Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Earth, Wind, Water, Fire!

I preached this sermon a year ago on Pentecost.


You may have heard it said that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. We are creatures of the earth. We are earthlings. We are made of stuff that inevitably dies and decays and becomes earth again.

The Book of Genesis describes God making the first man from the clay—from the earth—and then breathing the divine breath into him. Ah! So we are not just of earth. We are of breath. The Hebrew word “ruach” means breath and wind and spirit and air. God has created us to have wind, and to use it to fill our windpipes to speak and to sing.

If we stopped there, we might imagine ourselves as part body and part spirit. Many people have settled for that answer, some even suggesting that the spirit part is good and the body part is evil. But it’s not that simple. It doesn’t stop there.

We are conceived and carried in water, then born through a great bursting forth of that water. We survive by taking in water; scientists tell us our bodies are up to 75% water. We are creatures of earth, air, and water. When John began baptizing people in the River Jordan, he affirmed this truth.

Then John said, “I baptize you with water. But one is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.” Today is the day we become creatures of fire, too! Earth, air, water, fire: the four classical elements. We are all these things—not just dust.

The story of Pentecost is laid out in today’s first reading. First comes a violent wind, and then tongues of fire alighting on Jesus’ friends. But that energy can’t stay in the room—the people go out into the street, and foreigners from every nation understand exactly what the disciples are saying in every possible language. Two thousand years later, we’re still asking, “What does this mean?” It was a thoroughly confusing experience.

Last week at the Wednesday morning Bible study, we looked at this passage in depth. One person’s comment especially stuck with me: “The Holy Spirit most often operates in confusion.” When we are confused, we are not in control. Something amazing is happening, but we’re not the ones doing it. When we’re not in control, the Holy Spirit is.

I’ve occasionally felt the Holy Spirit moving through the confusion, taking an uncontrollable situation out of my hands. Often I’ve tried to seize control back, only to be burned by that fire. When the Holy Spirit rushes through the room, it’s best to get out of the way! Because the end result is bound to be something better than I could have imagined. Just ask the disciples: they had to let Jesus go in order for the Holy Spirit to come.

See, here’s the thing. If it weren’t for Pentecost, we might be in danger of imagining that the power of the Resurrection was only meaningful for one man: Jesus. So one man in all of history comes back from the dead: sure it’s amazing, but so what? What does it have to do with us?

Pentecost is what it has to do with us. Jesus rose from the dead, but if he had stuck around, doing all the things he used to do with his friends, he either would have had to die again someday of old age, or he would still be walking around as a superhuman creature today. We’ll leave that plotline to any sci-fi buffs among us.

But God never intended to restrict the Resurrection to Jesus. That power is available to all of us, and Pentecost marks that shift. Jesus the resurrected man had to disappear, to ascend, so that his energy could be redistributed into all of us. The Church is nothing if not the community of the Resurrected. That includes those whose earthly bodies have gone, and those with whom we live and love today.

Have you felt the energy at St. Thomas lately? Membership is growing and new ministries are sprouting in a time of transition from one rector to the next. Our first opportunities to meet Lex Breckinridge last week were electric; the church was abuzz with the Holy Spirit. It was enough to make another Bible study participant comment, “I’m almost afraid to come to church on Sunday.”

Thank you for coming to celebrate with the Church this morning. Maybe you came because you wanted to hear the rush of wind through bagpipes, or to feel baptismal water splashed on your face, or to experience bread and wine—and, later, ice cream—entering your body. Hopefully, you’re also willing to feel the fire!

Today is the day that eleven people at St. Thomas will receive a generous amount of water, a scintillating dollop of earthy oil, and the fire and air that make up a flame. Where else can one go to experience all the classical elements at once, and to join a community in which those elements of existence become charged with the power of God? God is setting this place on fire, and the fire cannot be contained.

May I share one of the Church’s best-kept secrets with you? The Holy Spirit is not a magical force we can conjure. We can’t keep it concentrated in this building. We can’t possibly limit its access to those who come to church or to those who are baptized. The Holy Spirit is already out there, wherever you go, everywhere in the world. Any time we say, “Come, Holy Spirit,” it’s ironic, because we’re beckoning someone who cannot be beckoned, and who is always with us.

But if we didn’t beckon, would we notice? How often does a fish say, “Hey, I’m swimming in water!”? How often does a flame shout, “Aaaah! I’m on fire!”? How often do we stop whatever we’re doing, take a long, deep breath, and appreciate what it means to be alive?

If we did that all the time, people might well think we’d been drinking, even at nine in the morning. When people live life joyfully, wallowing in the Holy Spirit, amazing things start to happen. People reach out to others to give them what they need. The simplest actions can take on deep meaning and can break down barriers of language and social standing. The result is Resurrection on both a small and large scale.

Eleven people are joining this movement today, this movement that began on that first Pentecost. Will you be a part of it, too? Will you make room for the Holy Spirit?

Jesus’ words in our Gospel today show us how we can do that. In honest and hopeful language, he says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Count on that!

When we admit our ignorance and arrogance in the face of all that is holy, then do the best we know how, we leave plenty of room for the Holy Spirit. It might mean not rushing to judge whether a situation is good or bad. It might mean taking a leap of faith: committing yourself to a task without yet fully believing you have the tools you need to accomplish it. It might mean admitting your lack of control in a situation and leaving it to God. It might mean becoming a Holy Spirit hunter: keeping your eyes peeled for God’s Resurrection power at work in the world and then joining the movement.

So come, Holy Spirit. Feed our bodies with enough bread for today. Breathe new life into us. Quench our thirst with your Living Water. Take our hearts and set them on fire! Amen.


That's the sermon from a year ago. Then, today, I had a neat realization during prayer.

Earth = Solid
Water = Liquid
Air = Gas
Fire = Plasma

The four elements are also the four states of matter! Cool.

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