Acts 2:121; Psalm 104:2535, 37b; John 14:817
One of the things people love about a cathedral is the way it embodies permanence and order.Drive up toward the Cathedral and it looks as if it has been here forever. Walk through the West End doors and you’re overwhelmed by the sheer, glorious order of one arch after another, laid out perfectly, reminding you of the harmony of God’s order.
And when people worship here, especially if they are Episcopalian, you seem to like the stately, dignified order of things. Everything in its rightful place. Everything tasteful. Nothing too sentimental, too emotional, too extravagant.
There is an inscription on the eighteenth century tomb of the Countess of Huntington just outside Winchester, England, that captures what has often been the Anglican approach to worship. “She was a just, godly, righteous and sober lady,” it says, “a firm believer in the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and devoid of the taint of enthusiasm.”
And you may have heard the story of a Sunday morning in a proper New England downtown church, when a woman who clearly had come from a different part of town slipped into one of the pews and stayed restrained and quiet, until the sermon. But then as the preacher launched into his sermon she called out, “Yes, Lord, preach it!” And a few minutes later she boomed out a loud “Amen!” And then a few minutes later she yelled, “Praise Jesus! Praise Jesus!”
By this point an usher had made his way over to her pew, leaned down, and said to her, “Madam, is there something wrong?” “No” she said, “I’ve just got the Spirit!” To which the usher sternly replied, “Well, madam, you certainly didn’t get it here!”
I couldn’t help but think about that woman’s rowdiness as I heard the story of the first Pentecost. Do you remember the scene? A cluster of disciples were gathered in an upper room some 50 days after their Lord’s death and resurrection, when suddenly they heard a sound like a mighty wind, and they saw tongues of fire, and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues. They were shaken by an experience that had touched every part of them, body and soul. And when they went out into the streets speaking in many different languages, those around them thought they were drunk.
Now does that experience sound like Sunday morning at Washington National Cathedral, or your home church? You know, Pentecostal churches, with their energy and excitement and foot-stomping abandon are the fastest growing churches in the U.S. and across the globe. When was the last time you felt shaken in church from the top of your head to your toe? When was the last time you knew for sure that you were in touch with a Power from on high that had come upon you?
Now I’ll bet that has happened for a lot of you, though maybe not quite that way. My guess is that something has touched you, and that is what brings you back week after week. But it is easy for the word “God,” especially in traditional, mainline churches such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans, to be only an idea word for us, referring to a set of principles, a set of oughts and obligations, to a moral order in the universe. When a religion starts getting old and creaky, it becomes a set of dry, formal words people recite, and a set of rules and obligations to obey. In every vital religion, though, the word God is a power word. To talk about God is not to talk primarily about ideas, but about a Power at the heart of life who moves and shakes and draws and acts and leads.
The word the Scriptures use for talking about a God of power is “Spirit.” The Spirit of God is the power of God at work in the world. At the beginning of creation, the Book of Genesis says, the Spirit of God brooded over the waters of chaos and stirred it into life. When the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt, it was the Spirit of God who led them through the desert to the Promised Land. When Israel and its leaders lost their way and turned away from God, it was the prophets, filled with the Spirit of God, who called Israel back to lives of justice and faithfulness to God.
And Jesus was himself the completely Spirit-filled person. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he said quoting Isaiah, “because he has called me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind.” He became the channel of the Spirit for all the world.
We call the Feast of Pentecost the birthday of the church because in this event the Spirit filled one group of people with an overwhelming sense of the power and new life of Christ. His power became their power. Now they were to be channels of the Spirit of God in the world.
But what is this Holy Spirit? I once asked a youth group to draw their own pictures of the Spirit, and many of their sketches looked vaguely like Casper the friendly ghost or a big, amorphous blob.
But the Holy Spirit is this reality we have been experiencing all our lives. It is as real as the air we breathe. Like the air, we can’t see it, but like the air our life depends on it. You aren’t aware of the air until it starts moving, and when it really starts blowing, it’s hard to miss. Just for today let’s try a new word for the Spirit, a word I learned from the Czech psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Experiencing the Spirit is like experiencing Flow.
Do you know what it is like to experience moments when you have really come alive, when whatever you are doing is clicking, when everything seems to be working just the way it should? When that happens, you’re in the flow.
You know those days, when the tennis balls are landing inside the lines for a change. Or those moments I’ve heard sailors describe when, after drifting awkwardly in their boat for what seem like hours, positioning themselves, adjusting the mast and sails endlessly, all of a sudden a strong, steady breeze picks up, and they are off. In the flow. Or in families and other close relationships that are filled with day to day dealings and tensions and worries, every once in a while an easy intimacy just happens, and for awhile nothing needs to be explained. Flow. It can happen at work too—when you’re firing on all cylinders, giving your best, and your best seems to be just what is needed.
Flow isn’t something you make happen. You don’t do it. It does you. You don’t find it. It finds you and carries you.
And when you find yourself in the flow it feels like it has always been there, always available to you, but now it is finally happening. Now you are in it. And you know then and there that this is the way things were meant to be, though there are a thousand and one reasons why it often doesn’t happen that way.
In the same way there is a flow to the universe. We are part of a great, emerging life, the vast movement of the universe as it flows on, developing new forms of life, and moving our spirits, drawing us toward love and connection. That is the Spirit at work. The Spirit, the inner power of the whole creation, is at work everywhere, drawing us into communion with God, with the world, and with each other. That’s what happened at the time of the first Pentecost. All of a sudden, people from every corner of the world found themselves able to understand what the disciples were saying. There was communion and communication across divisions of nationality, race, and language.
The Spirit, the inner power of the whole creation, is at work everywhere, drawing us into communion with God, with the world, and with each other. That’s what happened at the time of the first Pentecost. All of a sudden, people from every corner of the world of that time found themselves able to understand what the disciples were saying.
That Spirit is always at work, creating connection, communion, belonging. Whenever we have been stunned by the beauty of a late spring day in Washington, so that we can’t believe how good it is to be alive, we have been caught up in the flow of the Spirit. Whenever someone stands up for truth or justice, they are moving with the flow of the Holy Spirit. Whenever a nation finds itself swept up in long-delayed social change, as happened in the civil rights movement, it is being caught up in the flow of the universe toward justice for everyone, and that is the work of the Spirit of God. And whenever a movement emerges to create a safer world for every living creature, such as the struggle now to slow global climate change, you can sense the flow of the Spirit of God moving across the entire globe.
And the church is meant to be the Spirit’s cutting edge, its vanguard, moving with the flow of the Spirit, helping to advance its work. We are meant to be a movement of reconciliation, of communion, of healing the divisions and wounds of our world.
I don’t know whether you have noticed, but the Spirit is beginning to do some strange and exciting things with our old, tired mainline churches that have been hemorrhaging members for years. Many people are saying that something tremendously creative is beginning to take shape. Just two weeks ago this Cathedral hosted a conference entitled “A Church for the 21st Century,” and let me tell you, the sense of excitement and anticipation was everywhere in the room. The Spirit is starting to move again, as it has so many times before, to remake the church. It felt downright windy.
And sometimes we can we glimpse the church’s future even now. It happens here at this cathedral when our worship comes alive, as it does more and more. It happened in the investiture service for our new Presiding Bishop last fall, with Latino and gospel choirs, a joyful sense of the Spirit’s presence, with graceful dancers and multiple languages. It happens when seekers quietly walk the labyrinth in the evening, or gather for contemplative prayer. Many of us saw it at a Washington Interfaith Network rally, where blacks, whites, and Latinos praised the Lord and laughed and clapped and told the Mayor of Washington that things have got to get better in this city. It seemed like Pentecost morning. All of that is the flow of the Spirit.
You see, it’s power we’re after here—power for healing, for living, for being at one with the world, for making hard decisions. This power comes as we allow ourselves to be caught up in the flow of God’s Spirit and find ourselves becoming more alive, more free, more loving.
The catch is that we have to be willing to surrender some control. We can’t go with the flow while we’re holding on tight. That is what the Pentecostal churches seem to know. You won’t tap into the power of the universe, if you’re still trying to generate all the power and control yourself.
I don’t know whether any of you will find yourselves clapping or speaking in tongues or falling out in the aisle this morning. But who knows. You might! That’s God’s business. But I do know that it was the Spirit of God that drew you here.
Pentecost says that the Spirit of life is loose among us. So pay attention. You might even feel a breeze blowing through here, or blowing within you. Get ready—to get caught up in the flow of the Spirit of God.