Did you know that St. James’s is one of the largest churches in the largest diocese in the United States ? Did you know that we have one of the largest budgets in the diocese and resources in people and material that far exceed what most parishes have? The average size of the average Episcopal Church is 125 people on Sunday morning. We average around 700 people on a given Sunday morning.
This is a powerful church with a staff of fifteen and a congregation of 2000. We have vibrant ministries both inside outside these walls. And yet our health, our vibrancy, our well being is as fragile as the most delicate of flowers. Everything we have and everything we are can fall apart in front of our eyes for what appears to be no reason at all. Every rector knows it. Every rector knows that a vibrant parish is essentially a mystery. Every rector knows that a vibrant parish was not something he or she created or something he or she can sustain. That is because the health and well being of a parish is not dependent on the efforts of the clergy, the size of the budget or the power of the programming. No, every parish rises and falls to the extent to which the Holy Spirit is present in that place. Let me say that again and I mean this – Every Parish, St. James’s Church, rises or falls, thrives or dwindles, depending on the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, this power from God given to the disciples fifty days following the resurrection – What is it? How does it work? If it is so important then how do we get it and how do we keep it? I haven’t a clue. Our faith tells us that God’s Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, comes like a wind, blowing where it will. It is fickle, unpredictable, beyond our control. Like the wind it is invisible and like the wind when the Spirit comes it refreshes, reinvigorates and awakens things stagnant like a summer breeze in the slack sails of a schooner. To the extent the Spirit moves within a church then that church will thrive and grow in service to our Lord. To the extent that it is absent then that church can accomplish little in spite of every effort.
Ten years ago this July 13th when St. James’s was essentially destroyed by fire the Holy Spirit blew into this community with powerful results. I was at St. Stephen’s then and I remember watching news footage of that first service following the fire. It was a service like today’s, a service of baptism but it was held in the middle of Franklin Street . A tent had been erected, chairs set out everywhere and even from the few seconds of video on the evening news I could tell something magical was taking place at St. James’s. This community had suddenly, shockingly lost its sanctuary and yet you were carrying on – baptizing babies, sharing the Eucharist, praising God full of hope and faith. The Holy Spirit had not caused the fire but as is the case with our God who works to redeem tragedy, the Spirit rolled into this place after the fire in new and powerful ways.
One of the hallmarks of the Spirit’s presence is that it builds up and brings people together. Scores of people joined St. James’s in the first years following the fire. A new and wonderful relationship was formed with Beth Ahabah a result of their invitation to worship in the synagogue. The parish raised enough money to completely restore this incredible sanctuary, add the Parkinson Room and Peterkin Parlor as well as an impressive parking deck. And while the disciples described the Holy Spirit as tongues of flame, you don’t have to have a fire in order to get the Spirit. Although I joke that every church ought to burn to the ground at least once.
Ten years later the Spirit is still here moving amongst us. But its presence is not something we can count on. We must either respond to the promptings of the Spirit or risk losing it. How do we know the Spirit is leading us? How do we know when the Spirit is directing us and not just our desires? We don’t ever really know, not for sure. Ultimately the Spirit is a mystery far beyond our understanding. But the book of Acts and the experience of the first disciples gives us some clues to the Spirit’s patterns. When the Spirit descended upon the disciple’s, people from all around the Roman world heard Jesus’ followers proclaiming the good news in their native tongues. Miraculously they were no longer separated by the barrier of language. In this sense when we seek to break through things that divide us whether they are language, race, ethnicity or anything else then we can bet that we are following God’s Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit desires not the separation of individuals, the polarization of people into ideologies, but the building up of the body of Christ. When we seek to build up the body we can trust that we are following the Spirit.
When the Spirit descended upon the disciples this group of frightened individuals found themselves empowered to reach out beyond themselves; they found the strength and energy and courage to take risks they had never imagined possible. Before Pentecost this same group of twelve had abandoned Jesus, running away out of fear of Roman persecution. After Pentecost, they fearlessly proclaimed the love of God in Christ, a love that had changed their lives. From one end of the Roman Empire to the other they proclaimed Christ in the face of hardships, imprisonments, even torture and death. Therefore the Spirit is empowering us too to take courageous risks in the name of Christ. Each time we take the risk to begin a new ministry- like WomanKind, a new relationship- like our joint program with Beth Ahabah and the Islamic Center, a new project to care for the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalized- like our work Epiphany School in Honduras , we are following the urgings of the Spirit.
But remember this. If we ever stop reaching out to others, building up the broken, or working to reconcile relationships then the Spirit will move on to a people more willing to follow its promptings. And we will become a shell, a corpse, an institution that has lost its core. As Anthony de Mello the popular Christian author once wrote: “The greatest need of the Church today is not a new legislation, new theology, new structures, new liturgies – all these without the Holy Spirit are like a dead body without a soul. We desperately need someone to take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh; we need an infusion of enthusiasm and inspiration and courage and spiritual strength. We need to persevere in our love without discouragement or cynicism.” We need the Spirit for without it we are nothing. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen.