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Sunday, May 20, 2018 | 4:00 p.m.
Searching for the Spirit
Pastoral Resident, Fourth Presbyterian Church
The lights were bright, backstage was dark, and I could smell the stench of too much hairspray and costumes that could really use a wash. The audience was still as the MC shouted into the mic, “And now, all the way from Indianapolis, put your hands together for the FCSingers!” The crowd erupted, and we launched onstage with our cheesy performance smiles, got into position, and with a “tap, tap” of the drum, the music began, and we were off singing and dancing, sequins and all.
High school show choir. A mostly Midwest phenomenon where choirs put together a five-song show ripe for competition filled with singing, dancing, sequins, costume changes, and jazz hands. This was our final performance; this was our chance to show the judges what we were made of. The score was close, and we could just taste that grand championship. I could see my parents, my cousins, my aunts, my uncles in the front row cheering for me, and I was on fire! It was like I was floating on stage, hitting all the notes, dancing right on the rhythm, captivated by the music, confident and focused, one with my body, in sync with my choir. All the insecurities of being a teenage girl fell away, and by the time we made it to the last pose and rushed off stage tearing down our show for the next group, it didn’t matter to me whether or not we won. That feeling, that ecstatic-what-do-you-call-it was everything. I was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Who knew that the silliness and drama and jazz hands of high school show choir could ignite the Holy Spirit, but it’s true. And honestly, I didn’t make this connection until much later. Until I started thinking about how I love to dance, and despite growing up in a church that, frankly, didn’t move much during worship, I wasn’t making that connection between experiencing the Holy Spirit outside of conventional worship and the ways God created me to be. Maybe, aside from that extra-special show choir experience, maybe that belovedness I felt from dancing with my friends wasn’t just fun but was a way of delighting in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Today is Pentecost where we celebrate the Holy Spirit showing up, making itself known in our world. In the Presbyterian church, we don’t always give a lot of attention to the Spirit. Out of the Trinity—God, Jesus, and the Spirit—we tend to focus more on God, through the life of Jesus, but how the Spirit is moving among us, pushing us, speaking to us, calling us today—sometimes we’re less comfortable talking about that. It was a rough week last week: another school shooting, a plane wreck, dehumanizing language from our president toward immigrants, horrendous violence in Gaza. It’s been a rough week, and we might ask, where in the world is the Holy Spirit? But let’s not be fooled. The Spirit is alive and well, and by golly, we’re going to search for the Spirit’s presence today, because we need it.
Our scripture tells us that when the day of Pentecost arrived, all of Jesus’ followers were together in one place. Jesus had just ascended into heaven and entrusted the work of God’s vision, the organizing of the kingdom of God on earth, to the disciples. Jesus didn’t leave them all alone though, Jesus promised them that the Holy Spirit, this living, breathing spiritual force, different from Jesus but still God, one and the same, would show up. This would be a sign that God is with them, that they could do this. When joy felt impossible, the Spirit would be there. When unimaginable strength was needed, the Spirit would be there. When courage beyond courage was needed, the Spirit would be there. The Spirit would always be there.
As they were all together, this fierce wind entered their house, lighting each person there with an individual flame that didn’t burn but ignited them. The people in the room were Jews from every nation around, and when ignited with the Holy Spirit, words from their native language flooded the room all together at the same time—this uncontrollable, chaotic moment. Not surprisingly a crowd gathered. This crown was confused by what was happening, but they could understand. The diversity present was different from what they knew, and they certainly didn’t get this whole tongues of fire thing, but they could hear the works of God being proclaimed. Although some accused the group of being drunk at nine in the morning, Peter clarified that no, this is what Jesus predicted. Get ready folks: Jesus may be gone, but the Spirit is here, and there is good news to be proclaimed. If you think this doesn’t make sense, just you wait. The sun will change to darkness, the moon will change to blood, the world as you know it will be turned upside down: #jesussaves.
It’s easy to be consumed by a sense of wonder about that individual experience of the Holy Spirit. What was that like? The Spirit shows up in our lives in diverse and various ways, and I want to know how you experience the Spirit. I want to know how you grasp a sense of that power, that hope, that belovedness. It might not be dancing for you. Maybe it’s eye contact with a stranger or helping a concerned client or patient. Maybe you sense the Spirit through a moving song, a sight of the mountains, a deliciously home-cooked meal. I want to know how you connect with the Spirit.
But let’s also not get lost in the individuality of the Spirit’s presence either. Each of Jesus’ followers were filled with the Spirit as a community. They spoke in different languages, the Spirit showed up in different ways, but they all were filled.
Jesus’ followers needed the Spirit, not just for the joy and the confidence but because they were facing real dangers. Declaring a new world order where love reigns, debts are forgiven, and justice prevails meant that many would face persecution, some would be imprisoned, and some would even be martyred. We’re not talking about a prosperity gospel where blessings rain down as money and social power. No, the blessing is freedom.
I can’t stop thinking about Palestinians in Gaza this week (“PC(USA) Co-Moderator issues statement on move of U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem,” 15 May 2018). I don’t know what it’s like to live in an open-air prison. I don’t know what it’s like to have my family’s home removed from me and be forced to live in an area without access to safe water and medical facilities, where medics are even shot at. I don’t know what it’s like to live under occupation and to not have the freedom to travel from place to place.
On March 30, Palestinians in Gaza began a march resisting the wall that imprisons them. Every Friday since, 200,000 Gazans nonviolently protested their right to return to their homes. Since that day there have been more than 3,500 victims of live ammunition, 111 killed by the Israeli army, and more than 12,700 people injured. On Monday, the day before the Nakba, the anniversary of their forced removal, more than 60 people were killed and more than 2,700 people were injured, violence all funded by U.S. tax dollars (“Palestinians’ Great March of Return: The human cost,” Aljazeera, 16 May 2018). This was not active combat, face-to-face confrontations with the Israeli army refusing their entry into Israel. No. These were targeted attacks because there was a buffer zone separating the Israeli army and Palestinians, targeted attacks on unarmed vulnerable people gathering and protesting. Children died. An infant was hit. Young people slaughtered.
Ahmed Abu Artema, a Palestinian journalist who wrote a piece in the New York Times this week, said, “What has happened since we started the Great Return March is both what I hoped and expected—and not. It was not a surprise that Israel responded to our march with deadly violence. But I had not expected this level of cruelty. On the other hand, I was heartened by the commitment to nonviolence among most of my own people” (Ahmed Abu Artema, “I Helped Start the Gaza Protests. I Don’t Regret It,” New York Times, 14 May 2018).
I don’t understand that deep kind of struggle and resilience, one that no person should ever have to experience, and the only way I can make sense of it, of how one maintains a sense of courage and strength and righteousness that your struggle is one worth dying for, is through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
From the Holocaust resistance to the Selma march, to Standing Rock to Stonewall, surely God is present in struggle and empowers people to nevertheless hope for and work for a better world.
I’m convinced that to access that sense of power from the Spirit is when we expect nothing less in this world than freedom. In those moments, with our surrounding community in all its diversity and glory, the Spirit will be there. The Spirit’s here.
Yes, the Spirit’s here when we’re dancing or working and get a sense of our belovedness, and the Spirit’s here when that sense of belovedness is the only thing helping us move forward. The Spirit’s here in the big ways and the small, the chaotic and the orderly, the workin’ and the marchin’. The Spirit’s here in the messiness of community, just like we’ll read about in Acts. The Spirit’s here helping us all work for freedom in the sector of influence that we have—helping us reach beyond what we see is possible.
On this Pentecost day, let us celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, and may that Spirit pour out upon us now and forevermore. Amen.