Inviting the Spirit

Fiery Heart

A homily for Evensong on the Eve of Pentecost, June 3, 2017.  The readings are Exodus 19:1-8, 16-20 and 1 Peter 2:2-10.

Listen to the homily HERE.

The late comedian and actor Robin Williams was also an Episcopalian and during the height of the David Letterman show and the nightly listing of the “top ten things” for this or that, Robin Williams compiled a list he called, “The Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian.”  On his list, number 6 says simply “Pew aerobics.”  We sit, we stand, we kneel.

There is a lot of up and down.

To some extent our “pew aerobics” are intended to go along with our words and our intentions.  The Book of Common Prayer is very careful to suggest postures, not to control people in worship, but because of the idea that posture can promote or encourage particular feelings.

God’s people stand for joy, in full gratitude that God has blessed us to such an extent as to be born in the world as one of us, to become incarnate, and to honor the material world.

We sometimes kneel when we’re sorry—for ourselves or for others.  We kneel when we feel small and need to ask for care or guidance or direction.

And we sit to listen or to be in community.  Sometimes we sit when we’re worn out and don’t have the energy or physical ability to do anything else.

So there’s a lot of up and down to our posture, just as there’s a lot of up and down in our lives—times to celebrate and times to despair.

The up and down nature of things also pertains to God, as people have tried to get their minds around God.  Almost every religion somehow imagines the divinity as being “up” and the opposite of divinity as being “down.”

Our first reading from scripture includes this idea in a way that many of us have probably felt.  Moses meets God in the mountains.  High up, with a perspective that can see miles away, with the air a little thinner and cleaner.  High on a mountain, one can surely meet God.

The Church has just celebrated the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in which we have heard stories, prayed prayers, and sung music about Christ going “up.” And in fact, the anthem the choir sings in just a few minutes underscores this point.

And yet, even as the anthem quotes Psalm 47, “God is gone up with a triumphant shout,” the anthem continues by reminding us of other psalms, especially Psalm 24:, “Life up your heads, O gates, and let the King of Glory in.”

In the anthem, as in our worship, as in our lives, there’s a tension between locating God—that Higher Power, that Source of All Being, that “something” that is BEYOND, while at the same time, being somehow “WITHIN.”

In the Christian tradition, we hear Jesus say again and again in the Gospels, “Don’t look for the kingdom of God over there, or far away.  The Kingdom of God (God’s fullest presence) is already among you.  Look within yourself.  Look at your neighbor.

We gather on the Eve of Pentecost, that day in which the early followers of Jesus saw and felt God’s Spirit in a radically new way. Pentecost brings many messages and, in fact, we have a whole season of Sundays to reflect on what it means that the full Spirit of God lives among us and within us, but especially around the Day of Pentecost, I think it’s helpful to recall that the Spirit of God comes whenever called.

God’s Spirit may not show up exactly the way we imagine—we’ll hear tomorrow how those early followers of Jesus were blown away by the Spirit’s presence—it was nothing like what they were expecting.  But God comes when invited, when called, when invoked.

The Second reading from scripture that we heard comes from St. Peter who tries to remind his audience (and us) that we are God’s beloved.  God has created each one of us not as lifeless rocks to be thrown away or ignored, but as “living stones,” spiritual bodies—in God’s eyes capable, precious, and beautiful.

The Gifts of the Spirit are ours for the asking.  God is ours for the asking. Perhaps we ask with words. Perhaps we ask with our bodies.  Perhaps we ask in silence.  Perhaps we ask with music.

At the end of our Evensong this afternoon, we’ll sing the wonderful old hymn, “Come down, O Love divine.”  The familiar tune is by Ralph Vaughan Williams but the words are by Richard Frederick Littledale, who was an Anglican priest who was deeply affected by the English Pre-Raphaelites.  He joined many in idealizing much of the medieval Church and piety and loved the words of the Bianca da Siena, a 14th century Italian mystic.  “Come down, O Love Divine,” invites God into our hearts, to comfort, to burn away whatever is extra or needs to go, and to warm our hearts so that a flame of love can burn within us.

Though the images of God’s being up or down might help us to think about our own place in creation, and gain a new perspective, may we always remember that God is neither up or down, in or out, but always and everywhere as close as our breath—if only we ask.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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