Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Sixth Sunday after Easter – May 29, 2011
May each day hold a greeting from the Spirit of God, each night be visited by the dove of peace, and the life of God-with-us be lived in wisdom, truth, and grace. Amen.
Some of us will remember the comedy variety series Laugh-in that ran from 1968 to 1973 and comedian Lily Tomlin who played a devilish five and a half year old little girl named Edith Ann sitting on a jumbo-sized rocking chair that made her adult-sized body look like a little girl’s. (If you never saw Edith Ann, you can google her and watch a short video. It will make you laugh!)
Rocking back and forth, Edith Ann would tell childish stories about her family and her dog Buster. When she concluded a point, she said, “And that’s the truth” and sputtered her tongue as she gave the audience the raspberry.
The Truth. What is it? We all struggle with truth, don’t we? Sometimes we may find it hard to discern the truth, sometimes we may be reluctant to tell it, but most of the time we really do want to know the truth. Is there a God? Does God truly care about us? Is there life after death? These are a few of the big ticket items that get our attention.
Our ancient ancestors treaded the same murky waters. We find Paul addressing a group of first century Greeks, acknowledging how extremely religious they were but worshipping at an Altar honoring an unknown god. He tells them that the God who made the world does not live in shrines made by humans. Furthermore, God is not far from us nor is God some where at an unbridgeable distance.
But how can we know that? How will we know that God is with us? God is not found in the study of theology, that body of knowledge that deals with who God is, nor even in powerful and compelling orations like Paul’s, but rather in experience. God is love, says the Scripture, and we only know love in relationship to others. Author and theologian Frederick Buechner has written, “Not to love is, psychically, spiritually, to die. To live for yourself alone, hoarding your life for your own sake, is in almost every sense that matters to reduce your life to a life hardly worth the living, and thus to lose it.”
In the words of Beverly Wildung Harrison, one time beloved teacher at Union Theological Seminary, “Our knowledge of God is in and through each other. Our knowledge of each other is in and through God. We act together and find our good in each other, and our power grows together, or we deny our relation and reproduce a violent world where no one experiences holy power.”
If God is love and God is in our midst and we are made in the image of God, what is the energy force that brings us into spiritual union with God? Who is the go between God and us—the truth teller about God’s presence in our lives and God’s work in the world? We find the answer in the conversation Jesus has with his friends in the passage from John’s Gospel we read today: The Spirit of Truth. Jesus calls this Spirit “The Advocate” who will be with us forever. “This Spirit will abide in you and will be in you,” Jesus assures them. But, there is a disclaimer: “The world cannot receive the Spirit because it does not see or know the Spirit.”
Let’s think about that. How does the world not see or know the Spirit? First, let’s own up to the fact that the Holy Spirit is the most active yet least acknowledged presence of God in the Church. The Spirit of God saturates the world and lives in each of us. We are gifted, we are taught, we are called to be partners with God in the ongoing creation of the world. The question is not if God permeates the universe with a presence that empowers us, but whether or not the Church itself really believes that the Spirit of God truly infuses and is really infleshed in each of us.
How and where does the church fall down in its belief in the Spirit of God? Sister Joan Chittister, a favorite author of mine, spells it out quite clearly: “The Holy Spirit, we are told, is the spirit of Wisdom, of the feminine Sophia, in the Church. To be a woman and read Wisdom literature—the meanderings of the spiritual mind through the dregs and the divine of the human condition—is especially difficult.
Wisdom is woman, but women have no part in its development. Here, the Spirit that is called, “Sophia—Holy Wisdom” is also called “she.” Scripture calls the Spirit’ ruah,” a feminine word, to describe the feminine aspect of the Godhead, the breath of God, the mighty wind that hovered over the empty waters at the beginning of life in the process of creation—all feminine images of the birthing, mothering God, a pregnant waiting and waters breaking and life coming forth. But when Wisdom declares itself, it is always through a male message, without a woman in sight. And so Wisdom limps.”
The problem that Sister Joan presents for our consideration is that the Spirit of God is, indeed, with us, in us, around us, breathing us to life—as Jesus promised the Spirit would do— yet, having defined the Spirit as Wisdom, as ruah, as “she,” this feminine force of life is promptly submerged, totally forgotten, completely ignored. In her words, “The masculine images reappear, the genderless God is gendered. And the fullness of God, the fullness of life, is denied in the Church. The Church itself stays half whole. And the Spirit ceases to breathe in it more than half.”
The question is a deeper one if we believe that we are made in the image of God. It may work for those of us who are male, but what about those of us who are not? How are women expected to relate to the concept of being made in the image of God who is perpetually masculine? And, if God is Spirit and has no gender, what is the driving force behind using exclusively masculine pronouns to refer to God?
Could it have anything to do with the fact that the church has been dominated by a patriarchal structure—an organization that has grown increasingly more powerful over the centuries and that has done its best to exclude women from attaining equality with men—even within this denomination until 1979—and which still denies the authenticity of their call to serve God as priests, deacons, and bishops in major branches of Christ’s Church?
Why is all this so important? Because we are approaching the feast of the Spirit—the Day of Pentecost—which we will celebrate on June 12. It behooves us, then, to get to know who the Spirit is for us and for the church. When we stand to affirm our faith in a few minutes, we can with certainty and theological accuracy proclaim that “We believe in the Holy Spirit—that She is worshipped and glorified. She has spoken through the Prophets.”
And here are a few other insights about the Spirit * to take home with you today:
- The Holy Spirit is God’s energizing presence among us making life alive with a purpose and sounds the truth in us that we are more than we seem to be.
- She stirs the waters around us still, just as she hovered over the waters in the act of Creation.
- The Spirit, that Holy Wisdom, works in us to build the people of God and reign of God on earth. In people of good will, She is a voice crying in the wilderness, rejected, ignored, and reviled.
- The Spirit is much bigger than the institution we know as the Church and when we really believe that the Spirit is in each of us showing us, the church, the way, courage is needed and faith is taxed.
- Static dies under the impulse of the Spirit who is a creating God who moves us to new heights of understanding, to new types of witness, to new dimensions of life in the here and now.
God’s Spirit does not abandon us, cannot abandon us, if God is really God…and, in the words of Edith Ann, sitting on her jumbo-sized rocking chair, “That’s the truth!” No sputtered tongue; no raspberries.
* insights are based on the writing of Sister Joan Chittister in her work, In Search of Belief.