we will never meet.
There are tremendous advantages to all of these technological advances. I serve as Moderator of the Presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry and we need to interview the men and women under care at least once, usually twice, sometimes more times per year. For the folks who live and study here in Michigan, attending Western Theological Seminary in Holland, meeting with us in Portage isn’t much of a problem. But we have students at Union in New York, Princeton, NJ, Columbia, GA and Louisville, KY. Travel is expensive and it eats up two or three days for them to meet with us for an hour or so. So we have taken to doing interviews by Skype – except for the first time and the final assessment of readiness to receive a call. For those we still want to meet with the people under care face to face – because there’s nothing quite like being in the same space with someone, seeing them face to face to get to know them.
As the story goes, a certain ship was in a serious storm and in grave distress. The passengers were alarmed. One of them finally – against all orders -- went up to the deck and made his way to the pilot house. The pilot was at the wheel, but, seeing that the man was greatly frightened; he gave him a reassuring smile. Returning to the other passengers the man said, “I have seen the face of the pilot; he smiled. All is well.
People’s faces tell us things their words do not.
Moses went up on a mountain top to meet with God, face to face. The text tells us that when he came down from his face time with God the skin of his face was shining, so much so that Aaron and the rest of the gang were afraid to go near him, so Moses would put a veil over his face when he came down the mountain to talk with the people, and he would take the veil off whenever he went up to be with God.
What is the message of this passage for us, in this world of Skype, FaceTime, video chats, webinars and other virtual meetings?
Well Moses has sent us some text messages – not on your smart phone, but through the biblical text. What Moses texts us, informs us of the importance of face-to-face time with God. First, he texts us the words: Take the time to build a relationship with God. Remember the old hymn, Take Time to be Holy, speak oft with thy Lord. Abide in him always and feed on his Word.
Moses takes the time to climb the mountain. He doesn’t sit in the foothills waiting for God to text message him or ship him an e-mail. He doesn’t require God to fit into his busy schedule at times that are convenient for him. He takes the time to go to God. He spends 40 days and 40 nights getting close to God, soaking up everything God says to him and writing down everything he can. Moses takes the time he needs to build a relationship with God.
I’m not suggesting we all go out and get mountain-climbing gear. We can build that relationship through daily prayer, regular Bible study, a commitment to regular worship, reading and pondering the writings of gifted theologians and authors. All of these bring us into closer relationship with God.
A certain man complimented his pastor after a particularly meaningful worship service, telling him how it filled him up so that he didn’t think he’d need to come to church any more. The pastor nodded with understanding and said “I know just what you mean. My wife made me such a wonderful dinner last night – all my favorite foods – it really filled me up. But I can guarantee you that I will be hungry again by supper-time tonight.
We don’t really know how many times Moses went up and down the mountain to spend time with God, but we do know it wasn’t just a one-time thing. And every time he spent with God his relationship with God grew. And every time you spend time with God, your relationship with God will also grow.
The second text message here is that you can expect your encounters with God to change you. This passage in Exodus tells us that every time he came down from spending time with God, Moses face was shining so brightly it frightened the people. Our faces are not likely to shine like that. But spending time with God does transform us. When we get deep into relationship with God we become more compassionate, more loving, more forgiving and more truthful. We begin to think more about serving others than we do about serving ourselves. Our decisions are driven more by what is right than by what is profitable. Whether we are at work, at home with family, at school or in some community activity, the people around us will see evidence that we have been transformed by God as we seek to live as Jesus taught us. The classic question asks, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you.” As your relationship with God grows, so does the mountain of evidence.
The third text message from Moses is certain to make many, if not most, of us uncomfortable, as Moses teaches by example that we are called to reach out to everyone, even those who annoy us. Moses insists on face to face meetings, not just with God, but with those stiff-necked people of Israel. It’s not that difficult to get close to the people we love. Skype and virtual meetings have an appealing characteristic that we can keep our distance from people who get on our nerves. Moses not only goes up the mountain to have face-time with God. He comes down the mountain to the people of Israel. Imagine with me what changes there would be if in the great national pastime of partisan politics, instead of one group of people who mostly all agree with each other talking together on Fox and another group who agree talking on msnbc, what would happen if they got together Face to Face and talked with each other instead of at each other.
That brings us to the final text message from Moses today. You have to keep moving. Moses stayed a pretty good while – 40 days and 40 nights up on the mountain. But he always came back down to the people. But he didn’t stay with them forever either. Maintain a balance, the text suggests, between worship and work, between prayer and participation in the life of the community. If we focus only on God, we'll miss out on the important mission of serving a world in need. If we focus only on people, we'll miss the glory of God that brings inspiration and hope into the middle of human life.
Take time to build your relationship with God. Expect encounters with God to transform you. Reach out to others, even those who annoy you, and keep moving – give time to God, and to people, and back to God, then back to people.
FIRST LESSON: Jeremiah 1:4-10 (p. 1167)
EPISTLE LESSON Acts 2:1-13
SERMON: “What Do You Do with a Problem Like the Spirit”
Have you ever felt like you were on a wild goose chase? Not literally trying to catch a goose, but chasing after something difficult to grab hold of? We are on something of a wild goose chase today as we consider what we are to do with the Holy Spirit. Consider for a moment our God in three persons, Creator, Son and Holy Spirit. Which one of those do you find easiest to comprehend, or even feel close to? Perhaps for you it is God the Creator of galaxies and universes, of baryons and quarks, the God to whom we appeal in prayer, think of as a benevolent father, and whose love and mercy we hope to grasp. For many it is easier to identify with Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God, who lived among us as one of us, engaged in a ministry of teaching and healing, was unjustly condemned, suffered and died and rose again from the dead. For a few of you, in a mainline church such as ours, a small minority of you, it is the Holy Spirit you find most appealing.
Celtic Christians chose, not the dove, but the wild goose as a symbol representing the Holy Spirit. It sounds strange to us, but it has a long tradition in Ireland. While the Roman Church imagined the Holy Spirit in the form of a peaceful, graceful dove, the ancient Celts understood the Holy Spirit to be like a wild goose. When you hear of the Spirit descending like a heavenly dove on you, you hear harps and strings softly playing and get a peaceful feeling.
The image of a wild goose descending upon you is a different matter altogether. A wild goose is one noisy, bothersome bird. This image of the Holy Spirit as a wild goose jars us out of our complacency. Both images may be helpful to us, depending on what it is we are seeking and need.
When the Spirit comes in the Bible, it never seems to be sweet or safe. God's Spirit called Jeremiah to speak God’s word to Israel. Jeremiah protested, saying that he was too young and had no idea what to say. The Spirit wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer:
You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. . . . Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” (from Jeremiah 1:8-10)
Ezekiel saw a vision of God's Spirit blowing through a valley of dry bones and bringing them to life.
John the Baptist dressed in camel's hair and eating wild locusts proclaimed, "I baptize you with water but he who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
Paul gave this advice to young Timothy, "For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2 Timothy 1:6-7).
Neither safe nor tame, the Spirit inspired Paul to proclaim, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28).
It was this wild Goose that Jesus referred to when he preached his first sermon and quoted Isaiah, saying, "For the Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of God's favor"(Luke 4:18)1
Graham Standish in his book Becoming a Blessed Church urges us to open ourselves to the leading of the Holy Spirit, not only in our personal lives, but in our church lives. He especially those of us in the mainline tradition who tend to be wary of getting involved with the Holy Spirit, to open ourselves to the Spirit, not just in worship, but in decision making, and in every area of our life together as a church. We wince and squirm at the idea of people waving holy hands, speaking in tongues and being “slain in the spirit.”
With apologies to Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein,
How do you solve a problem like the Spirit?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you solve a problem like the Spirit?
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
Many, if not most, of us Presbyterians are in a mainline church precisely because we recognize the unpredictability and uncontrollability of the Holy Spirit. As Standish points out we celebrate Christmas big-time; Easter is a major Christian holiday; but the holy-day that is the defining moment for the Church is Pentecost – the day the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples with tongues of fire –a day we barely acknowledge in the Church, and which is pretty much unknown to the secular world. Really –have you ever seen Pentecost chocolates go on sale, right after Easter? Mother’s Day?
It was at the moment God breathed God’s breath into the human, that he became greater than the other creatures. “The Day of Pentecost was a defining moment,” says Standish, “because from that Day on, the Christian Church became increasingly clear each day, about what it was, –– the community of Christ filled with the Holy Spirit.” 2
Am I proposing sweeping changes in worship to some sort of Pentecostal style? Not at all. What I am recognizing is that if, as a congregation, we are not Spirit-led, if we are not seeking in our decision making processes, in our ministry choices and support, in our prayer life as a community and as individuals, we will miss the mark. To paraphrase Standish, if we do not aspire to seek the Spirit’s inspiration, we are in danger of expiring.
He then shares with us an example of “respiratory failure” in a church he served early in his ministry. The church was growing and needed space for programs. A member of the church who was an architect drew up plans to build an addition, plans that addressed the needs of the church in a well-though out way, and proposed building the expansion o the side of the church facing a large parking lot and 16 acres of wooded property. The plans were presented at the session meeting, questions were asked and pretty much everyone agreed with the proposed plans. Then one elder said that he agreed with the plans, but he thought it should be built on the other side of the church, facing a large field and a park. An argument ensued and the session divided itself into those who wanted the addition on the parking lot side and those who wanted it on the park side. A commission was formed to decide the matter which itself became divided. Eventually the senior pastor left, partly because of the stalemate, and, says Standish, thirteen years later the addition remains unbuilt, there has been more conflict and the congregation has shrunk in size.
All the people involved in that dispute were good, honest people. The problem was, that instead of stepping back and asking, “What do you think God wants?” they made deciding what they wanted the criteria upon which they made their decision. Frankly, it’s easier that way. It is much easier for me to figure out what I want, than to try to discern what God wants. It is difficult to put aside our egos, our plans, our ambitions. Still, the key to becoming a blessed church means seeking to do what God wants, and that means opening our hearts and minds to the leading of God’s Holy Spirit.
It’s a little scary. We might really be tempted to just ignore the Holy Spirit as much as we can. If we do think about it, we might prefer to imagine it more like a dove, gently settling down on our shoulder than like a wild goose, noisy and bothersome, shaking us out of our comfort zone, honking at us to compel us to listen for the will of God and make our plans and decisions accordingly.
No one ever said faithful Christian ministry would be easy. What do you do with a problem like the Spirit? You love her and listen for her, and then follow her.
1 Anders, Mickey Dynamic Preaching.
2 Standish, N. Graham, Becoming a Blessed Church, p. 30.