imagine – a sermon for the Day of Pentecost

preachinga sermon, based on Ezekiel 37.1-14, Psalm 104.24-35, Acts 2.1-21, and John 15.26-27, preached with the people of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on Sunday, May 24, 2015

“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”[1] So said Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well, elevating her conscious sight of relationship with the divine from a purely physical, temporal realm to the plane of spiritual, eternal reality. “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”[2] So said Jesus to those with earth-bound understanding who struggled with his declaration that his flesh and blood give life; making the same point as our psalmist that God alone, through the spirit, gives life. Making a deeper, the deepest point that all outward form and shape without inward spirit is lifeless.

I think of that idiomatic expression “going through the motions,” descriptive of an action motivated by expectation or habit, but without commitment, concentration, conviction, performed mechanically, lifelessly.

Imagine a choral or instrumental recital that demonstrates technical proficiency, but so lacks the quality of passion that the audience, hardly having shared a transcendent, spiritual experience, applauds hesitantly, ambivalently; metaphorically, but no less truly sitting on its hands.

Imagine a speaker, a preacher with delivery flat, affect minimal, content shallow whose oration lacks substance and spirit leaving the audience, the congregation coldly uninspired.

Imagine a congregation gathered for worship outwardly observing the prescribed rites and rituals, yet, lacking the fire of pentecostal spirit, with little inward and shared sense of sacred sign and meaning.

Imagine a relationship in which compassion’s flame is but an ember, if not wholly extinguished; the outward appearance of companionship masking an inward dearth, verily death of spirit.

Imagine.

Yet there is good news. The Spirit of God continues to bring life, even out of death. This I know for the Bible tells me so.

Ezekiel’s dry bones. For me, the most poignant, powerful prophecy in all of Hebrew scripture. To the people Israel exiled from their homeland in Babylon, Ezekiel proclaims God’s restoration. Not resuscitation from “mere” death (the cessation of breathing, the expiration of the body) when a corpse is brought back to life. For this people’s existence, after deportation, dislocation, and nearly fifty years in captivity, exacting the dual, fatal loss of communal identity and any hope of return home, is beyond mere death (which, at least, would have freed them from their enduring sorrows). No, not resuscitation. What Ezekiel portrays in vivid detail is a revival (even greater than the resurrection experience of Jesus on that first Easter Day!) not of a body, not even a skeleton, but disjoined and scattered bones. What Ezekiel foretells is a reconstitution, literally a re-membering, a redressing from the starkest state of nakedness where the last article of attire discarded is the first to be put on until one again is fully clothed. The bones come together. Then sinew. Then flesh. Still, “it” is only a dead body. In order for there to be life, God’s breath, in the Hebrew, ruach, in the Greek, pneuma, must blow. And so, as the prophecy goes, it does and life begins anew.

But so what? For what? Is life to be had for only life’s sake? Again, the Bible speaks. The Spirit gives new life to re-membered bones so that they, now individual bodies, once more-than-dead, stand “on their feet, a vast multitude,” a revived people.

On this Day of Pentecost, we celebrate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to his disciples of the coming of God’s Spirit to bind them, though many, together as one body. This day is also one of the church’s chief occasions for baptism when we commemorate our first birth as individuals into our human families and celebrate our rebirth, our second birth into a community, a spiritual family whose surname is “Christian.”

The Spirit gives life. For what? To make a people, a community, a family.

But to do what? Again, the Bible speaks. According to Acts, to give utterance as the Spirit gives ability. According to Jesus, through “the Spirit of truth,” to testify. To witness, with the words of our lips and the deeds of our lives, to the truth of Jesus. To be and become a community where doing his love and justice is the lingua franca, the common language binding all together as one.

We live in an increasingly consumer culture. Nothing new in this. Each of us has, is a carbon footprint of constant need; at times, unconscious and inchoate, at other times, crystal clear. Often we look to our communities of choice, including our churches, to fulfill our individual wants and needs, judging the relevance of our communities and the rightness of our choices based on our perceptions of how well or poorly our aims are satisfied. Nothing wrong in this.

Yet the other side of the relational equation is equally important: What we give to our communities. For what? So that our communities can better serve our needs? Yes, but more. So that our communities can serve the needs of others. So that in and through community, we together may serve a world of want and need outside of our doors.

You, St. Christopher’s, have called your new vicar, the Reverend James Edward Richard Trimble, and Sarah, his wife, and Riley, their son; August 9 being their first Sunday with and among you. Their coming is both sign and symbol of your re-membering, not of dry bones, but of the reconstitution of St. Christopher’s as a people and a priest.

As you go forward together in faith, I bid that you always imagine. Yes, what can St. Christopher’s do for you? Yet equally, no, more what has God created, Jesus called, the Spirit consecrated you, individually and communally, to be and to do through St. Christopher’s in the world?

[1] John 4.24

[2] John 6.63

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2 thoughts on “imagine – a sermon for the Day of Pentecost

  1. Thanks Paul for sharing this sermon. It spoke volumes to me, given the current state of my “spirit”.

    I use my imagination every day – in designing my training modules, and in building my LEGO creations. But I’m not always in touch with my spirit, and I admit that the things I do daily, I can do simply by “going through the motions” as you mentioned. Then almost 3 weeks ago, our family headed to Utah. I “imagined” what it would be like, but it was nothing as I imagined. For 17 days, I didn’t touch one piece of my work or one LEGO brick (though I had both with me). All I did was focus on my spirit and what I was seeing and feeling and trying to comprehend. Stepping where dinosaur’s walked 165 million years ago is hard to imagine, unless you’ve actually done it (Dry bones indeed, though not of the same type you mention of course). I’ve tried writing about the trip, but I’ve yet to find the words. What I did find that I hadn’t been in touch with recently is my spirit. Even now, I still have no desire to leave my current “state of spirit” to work, or build or to write. So I thank you for helping me to form a few words about my experience and what I’m feeling.

    I wish the good folks of St. Christopher’s a long and successful tenure with their new Rector. Thanks again for sharing your words with that congregation, and with the rest of us. Your spirit of words and delivery does indeed spark imagination!!! Much love to you!

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  2. Loretta, thank you for your thanks AND thank you for your commentary, which, as I read and reflect, feels to me like a beginning of your putting words to your experience. Your writing of exercising your imagination, your being in touch with your spirit, your observation about the footprints of dinosaurs and the connection with Ezekiel’s dry bones – yep, reads and sounds, thinks and feels to me like the turning of your internal spirit-wheels bearing the fruit of your introspection. AND much love back to you, always and in all ways!

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