Call of the Wild Goose

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a reflection for the second Sunday after Pentecost

I invite you to close your eyes and imagine that right now, as we are gathered together in this room, the Holy Spirit comes through that open sanctuary door. What does it look like to you? What does it sound like? What does it feel like? 

The Holy Spirit is not an easy thing to pin down with words. Even the people who were in the room that morning long ago couldn’t quite agree about what happened when the Spirit arrived. “It was a mighty wind!” somebody says. “No, no—it was fire! I saw little tongues of flame on top of everybody’s head!” As long as human beings have been trying to find ways to describe the presence and action of God in the world, we’ve never been able to agree on just one image, one word, to describe how the Holy Spirit works. Sometimes it’s a rushing wind. Sometimes it looks like tongues of fire. Sometimes it’s a bird, like the one that appears in those paintings of Jesus’ baptism, where the clouds part and the rays of the sun come streaming down—and there’s the Holy Spirit, this time in the shape of a dove.

My own favorite image of the Holy Spirit comes from the Celtic Christian tradition of Britain and Ireland, who experienced the Holy Spirit as a wild goose: a wild, untamable bird that lands with a splash and takes off again whenever it pleases, flapping and honking and calling us to follow —a bird who knows about wide-open spaces and long journeys to faraway lands; the kind of bird whose life crosses every border we humans draw across God’s creation; a bird that just might have something to teach us about what it means to be a citizen of the world on a beautiful, unpredictable adventure with God.

A spirit like this can take you some pretty weird places. An invisible spirit that blows into the room and makes everybody start speaking in languages they never knew before?! This is not your normal, everyday church gathering—and it doesn’t always set too well with the kind of rational, logical folks who tend to hang out in UCC congregations. We like to be able to explain things. We like to know where we’re going how we’re going to get there. We aren’t the kind of people who sit around waiting for God to fix the world with a miracle: we jump in and get to work! Here in the United Church of Christ, we tend to pay a lot of attention to the first and second persons of the Trinity: God the creator who calls us to justice and love; and God the Christ who walks God’s love out into a broken world and calls  us to do the same. And these are not small things. We take them very seriously, these first two persons of the Trinity. We love and we follow them with all our hearts. And maybe that ought to be enough.

But then…along comes this strange season of Pentecost, with this weird tale that tells us that the church is not born — the church cannot not even exist — until the Holy Spirit shows up. Pentecost says that the church does not come into being until this mysterious third person of the Trinity swoops into the room and astonishes the feathers off everybody’s back: people from every nation in the world are suddenly speaking one another’s languages—impossible! So impossible that no one could have planned it; no human agency could have done it. Only God could have imagined such a cross-cultural communion.

This, says Pentecost, is what it means to be the Church: to be willing to let God astonish us with possibilities that we have never even dreamed of. Why? Because, just like those first disciples of Jesus, without the Holy Spirit, we humans tend to get comfortable with our own ideas about what is possible and what is not. We humans tend to get comfortable with our own ideas about whose language we understand and whose we do not; we humans get comfortable with our own ideas about who is welcome within our borders and who is not. Who is redeemable and who is not. This is human nature, friends. This is the human ego at work in the world, drawing borders between us and them. Left to our own devices, we human beings draw more lines, chart more borders, build higher walls. Tomorrow, I will not be surprised to hear a politician suggesting that we build a roof over the whole country. Sure, they’ll tell us. We might never see the sky again, but you can bet no one will be able to get in.

Let’s remember this. There was a roof on that room in Jerusalem on that long-ago Pentecost morning. There was a roof on that room and the Holy Spirit broke in anyway. On that morning long ago in Jerusalem, God’s wild, Holy Spirit broke into that room and blew the roof clear off the place. That’s what Pentecost is about. And I say: Thanks be to God. 

Thanks be to God because, as Peter tells that skeptical crowd, the way of the Holy Spirit is precisely the way of limitless hope: the hope of the Hebrew prophets whom Peter quotes in his Pentecost speech, the hope of God for all the world: slaves and free, women and men; adult and child; comfortable and desperate alike. What the Holy Spirit offers is a wild, expansive, liberating realm of possibility. What Pentecost says is that we ourselves, on our own, cannot envision this possibility. On our own, humanity cannot envision a sane future—not for ourselves, not for our children, not for the children at our border—unless make room for God to break us wide open and act on us in ways we humans have never even imagined.

This is not easy thing to do. Because we humans are not fond of changing our ways.  We like to decide who is in and who is out. We even like our congregations to stay comfortable — just they way we like them; just the way we think they’ve always been. And not only that. Just like that crowd in ancient Jerusalem, we have been taught to be skeptical and practical. Haven’t we been cautioned all our lives to beware the wild goose chase? “Wild goose chase” is our code for wasting our time, for dreaming outside the box, for being conned into following an impossible dream.

But what if breaking our lives open to God isn’t a wild goose chase after all? What if, in fact, that wild goose of God has been chasing us all along? What if that wild, holy spirit of God has never given up on us? What if it’s calling us right now, longing to be invited to land in the middle of this very room, longing to break our hearts wide open to unimagined possibility?

I wonder what might happen — for us, and for the world — if we were to make  enough time this season to look up at the sky and listen for the call of the Holy Spirit? I wonder if there is enough clear, silent, open space in our life together—in our worship, in our meetings, in our conversations—for that wild goose to touch down among us? What practices help us to become a wide-open space where the Spirit can land? What habits and comforts are keeping us closed off? How might we help one another, and the world, listen for the surprising call–that wild, lonesome call–of the still-speaking God?

I’m pretty sure that the Holy Spirit—God’s own wild, beautiful goose—is calling to you, and to me, and to the Church that was founded that long-ago day so that we might carry, on our own wings, God’s wild, healing hope for the world.

My prayer for us this season is that together, we will clear a space for the wild goose to land among us. And that when it does land, we will spend these long summer days together watching that goose very carefully—finding ways to feed it; finding ways to listen for its soft murmurings and loud honkings—so that when that wild Spirit signals to us that it’s time to fly again…when that day comes, we will answer with a holy YES, even if we have no idea in the world where that bird might take us.

Because when we say that yes—when we climb onto the back of that beautiful, wild bird—we can be sure that it is into God’s own future that we fly, with healing, and blessing, on our wings. Amen.

 

 

 

Making Room for Joy

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Last Sunday at just about this time, the Church as a whole body stepped across a threshold into the season of Pentecost, which stretches from the beginning of June all the way to the start of Advent in late November. That’s a pretty long season, which I think is lucky for us. Because the spiritual work of this season, the work of the holy spirit in us, takes time–at least a whole season, if not a whole lifetime!–to unfold.

At first glance, it might look as if the Holy Spirit swoops in on that long-ago Pentecost morning  and instantly overturns everybody’s ideas about what it means to be spiritual community, and what it means to answer the call of God. But in fact, while the holy spirit arrives early in the book of Acts, right here in chapter 2, it takes the rest of the book–28 chapters–for the followers of Jesus to wrestle with the changes that the arrival of the holy spirit sets in motion this season. And the reason it takes so long is that above all, the holy spirit arrives to sweep out what is no longer life giving — in order to make room for the new life that God is imagining for us. And so, all through the book of Acts, we find the apostles wrestling with change: what traditions to keep; what religious laws to observe; which cultural structures to keep in place and which old ways must be released and surrendered to the cleansing action of the wild, holy spirit that sweeps into the room this morning: more like a violent wind than a gentle breath of fresh air.

When the holy spirit arrives, it can feel like no structure is safe. When the holy spirit blows into the room, it can feel like the only smart thing to do is find a storm shelter and hide out until it passes by.

But that’s not what the apostles do this morning. Even as that gathered crowd swirls in confusion and protest, we see Peter and the apostles leaning in, remembering the Hebrew prophets, drawing on their prophetic tradition in order to make sense of sweeping change. And I’m pretty sure we’re called to do the same. Because as uncomfortable as the swirling, wild winds of change can be, some part of us knows that new life, and new joy, cannot arrive until we’re willing to let go of what we no longer need. In fact, I think it’s pretty convenient that this season of Pentecost, this season of the cleansing, life-changing holy spirit, also happens to coincide with yard sale season! Ever notice that? Just as soon the holy spirit arrives, the whole town starts clearing out  garages and closets and attics, piling stuff onto their lawns. Not because this is easy or fun, but because we understand that until we let go of what we no longer need, there will be no room in our lives for new energy, and new joy. 

So I want to talk about joy for a moment. You may recall that the apostle Paul says that joy is one of the gifts–sometimes a hard-won gift–of the Holy Spirit.  And I think this is exactly what’s at stake for us in this season of Pentecost. It is my experience that if we want to discover where God is leading us, it helps to pay very close attention to our felt sense of  joy. I believe that we human beings are made for joy, and that we have within us a reliable inner compass by which God is always leading us into a more expansive life. And this inner compass is made of joy. Our inner compass of joy points us toward God’s will, God’s dream, for our lives. I want to be clear that this compass of joy is not the same as pleasure. Take our yard sale, for example. It is not always pleasurable to go through your stuff room by room and haggle with your partner or your kids about what to save and what to keep. This is not pleasure! Pleasure is more like the cheap wine folks are talking about  in our scripture reading this morning: a source of instant and very temporary gratification. Getting drunk on cheap wine might bring a bit of pleasure in the moment, but very soon, it’s going to feel really lousy. Joy, on the other hand — the kind of joy that the Spirit promises — often requires discipline and hard work and time. In the end, though, the reward is the deep and abiding joy of a new and expansive life in God.

One person who knows a lot about this kind of deep joy is a woman named Marie Kondo. Maybe you’ve seen her Netflix series or read her book: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Don’t let the title fool you: the phrase “tidying up” is far too tame to describe the kind of radical, holy-spirit hurricane that Marie Kondo brings when she comes into your home. If you want to unclutter your life in Marie Kondo fashion, the first thing you have to do is  to take everything out of, say, your closet — everything — and pile it all in the middle of the room. If you Google Marie Kondo, you’ll see that she looks like the epitome of polite and mild-mannered gentleness. But the truth is that she’s a holy-spirit hurricane! Whoosh! Just like that, everything in your closet is suddenly in the middle of the floor. Here’s what Marie Kondo insists you must do next. Slowly, carefully, painstakingly, you must pick up each  item — every sweater, every sock — and one by one, you must hold each one to your cheek. No kidding. And while you are holding it there, you must tune into your body and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” And if the answer is no, if you can’t feel a tingle of joy when you hold that sweatshirt up to your cheek —  even if you just bought it, even if it’s the one you wear every day — if it doesn’t spark joy, you must let it go. Marie Kondo is ruthless when it comes to clearing out your life. And the people she’s helped will tell you that when they were willing to let go of that which does not spark joy, that’s the moment when their lives began to change. That’s when the spirit of new life was finally free to sweep in. As Kondo herself says, clearing out in this way will turn your home into: “a sacred space, a power spot filled with pure energy.” Sound a little like that long-ago Pentecost morning?

When I first read Marie Kondo’s book a few years ago, I recognized her as a kindred spirit. Not just because we both love cleaning out closets, but because I think she and I do similar types of work. One of the things I love most about my job is that I get to encourage all of you to hold parts of your lives up to your cheek and ask, “Does this spark joy?” In committee meetings, in council meetings, at the Ike box over a cup of tea, my work is to say to you, “I see how you light up when you talk about this new project. How can we help you make it happen?” And when I see you looking weary at the mention your job, or looking defeated and exhausted at the mention of the church committee you’ve been chairing for five years, it is my job to say, “I wonder if this is still bringing you joy.” And if the answer is no…then it is our holy work to gently remind each other to let go of that thing. Because only when we let go is there room for God’s holy spirit to move in and carry us into all kinds of new places, and all kinds of new joy in our collective life.

So here we are. Stepping into the season of Pentecost, the season of the life-changing Holy Spirit. Are you ready? This season, we are going to engage in a very careful process of discernment. We’ll be holding up pieces of our shared life: structures, committees, priorities, and asking ourselves to get very honest about whether these are serving, or stifling, the congregation God is calling us to become. The invitation this season, as Pentecost arrives, is to listen and watch together for the stirrings of the holy spirit. A season for noticing what structures and processes no longer spark joy for us. A season in which we summon the courage to let go of that which is no longer life-giving for us, and for the world. This is what the holy spirit asks of us this morning: that we spend this season patiently, faithfully noticing the spark of joy in one another’s eyes as we imagine new things together. A whole season to clear out enough space, enough room, for joy and new life to fill us once again — more than enough joy, and more than enough life, to spill out from here into this world God so loves.

What a joy it is this morning, and always, to be gathered together in this place as the holy spirit sweeps in to once again make us new. Thanks be to God.