Pentecost 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 24, 2015 (Pentecost, Year B)

My mother-in-law, like James Bond, is very particular about her martinis. Actually James Bond is low maintenance in comparison: Shaken. Not stirred. Done. Rosalie, on the other hand, gives very precise instructions on everything from the number and type of olives (three and green — and God forbid if they’re bruised) to the brand of vodka and degree of dryness (Grey Goose and very). I generally hold my breath from the moment she orders it to the moment it touches her lips. And given that it takes about 10 minutes to place the order, I’m nearly blue by the time her drink arrives.

Btx-r6RCQAAiQgb.jpg-largeNow, before any rumors get started or I get myself into a heap of trouble, I should say she only orders these on special occasions. This isn’t a nightly occurrence at the local watering hole. But I was thinking about Rosalie’s martinis this week because when it comes to experiencing the Holy Spirit in our lives, the encounter often leaves us both shaken and stirred.

If we pull out some key words and phrases from the reading describing the Pentecost event in the Acts of the Apostles, it’s clear that the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit was disconcerting: “Suddenly, violent wind, tongues as of fire, filled with the Holy Spirit, bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed.” You don’t hear any words like “calm, serene, peaceful, relaxing” — that’s not part of the Pentecost vocabulary.

Sometimes when the Holy Spirit is at work in our individual or communal lives, it’s not comfortable. Actually, it’s rarely comfortable because the Spirit takes us out of our comfort zones. The Spirit can’t do a new thing without first leveling the old. And that can be incredibly disorienting because it literally throws everything up for grabs.

Because when the Spirit blows through our lives, nothing remains untouched. The Spirit pays no heed to structure or norms or routines. There is no “we’ve always done it that way” when the Holy Spirit shows up. The Spirit is described as a powerful wind that blows where it will, turning deeply held beliefs upside down and inside out. The Spirit is described as a raging fire that burns away that which obstructs God’s desires. Resisting the Holy Spirit is a bit like trying to stand still during a powerful hurricane — you can try, but it just can’t be done.

Around St. John’s it does feel like we’ve all been thrown into a shaker over the past eight months. With all the staff transitions and building challenges and the crazy winter and ripping out all the bushes on the front lawn, we’ve definitely been shaken and stirred. It looks different around here; it feels different around here. We’ve experienced some unexpected turbulence and we’ve created some of our own.

But when the ice and vermouth and vodka are put into just the right ratios, what emerges when it’s poured into a frosted martini glass and garnished with the correct number of olives is a creative thing of beauty. And that’s what I’m confident will come out of this season of controlled chaos at St. John’s. I see the Spirit at work; I see a new exciting phase of ministry emerging with new energy and new ideas and new life bursting forth. And that’s exciting, if somewhat disorienting. Being shaken and stirred by the Spirit has that effect on people and institutions.

So, as we mark and celebrate this day, it’s important to remember that Pentecost wasn’t just a single event that happened in the days immediately following Jesus’ ascension. If that was the case, it would be an interesting historical moment to read about. Certainly a dramatic one with the languages and the tongues of flame descending and the general chaotic nature of that day.

Part of the problem is that reading about such an event or viewing artistic renderings can never tell the whole story. To fully comprehend and grasp the power of the Holy Spirit, it must be experienced.

One of the exercises I did with the confirmation class this year tried to get at the power of experience. We were talking about the sacraments and to make a similar point, I had them all sit in a circle and we blindfolded one of them. I then passed out a particular food — in this case cheese puffs, because that’s what I had — and I asked them to describe to their blindfolded peer what they were eating without naming it. They described the taste and the texture and the color as best they could and eventually the one who was blindfolded was able to guess the food in question. Not the precise brand, but the food. The point was that words and language only go so far — you have to experience something yourself to fully grasp it.

The same is true with the Holy Spirit. I can talk about it. I can describe it. I could even draw a picture of it — not a good one mind you. But unless you experience the Spirit at work in your own life, you can’t understand its power. So, how can you tell if the Spirit is at work in your life?

smart7-2It’s different for everyone but for me it usually starts with that sense of confusion. With not being sure that something that’s taking me out of my comfort zone is indeed of God. It could be, of course, but then it might just be something annoying. But then something amazing happens — if it truly is the Spirit at work. If I begin tentatively moving in the direction I think God is calling me, suddenly the door opens. And I can take a few more halting steps. And then another door opens. And eventually it starts to feel like the opening scene from the old 1960s TV series Get Smart where all those different doors start opening as I walk down a long corridor into the unknown. Minus the theme music.

How do you experience the Holy Spirit in your life? How do you know when God is acting or challenging you to try a new thing? I invite you to reflect on this and I’d love to hear your stories. We all stumble on occasion or misinterpret the signs. But then there are other times when God’s presence and purpose for us is unmistakably clear. We may start out feeling, like Jesus’ disciples that day, “bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed.” But if the experience is truly of God, that all fades away and the never-changing nature of God remains, even as the Spirit infuses us with something new and utterly beyond anything we could ask for or imagine.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck


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