”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
1 Samuel 10:1-6
Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him; he said, “The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around. Now this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you ruler over his heritage: When you depart from me today you will meet two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; they will say to you, ‘The donkeys that you went to seek are found, and now your father has stopped worrying about them and is worrying about you, saying: What shall I do about my son?’ Then you shall go on from there further and come to the oak of Tabor; three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there, one carrying three kids, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine. They will greet you and give you two loaves of bread, which you shall accept from them. After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, at the place where the Philistine garrison is; there, as you come to the town, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy. Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person.
I believe in the Holy Spirit. Six little words, small words, really, but what remarkable power is held within them. When we talk about God as Father, I know what that means. When we talk about God as son, I know what that means. But God as Holy Spirit is more difficult to talk about, more nebulous, smokier, more airy. I don’t know what you picture when you picture God the Father Almighty, maybe the old guy with the beard, maybe your own father, maybe something else. And the same with Jesus, there are a remarkable variety of images of Christ out there.
But the Holy Spirit. I mean, how do you describe the Holy Spirit? I guess there’s a reason that in the book of Acts, as the apostles receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is represented as tongues of fire which appear above their heads. I like that—nobody knows how to talk about the Holy Spirit so they depict it as something that is so hot as to set even the air on fire.
The most classical understanding of the Holy Spirit is that of breath, the thing that fills your body, and it’s funny, you may know, most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek, and there is one main word for the Holy Spirit in each of those languages. It is ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek. And the reason that’s funny is that there are a whole lot of ways you can translate that word into English. So whenever the Bible talks about a breeze, or a breath, or storm-force winds, or the soul of a person, or even the presence of God, it tends to use these two words exclusively, and you start to understand the trouble with translating the Bible, let alone coming up with a single image for the Holy Spirit. Whenever the Bible talks about breath, for instance, it’s a judgment call for whoever is doing the translating to say, well, we think here it means breath, but here it means Spirit, and here it means wind, and so that’s a fallible process, a human process.
But in some ways I sort of like the nebulousness of it, because when we talk about the breath of life, for instance, we’re not just talking about the literal air that is coming in and out of your mouth. We’re talking about something deeper, the essence of what it means to be human, and it is that very essence that blurs the line between the secular and the sacred, the human and the divine, such that even secular things, like, oh, I don’t know, television monitors, can be made sacred tools for invoking the presence of God. You cannot live without that spark, that breath of life, and so the air that goes in and out of your mouth is not something you can totally separate from the work of God. God animates you, gives you life, and we can talk all day long about neurons and synapses and cells and muscles and tendons and skin, but without that breath, that spark of life, they are just tools, just bone and tissue. It is life that gives them meaning, that gives you meaning, that makes you human. And so it is that the holy breath, the holy spirit, is such a meaningful concept.
It is likewise the case that of the three persons of the Trinity, though we may not know how to speak of it, it is the Holy Spirit with which we have the most experience. Whether you realize it or not, it is the case that the Holy Spirit works through your own life. It goes with you everywhere you go, and it was with you even before you knew it was there, even when you feel as if you are totally alone in the world. This is not to say that God controls every movement in your body, every thing that happens in the world. That’s not true. But it is to say that the Holy Spirit works through your life, that it is a mystery, nudging us towards greater holiness, greater relationship with God and one another, greater justice for our neighbors, around the corner and around the world.
This is all well and good, but it makes the Holy Spirit hard to talk about. I am someone who likes metaphors, so the idea of God as Father is helpful, because I know that the essence of God is greater than my understanding of that word, but it gives me some connection. But this Spirit business, that’s a struggle. I don’t have a good metaphor for what a Spirit is, other than movies, I guess, and I will admit that I am trying really hard not to bring Ghostbusters into the equation.
We just don’t have a good conception of what the Spirit is, and I would suggest to you that this is ok, for our inability to define the Holy Spirit does justice to the fact that God is bigger than our words, than our attempts to define who God is and how God works.
And this is precisely the role of the Holy Spirit: to create, to breathe into, to give birth to things to new things, so of course we don’t know how to talk about it properly; there aren’t words yet to describe those things that the spirit will do. I don’t mean to get too sci-fi on you on the day that we have the screens in worship for the first time, but I am reminded that the universe is constantly expanding, all the time getting bigger, and so there aren’t even words for all the new things that God is creating, and the minute we come up with words for them, there are even new things, because that expansion happens quicker than we can name, and this is what the Holy spirit does: it throws us into Holy Chaos, sometimes, because we worship a God who is doing new things, who creates, who conceives of new things. I find this helpful when the church grows, or when the world changes so quickly that I have trouble wrapping my head around all of it. Just because it changes quickly doesn’t mean it isn’t of God. In fact, there’s something to be said for not understanding all that is going on in the world, because God is bigger than our understanding.
You will remember that just a few weeks ago we were talking about the part of the Creed that reminds us that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, this new thing, this savior, and this is what the Spirit does, it creates new things, a way out of no way, does things so remarkable we don’t even know how to talk about it. And now that we are this far into the creed I think it is helpful to remember that in many ways, we were conceived by this spirit, too, for the Holy Spirit is constantly giving birth to new expressions of the divine, new manifestations of the image of God, that same image you were made in, that I was made in.
The writer Barbara Brown Taylor has said that in the way she understands the Father and the Son to have certain elements of male-ness to them, she has come to see the Spirit as fundamentally feminine, and I like that, for in this conception, in this creation, there is a certain birthing that happens. I don’t mean that giving birth is all there is to being feminine, of course, but I do mean to suggest that the Spirit gives birth, constantly creates new things, such that we read in scripture, in the book of Isaiah, that God says, “behold I am doing a new thing!” That is the work of the spirit! So often we fear that which is new and yet these are the things God is creating, God is birthing!
You will understand that for obvious reasons, I am thinking a lot these days about the Holy Spirit as that which gives birth. There is something terrifying about this whole process, never mind that Stacey and I have done it before. Even so, there are new things, new possibilities, new dangers, so much newness it can make your head spin. And yet it is that newness we look forward to, that discovery, that relationship building. In fact, we were in the ultrasound room last Monday and I was looking at this thing, this little human-looking thing with the beating heart, this person-in-formation, and I had the strangest thought. This thing, this little thing, is more likely than not going to end up taking care of me when I can no longer care for myself. And that’s scary, but it is also holy, and exciting. Just because new things are scary doesn’t mean they are not holy.
It is no wonder that when things change, we get scared. For as much as preparing for a new person brings about a certain fear, at least we have the nesting and the showers and the doctor’s visits. When God gives birth, all bets are off!
I wonder what a baby shower for the Holy Spirit would look like. Maybe like what we will do here next week, blessing school supplies that you purchase and bring for the kids living at Hagar’s House. Maybe it looks like what we are doing this week, blessing new technology, and like we do every week, giving thanks to God, making an offering, praying together for God’s continued presence in the world.
But even more than this, I wonder what it means to believe, to really believe in the Holy Spirit. Before he is taken up into Heaven, as we heard in this morning’s scripture lesson, Jesus says he’ll send the Holy Spirit to continue to inspire his disciples, to care for them, to comfort them, to be God’s presence in the world once he is gone. And then he goes. And we’re left with the Holy Spirit, and whereas I can point to the things Jesus said and did, chapter and verse, the Holy Spirit has been working for thousands of years, even after they quit writing the Bible, and who knows what it will do next?
So when we declare, I believe in the Holy Spirit, that’s a pretty big deal. It’s a pretty significant declaration, because what we are saying is that we believe, together, that God isn’t done yet. We are declaring that we believe in a God who can and who often does do just about anything, provided it is in the service of love, of care, of justice, of God’s purposes in the world. Maybe you’ve heard that God moves in mysterious ways. I’d say it this way: God moves in mischievous ways! God gives birth to new things, even before we are ready to admit that they are of God.
And yet, while it can be scary, what holiness comes about! What incredible things we experience, what incredible things we invite when we stand together and say, I believe in the Holy Spirit, when we are open to the winds of the Spirit. What we are saying is, I believe in the God who births new possibilities, such that it is never too late, we are never too old, too young, too poor, too rich, never too stuck to experience new birth, the birth of new things from the Holy Spirit.
Let me share just two examples of what this looks like, this work of the Holy Spirit. I am reading a fascinating book my college roommate emailed me about a couple of weeks ago, I would commend it to you. It is called “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.” It is written by Father Gergory Boyle, a Jesuit Priest who was sent to pastor the Delores Mission Church, one of the poorest parishes in Los Angeles, California. He writes that if Los Angeles is the gang capital of America, the community surrounding Delores Mission was the gang capital of Los Angeles. There were eight—eight—active gangs in the area. So Boyle and the church started to care for the gang members, because nobody else was doing so, and they realized that the thing that was driving kids into gang violence was the lack of jobs, so they found ways to employ the gang members in little projects like construction and graffiti removal.
In 1992, during the Los Angeles Riots, Boyle gave a newspaper interview in which he said that he thought the reason that the riots had not completely exploded in his neighborhood, despite it being the poorest community in Los Angeles, was that the church he served had “strategically employed gang members who finally had a stake in keeping the projects from igniting.”
Through either an incredible coincidence or the work of the Holy Spirit, I will let you decide, a movie producer who was looking for ways to help happened to see the interview and called him and offered to throw a boatload of money at whatever would make a difference. Well, Father Boyle said, there’s an old bakery across the street from the church, he could buy that and they could start teaching rival gang members to run it. So they did. They called it the Homeboy Bakery. Only the Holy Spirit would urge somebody to do something so ridiculous as combat gang violence by opening a bakery, but that’s precisely how the Spirit gives birth.
Well, 23 years later, Homeboy Industries runs multiple bakeries, a restaurant, a silk-screening shop, and more. It serves over 10,000 gang members every year, giving them job training, legal services, tattoo removal, and mentoring. I want you to know that I am not a big book highlighter, but I marked something here I want to read to you. Boyle says this: “When enemies work with one another, a valuable ‘disconnect’ is created on the streets. It forces a fellow active gang member to ask the employed homie, ‘How can you work with that guy?’ Answering that question,” he says, “will be awkward, clumsy, and always require courage, but the question itself jostles the status quo.”
That’s the Holy Spirit, giving birth, not just 20 years ago, but every time a gang member walks through their doors. That’s what the work of the Spirit looks like.
Now that’s the first example of how the Spirit works, and it may seem overwhelming, like too big an example to be relevant to you and your life, so let me share just one more example. The second example is you. It is you. Sure, we are all different, but without exception, each of you did the same heroic thing this morning. You woke up, you lay in bed under the weight of all the things that might keep you there, the stress, the worry, the problems at work, the issues with your family, all of that, and rather than being buried underneath the baggage of your life, you climbed your way through. You got up, you got dressed, you hopefully took a shower, and, my God, you came to church. You came to church. All that you could be doing right now, the bills you could be paying, the work projects you could be finishing, and you came to church. If that’s not proof of the power of the Holy Spirit, if you, by your very presence here, are not proof of the power of the Holy Spirit, I don’t know what is. It’s enough of a miracle to make me think that between the Holy Spirit and the people of God, almost anything is possible, and thanks be to God. Amen.