“The Holy Spirit compels us to see the dust that we might rather sweep under the rug. The Holy Spirit compels us to see the truth of God’s creation that we sometimes hide beneath track homes and concrete. The Holy Spirit compels us to be the truth of God’s creation, rather than hiding behind superficial goals and expectations of ourselves.”
Sermon Preached: May 23, 2021 at Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven
Lectionary Year B, Pentecost: Acts 2:1-21 | Romans 8:22-27 | John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 | Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Living flame burn into us; cleansing wind, blow through us; fountain of water, well up within us, that we may love and praise in deed and in truth. Amen.
Today is Pentecost, the day when we commemorate the story of God’s Holy Spirit descending upon the disciples 50 days after Jesus’s resurrection, inspiring them to speak in many different languages – proclaiming the great deeds that God has done. Or, in other words, today is the day when we celebrate the gift of God’s Spirit – that third part of the Trinity that moves in and through our world in this age when Jesus, in the flesh, is no longer with us. God has never left our side. And yet we know God differently today than the disciples who literally walked beside Jesus. We know God today in our own particular way, through the Holy Spirit – that part of God that is sometimes called the Advocate, the Helper, the Comforter, or the Paraclete (from the original Greek word “παράκλητος”). The Holy Spirit is the aspect of God that is imagined metaphorically sometimes as water, and to a greater degree as fire, and to an even greater degree as wind.
The Holy Spirit as wind. This is the image of the Spirit I want to focus on today. We see this element of wind in the story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts, when “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” in the moments before the Spirit descends and the disciples start speaking. And we also see the Spirit imaged as wind in a more subtle way, in today’s reading from the Gospel of John. John first calls the Holy Spirit by the name in the Greek that we see throughout the New Testament, the “παράκλητος.” But then John uses a second title for the Holy Spirit; he identifies this aspect of God as the “Spirit of Truth” – the “πνεῦμα της ἀλήθειας.” The word “πνεῦμα” can be translated as spirit, or soul, or simply breath. In other words: wind. The Holy Spirit is like wind – and the Spirit can be as loud as a gust descending on the disciples at Pentecost, and as quiet as the air that moves in and out of your nose when you’re not even thinking about it.
This week, as I reflected on the images and metaphors that we use for the Holy Spirit, my mind kept returning to California, the state that I grew up in. Granted we don’t have a lot of water in California – though water is perhaps the least prominent image of the Spirit in scripture. But those other images – fire and wind? – those we have in abundance. I’ve shared a bit about my experiences with fire in California before, but now let me tell you about wind.
I grew up in the suburbs east of Los Angeles. Every now and then, but especially in August, we would experience what is known as the Santa Ana winds. These are dry winds, running 35 to 70 miles per hour from the high desert towards the ocean. I remember going to sleep with the winds howling, only to wake up with six inches of fine sand banked against our front door like a miniature Sahara desert. Mind you, we lived in the most concrete of suburban housing developments. Where did this sand come from? It was as if these winds blew the true landscape of Southern California out from the cracks in the concrete for all of us to reckon with. When the Santa Ana winds blew through our town, heavy propane barbecues blew over, tiles flew off of terracotta roofs, strings of lights unfurled from the palm trees they were wrapped around and whipped out dangerously in the wind. I even heard a few stories of cars being blown over on their sides.
Here is one thing about wind: we see it most clearly in the things that it causes to move. We see it in the dust, the toppled patio furniture; we see it in the plastic bag blowing in the wind and leaves flying through the air. Our Holy Scriptures acknowledge this particular quality of wind – it’s invisibility, it’s elusiveness – earlier in the Gospel of John. When speaking to Nicodemus in John Chapter 3, Jesus says: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
We cannot see the wind – we cannot see the Spirit – except for the ways it moves in and through our world; moving the matter of this world – the dust of this world – moving us to live and act differently. The Holy Spirit compels us to see the dust that we might rather sweep under the rug. The Holy Spirit compels us to see the truth of God’s creation that we sometimes hide beneath track homes and concrete. The Holy Spirit compels us to be the truth of God’s creation, rather than hiding behind superficial goals and expectations of ourselves.
This image of the Holy Spirit as wind leads me to ask two questions today. First: how can we be more attentive to movement of the Spirit around us? And second: how can we be more receptive to the Spirit moving in and through us, like the disciples at Pentecost?
Let’s consider the first question first: how can we be more attentive to the movement of the Spirit around us? The story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts gives us one answer to this question: be ready to hear the Spirit of God moving in and through people who sound very different from yourself. The miracle of Pentecost is twofold. On the one hand, people of different nations and cultures heard the gospel in words that were familiar to them. This is a miracle of familiarity – of hearing something that resonates so clearly with our own soul in the mouth of another. On the other hand, the disciples, who were all speaking in the same language up to this moment, suddenly spoke in many languages. This is a miracle of diversity – of God’s Spirit of Truth refracting into many colors, like a ray of light through a prism.
The gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is not just about being able to share the Good News of God in Christ with others; it is also about how we ourselves are changed by the movement of God’s Spirit through the world. And that Spirit does not speak in one voice, but in many voices.
Consider what voices you gravitate toward, because of their familiarity. And then, consider what voices tend to overlook, because they sound quite different from your own. Consider the voices of people. Consider the voices of things; of nature. If we are to receive the full blessing of the Spirit at Pentecost, we need to listen to those voices that may be strange to our ears, in addition to those that resonate with us automatically. We can train ourselves to seek out and hear those different voices, if we are passionate about hearing the full revelation of God in our lives.
In our reading today from the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears.” Surely the Holy Spirit hears all of creation, and amplifies the voice of creation back to us. The Holy Spirit is not merely an agent of Jesus, participating in some kind of cosmic game of “telephone” between God up in heaven and us down below. Rather, the Holy Spirit “speaks whatever he hears,” everything that is of Jesus, which is – everything in creation. As Jesus says, a few verses later, “all that the Father has is mine.” And so the spirit amplifies all of creation, because all of creation has the power to speak to us of God, through the Holy Spirit. Every star and grain of sand, every stranger and friend has something new to tell us about God. The Holy Spirit, like the Santa Ana winds, brings the dust of the earth to our doorstep. Because it is in that dust, that holy sacred matter of the universe, that we recognize the movement of God.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton put it this way: “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything—in people and in things and in nature and in events.” (Thomas Merton, quoted in The Heart of Christianity by Marcus J. Borg) Every aspect of creation is a voice speaking to us of God’s great deeds of power.
How can we, too, become a part of that proclamation? Or, to return to the words of our second question from earlier: how can we be more receptive to the Spirit moving in and through us, like the disciples at Pentecost?
The good news is that God’s Spirit is moving through us already. As part of creation, the Holy Spirit already moves in and through us. There is nothing we need to do to make it start, or to earn it – this is what grace looks like: a gift freely given. God is moving in and through us, already. And yet there are ways that we can make ourselves more receptive, more refractive, more magnifying of the Spirit of God.
Many of these ways we come to know experientially. We call them: practices. For some of you, singing is a way that the Holy Spirit moves through you. For others, it is certain forms of prayer, or meditation. For others it is your work; your creativity; the way that you care for others. All of these things are practices, and what works for people may vary individually. Yet each one of these practices points towards a single attitude that can guide us towards greater connection with the Holy Spirit, and that attitude is: openness. It’s as simple and as complicated as that: openness. The disciples at Pentecost would not have been able to speak in tongues of fire if they had not been open, ready and waiting for whatever was to come next. We too can learn what it means to be more and more open to the life of the Spirit moving through us.
Now I don’t know what practice it is that brings you to a place of openness. But I can tell you what openness feels like, for me. It feels a lot like standing in the wind. It feels like letting the world blow around me – suddenly realizing the things I can let go of, and the things I want to hold just a bit closer to myself, so they don’t fly away. Openness feels like not being in control 100% of the time; but also knowing the ground beneath my feet, and feeling thankful for it. Openness feels like letting my hair fly out of place and allowing that perfect, curated version of myself to fall apart just a little bit, so that I can be the person God created me to be.
This coming week: remember the wind. Remember that tricky habit that the wind has of bringing to our attention things that we all too easily skip over: like the beauty of dried petals blowing in the wind, or the burden of trash scattered across the New Haven Green in the wake of a storm. Pray with those images of things that get swept up in the wind – and imagine, perhaps literally or figuratively, what the Spirit is calling you to notice today.
And then imagine yourself, caught up in that same wind: open to the movement of God’s presence around you and through you. Open to being a channel of God’s grace. That is the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is the gift of Pentecost. Let us pray,
Living flame burn into us; cleansing wind, blow through us; fountain of water, well up within us,that we may love and praise in deed and in truth. Amen.
Borg, Marcus J. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.
- Note from Heidi: This book is not only the source of the Thomas Merton quote, but was also foundational to a lot of the theology in this sermon, since I read it about a week before sitting down with the lectionary texts for Pentecost. I am especially grateful to Borg for the emphasis on “openness” and “practices.” The Heart of Christianity articulates a view of the Christian faith that extends beyond the (often) unhelpful labels of “conservative” and “liberal,” and speaks to an “emerging” understanding of Christianity that is rooted in history, metaphor, and spirituality. It almost reads like a treatise for what Christianity means to me today – highly recommend.