- Zachary Helton
"The Wild Spirit," by Zachary Helton
A reading from the Book of Acts: When the day of Pentecost arrived, they all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them. Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue? We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome— all Jews, or converts to Judaism—Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!” All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.” Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “Women and men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, it’s what Joel the prophet spoke of: ‘In the days to come— it is our God who speaks— I will pour out my Spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved.’ This is one of our sacred stories, Thanks be to God.
A reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: We know that from the beginning until now, all of creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth. And not only creation, but all of us who possess the firstfruits of the Spirit—we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free. In hope we were saved. But hope is not hope if its object is seen; why does one hope for what one sees? And hoping for what we cannot see means awaiting it with patient endurance. The Spirit, too, comes to help us in our weakness. For we don’t know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit expresses our plea with groanings too deep for words. And God, who knows everything in our hearts, knows perfectly well what the Spirit is saying, because her intercessions for God’s holy people are made according to the mind of God. This is one of our sacred texts, Thanks be to God.
(It’s a bit daunting preaching in front of people for the first time in a year. At least recording, if the sermon is a dud, you don’t have to look anybody in the eye while it’s happening! So here we go – raw and unedited. One take.)
Pentecost Sunday is often called the “Birthday of the Church.” Christ as ascended, his followers remain, trying to figure out what to do next, and then, as the Spirit is poured out on each of them, the followers of Jesus become “the Church,” the hands and feet of Christ on earth. However, there is something about this description that doesn’t really sit right with me. We talk about it as though, on this day, the Church was born from nothing, ex nihilo. Like the day before Pentecost “church” didn’t exist, and then the day after Pentecost, it did… but that’s not quite right, is it? All of the elements were already there, had always been there, in one arrangement or another. The Spirit had already been burning in the hearts of the people, has since God breathed that Spirit into our lungs in the first chapter of the first book. The People of God have assembled, in different forms, under different banners, since they first marched through the Red Sea and gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai. The disciples of Jesus had already been travelling around the countryside proclaiming their message of grace and peace, being the church for at least three years before this day. And even since that day, the church has gone through many forms and many seasons, not the same now as it ever has been or ever will be. The people gathering, seeking God, embodying the Spirit… they always have been, and always will be.
On Pentecost, it’s not that something new came from nothing, it’s that something shifted. A cloud crossing the sky was blown apart by a violent wind and came back together in a new shape. No longer just the men, but all genders. No longer just elders, but the young and old. No longer just the Jews, but Gentiles of every stripe… wider borders, newer arrangements, more languages, different skin tones, freer and freer, more aware and more open… This is the true celebration of Pentecost, no the birth of an unchanging thing called “the church,” but the process. The movement. It’s the violent wind and transforming fire that give rise and continue to give rise to new and beautiful incarnations of God’s love, that is Pentecost.
Pentecost is the day when we remember that the church of God is never the same from one moment to the next… and we thank God for it.
Now, the reason the church is never the same from one moment to the next, is because of the nature of the Spirit that calls it into being. On Pentecost, we remember that the Spirit is wild. It cares nothing for our conventions or fears, it only calls us boldly and honestly to embody our truth anew in every moment.
On the day Jesus’ followers opened their mouth and began to preach, to open doors and celebrate people of every tribe, nation, gender, and age, make no mistake, it was not safe to do so. They proclaimed the same message of wild inclusion in front of the same people who had, only fifty days prior, sent Jesus to his execution. To these fearful men, the wildness was not sacred, it was blasphemy. As some looked on in wonder, they began playing a game of morality politics. “These men are drunk!” Fools! Just look at them! The Spirit of God does not work this way. It has never been done this way before.
We have gotten comfortable in the church with comparing the Spirit to a dove. It was, after all, the dove that fell on Jesus in his Baptism. The wings of the dove, the dove’s murmur… gentle, meek, manageable, tame - good form for a hallmark card. The Celtic Church, however, rejects this image in favor of another. Rather than describe the Spirit as a dove, they refer to her as “The Wild Goose.” The Wild Goose is not gentle. It is not murmuring, or meek. The Wild Goose is loud. It doesn’t coo, it honks. It doesn’t flee when threats come near, it engages with flapping wings and a snapping beak. The Wild Goose is just that… it is wild. Like the beaver says of Aslan of Narnia, Of course he isn’t safe, but he is good.
Lions… Wild Geese… Violent Winds… Tongues of Fire… these are the images of this day. On Pentecost, we remember that the Spirit is wild.
Now, like those Pharisees of old, this idea of a wild Spirit within us frightens us, and to some extent, it should. It threatens the status quo, the power, the wealth, the lies, the castles of sand we’ve meticulously put up to protect our comfort and shield us from life. But the truth is, if we are to be a people who trust the wild Spirit of God within us, we must remain openhearted, clinging to nothing.
In our second reading this morning, the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, likens the experience of surrendering to the Spirit to the experience of giving birth. “All of creation has been groaning in labor pains until now… We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait…” Now, I am not a woman (nor was Paul, for that matter), so I cannot speak firsthand on what it is like to give birth. I have, however, been in delivery rooms, so I get the general idea. Labor hurts. Childbirth is painful, but the things is: there is no moving backwards once it’s begun. Once new life begins to come forth, there can be no clinging to comfort, no lies and no status quo except to one’s own great detriment.
Can you imagine if the early church had not been open to the wildness of the Spirit when the day of Pentecost came? Can you imagine if they had just stayed in their upper room, rightly afraid of the threats of persecution outside that had only just killed their leader. What if they had felt the birth pangs and said no?What if they heard the violent wind and ran for cover, the fire and hid inside? They would’ve formed some kind of collective, drafted some bylaws, and flown under the weather. There are, after all, plenty of groups, religious groups even, that get by just fine without the Spirit.
The Spirit will call us to let go of a hundred forms, and take a hundred more, to abandon a hundred identities and step into a hundred new ones. It is always movement, always living and changing. If we are to be a people who trust the wild Spirit of God within us, we must remain openhearted, clinging to nothing.
Now, if this openness sounds frightening, if this wildness sounds intimidating, there is an antidote, and that is to look forward, to what the Spirit is moving towards. It is a half-life we must say no to, and life itself to which we say yes. It is only because things are always moving that there is ever the possibility that things will be better. Because of change, there is hope.
When the Apostle Paul wrote this letter, when he wrote of creation groaning with the pains of labor, it was not to tell the community to brace themselves. It was not a message of misery or despair. It was a letter about hope. “There is pain right now,” he says, “but it is the pain of becoming, the pain of something new being born. It is the pain of the Kingdom of God the new Order of Freedom and Truth coming to fruition in and around you.” Likewise, the author of Acts writes of a day of fire and violent wind, it is not a story about disaster. It was a letter of hope. The old was blown over, burned down, the pieces torn apart and rearranged and after that, truer, freer, braver, more expansive life.
Every healthy church has stories of difficult seasons. There are the stories of the deciding to racially integrate, of making the move to be open about welcoming and affirming LGBTQ+ persons… there are stories about pastor transitions and meetings that exploded and being kicked out of conventions… there are all manner of difficult stories of change, of having to let go and follow a wild Spirit into an unknown and threatening world, but for each of these stories, there is a refrain: Thank God we didn’t stay like we were. Thank God we moved towards freedom, towards life. It cost us everything, but by God, we are alive.
Whether we are talking about churches, or governments, or relationships or ourselves, in order to follow life, in order to follow the wildness of the Spirit, there must be constant movement, constant change, but it is always towards the truer, the better, the more joyful and peaceful and free.
Constant change may be uncomfortable, but it is because of change, there is hope.
Northminster, Pentecost is exactly the day we need right now. Over a year ago, a violent wind came and blew us apart and we faced a choice: Choose fear, grit our teeth, cling to a particular form of doing church… or let go of everything, move into a land we could not make any predictions about, and trust the wildness of the Spirit with each step. We chose to trust. We chose unknown and we became something we never thought we could. Now the winds are blowing again, and we are coming back together, but it would be foolish to think that “back” means “the same.” We are not the same. We will never be the same. Since we were last in this place, we have seen race riots. We have seen an attempted coup of our country. We have seen hurricanes and sickness and death on a scale we couldn’t have imagined. We are not the same… but that is okay, because the church is never the same from one moment to the next, should never be clinging to a particular form or way of being.
So, in whatever comes next, because of course, something will come next, let us trust the wildness of the Spirit within us. Let us listen to her voice with open hearts, embracing every change and becoming whoever we are called to become, remembering that it is only because of the movement because of the change that there is hope.
This is the day when we remember that the church of God is never the same from one moment to the next… and we thank God for it.
I thank God for you, Northminster, for your openness and your wildness and your hope.
Happy Pentecost, and welcome back.