Joining the Spirit’s Rhythm

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Sean Lanigan on the Feast of Pentecost.

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Happy Pentecost, St. Peter’s!

Now Pentecost is probably not a holiday that you celebrate as publicly as Easter or Christmas. You probably don’t go around wishing strangers a “Happy Pentecost.”

Pentecost is one of those church-only holidays.

Which I think is a shame because the Holy Spirit gives us a whole lot to celebrate – the ever-present accessibility of God to all people – and I’d love for the Holy Spirit to get a bit more attention… a bit more recognition.

Because at least in our branch of Christianity, it often seems like the Holy Spirit is the ugly stepchild of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity we just don’t quite know what to do with. We trot the Holy Spirit out as the great comforter and inspirer, as a balm for the wounded, the tired, and the weak, but we often try to ignore the Spirit’s complementary role as the great disruptor: the troublemaker who never quite knows when to leave things well enough alone.

As Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor said recently: I don’t think we keep the spirit in the back room because she’s shy, we keep her in the back room because she’s dangerous.

And I, for one, feel pretty convicted that getting better acquainted with the Holy Spirit, is one of the most important spiritual necessities for those of us who are among God’s frozen chosen, those of us who like things neat and tidy and well-ordered at the expense of almost all else.

When we begin to open the door to the Holy Spirit in our lives, however, the more controlled and controlling among us often get a little frightened. Because the Spirit is often quite unpredictable, frequently pretty inconvenient, and almost always a bit more messy than we’d really like. The Spirit is more often a loudmouthed busybody—always in your way and up in your business—than she is a calming, gentle, ethereal presence. And if we’re honest, some of us would really prefer a more sedate, chill, hands-off kind of God.

I’m guessing the disciples weren’t too thrilled when the Spirit showed up on that first Pentecost, either. They were just minding their own business, hanging out at home, when all of a sudden they were surrounded by a huge crowd. And the disciples really didn’t want a crowd in their front yard, I’m guessing, especially if that crowd was going to accuse them of being drunk. They were still trying to stay off of people’s radar after Jesus’ death and really didn’t need any bad publicity. Now as I’ve meditated on this passage, the thing that’s continued to get my attention all week long is that the capacity bestowed on the disciples by the Holy Spirit, is a capacity capable of gathering people “every nation under heaven.”

Indeed: the Spirit not only gave the disciples the capacity to speak many languages, the Spirit also gave them a community organizing tool, a tool for building the new family of God.

And I think this is really important. On Pentecost, the Spirit facilitated cross-cultural communication, which is one of the most difficult things for us humans to achieve on our own. We humans tend to stick with people like us, however we understand and define our sense of identity.

Indeed: you’ve heard before that Sunday morning is one of the most segregated times of the week, as people often tend to worship alongside others of the same race and class background.

And yet, for some of us, worshiping in more-or-less mono-cultural communities doesn’t always feel like an authentic expression of relationship with the boundary transgressing God that we have come to know in Jesus.

And for some of us, as our awareness grows, segregated Sunday mornings feel more and more like an affront to the Gospel, an expression of our sinful human divisiveness.

I lament these divisions. I lament them deeply.

I yearn to share communion with the whole panoply of God’s people, the entire rainbow of God’s human family. And yet, like many of you, I’m not quite sure how to begin to manifest my dream in reality, how to build a deeply multi-cultural community, when doing so requires the refutation of so many seemingly innate sociological proclivities. How do we do it?! Can we do it?!

As I’ve been pondering our Scripture text this week, I’ve been noticing something curious about the question of effort. I’ve been noticing that disciples didn’t actually have to do a whole lot of work in order to gather the crowd of people “from every nation under heaven” at their doorstep. It wasn’t really something they achieved, or even something they particularly wanted. It was something God achieved. Something God did.

The disciples didn’t go door-to-door inviting folks to come hear about “God’s deeds of power.” They didn’t post flyers advertising Peter’s preaching. They didn’t tidy up, and put out drinks, and get ready to impress the guests. They were just sitting at home minding their own business… …when the Spirit began to meddle: when the Spirit came among them powerfully to do a brand new thing.

Now I don’t believe the Spirit only did big things back in the day, so do not fear. I think the potential for “big Spirit happenings” is always around and among us and within us. We dooooooo tend to keep a pretty tight grip on things, though, which can sometimes make it difficult for the winds of the Spirit to reach us. Yet make no mistake about it: they’re blowing. Even here.  Even now.

So I’ve been wondering…wondering: What sound might the Holy Spirit make among us that would draw a crowd from every nation? What sound might the Holy Spirit make among US that would draw a crowd from every nation?

A few Sundays ago, several of us 20s and 30s went out for an impromptu brunch after worship. We were seated on the patio at Kanella, over on Front Street. At some point in our conversation, we got to talking about music: about the music we were raised with and about the music that sings in our hearts. Now you should know that 90 percent of the younger folks in this church were not raised as Episcopalians. Most of us were raised something else, raised in denominations with an incredibly diverse range of musical traditions. And those old songs still echo in our hearts. Because songs stick.

Now somehow, and I can’t remember quite how, we ended up breaking into song, right there on the patio at Kanella. A bunch of rowdy Episcopalians belting out “I’ll Fly Away,” accompanied by some amazing syncopated clapping from one of our newer young adults who grew up in a southern Pentecostal church.

Now, I’m terrible at clapping. Really, really terrible. But I love to be around good clapping and drumming – really any kind of sustained, energetic rhythm. The beat makes me feel alive. The beat helps me tune in to the Spirit’s presence, The beat moves me closer to other people.

I was reminded of the power of rhythm again during a trip to Colorado this past week for a friend’s wedding. While I was there, the City of Boulder hosted an epic 100,000 runner 10K called BolderBoulder. There’s entertainment all along the route, and I decided to go and take it all in for a bit while on a morning walk.

I sat down to rest for a bit near a troupe of folks playing hand drums. They were really into it. Really grooving. Runners cheered as they passed by, grateful for the influx of energy, for the way the beat helped drive them forward into the next mile.

I ended up staying in that spot for 2 hours. I had NOT planned on staying for 2 hours. Watching a 10K is not particularly scintillating entertainment. But the rhythm… …the rhythm keep me glued in place. My heartbeat synced with the drumbeat, and it became part of me. As I sat there, my limbs began to move, almost involuntarily. My toes and my fingers began to tap, too. And soon, my whole body was tuned into the rhythm. It felt like the heartbeat of God pounding in my own chest. I practically felt like I could get up and start running, something I haven’t been able to do since childhood.

It’s a powerful thing, rhythm. And yet, many of us find rhythm challenging. Maybe even a bit scary. Rhythm just isn’t a language spoken fluently by many Episcopalians. It’s not our native tongue. And yet…it is rhythm, more than any other language, that powerfully draws people together across lines of race and class. It is rhythm that builds new communities as it moves our bodies together; as it coaxes our faces into smiles; and as it erases just a little bit of our tightly wound inhibition. We ease into the beat and let ourselves move. Dance even.

And isn’t this precisely the action of the Spirit? To free us from inhibition in order to help us connect more deeply with others? To disrupt our habit of isolated individualism. To form us together into one body. Rhythm accomplishes this. And so rhythm, I think, must very well be the native language of the Spirit.

If this is true, of course, then we Episcopalians probably need to get a little more familiar with the linguistics of rhythm so that the Spirit has a better chance of speaking to us and through us. We also probably need to get in a little better touch with our own inner rhythms, even if we think we’re downright a-rhythmic. We need to find that inner, life-sustaining beat. We need to find that place in us that pulses with the Spirit’s beat. Because if the Spirit is going to speak to us or through us, it just might be through rhythm. So we’ve got to get ready to move with the beat. To become the beat. To let the beat live in us. To breathe with the rhythm of the Spirit.

For the Spirit is always and everywhere moving us toward one another, with a beat that gathers people from every nation under heaven to shelter in the wide expanse of God’s own heart.

Come, feel the beat. Come, enter the dance. Come join the new family that God is drumming into being.

Amen.

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The Rev. Sean Lanigan

The Rev. Sean Lanigan is the Associate Rector of St. Peter's Church.

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