I was sitting in our Chapel waiting, waiting for God. It all had to do with this sermon for Pentecost, and I was ready and waiting for God to inspire me. Right then, right now! Nothing happened.
Sometimes we get ourselves ready for God or the Holy Spirit and nobody shows up—or at least we don’t recognize them when they do. While I was sitting there, I couldn’t help but think how beautiful our Church is. I walked up and down the aisles marveling at the way we rebuilt it. We certainly have come a long way from that burned down wreck of building that was left after the fire.
It was on July 13, 1994 that lightening struck this parish in more ways than one. A lot of us remember that fateful night and the sinking feeling of defeat, as the roof fell in and the church was left in ruins. I’ll never forget it. I still dream about the fire from time to time. Early the next morning it began to rain gently at sunrise. I was sitting, alone, on the steps of the parish house, feeling bereft. What was I going to do? I had only been rector here for four months. I had not had time to know any of you well and believe me, they don’t tell you in seminary what to do when your church burns down. I went inside the parish house and found a Bible. It fell open to Isaiah, and I read these words, “Do you not know, have you not heard? The Lord, the eternal God, creator of earth’s farthest bounds, does not weary or grow faint; his understanding cannot be fathomed. He gives power to the weary, new strength to the exhausted. Even youths shall grow weary and faint, and young men shall fall exhausted, but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
You may not believe me, but deep inside I knew right then and there that this was a message from God. Usually I’m not so sure, but I knew it with every ounce of my being. I knew it as surely as I know you are sitting here this morning. Something changed in me. I stopped being afraid and I gave my fear to God. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do or just how to do it, but I stopped being afraid. Suddenly there came a trust that God was going to see us through this tragedy.
Later that day people of all sorts and in various emotional conditions showed up. Many of you were there. Some of you had tears in your eyes. Some of you looked worried. Some of you wanted to be given a job. Some of you wanted to come back to Church and feel needed. Some of you just stared at the charred embers. Beneath your tears I saw your faith. The following Sunday outside our burned and charred building we worshipped God in the street and baptized two babies. Now that was a statement of faith in our future.
When people ask me about the fire, I invariably say that it was the best thing that could have happened to St. James’s. We pulled together. We stopped being afraid because we didn’t have anything left to lose. We learned to trust each other. When Jack Spiro, the then rabbi of Temple Beth Ahabah, said on Sunday after the service in the street that we were welcome come and worship in the Temple, it was like the angel Gabriel, himself, had shown up.
Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. What was left after our fire were the people of St. James’s, and we discovered that the Church was not a building but individuals gathered together to live God’s love in their hearts.
It has been five years since our fire, and as I sat in the Chapel this week, I kept trying to find words that would ignite our hearts with the same power that burned in the hearts of the disciples on that first Pentecost. Where was that Holy Spirit at St. James’s now? Later in the week a friend reminded me that few churches have been touched by the Holy Spirit like St. James’s. We know, dear friends, what the tongues of fire are. After our Church burned God showed us that we are the Church and that we can do marvelous things when we live into the power of the Holy Spirit.
I remind you of this because some of you weren’t here then, and those of us who were run the risk of forgetting. Notice that in the Gospel this morning the disciples have locked all the doors because they are afraid. They are more than afraid, they are terrified, and their fear has paralyzed them. Locked doors have no place in our Church. From a despondent band of sad and lost people the disciples are transformed into the living, breathing Holy Spirit, so contagious that all kinds of people want a taste of it. Some even think they are drunk. But that’s what happens when you get soused with the Holy Spirit, people say all sorts of things about you. It stops you from being a conformist. It is not safe. It rattles you. It leads you on paths you never expected to go. We should not forget that our spirit-filled disciples all become martyrs.
Make me a promise this Pentecost morning—a birthday wish, if you please. I don’t want our fire to go out because we lock our doors or become afraid of change or the Holy Spirit. All of us have a lot of Holy Spirit. It rushes in at our baptism. It is like a bank account, but it’s of no use unless we draw upon it. It just sits there waiting. In other words, if we choose, we can shut ourselves off from the Holy Spirit, because we are afraid. Know this, it is not until we summon the courage to trust God and lay those fears at the foot of the cross that the power and creative energy of that life giving Spirit can get into us.
A Bishop in Rwanda named Kenneth Barham recently visited St. James’s. He asked us if we would come to his Diocese and help. Until he showed up, none of us would have ever thought of going there. Some people have voiced their concern that such a trip is too dangerous. People could be hurt or even killed. The truth is that it would be easier and cheaper not to get involved. It certainly is less dangerous. But the problem that I have with that kind of thinking is that the New Testament doesn’t call us to make the safe choices. It doesn’t say to us that the way we are to be Christians is to count
our money, put it in the bank for a rainy day, and keep our property up. It tells us you get what you give.
Recently, I asked a group of varied individuals to help us imagine and think through where God is calling us. They named themselves “the Out of the Box Committee,” because they saw their task as trying to think creatively and open the doors to let the Holy Spirit come in. Teddy Gottwald is the chair. Teddy asked a remarkable question that not one of us dared answer: “What can we do to get ourselves persecuted? Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do in the world, to boldly stand up for Jesus?” That was the most Spirit-filled question that I have heard in any Church, and it scared us all. That’s when I knew we were on the right track.
The most important moment in the Eucharist is when the celebrant lifts up the bread and breaks it. That is our symbol. That is the moment that we remember that only what is broken can be shared. The Holy Spirit says to us that we must be willing to be broken in order to be the Body of Christ.
The Holy Spirit has an attitude. It is not meek and mild. It rushes in where angels fear to tread. It is public, creative, loving and risk-taking. The reason its symbol is the dove is because all throughout Christian history we have been trying to tame it, make it sweeter than it is. It’s more like a condor than a dove, believe me.
At Pentecost, it is time to ask what the Holy Spirit requires of us in order to actually be the Body of Christ. It is willingness to act on our faith, as if it mattered, and to believe that Jesus is who we say he is. It means being embarrassed for Christ’s sake by kissing a stranger or giving a testimony or not shrinking when someone else does. It means loosening up in worship, saying “amen” when we are not supposed to. It means openly smiling into each other’s faces and shedding our furrowed brows and frowns. It means being vulnerable in our confessions about our sins and trusting God to forgive us. It means letting Christ make a major claim upon the crowded agenda of our life, not for his sake but for ours. It means getting involved in the cares and lives of others and not complaining about the cost. It means belonging to something that is bigger than ourselves and our own needs. It means unlocking the doors to our hearts and our Church. It doesn’t mean changing into something, so much as having the courage to be what God made us and called us to be in Jesus. We are to live into the mystery and power and the fever of the Holy Spirit.
Something that makes me very sad is that Church doors have a way of never being completely open. There is always a fear that something will happen to change what we hold true. Yet Christianity is not about closed doors; it is about an open tomb. We know what it is to have the roof burned off and to have no doors to lock. On this Holy Day of Pentecost, in the last year of the millennium, it’s time for us to change, to get excited and throw open every door, inside and out, so that the love of Christ and its power can help us rise like the eagles we are.
There is a story about a Pentecostal preacher who was preaching with a microphone in his hand. He moved briskly about the podium, jerking the mike cord as he went. As he became more fevered he got tangled up in the cord and nearly tripped before jerking it again. After he’s made several circles and jerks, a little girl in the third pew leaned toward her mother and anxiously whispered, “If he gets loose, will he hurt us?”
That’s the way of the Holy Spirit. It can feel pretty scary, but it will put us in the place where God wants us, filled with all the power, love and energy we can handle. So on this wonderful birthday for the Church; let us not fear to light the candles of our hearts to burn with the Holy Spirit and the love of Jesus! And make this a Happy Birthday for the Lord! Amen.