Did you see the Royal Wedding yesterday? That was very exciting. I admit I didn’t get up early enough for the whole thing and had to watch the clips later, but, wow what a wonderful sermon by Bishop Curry!
I was struck, though, with how the media messed up who he is. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, headlines were asking, “Who is Michael Curry?” And they didn’t find the right answers. Newscasters were calling him “minister” and “reverend” instead of Bishop, and he is not from Chicago! He is originally from Buffalo, NY, served as Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina and he is The Presiding Bishop. SNL did an imitation of him last night and it was funny, satire usually is. But I was amazed to find out how little the world knows about The Episcopal Church.
When I was a student at Emory and Henry I lived in a dorm that was right on the train track. If you’ve ever been to that campus you’ll remember that trains go through the middle of campus several times a day. And it goes through at 3:00 in the morning too! Our beds would shake and rattle and the chandelier would sway. It took weeks to get used to this very loud disruption.
One summer when I was working with the Youth Ministry team and we were sharing one night as a devotional, Mary K. (Briggs, who is now Chaplain at EHC) told that gathering of how she found the train comforting. She grew up in Bluefield, VA in a house right next to the train track. As a homesick freshman at Emory she found the sound reminiscent of home and therefore comforting. A couple of weeks later we stayed on campus at a youth event at Emory. The boys in our group, who were from Knoxville, were assigned the room in the boys Freshman door that is the closest to the train track of any room on campus.
When the 3:00 a.m. train came through that night and they were nearly rattled out of their bunks, one of them said sarcastically to the other, “Pretty darn comforting!”
Today is the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost means “50th” and the Holy Day was so named because it is 50 days after Passover. It was originally an Old Testament word and feast. For Jews, it was an early harvest festival that came to be also a commemoration of the giving of the law at Sinai. After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD offerings could no longer be brought to the temple and the festival started to have a different focus. So, that Jews were gathered from every nation in Jerusalem makes sense. It’s kind of like the Super Bowl - there’s lots of people at an annual gathering from everywhere!
For Christians, Pentecost is the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. We’re at that place in the story in which Jesus has finished his last minute teaching to the disciples, and praying for them, exams are over, they have graduated, as it were, and they have been sent forth. Jesus said, not good-bye, but “Lo I am with you always,” and then He Ascended to the Father.
As I said last week, this is the beginning, not the end of the story. All is well and there is work to be done. So the disciples, having reorganized by replacing Judas with Mathias, are gathered together in one place and, just as promised, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to them.
But this didn’t happen like one might have imagined. This scene is one of bewilderment and chaos. There were tongues of fire on their heads and people talking in different languages and it sounded like a tornado just went through. It was perplexing. I imagine this must have been a bit disorienting for the disciples who must have thought that this advocate would show up quietly with structure and order.
Two things come to mind for me as I have sat with this image this week trying to imagine what the experience of being there might have been like. One is explosions and the other is surprise parties. One is a shocking moment of meeting evil the other is a shocking moment of being loved.
I remember an early domestic terrorism when someone detonated a bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. I was living near there and had lots of friends attending this event. This became known later as the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. You may remember that this explosion killed 1 person and injured 111 others; another person later died of a heart attack. It was the first of four bombings committed by Eric Rudolph who took law enforcement on a cross country man hunt for years.
The worst part of this story though is about security guard Richard Jewell who discovered the bomb before it detonated, informed the GBI and cleared most of the spectators out of the park to safety.
Later, Jewell was investigated as a suspect by the FBI and the news media falsely focused on him aggressively as the presumed culprit. Three months later Jewell was finally exonerated when the FBI declared that he was no longer a person of interest. Few remember his heroism. Rudolph was finally caught and arrested in 2003 and sentenced to life without parole.
I remember watching the video of that bomb exploding and how I would flench in fear each time - at first. We have come to be desensitized to such images. Still, being in the vicinity of such chaos would certainly be terrifying.
Surprise parties, on the other hand, not so much. Well, I guess it might be a shock to suddenly hear surprise shouted from a gathering when you enter a dark room. I guess you’d be pleased.
I’ve never been surprised in that way. In fact, I’ve left clear instructions with my husband to never, ever give me a surprise party. I am afraid I would feel embarrassed and I don’t like being made over that much anyway. So, shocking, yes. I imagine being surprised is shocking, even when it is the power of love.
Jesus sent a big ol’ surprise party to the disciples 10 days after the Ascension. And I think they felt the love.
The Holy Spirit is defined by many images: breath, wind, fire, flame, heat, light, comforter, advocate and guide. We expect the Holy Spirit to love us, inspire us, comfort us, guides us, and protect us. The church has come to expect the Holy Spirit to take care of us. Yes, the Holy Spirit is that life giving source of rebirth that enlivens us but we seem to forget about the sending part. We seem to want to receive healing and protection from the Holy Spirit and forget the main point of following this same Spirit out into the world to teach the Gospel of salvation, to care for the poor and to fight injustice.
Jesus said that he would send an advocate who would guide us but that did not necessarily mean this advocate would lock us up under the bell tower and keep us safe. The Holy Spirit has ever since been experienced as wind and fire, not just the warm fuzzies of the sweet breathing into us the healing we long for.
When we hear this story, of how something along the lines of a tornado crashed the party. It “sounded like the rush of a violent wind” the scripture says. It must have sounded like a freight train, like folks say a tornado sounds. It was this sound of violent wind that caught the attention of the whole neighborhood. The followers of Jesus were gathered in a house and they heard this sudden wind and then they saw each other with flames on their heads and started talking to each other in different languages and each understood in their own language. No wonder the outsiders thought they were drunk!
The point is that the Holy Spirit is unpredictable. We think we know how the Spirit will call us, comfort us and guide us but often we end up feeling like we’ve been through a tornado or a bombing.
I enjoyed the Royal Wedding yesterday.
It was scary for me though, when that newly married couple road in an open carriage through the village of Windsor and down the long walk. There was such a huge crowd gathered. What if someone wanted to detonate a bomb? Or could a sniper be within range? These thought go through our minds now with less shock and fear than 30 years ago. And yet, and yet, there was such a sense of peace and safety and beauty in this pageantry. It left us with hope. Hope that the world is not so big after all. Hope that this generation cares about making a difference, helping their brother and sister and standing up to bullies.
And Bishop Curry gave me hope too. He preached about love, the redemptive power of love, and the whole world was listening. This is reminiscent of our collect for today, “Shed abroad this gift (the way of eternal life) throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Bishop Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta posted on FaceBook later a quote from Vanity Fair of some journalist raving about how much she like that “minister’s speech” which was a bit off, but she said that “now she wants to join the Episcopal Church.
Bishop Curry talked about different definitions of love, much like the many different images of the Holy Spirit and he did this by focusing on the scripture from which he was preaching. It was from Song of Solomon (2:10-13; 8:6-7 ) which is one of the scripture choices for weddings in the Book of Common Prayer.
6Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. 7Many waters cannot quench love.
The bishop focused on only two things in that sermon: The image of love as powerful and redemptive and the image of love as an unquenchable fire from this text.
Love as a feel good power is easier, I guess, to get with than the image of fire as unquenchable, even by water. The power of fire is in its ability to destroy. Fire has been used as a weapon - as in to fire a gun or cannon or bomb toward the enemy. Bishop Curry talked about harnessing that power for good as in combustible engines that drive cars, and jet planes and even the technologies we use which are all dependent upon the fire of electricity.
I’m not sure why he lost his audience with this simple image.
It is just another image of the power of the Holy Spirit who loves us, inspires us, comforts us and guides us. And yes, protects us too. Simultaneously.
If we follow a Holy Spirit which we only see as protector though, we give all the power of fire and wind to the enemy.
In his book, Falling Upward, Richard Rohr speaks to the inner drive in us to simultaneously return to the home from which we came and also to seek our journey’s end. In other words, we are homesick for the mother’s embrace which was our beginning in life’s journey and we are driven by the same force to live out the journey of life to our end.
The Holy Spirit is that drive to live, to love, to do good works, to return home by seeking the horizon, to be reborn by moving onward toward our deaths. This is because God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, is both Alpha and Omega. God is simultaneously beginning and end. God is simultaneously our birth, parental love and our death when we are again held in the arms of love.
Calling this love of God a homing device,” Rohr puts it this way:
It will not be ignored. It calls us both backward and forward, to our foundation and our future, at the same time. It also feels like grace from within us and at the same time beyond us. The soul lives in such eternally deep time. Wouldn’t it make sense that God would plant in us a desire for what God already wants to give us? (p. 89)
Rohr also mentions the Wizard of Oz in this chapter and reminds us that the enduring nature of that tale was in the meaning of a young girl’s journey away from and simultaneously toward - home. Dorothy Gale, whose last name is also a name for the wind, was blown away by the power of wind in a tornado, threatened by the power of the fire of the witch, won the war with the witch through the power of water and all the time while just following her desire to go home.
Rohr points out the obvious in the middle of all this. He says that “the goal of the sacred story is always to come back home, after getting the (call) to leave home in the first place! A contradiction? A Paradox? Yes, but now home has a whole new meaning, never imagined before. As always, it transcends but includes one’s initial experience of home.”
When we follow the Holy Spirit, we get sent and we get beaconed and if we’re on the right track in our effort to follow, we get used.
I’ve been learning to listen to the breath of the Holy Spirit more and more as I grow in my own faith journey. Lately my practice in this has been to stop and feel the wind when it blows across my face. There is a lot of wind in this beautiful New River Valley to practice with. When I’m out walking or gardening and a breeze comes by I have learned to stop and ponder the very essence of that wind. Did it come from the river? Did it carry little bits of the trees and plants between here and there? Can I smell where it has come from? Or could it possibly be a sign from that great and loving Advocate which always and everywhere longs to guide me on?
I believe it is that. If I just take a moment to stop and listen to and feel the wind on my face I might be reminded of the guide that Jesus sent us. And I might remember too that it is not so that I’ll feel safe or prosperous, but it is a message for me to move on toward home and bring others with me. And I am strengthened for the journey in which we are both homesick and beaconed, to that time when “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”