Year B, Whitsunday May 24, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Many blessings to you on this Whitsunday, the Day of Pentecost. This is one of our principle feasts of the year; to be a member of the church, according to canon law you need to come to church three times a year. So if you go with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, you’d be getting in the three biggies.
It is an ancient festival. It is mentioned right there in Acts, the disciples gathered together maybe to celebrate this holiday. The Jewish calendar confuses me, but it seems that the Jewish Pentecost, now called Shavuoth or the Festival of Weeks, is the fiftieth day after the second day of Passover. It was an agricultural festival, specifically celebrating the barley harvest and this holiday became Jewish, as it is associated with the giving of the Law by God through Moses.
So what are we celebrating on this principal feast of the church year? The church, right? At some Episcopal churches today you could find birthday cakes for the Church. That is of course church with a big “C”, the holy catholic and apostolic church, the Mother Church we sing of in prayer at the Easter Vigil. Pentecost is the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit resting upon, dwelling within the apostles, a definitive sign of the movement of God among our spiritual ancestors. That is the Church, a gathering of people in the name of God in Christ animated, enlivened, empowered, sanctified, possessed, even (and in the very best way) by the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ ascended, and as He promised, a few days later the Holy Spirit of God descended and filled the disciples, and through them the world, with the knowledge and love of God. Well, it filled them and gives us the opportunity to know and love God by participation in the life of what? ____ The Church.
I have a confession to make; not a surprising one to anyone who knows me, and you do know me, and you know that I tend to hold things very close to my chest. As out there as I am in some ways, very open, I am very private in others, very closed off. There is good and ill in that. The late bishop of Massachusetts, the man who ordained me, spoke openly about his alcoholism but kept, in his words, “the gory details” to himself. That’s kind of my way, for better or worse. So I have a confession. I struggle with the church.
We all have struggles in our vocations and priests are a particularly tortured class when it comes to vocational struggle. So much truth to discern! So many centuries of opinion to take issue with! And heavens to Betsy, the church is my struggle.
So what is “The Church?” Well, it is this, this gathered body, the Church of the Resurrection. Not the place, this building and institution, but us, a society of Christians gathered to love and serve God, together. Worship and service, gathering and prayer… we are the church. I have my frustrations and challenges with you all, Church of the Insurrection, right? No, I went to a humor workshop on Friday and that was a feeble attempt at an incongruity joke. You all are a deep blessing, mostly to the people of this community, the City of Eugene and then of course you are also a blessing unto God. A bright light shines out of those doors, the very light of God brought to the church universal as tongues of flame at the first Christian Pentecost 2000 years ago. I don’t struggle with you.
And I don’t struggle with that light of God, the Holy Spirit carried for two thousand years in the mystery of the Church with a very big “C.” The Church is the church Triumphant, an old fashioned way of talking about the communion of saints, that we, as living Christians are in communion, in relationship with those who have gone before. (Us walking around, wallowing in a sea of sin, we’re the Church Militant, we’ll get to that in a bit). The Church is mystery, the bearer of many timeless things of old, of truth itself.
The Church is the bearer of Scripture, the Word of God is treasured, held, transmitted, pondered, contemplated, enacted and proclaimed. The Bible wouldn’t be the most printed book in the world if it weren’t for the Church.. No struggle there.
The Church is the bearer of tradition. Any culture is a generous dollop of where you are, a pinch of hope for what is to come and a heaping bunch of where you’ve been together. Tradition. The calendar of feasts and fasts, how we celebrate and grieve as a people; the legacy of religious practice from the shape of the Mass to kneeling in prayer; an intellectual tradition of theology and philosophy that has defined (for better and worse) the world; definitional images expressed in paint, stone and sound; the Creeds; and, lots of funny hats. The church is part and parcel of the identity of many nations, Irish Catholic, Dutch reform, Anglican… Yes.
There is a particular aspect of tradition carried by the Church: the Church is the bearer of the Sacraments. The sacraments are moments where we, gathered as a body, may have very real, eternal and actual encounters with God in Christ. Of course we have the opportunity (and invitation) to fully encounter God with every breath we take, we are at least half-protestant, that part of our spiritual parentage teaching that we don’t need earthly things like the church to mediate our experience of God. The magisterium of Rome is nice (and getting nicer, thanks Pope Francis!) but it is not necessary thank you very much, we don’t need the church to be saved. But the sacraments, Eucharist and Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Reconciliation (Confession), and Unction (Last Rites),, those are particular forms of encounter with God, the first two given by Jesus Himself, the other five discerned in the context of history by the Church. We don’t know what happens in the mystery of the sacraments, how or why the Holy Spirit confects bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, but it happens. Something happens up here. You don’t keep coming to just to hear my perishing words when it is the imperishable that follows. “…for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Spirit intercedes in the sacraments through the Church in those sighs that echo to the end of the ages. I am there.
The Church is a bearer of truth. It is not an exclusive truth, our Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu and even Marxist brothers and sisters to name a few, others bear truth in various traditions, but that has nothing at all to do with the truth revealed in and witnessed by Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. I do not doubt the truth borne by the Church. I made vows to that affect when I was ordained. I could not, morally, take on Holy Orders, become an officer and servant of the Church if I did not understand it to bear the very truth of God. The Church is a bearer of truth, but being a bearer of truth doesn’t necessarily translate into being a teacher or agent of that same truth… I have no existential doubt that the Church is the bearer of the truth of God, but I do, at times, particularly in the dark of night or before some official gatherings or while reading the news, I do have doubts about our, the Church’s ability to share that truth, to express it or teach it or be it.
Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition, right? Or the Portuguese one. Or the missionizing at gunpoint as part of countless atrocious colonial programs across the globe. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptists, Roman Catholic extremists blowing up abortions clinics, branch Davidians doing whatever it was they were doing in Waco. Complicity and collusion with the Nazis across Europe. Culturally ubiquitous anti-Semitism across the West. The propagation of patriarchy under the banner of words such as, “He” or “Lord” for God and “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.” (Eph 5:22) Yes, those are some of the worst examples of Christendom, not the everyday life of much of the church, but those worst examples are pretty off the map horrible and have wrought destruction across the globe. Karen Armstrong has a compelling book out which draws convincingly direct links between the crusades starting in the 11th century and the ongoing clash of civilizations we are engaging in across the Muslim world. This is my struggle.
Now here in our own church, The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (that is our full name), our current sins are not among the sins crying to heaven for revenge, not typically, but the church, our Episcopal church, the mainline itself, most Christian churches by our institutional nature are agents of continuity, not agents of change. We, the church, bear civic culture, we bear and defend it, flags flown in the sanctuary and Boy Scouts in basements demonstrate that. And that culture is the culture of the owning class, the class in charge. We, the church, prop up (or help prop up or help continue) the consumer culture of this nation that, among other things, is pushing our species to the brink of disaster. How many priests and pastors didn’t issue calls for peace the Sunday after September 11th for fear of offending those calling for revenge? I was working in a UU church that did just that, balked in the face of cultural pressure. I struggle with this.
We, the church, bear a radical gospel. Radical, calling us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We are called to turn the other cheek, really. To give up everything (really everything, our self most of all) and follow Jesus. We are called to love everyone as much as we love our own children, to prophesy, see visions, dream dreams. Radical. Universe-changingly radical. We have a radical gospel, but one borne by a very conservative institution, an institution so conservative, so captured by our culture that you won’t even be taken seriously if you bring up the fact that keeping church endowment funds invested in financial stocks (the same folks fined $5 billion this week for world economy destabilizing malfeasance) that investing in them is perhaps not socially responsible, maybe not something we should be profiting from. They weren’t even on the list at diocesan convention’s socially responsible investment discussion. You should see the eye-rolling-come-on-back-to reality looks I get when I bring that up. This is the aspect of the church that I struggle with.
I believe in the truth borne by the church universal, but I don’t necessarily trust the institution that bears it. I trust the meta-intent. The vast majority of Christians and churchmen have Jesus Christ in their hearts when building and guiding and being the Church Militant, the church here and now. I fear, though, and my continued experience confirms that while Jesus Christ might be in your heart, if the culture you are immersed in has possession of your head and your body, that heart-felt truth doesn’t have much of chance, not to truly shine through as it is called to, not to change the world as it can and was meant to. Just like the Bishop preached at confirmation a couple of weeks back, the church is called to be a counter-cultural body. Oh that we would (or could) answer that call!
And it is Pentecost. This fabulous flaming chasuble. Red ties and dresses and shoes abounding. Red who-knows-what on the potluck table downstairs. Red blood flowing through the veins of each of us gathered before God in Christ, gathered directly in the wake of the Holy Spirit’s descent upon our ancestors 2000 years ago, a memory given to us by Mother Church, holy catholic and apostolic as it is. I struggle with the Church. Such potential! Such overwhelming potential. Such overwhelming potential that it is even worth believing in; or at least struggling with. AMEN