By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
June 5, 2022
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church:
John 14: 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
Let us pray. Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen
For most of my life, I was taught that Pentecost was the day that the Holy Spirit arrived. And the way you know it arrived is this: There is a giant wind. Fire comes. Tongues of fire dance on the first Apostles’s heads. And it makes everyone get along and understand each other. On Pentecost, we light candles and sing Happy Birthday to the church and eat Costco cake with loopy red icing. Today at Burke feels powerful like that. New members are added to our number. Communion will be shared. There is a whole Mission Fair! Well done, Holy Spirit!
But sometimes, Presbyterians, we leave it there. That one day of red. I’ll confess, sometimes, Presbyterians, we sort of neglect the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we start to believe, well, that Pentecost fire… was mostly for other people. (Growing up, I assumed that was for liability reasons.) That fire… must be done now. Presbyterians often leave the speaking in tongues to the Pentecostals, because that’s not really…. our style. For us, it’s one day of wearing red hats and red shoes and a ministry of small candles.
So much red. There was a moment in the Fall of 2019 when I slumped back into my car. That day George had died. He was not the first man to die that month, not even the first George. That morning been spent providing pastoral care to a bad-tempered HVAC system. My phone was dead. All the maintenance lights in my car glowed red. And Pentecost was far off. I couldn’t seem to get the staff to understand each other, much less share everything in common like the Elamites, whoever the heck they were. And, I heard my voice say, “I am burned out.” Around me, leaves were quitting their trees and flinging themselves to the ground. And I thought, “I don’t feel anything.”
Have you ever had seasons like that? When the Spirit feels far away? When the spark in your heart seems to have been doused by a season of one thing after another? When alarm bells in your soul are sounding? Or when it’s been a while since you felt anything? Well, if so, I have good news for you today.
There is actually another Pentecost narrative waiting for us, one that needs oxygen apart from the Spontaneous Combustion Pentecost of Acts. I’ll call it Slow Burn Pentecost. It’s the one teed up here in John 14 and eventually breathed out by Jesus in John 20.
In the long farewell with Jesus that John describes, Phillip wants to stare into the fiery eyes of God. “Show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied!” If I had a nickel for every time I said that. And Jesus says, “what do you think you’ve been doing this whole time?”
The disciples probably want Jesus to provide Holy Ghost power to defeat their enemies and fill the pews and ignite their hearts with passion. But Jesus says, “you’ve seen the work we’ve done already. You’ll do greater works than these.” If I were them, I would want a divine leader calling the shots so I could gladly fall in line and be on the winning team. But Jesus says, “the Spirit of truth… the Advocate will come… and will abide in you.”
Then, Jesus follows through with all of this. He does come to them. He gives them the Spirit in a slow breath. It doesn’t set their hair on fire. In fact, those disciples in John 20 stayed in the same room that whole week, trying to bring Thomas up to speed, and Jesus had to do the whole meeting over again. Not exactly inspiring ministry. But this was enough Pentecost for John.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to profess that a holy spirit abides at the center of things. Abides in me. Abides in you. Abides.
About 10 years ago, Dave and I took a trip to Guatemala. I wanted to introduce him to my host family, Juan and Josefa Estrada Sam. I wanted him to see the places where a burning bush of God’s call ignited my life as a Young Adult Volunteer. And he thought, “Cool. I want to do this night time volcano tour.” I reminded him that Guatemala doesn’t have the same safety and oversight protocols as the US. And he said, “Cool! You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.” Wrong answer. I am a helper! I will help you until it kills us both.
As we trekked up the side of a volcano by night, it was more terrifying than I thought it would be. We could no longer see our leaders, who were poorly organized anyway. 80 mph winds meant we could not hear them either. We could see clearly by the glowing red LAVA straight ahead. Someone, not one of the leaders, gave me a stick, and they made the universal sign for “use this stick to bang the ground.” I could make out what he was yelling: “So you know the ground is solid! Don’t want your SHOE to go in the LAVA!” We reached the high point of the volcano, also perhaps a low point in our marriage. I clung to a rock and shouted, “The earth does not want us here!” Finally, we stared into the pot of fire, proof that the cool ground we always stand on has a molten heart. Then, we headed back. People walked slowly. Some people’s shoes had melted. The stars on the way back were brighter, perhaps because I saw them through the eyes of someone glad to be alive. Dave said, once the wind died down enough for us to hear anything, straight out of that movie Tommy Boy, “That. Was. Awesome.”
That day gave me some nice scars, but also an idea that I carry with me. There is an igneous love at the center of this earth and also at the center of everything that God has made. The spirit can warm lakes and it can move nations. It makes a way where there was no way. And, thanks be to God, it can still be there without burning visibly all the time. That does not make it less powerful. That makes it patient. That makes it kind. It has all the time in the world because it made and continues to remake the world.
Sure, it’s a flash of fire and a roaring wind when it needs to be. But it also that gentle breath Jesus exhaled on the disciples. I’m thinking of that in a new way, thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor.
She wrote, “Opening his mouth and pouring what was inside of him into them so that their bangs blew and their eyelashes fluttered and they could smell where he had come from – not just Golgotha and Galilee, but way before that – back when the world itself was being born. Anyone standing there that evening with any memory at all could smell Eden on his breath: salt brine, river mud, calla lilies. They could feel their own lungs fill as they breathed in what he breathed out. What their fear had killed in them, his breath brought back to life. It was Genesis Redux, as they were created all over again by the power of the spirit that was coming out of his mouth” (Taylor, Barbara Brown, Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2003, p. 38).
If you sit still long enough, that spirit will well up. It might scare you with unwept tears flowing down the mountain of you that has been neglected. It might freak you out with laughter that feels seismic. It might finally spit out that pent-up grief. You might see, when the froth of anxiety finally settles, that the spirit birthed an island of new opportunity.
I saw that happen on one Good Friday. The organist at the church I was serving was new. She whispered to me, “Hey – After people extinguish their candles, how long should I wait before starting the next hymn?” There were seven candles to blow out, so in my usual obedience to the God of time I breathed on her, “15 seconds.” She nodded. But as silence lengthened and engulfed us over and over again in that service, 7 times, it dawned on me. Apparently, she heard “50 seconds.” But, it turned out to be a useful misunderstanding. There was quiet and space enough for the depth of our souls to well up. There was quiet and space enough for us to hear the roll of thunder over our heads at the very second someone read, “Jesus breathed his last” … that would have been drowned out by an eager organ. There was quiet and space enough for tears to fall onto our laps as we heard rain cover the roof, a peace from creation herself that we received, thanks mostly to a useful misunderstanding.
Maybe that’s what John Wesley felt when he said his heart felt “strangely warmed.” Maybe that’s what Frederick Buechner experienced when he described “deep gladness.” Maybe that’s what Mother Teresa described as the “call within a call.” Not gale force winds, but the deep breath that stokes the fireplace of the soul. Not the phone that rings and says, “Your dreams have come true.” But the slow work of letting pain and shame and anger become the fuel for what we need to do next.
Jesus did not say I will send the lightning bolt. He said, “I will send you the Advocate.” I will send the calls and texts from your friends that keep your quivering heart from feeling alone. I will send you a room of people and shared breaths and shared wounds that remind you you are not crazy.
Deep breath, slow burn Pentecost. Let it come. Let it go. Let it bring shocking understanding. Let it work through misunderstandings that last longer than we prefer. Let us experience holy-ground shoes-off moments and let us experience moments when our shoes melt beneath us and we look backwards upon a beautiful path that was made beyond our knowing. And then, maybe after 15 seconds of holy fire or after 50 years of ministry or being a father or public leadership or marriage or friendship, may our words be simply, that was awesome.