Pentecost 1A, St. Clements', "I think I'm controlling one of the arms"
Well over a decade ago, while I was serving as the youth outreach worker for Episcopal parishes in Cleveland, I met a spunky and precocious little girl named “Erika”. It was a Wednesday night, the night of the community hot meal offered every week to all who needed a meal. The mix of people was usually a large number of the homeless and a few dozen neighborhood children. The small group of volunteers would open the doors and try--in the midst of the chaos of yelling children, inebriated adults and often desperate eyes--would try to create an atmosphere of dignity for all. Name tags were worn by all, meals were served family style and we averted our eyes whenever the plastic bags and containers came out and leftovers were covertly scooped from the table to furnish future meals. We sought to eat with our guests whenever we were able, sought to know them, sought to keep the children still during the meal as they gobbled up whatever was placed in front of them and tried to make people “happy” to be there—we struggled to meet physical needs and from there to look towards spiritual needs.
So, occasionally worship followed the meal. And, this night a mite of a child, 5 or 6 years old, looked up at me with the biggest, brownest eyes I’d ever seen. Her lip quivered. She was a solid child, the kind of child you would describe as spunky, as spirited and she was clearly the leader of the small tribe of girls who accompanied her—altho’ she was easily 6 inches shorter than the rest and a year or so younger.
“I want you to know…sometimes, the spirit catches me and I cry—so don’t worry if I cry, it’s the spirit taking over me…” The other girls around her nodded solemnly and I nodded in echo a half step behind.
And, each year, when we read the lessons appointed for Pentecost I remember Erica.
The spirit catches me…the spirit takes over me…
When she warned me that she might be slain by the Spirit, when she looked at me square on with an unblinking stare, I realized I was being challenged to a new kind of encounter with God. As this child addressed me, this adult with presumable religious authority, I realized that she was prepared to welcome the gift of the spirit--to welcome the wind, the fire, the ruach adonai, the breath of God, no matter where that Spirit would take her.
I envied her faith, I envied her openness--and at the same time I remember my own unease as I looked into her eyes. Would she yell? Would she make a scene? Would she disturb the sanctity of worship? My rational mind, my own sensitivity to not making a “scene” was quick to discount and reject her easy embrace of the manifestation of the spirit in her life.
But who was I to tell her to deny the work of the Spirit? I reassured her that it was always okay to cry and that indeed, the Spirit could be powerful...
But, if I am to be honest, I kind of hoped that the Spirit wouldn’t show up. That we could just worship like we’d planned without interruption or irregularity. I was afraid of losing control--and, at that crowded Wednesday night supper, control was often tenuous at best.
This desire for control, to know what’s going to happen and when and how, is such a human tendency. Being in control gives us the impression that we are in charge, that we have the power to arrange everything around us to our liking. But, this is really a false impression--because ultimately, as scripture informs us, our gifts are made manifest as “the Spirit chooses”. All will be as the Spirit chooses, and it becomes up to us to risk making ourselves open to what the Spirit may choose for us.
And, quite honestly, we may not always like where the Spirit leads us. When Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected as the first female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America in June of 2006 I remember the debates which preceded her election--there were those who felt that her election was truly the work of the Spirit and the will of God; others felt that her election was a sign of moral depravity in a church that was disregarding the will of God.
Do we only believe in the work of the Spirit when we agree with the outcome or direction the Spirit takes?
As we plotted out today’s liturgy we discussed the order of procession, where we’d store the puppet, who would do what when, how the kite would fly, which Eucharistic prayer to use...but we did not discuss what we’d do if tongues of fire alit upon our heads, what we’d do if the Spirit were to “take us over”.
In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard writes: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares, they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Do we really believe in the power of the Spirit? This Spirit that we try to pin down, to make concrete and “real” with puppetry, and metaphor. Tongues of fire and Holy Dove; Wild Goose and Wind across waters. This Spirit that overtakes us, that transforms us, that breaks us open, and causes us to prophecy and dream dreams.
In a conversation earlier this week, Chris mentioned that he might be “controlling one of the arms” of the Holy Spirit puppet. What a funny thought, us “controlling” the Spirit. But, isn’t that the temptation--to worship a Spirit we’ve created and can therefore control? But, as scripture demonstrates so aptly today, we may control the puppet, but we cannot control the Spirit. The Spirit is not of our making--the Spirit defies form while at the same time making the form manifest.
Out of nothing came everything. Out of death came life. Out of absence came fullness. What shall be wrought? What shall be made? Where will the Spirit take us? Where will we be called?
Truthfully, I don’t know the answers to any of these questions...all I know is that we will get there. We will get to the place that God is calling us to--wherever that place is, however it is made manifest--we will get there.
But, as we travel, it may be wise to remember that we may control the puppet--but, we cannot control the Spirit.