Playing Catch Up with the Spirit

Today we celebrate the arrival of a gift. The Holy Spirit was not on anyone’s wedding or graduation registry. The earliest followers of Jesus did not ask for what they got this day.

The theologian Willie Jennings says amazing grace comes with the gift of the Spirit. The disciples, if they had gotten what they had asked for, would have received a tiny amount of worldly power. The followers of Jesus, left to their own devices, wanted to become government bureaucrats in the running of Jerusalem. Remember them looking down at the temple and asking the savior who was going to sit at his right and left sides? Jesus’ followers imaginations were too small for God’s Spirit, so instead, this day, they learn to speak another language. Jesus’ disciples are sent out to bring hope and love, to spread Jesus’ message abroad. They don’t end up with lucrative jobs or fancy titles. The Spirit didn’t bring them dental coverage and a pension. Pentecost wasn’t a worldly promotion. They weren’t sent up, they were sent out.

The disciples received a gift, and it took some time to register. God’s Spirit drove them out, beyond their comfortable ways of speaking. God’s Spirit drove Jesus’ followers out beyond their boundaries. The Acts of the Apostles continues in this direction. Jesus’ followers are always playing catch up to the Spirit’s movement.

LGBTQ+ Pride and the Book of Acts

Before we go much further, I want to note, this is the first Sunday of Pride month, and LGBTQ+ people are not celebrated enough in the church, we’re not. Even with a rainbow flag out front, and rainbow lights on the altar, even with a big interfaith service downtown for Pride later this month, we need to do more.

We need to do more because for too long, for far too long, the the Church has perpetrated homophobia and transphobia. Still today, in the majority of St. Louis’ churches, it isn’t safe to let your Pride flag fly. All those pastors, all those parents of LGBTQ+ kids who would point to scripture to justify bigotry, I simply want to ask: Have you read the book of Acts?

In the Book of Acts, what starts with the tongues of flame on Pentecost becomes a fire that keeps burning down prejudice. The Spirit keeps moving. The walls of the church can’t contain the gift of God’s Spirit. Again and again in this book, the Spirit blows out over a new group of people, Romans, soldiers, enslaved folks, women.

In Acts chapter 8, an Ethiopian eunuch, a sexual outsider, a racial outsider, who has come to believe in Jesus has to ask Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip, stumped, baptizes this beautiful beloved human being. The story is meant to shock the reader. God’s Spirit falls on all the people the disciples would have despised. This movement of God is much bigger, and wider, and more beautifully diverse than Jesus’ followers could have imagined. God’s love knows no human boundaries. The early church was always playing catch up. That is the story of Acts, and that frankly is the story of the church today. God’s Spirit continues to invite us out beyond where we are comfortable, to join in the beautiful work of God’s expansive love. We are to receive the Spirit, and the people the Spirit sends us, as a gift.

It took the church far too long to recognize the Spirit of God at work in the love shared between people of the same gender. It took the church far too long to understand that gender is bigger, more beautiful, more blessed than simple biological sex. It has taken the church far too long to repent of the sins of racism, of misogyny, of all sorts of structural violence. We are still playing catch up, but don’t doubt the Spirit. Don’t doubt God. God’s love has always been far bigger than the church’s imagination. Even in a church like this one, we will always have catching up to do. That is the story of the Book of Acts. That is the story of Pentecost. God will always be out ahead of us. Will we chase after the gift?

What We’re Carrying: My absence and Gun Violence

Now as I talk about the gift of God’s Spirit, I am mindful that many of us are carrying questions and frustrations with you church this morning. Many are hungry for a word of hope, or grace, or explanation.

If you’ll permit, a small word about me. It is good to be back with you. I have missed you. I have missed this church. I am okay. Ellis and I are doing well. Silas is very 3 and a half, and is doing fantastic. I said a little bit about my absence in my letter to the congregation this week via email. There are some copies available in the entrance. I will say a little bit more about what happened at the meeting with the bishop on Tuesday.

Know that I return still doing some healing, and so I’m going to take everything a step at a time. I’m not going to rush. I am grateful for your patience, even with my inability to talk much about the situation. But know, I am grateful. I am especially grateful for the hard work Julie and Chester and visiting clergy have done keeping services, Holy Week, and pastoral care going in my absence. I am grateful for how graciously Hannah, Mary, Barbara and the rest of the staff kept the operation going. I am grateful to our bishop. I am so thankful for Rudy Nickens, our senior warden and our vestry. Also know that I return with a sense that we have more work to do together. I am not going anywhere.

Something I have re-learned in our time apart: The gift of God’s Spirit is always a gift of hope, not always hope to overcome the circumstances, but hope in the midst of the circumstances. Let me say that another way: God’s Spirit brings hope, not always to overcome what we face, but hope in the midst of what we face.

We’ve faced a lot in the past weeks. I know many of us carry the pain of gun violence in Texas, and Buffalo New York, and Tulsa, here in St. Louis and in too many other places to name. Many of you know I went to elementary school with students who were at Columbine on April 20, 1999. These shooting have been close to home my whole adult life. Here is what I know: to change our culture around guns, to change our laws around guns will continue to take painfully patient work. Many in this congregation are doing that work, with the Moms Demand Action and Women’s Voices raised, and with other groups who have won important victories, even in a state like Missouri. After holding this issue close to my heart as a pastor for a long time I also know this: God’s Spirit can feel far away when we are fretting over news stories. But showing up to a meeting, engaging with people doing the work, it will lift your spirit 9 times out of 10. Connecting with people, getting outside your small sphere, you’re more likely to catch up with some of the gift of God’s Spirit. The Spirit is out ahead of us: trust, and keep on moving.

If you talk to the people of Uvalde, many of them will say they know God has shown up. They have caught glimpses of God’s spirit in the hugs from strangers. They have attended more church services than they have in years, and they have taken time to just be with one another in these days since the tragedy. The Spirit has been in the midst of it all. There is hope in the midst of it all, but that hope also depends on us playing catch up. Church, the question is simple: We believe Jesus loves the little children, and so what are we going to do? What are we going to do to keep all our kids safe?

On that Pentecost morning, the disciples were frustrated, and tired, and more than a little scared. Jesus had departed. It wasn’t so long ago they were locked up in their houses, afraid of the authorities, unsure where this Jesus movement is headed. We can understand why their imaginations were limited. On Pentecost morning, they didn’t know about the gift they were about to receive. They had no sense that the Spirit was coming to teach them other languages, to send them out to meet all these beautiful beloved people God was going to send them. On Pentecost morning, the church was still small and afraid, and unaware of the gift they were about to receive. So on Pentecost we say thanks be to God for the gift of the Spirit, who won’t leave us alone.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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