A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 8, 2014 (Pentecost)
There is some really bad Pentecost clip art out there. I know, because after seeing someone post what looked like a flaming pigeon on Facebook, Google and I did a little poking around.
Now in fairness, the Holy Spirit is hard to conceptualize. Traditional imagery includes flames, as we heard in our reading from Acts that “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among the disciples.” Wind, as in “from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” A dove, as when Jesus is baptized and we hear that “the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove.” So wind, fire, dove. Kind of like Earth, Wind, and Fire but different.
All of these are metaphors, of course, as we hear the Spirit described “as of fire,” “like a violent wind,” and “like a dove.” If teachers were allowed to talk about the Holy Spirit in a middle school English class, this would be a textbook lesson on the use of the simile. So the Spirit is tough to pin down both as an image and as a concept. You can’t hold onto or grab ahold of wind or flame and neither can you control them. I guess you could theoretically grab a dove but I think you get the point. If there was ever a strong reminder that we’re not actually in control of the things that happen in our lives, the Holy Spirit is Exhibit A.
Because the Holy Spirit blows where it will. It can churn things up inside, it can knock you off your feet, it can blow the lid off our preconceived notions, it can challenge us with new ideas whether or not we’re ready for them. An encounter with the Spirit in your life isn’t always a comfortable experience but I find that once we stop resisting, once we stop fighting a battle we can never win, we’re often left with that elusive sense of peace that surpasses all human understanding. And we can start living again.
I’ve been thinking about my own personal metaphor for the Holy Spirt especially in light of
Friday’s 70th anniversary of D-Day. 25 years ago this August I found myself at Fort Benning, Georgia, having volunteered to go to Airborne School to be trained as a paratrooper. I was an Army ROTC cadet at the time and afraid of heights so naturally I decided I needed to jump out of an airplane.
The “friendly” instructors stress two things over the first couple of weeks of ground training before you make your five jumps to qualify for your Airborne Wings: how to exit the aircraft and how to land. Since it’s the equivalent of jumping off a ten foot wall, you spend a lot of time learning how to land. And it’s painful. But I want to focus on the other piece of this — learning how to properly jump out the door.
There’s a training apparatus/torture device called the 34-foot tower. Why 34 feet? Because Army engineers determined that this was the precise height where fear was maximized — you’re not so high up that everything on the ground looks fake and you’re not so low that it looks safe. Now, it doesn’t help that these wooden towers were built during World War II and they kind of sway back and forth as you climb up the rickety stairs with a bunch of other nervous soldiers.
When it’s your turn, you get hooked up to a harness and free fall about four feet before your line catches and yanks you back down on a zip line. Chin down, eyes open, feet and knees together, count to four. Each exit gets evaluated by one of the instructors and you have to do it properly three times in a row before you “pass” that portion of the training. Which generally ends up taking a few days.
Anyway, when you’re actually up in the airplane and standing in the door, it’s loud, it’s windy, it’s unnerving and then suddenly the green light goes on and you leap out into what feels like the abyss. We were taught to leap out rather than to just fall out to make sure your lines don’t get caught in the big propellers of that massive C-130. That would not end well. And in those four long seconds before your parachute deploys, you feel like a rag doll caught in a tornado (that’s another simile for those keeping score).
And to me that is precisely what it feels like when the Holy Spirit grabs ahold of you. Sometimes it takes you where you’d rather not go; sometimes it completely disorients you; sometimes its sheer force overwhelms you; sometimes it makes you feel utterly powerless.
So how is the Spirit working in your own life? It may be urging you to take a new career path or join a ministry at church that might be out of your comfort zone or pursue a passion you’ve neglected or reach out to an estranged friend or family member. Sometimes the Spirit moves like that violent wind but sometimes it’s more of a gentle breeze.
But how do you know if it’s the Holy Spirit or something of your own invention? Something you’ve made up out of thin air? A reflection of your own desires rather than God’s? That’s where listening and discernment and testing come in. First, we can’t listen unless we make room for some intentional silence in our lives. Second, we need to have conversations with wise friends or counselors. Third, we need to try things out. If it’s not truly of the Spirit, God will let you know. And if it is, I guarantee that powerful feeling of discombobulation will yield to an overwhelming sense of peace.
After you leap out into that violent rush of wind known as the prop blast and you’ve gotten separation from the airplane and your chute opens up, the contrasting silence and peacefulness of the descent is remarkable. It’s just like what happens after the Holy Spirit knocks you down and you suddenly find yourself exactly where you need to be doing exactly what you need to be doing. You enter into that sense of peace and let it wash over you and know that Jesus is with you.
Now, the ground starts to come up awfully quick so you can’t stay in this state of reverie for very long. The whole point of military jumps is to get as many people onto the ground in as short a time as possible so you’re only in the air for about a minute before reality starts to rapidly rise up to meet you.
The Holy Spirit isn’t just about some individual, personal spiritual experience. We take the experience and hit the ground running; sharing our faith with others; opening our hearts to one another in Jesus’ name; becoming part of a faith community that acts as Jesus’ own hands and heart here on earth. And so on this day we say, whether we’re ready or not, “Come, Holy Spirit, Come.”
© The Rev. Tim Schenck
What a powerful sermon! As a youth, I was taught that when I was confirmed, I became a “solder of Christ.” Now, for the first time (and I’m sixty-six years old), I can see what the phrase means.
Oops–“soldier,” not “solder.” Soldering not needed…