Sunday, June 8, 2014
I Corinthians 12: 4-13 John 7: 37-39
Fire is the predominant symbol and red the traditional color of Pentecost. But wind and water are also biblical symbols of the refreshing work of the Spirit. Today’s Epistle reading says we were all made to drink of the one Spirit. And in our Gospel lection, the writer of John says the Spirit that animated Jesus flows like a river from our hearts to others. I’ve seen fire at Pentecost. But today I want to see a gentler element of the Spirit.
As I flew to beautiful San Diego last week, I saw below us at one point miles of treeless, waterless desert: a terrain so hostile and isolated that my soul felt parched. We’ve all experienced desert times in our lives. And when our spirits are dry, we can become susceptible to charlatans who pose as rainmakers. The 1956 film The Rainmaker featured Burt Lancaster as Bill Starbuck, a con artist who promised drought-plagued ranchers that, for $100, he could make it rain. What he actually did was to bring to life the loveless Lizzy, played by Katharine Hepburn. But early on Lizzy’s cynical brother, ironically named Noah, protested: “We don’t believe in rainmakers.” To which Bill Starbuck, the rainmaker, replied, “What do you believe in, mist’ah? Dyin’ cattle?”
Which might be a fair question for progressive Christians on this Pentecost Sunday.
We don’t believe in rainmakers. Most of us don’t believe that if you put $100 in the collect plate, you’ll get rain for your garden or a raise from your boss or a cure for your illness. We don’t believe in rainmakers.
But what do we believe in? Surely we believe in something more than “dyin’ cattle.” Surely we believe in hope and healing, love and meaning.
Here’s what Paul and the writer of John’s gospel believe in: a vital, loving Spirit flowing through the people.
When your spiritual landscape is dry as desert sand, what do you believe in? If not rainmakers, surely you can bear witness to more than “dyin’ cattle” and “dyin’” victims of the latest school shooting and dyin’ Syrians and dyin’ inner cities and dyin’ species—entire species—on our planet. We believe these things are happening. Yes. But what we believe in is a sacred and saving Spirit.
Pentecost affirms this enlivening Spirit that seemed to flow through Jesus and that, I believe, can continue to flow through the Jesus followers called the Church. Pentecostal fire is just one image of the Spirit’s work in the world. I invite you to consider the less popular Pentecostal metaphor found in today’s lectionary texts: spirit as water.
The Jesus we meet in John’s Gospel knows this Spirit. After John baptized Jesus with water, he described Jesus as one who baptizes with the Spirit (John 1: 33). Immediately after Jesus’s own water/spirit experience, he invited the first of his disciples to “follow [him] (John 1: 43), simply to follow him. But later Jesus must have wondered how they would follow him after his death, which he began to see as imminent. If he were killed by the angry authorities, how would his followers continue to follow? So Jesus explained—this is my loose summary of today’s Gospel text—“After I’m gone, you’ll depend on the very spirit that animates me, that inspires me, that flows through me like living water. This water is not for me alone. It will flow like living water from your hearts. This gift is not for you alone. It’s for all. In fact, it will be found and felt and imbibed when you gather.”
The Apostle Paul likewise spoke of the gift of the Spirit that courses through and to us so all may drink. In today’s epistle reading we hear “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” and “it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” Paul adds that this Spirit from which we “drink” is “for the common good”—like water in a village well intended for all who are thirsty, like the village well where Jesus offered a Samaritan woman living water. In other words, the Spirit is activated by a community and for the common good. The Spirit’s gifts listed by Paul—of wisdom, faith, healing, discernment and so forth—are not given so you can win “American Idol.” The Spirit’s gifts are not talents for individual recognition. I don’t see listed among those gifts any “star qualities” needed for “America’s Got Talent.” Your spirit gifts are not for you alone. They flow out for the good of all.
As you review the gifts of the Spirit found in our epistle reading, think how critical they are to our work as a congregation in our perpetual discernment practices to see where God is at work in the world and join in that work. Yet these gifts not only serve the needs of the world but also create and equip a faith community as it engages in the larger work of justice and shalom. We remain a vital church by listening to those among us who offer us intuitive wisdom and those who share more objective knowledge (verse 8). We will strengthen the church when we as people of faith live as if we have faith (verse 9). We will grow spiritually because of those in our midst who can speak healing words and work miracles of forgiveness and peace (verses 9 and 10). We will thrive because we permit prophetic voices to disturb our complacency. We will be the Church whenever we discerningly tune in to the frequency of the Spirit and tune out the voices of prejudice, fear, and our own self-serving ego. We will be the church whenever we develop skills of listening and speaking in order to understand one another deeply (verse 10). Although these gifts won’t help us win “The Voice” or “Dancing With the Stars,” they will serve this community, be developed in this community, and then used for our work with the larger community beyond us.
The Spirit does not seem to show up (according to Jesus and Paul) when we’re isolated in our aims and seeking individual gains.
2000 years after Pentecost and despite precipitously declining church membership in all denominations, there are Jesus followers who persist in his ways—not because we believe in a magic-working Rainmaker but because we believe in and sometimes actually participate in a spirit that flows to and through and among us and beyond us.
I’ve felt that Spirit here—when we’ve heard stories of transformation, when we’ve come together to bring hope. I’ve experienced Spirit with you when, to name just one example, we befriended the ___ family, Muslim refugees from Iraq newly arrived in Mobile. We hosted a baby shower for Omar and painted their apartment and provided furniture and helped them navigate bureaucracies and gave driving lessons to ___ and tutoring to ___ and though they’ve moved to New York, we’ve learned recently that __ will be sworn in as a new American citizen this week. In turn, we came to love a family we’d never have otherwise known and might, if we’re honest, have felt just a bit uncomfortable around if we’d seen them on the street. I think the Spirit of God has been part of our rich relationship with a sweet family who accepted and returned the Spirit gift of friendship.
Look also where we and our denomination find energy. For the UCC and other expressions of Christ’s church, the Holy Spirit is often in evidence when Jesus followers are galvanized around a common cause—like LGBTQ rights or immigration reform or care for our planet or efforts to end systemic poverty, racism, or sexism. Open Table will recharge again and again when we use our individual gifts for a common good that moves us out into our community.
To underscore our engagement in the common good, let me share, in this graduation season, a portion of a New York Times op ed by David Brooks on commencement speeches. He begins by bemoaning the typical way most graduation speakers promote an excessive individualism that has become “the dominant note in American culture.”
“College grads,” he says, “are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.”
Brooks says that in actuality “most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. . . . Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”
Maybe it’s also true that most successful congregations are likewise “called by a problem, and the [church] is constructed gradually by their calling.”
David Brooks concludes: “Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that . . . fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”
If Brooks is right, then “graduating”—moving on to the next level of maturation—is about using our gifts not for self but for some larger task and losing ourselves in something larger. Or, to use today’s Spirit metaphor, to be that drop of water that falls trustingly into a mighty river.
Maybe Paul was offering the Corinthians a type of commencement address that would allow them to commence a less self-centered spiritual state. Maybe Jesus was encouraging followers of his way to graduate to a new level of spiritual unity and common purpose.
Friends, as you and I continue to mature together, I look forward to ways we’ll increasingly cultivate our gifts here and use them out there—where those gifts will be further developed. This thing we do here on Sundays is vital but this is mere preparation for the work out there. That makes church church. That’s the work of the Spirit. That’s what I believe in. Not in ranting rainmakers. Nor dyin’ cattle. I believe in the loving energy flowing to and through and beyond us.
For those who came hoping for a fiery Pentecostal sermon this evening, let me remind you that even tiny drops of water and the trickle of persistent streams carve out canyons and reshape the planet. We are here for the long haul, dear friends. We are preparing our hearts for long lives and enduring relationships and lasting community. I’m thankful that, for all the beauty and power in the imagery of a flaming Spirit, there is, for me today, a need to feel my spirit watered by a gentle rain that will slowly sink in and produce deep roots.
PRAYER: God who flows among us, in this moment help us imagine gifts we want to cultivate here, watered by your Spirit. Now bring to our minds the gifts we’ve already received here through a Spirit larger than any one singular life. Let’s think about ways we’ve learned to care for others more deeply. Let’s recall ways our own gifts have been called forth. Let’s remember something we’ve done here that we could not have done alone. And give thanks. Amen.