As I prepare to embark on my last week with you, I can’t help looking back at all that has transpired during our 23 plus years together. It occurs to me that there have been so many moments when the SPIRIT, the RAUCH, the HOLY SPIRIT, the PNEUMA, the BREATH of LOVE has been present among us. Not in the tongues of fire sense as it is described in the book of Acts. But certainly, in ways which have moved us, disturbed us, pushed us, and sometimes turned our well-intentioned plans upside down and inside out. One of the things I’ve learned over these years, is that we are pretty good at pointing to the actions of the SPIRIT in Church. But when it comes to recognizing the work of the SPIRIT in our lives, well let’s just say, that the SPIRIT would need tongues of fire to get most 21st century mainline Christians to recognize the SPIRIT. So, as it’s Pentecost, I’d like to call out the SPIRIT. Don’t panic. I’m not about to give up the habits of a lifetime and start acting like some sort of Pentecostal preacher who’s been slain by the SPIRIT. There will be no speaking in tongues. The SPIRIT is clever enough to go easy on us frozen chosen types. You see one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that when all is said and done the role of a pastor is pretty basic, my role, my calling, my responsibility, is quite simple really. My job is to recognize the SACRED when and where the SACRED can be seen and then point it out to you.
It’s pretty basic, recognize the MYSTERY which we call GOD, and then point out the MYSTERY to all of you. Yes, there’s all that complicated theology we learn, and then there’s all the technical hermeneutical skills for exegeting ancient texts, the Hebrew, the Greek, and even the Latin, the homiletical technics, the liturgical practices, the psychology, the pastoral approaches, not to mention, the reality that every pastor must face, at some point or other, when our role as pastor is reduced to cursing as we do our best to fix the church toilet, and we are left wondering why they failed to teach us janitorial skills in seminary. I can still remember the Sunday after my ordination, when I was preparing for my very first baptism, and I plugged the coffee-pot, because every Lutheran pastor knows that you can’t have church without coffee. Just imagine the panic when I blew all the electrics in this place. I can assure you that I spoke in tongues and those tongues had a blue streak to them. Where I come from, in Belfast, there’s a reason they call people who wear a collar, “GOD-Botherers” Clergy are more than adept at cursing up a blue streak and we are not afraid to bother the MYSTERY, the CREATOR of all that is, was, and ever shall be, with our ramblings.
But bothering GOD is not what my job is all about. Not when you get right down to the heart of what it is I’ve been trying to do here all these many years. This GOD-Botherer’s job, my real job, is to recognize the SACRED, and to point the SACRED out to you, in the hope that when the SACRED shows up in your lives, you will recognize it as the SACRED. So, on this Pentecost Sunday, let me do my job and point to the SACRED and say, “there it is. Right there. Can you see it? Can you see the ONE which is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also?”
The trouble is that there are so many GOD-Botherers who have made us believe, or at least given us the impression that the SACRED is a pretty rarefied thing; all dressed up in fancy words, with lots of churchy stuff attached to it. For far too many people, the word GOD has become so “holier than thou” that most of us frozen chosen types, would never presume to point to anything in our lives and say, there, there IT is, there is GOD, or the MYSTERY, or the ONE that IS DIVINITY, the GREAT I AM, YAHWEH, BREATH of LOVE. The truth is we are in GOD and GOD is in us.
Each and every day, each and every moment in time, we are held in the embrace of the LOVE which is GOD. All around us, here, there, and everywhere, the BREATH of LOVE caresses us and if we just pause for but a moment, we can feel the SPIRIT’s BREATH breathing in us. So, please for just a few moments, try to forget that you are in church. Those of you online, try to forget that you are trying to worship online. Just breathe. In and out. Just breathe.
Now come with me in your SACRED imaginations, away from church, away from thoughts about worshipping. I’m travelling back in time to a place long, long, ago, when I was just a child. I couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. I was lying in the grass, looking up at the sky, when something happened. Something this preacher doesn’t have words for. Something that let me know that I was connected with the sky, the blades of grass, in a way that to this day, I cannot even begin to describe. It was just a few moments, but moments which have stayed we me for sixty years. Moments powerful enough to feed me even now. I can see the blueness of the sky, and the greens, oh the greens of those magnificent blades of grass, blades all together, waving in the gentle winds which blew through my hair, caressing my scalp, and tickling my fancy so much so that I burst into laughter. My joy in the presence of the ONE which IS my very SOURCE can still move me to joy.
Now fast-forward with me now, I’m nine-teen years old, back-packing around Europe. We’re in Copenhagen. We’re wandering around a gallery, the Carlsberg Glypotek and I’m bored. When you’ve visited one art gallery in Europe, you can be astonished. But when you’re on your umpteenth gallery, well you’ve seen enough. Especially when you’re dreaming of adventures. I was looking for the exit, when I came around a corner and there it was, Van Gough’s painting of Saint Remy. It took my breath away. Never before had I seen such beauty on canvass. I was mesmerized. I could feel, feel not see, every brushstroke, every colour. I was overwhelmed by the way in which the painting moved. Each blade of grass moved. The trees moved. The clouds in the sky moved. For the first time in my life, I was in a painting, lying in that grass and looking up at that sky. I could feel IT. I was connected to IT. The WIND, the SACRED, the HOLY, the SPIRIT, the BREATH of LOVE. I’ve spent years, decades returning to that place, feeling the feels, trying desperately to find words to express this DIVINE encounter with the ONE which is MYSTERY.
My desire to find words eventually, after many twists and turns, lead me to seminary, where I was compelled to complete my clinical training in a hospital. It was there where I encountered the depths of the SACRED. Imagine if you will a trembling younger me, standing in a hospital room, with new parents. I’m holding in my arms a stillborn baby, a little girl, not fully formed, whose lungs never drew air. We were engulfed by darkness; an incredible darkness, a beautiful darkness, a darkness so still, it could take your breath away, a darkness of which we were intimately connected to, a soothing darkness which enfolded me, which enfolded that young mother and father. I was not there…and yet…I was everywhere. In that darkness we felt the caress of MYSTERY.
I wish I could explain what happened. But we could be here all day and I would never find the words. So, come with me now to a place, I’ve taken you too many times before. Niagara Falls. For our American friends, you need to come over to the Canadian side. Where you can stand at the top of the falls and watch the force of the water, actually feel the force of the water in motion just before it tumbles over the cliff. Now walk with me along the pathway, to a spot where you can see the power and the majesty of the water as it falls. Feel the force, the power, the majesty of the water as it rushes down, down, down, and the spray dampens your body, pulling you into the force, the power, the majesty of you know not what. It was in a moment like this that I caught a glimpse of a tear flowing down my lover’s cheek. In that tear, on the face of my beloved, I saw everything. I was not there and yet I was everywhere and everywhere was in me, and there was no distance between me, and whatever it is that lies at the heart of reality.
I could go on and on. My point is that so could you. Each and every one of us has encountered the SACRED over and over again in our lives. But far too many of us aren’t bold enough to recognize, and name the SACRED. There are moments when we are exposed to the MYSTERY we have come to call, “GOD”. These moments expose us to the reality that we are in GOD and GOD is in us. Whether you call that MYSTERY “GOD” or “SPIRIT” or DIVINITY, FATHER, MOTHER, ABBA, YAHEWH, ALAH, BUDDHA, the MOST HIGH, ELOHIM, EL SHADDAI, SOPHIA, SHEKENAH, ADONAI, HOLY, or SACRED, that MYSTERY is LOVE. LOVE beyond words. We are in LOVE and LOVE is in us.
Do this old GOD-Botherer a favour, forget the words and just breathe, breathe in the BREATH of LOVE and when you feel the SPIRIT in you, breathe out the BREATH of LOVE. For you are ONE with the MYSTERY which is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also, our LOVER, BELOVED, and BREATH of LOVE, for you dear ones are SACRED, HOLY, LOVE, now and forever more. Amen.