Little Pentecosts

Sermon on Romans 8:22-27 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Pentecost, 2012.

The clock on the mantle has just struck eleven.  Elaine sits in her chair, still wearing her rumpled black dress, staring vacantly at the television as it flickers silently.  Normally she would have gone to bed hours earlier, but tonight she can’t bear to pull herself from her chair.  She can’t bear to face the emptiness of the bedroom she shared with Harold for forty-seven years.  Knowing that it had been a trying day of wake and funeral and internment, her son had offered to stay with her this evening, to keep her company.  But like so many women of her generation, she said, “I’m really fine” and sent him home.  She wasn’t fine.  The truth was he looked too much like his father; it was just too painful to see Harold’s face right now.  After a long time, Elaine rises and gingerly wanders to her empty bedroom.  She stands on the threshold for what seems like hours, afraid to find out what it feels like to be truly alone.  Eventually she walks to the closet, slowly changes from her dress to her nightgown, and carefully lies down in the spot where she had slept for so many years.  In some ways, nothing has changed.  Harold’s shaving kit is still arranged just so on his dresser, his dry-cleaning still hangs on the doorknob of the closet, and scent of his cologne even lingers in the air.  Elaine almost expects to hear Harold snoring next to her.  But as she reaches out her hand and grasps only the bedspread, she begins to weep, her sobs filling the empty house.

“For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”

It should have been a good day, Darrell thinks to himself as he drives home.  He had arrived at work early, anxious to finish a project that had been on his desk for several weeks.  His manager had already complimented him on his efficiency and his attention to detail; Darrell hoped that the finished product would seal his reputation as someone with significant potential.  It was Thursday, which meant that Darrell could look forward to an evening with his college buddies, all of whom have a similar affinity for karaoke.  But now as he drives home, the words of the late-afternoon phone call from his doctor resonate in his ears.  Words like “stage three,” “chemo,” “radiation,” “surgery,” and “cancer,” the scariest of all, distract him as he navigates the traffic on the interstate.  “Take some time to tell your loved ones,” the doctor had said, forcing Darrell to wonder who that might be.  His parents had died a decade ago, he hadn’t spoken to his sister in years, and his college friends avoided discussions of anything more serious than the NFL draft.  Darrell pulls into the parking lot of the apartment complex where he lives and directs his aging Ford Escort into its assigned space.  Turning the key, he removes his cell phone from his jacket pocket and leans back with a sigh.  As he stares at his phone, tears begin streaming down Darrell’s face.  He has cancer and has no one to call.

“For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”

There are moments in our lives when words simply cannot express the depth of our experience.  These moments are when we feel desperately lonely like Elaine or when we come face to face with our mortality like Darrell.  These times in our life rob us of our ability to use words, our ability to make sense of the world.  These moments of profound sorrow force us into a place where we are at a loss, where our lives seem like they will never be normal again, where the meaning and purpose of life seem to have changed forever.  It is in these moments, however, these deep and wordless moments, that we are most alive to the presence of the Holy Spirit.  It is in these moments that Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.

It is amazing to me that Paul was able to describe the Holy Spirit in this way.  After all, most of the New Testament is taken up by words written by Paul or attributed to Paul; the fact that he could even acknowledge that there are these wordless moments in our lives is nothing short of miraculous.  Moreover, Paul’s understanding of the Holy Spirit is entirely different than what we’re accustomed to, especially on days like Pentecost.  In our reading from Acts this morning, we have the image of the Holy Spirit being poured down upon us once and for all time, like a deluge from heaven.  In Acts, the Holy Spirit is the power given to us to proclaim the gospel.  In our reading from the John’s gospel, the Holy Spirit is depicted as the Advocate or the Paraclete (from the Greek for “call alongside”).  For John, the Holy Spirit is a helper that we call to our side when we feel threatened, or when we particularly feel the need for God’s assistance.  But for Paul, the Holy Spirit is the sign that God is with us in our most painful and our most joyful moments, those times that we cannot begin to describe the depth of our feelings, when we cannot begin to express the depth of our need for God.

You might have noticed that the translation I have been using is slightly different that what you might be accustomed to.  Even though the word is “groans,” the NRSV, perhaps uncomfortable with the idea of the Holy Spirit groaning, changes the word to “sighs.”  But it’s enormously important for us to understand that the Spirit groans with us.  When we are at our weakest and most desperate, the Holy Spirit does not translate our sorrow or our joy into something that is more palatable to God.  The Holy Spirit dwells with us and groans with us and within us; God through the Holy Spirit knows us especially in our most intimate and painful moments.  Those wordless moments in our lives become “little Pentecosts,” small moments of assurance that even in our darkest hours, God will be present with us.  Even in those moments when we cannot articulate our sorrow or our joy, God hears our prayers, even when we can only groan.

The 37-seat plane begins its descent toward the small regional airport.  Alan peers out the window and wonders what he will say to his wife when he steps off the plane.  It had been a long year.  Not only had he been serving on the front lines in a faraway country, often unable to communicate with his friends and family, leaving them to wonder constantly about his safety, he also had a daughter who had been born while he was away.  For months, he had thought about the moment when his family would be reunited, but in these final minutes, he wonders what he is going to say to his wife and newborn child.  How could words possibly express how much he missed them, how much he worried about them, how much he loves them, how much it means that he is finally coming home?  As the plane lands with a shudder, Alan draws his pack towards him, aching for his wife’s embrace, longing to kiss his baby girl, and hoping that he can say what needs to be said when he sees them.  He strides up the long jetway, only half-acknowledging the smiles he gets from his fellow passengers.  As he approaches baggage claim, he can see his wife standing by a stroller, and he breaks into a run.  Feeling his face burn with hot tears, Alan picks up his daughter and holds his wife in his arms, his embrace and his tears expressing all the fear and worry and meaning and love that words cannot express.  In the midst of baggage claim they stand, oblivious to the clamor for suitcases around them, embracing each other with an all-encompassing love and inexpressible joy.

“For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”

The early morning light filters through the bedroom window.  Though it is only a few minutes past five o’clock, Jane is wide-awake.  As her husband snores quietly, she pulls herself up, propping her head against a pillow.  Images from the past year and a half race through her mind.  The doctor’s appointment she scheduled to ask about some persistent back pain.  Her physician’s face as he advised her to see an oncologist.  The oncologist uttering the words “multiple myeloma” and “no cure.”  Her husband’s tear-stained face as he told their daughters that they were going to fight.  The seemingly endless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.  The horrific side-effects that left her sick and exhausted.  Her doctor’s tentative hopefulness as he described an experimental stem-cell transplant.  And the shock of hearing that her white blood cell count was normal at her latest check-up.  The realization that she was, against all odds, cancer-free.  Jane looks around the familiar furnishings of her bedroom with new eyes, dazzled by the pattern on the bedspread and the play of the morning light on her mirror.  She feels like someone who has come back from the dead, someone who finally understands the enormous gift that life is.  Jane looks toward heaven, searching for words that might begin to express her joy, her gratefulness, and her fear of the unknown, and she begins to cry, her tears expressing that which words cannot express.

“For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”

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The Final Frontier

Sermon on Acts 8:26-40 offered on Sunday, May 6 to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas.

“Space… the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

In the early 1960s, these words kindled the imaginations of millions of young people and captured the spirit of an age when human beings were no longer confined to the earth’s surface and had the ability to travel through the heavens.  With the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 outer space had come to represent the next stage of human exploration.  Writers and filmmakers began to imagine colonies on the moon, shuttles that could transport people from Earth to Mars, and the imminent possibility of encountering extraterrestrial intelligence.  In some ways these flights of fancy were simply a product of the heady time that was the 1960s, but on a deeper level, this interest in space exploration was borne out of a very human and very ancient impulse.  Human history has always been shaped by frontiers.  From the moment that the first cave dweller emerged from his shelter and wondered what was over the next hill, human beings have been explorers.  Our awareness of the frontier and our collective need for exploration have driven some of the most significant events in history, including the founding of the Republic of Texas.  In fact, when it was announced that the United States no longer had a frontier in 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner concluded that our national identity had been changed forever.  The frontier, the belief that there is always more to discover, has always shaped us as Americans, as human beings, and, I would suggest, as Christians.

In some ways, our reading from Acts this morning embodies the Christian interest in the frontier.  Remember that in the very first chapter of Acts, Jesus charges the disciples to proclaim the good news that Jesus died for us and rose from the dead.  He then tells them: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  This verse sets the agenda for the Acts of the Apostles.   And so on the day of Pentecost, the first public event that takes place in Acts, Peter bears witness to the truth of the gospel in Jerusalem.  In the following chapters, the apostles travel through Judea, proclaiming the good news of God in Christ.  And in chapter eight, just before the passage we read today, Philip the Evangelist proclaims the gospel in Samaria.  We can see Jesus’ prophecy coming true: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria.”  All that’s left is the ends of the earth; all that’s left is the frontier.

And so we come to this story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  On one level, this story doesn’t fit particularly well into the narrative.  Immediately before we have the story of Philip’s gospel proclamation in Samaria, which is north of Jerusalem.  Immediately after this passage, we hear the account of Saul’s miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus, also north of Jerusalem.  The story we hear today, however, takes place in the south.  Thus, it doesn’t fit geographically into the arc of the Acts of the Apostles.  Moreover, the author reminds that the road to Gaza is a wilderness road.  In Scripture, the wilderness is the place where the Spirit of God is most active, where one can be most attuned to God’s will and God’s purpose.  So in some ways, this story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is meant to be a spiritual interlude, a moment when we pause and reflect on what the Holy Spirit has been doing through the apostles and what the Holy Spirit will continue to do.  Notice that throughout this story, the Holy Spirit is the actor.  It’s an angel of the Lord who directs Philip to travel on the deserted road from Jerusalem to Gaza.  It’s the Holy Spirit who instructs Philip to join the chariot.  And it’s the Holy Spirit who snatches Philip away when he and the new Christian emerge from the water.  Philip’s role is purely incidental; he is quite simply the hands and feet of the Holy Spirit.  In many ways, this story isn’t meant to be part of the narrative; it’s supposed to reveal a spiritual truth to us, a spiritual truth that will shape our understanding of how the Church was founded and how we are called to proclaim the gospel.

You’re probably asking what this spiritual truth might be.  To answer that, we need to think a little more deeply about this Ethiopian eunuch.  To the people of Israel in the first century, Ethiopia was the most exotic place that any of them could possibly imagine.  It was not unlike El Dorado in their minds: a mysterious and legendary utopia characterized by untold wealth.  Even this eunuch, who represents Ethiopia in this story, is an exotic figure: not only has he been castrated, making him unclean in the eyes of the Jewish law, he is in charge of the Ethiopian queen’s entire treasury.  This man is an enormously powerful official of an exotic and mysterious court, the most foreign of foreigners, the first-century equivalent of an extraterrestrial, and yet coincidentally we find him reading from the prophet Isaiah on a road where a disciple of Jesus Christ just happens to be.  What is most remarkable about this encounter is that when the Ethiopian eunuch, when this most foreign of foreigners asks what would prevent him from being baptized, Philip’s response is to stop the chariot and baptize this new Christian.  Philip doesn’t say, “Well, first you need to go to catechism,” or “Unless you confess with your lips and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord, you cannot be baptized.”  Instead, Philip welcomes this foreigner into the fellowship of Jesus Christ, proving to us that the gospel can and will be carried to the very ends of the earth.  This Ethiopian eunuch represented the very limit, the very frontier of human existence, and the gospel was made known even to him.  This story is a powerful reminder that the gospel transcends and transforms boundaries, that the gospel will eventually reach to the ends of the earth, that someday the gospel will no longer have a frontier.

It’s easy for us to imagine that we are already there.  After all, with the rise of technology, the gospel has at least been preached to the ends of the earth many times over.  We might think that it is safe for us to assume that everyone has at least heard name of Jesus Christ.  But is this the substance of our gospel proclamation?  Are we called merely to shout from the rooftops that Jesus died and rose for us and leave it at that?  I don’t think so.  Part of what we are called do as Christians is to allow the gospel to transform our own lives.  Part of our gospel proclamation is to allow the good news of God in Christ to break forth from our actions and our interactions with our fellow human beings.  We are not only called to preach the gospel, we are called to live out the gospel.  As Saint Francis of Assisi famously put it, we are called to preach the gospel, and use words only if necessary.  Our very lives should testify to the truth that God has redeemed the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This is the essence of true evangelism.  At our baptism, we promise that we will proclaim by “word and example” the good news of God in Christ, which means that we are called to a very deep kind of evangelism.  In order for the gospel truly to be proclaimed “to the ends of the earth,” we must allow our very selves to be transformed by the gospel.

Earlier this week I was talking to a pastor of another denomination.  When I made the suggestion that the gospel had already been proclaimed to the ends of the earth, he questioned me, saying “I don’t know if anyone’s ever proclaimed the gospel to me.”  This is a shocking thing to hear from a pastor, but it is a reminder that we cannot be complacent.  We cannot simply assume that people know the story of redemption that we proclaim every week.  We cannot simply assume that our children understand why we gather together for worship together on a regular basis.  We cannot simply assume that we ourselves will always be aware of our need for God’s grace.  The work we are called to as Christians is never finished, and it begins with what Saint Benedict called a “conversion of the heart.”  We are called examine our own lives, to examine the life of our church and ask whether we are living out the gospel proclamation.  Can our friends and neighbors and even our enemies look at us and see the gospel through the way that we live our lives?  Can they see our concern for others, our willingness to forgive those who hurt us, and our insistence that God’s love is more wondrous than any of us can imagine?  It is appropriate that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah that has traditionally been associated with the suffering of Jesus.  It is Jesus Christ himself who shows us how to live out the gospel in our lives.  Just as Jesus Christ gave up his own life for the world, we are also called to live our lives with a spirit of self-sacrifice, thinking of other before we look after ourselves.  We are called to give of ourselves (our time, our ability, and our money) to help those we encounter believe in the promises of God’s kingdom.  We are called to make the gospel an integral part of our lives, something that informs everything that we do.  We are called to look at the world as a new gospel frontier, to re-proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, and to begin with our own hearts.