A Pentecost invitation to a “Wild Goose chase”
On April 8, 2011, this Pentecost sermon by Dean Douglas Wm McCaleb of Trinity Cathedral, Miami, published in the June 2010 issue of The Net, won the Award of Excellence for devotional/inspirational writing at the annual Polly Bond Awards given by Episcopal Communicators.
Today is a breathing day--a day to celebrate the breath of God that fills all creation. All the great religions recognize the incredible power behind and within our breathing. James [Reho] has taught me a lot about the attention that many Eastern spiritual traditions pay to the regular, constant rhythm connected with breathing. And in our own Judeo-Christian tradition, the mystics referred to prayer as “breathing in and out the breath of God.” When we look at the word “spirit” and its Latin, Greek and Hebrew roots, it literally means “breath.” And breath is what you have when you’re alive, and what you don’t have when you’re dead. So today is the day to celebrate that we are alive with God’s breath—God’s Spirit that enlivens and empowers us to serve in the world!
….The marvelous lesson from the Acts of the Apostles gives us the story of that first Pentecost Day, when the lives of men and women were turned upside down by the violent wind of God’s Spirit. No special effects department in all of Hollywood could rival that morning!
Picture the scene: The disciples had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival that commemorates the Giving of the Law to Moses. And there, we are told, were devout people from all over the Roman Empire. And suddenly, there is a rush of wind, and their ears are unstopped and they hear in their own languages, dozens of them, what God is doing in the world. And they are bewildered, and amazed, and astonished.
And no one understands. Not until Peter stands up and says, “Friends, the disciples that you hear speaking are not drunk. After all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. Remember what the prophet Joel said: ‘The Spirit of God will be poured out on all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. The young will see visions and the old will dream dreams.’ That’s what happening here, right now, before your very eyes…in your own hearing.”
It’s a good story. But what does it have to do with us? My hunch is that most Episcopalians would be mighty uncomfortable with a violent wind, with speaking in tongues, with the sun turning to darkness and the moon turning to blood. Just give me the good ol’ Book of Common Prayer, thank you very much.
On the altar this morning, you see red roses and red peonies—two of the flowers that for centuries have been associated with today’s feast. By the time of the middle ages, the dramatic story of the first Pentecost had been softened by the Church, and during the singing of the Sequence, as the priest intoned
the ancient and powerful words, “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire,” choirboys would drop red flower pedals from the rafters of the church, symbolizing the tongues of fire that came on the apostles in Jerusalem…a pretty weak substitute!
But we do try to tame God’s spirit. We do try to soften the might of God’s presence among us. We do try to domesticate the power that turned that rag-tag, frightened bunch of disciples into bold apostles, proclaiming unashamedly the mighty acts of God. And the entire rest of the Book of Acts recounts story after story of how they did this.
The question is, do we want this to happen to us? Do we want God’s Spirit to blow into our lives like a mighty wind? Do we want God’s Spirit to set our hearts on fire? Do we want God’s Spirit to transform us as individuals, as a community, as a society so that we can show the compassionate, caring, inclusive and all-embracing love of God?
Along the North Aisle of the Cathedral, the stained glass windows are full of saints from the British Isles: Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales. You can see St. Columba, St. Brigid, St. Patrick, St. Margaret. Many of them came from the Celtic rather than the Latin tradition of Christianity. And for the Celtic Christians, the Church was all about community, and life was all about pilgrimage--always moving, yet always together with others.
In Celtic Christianity, the Holy Spirit was not as often portrayed artistically as a dove, peaceful and serene, but rather as a wild goose, big, noisy, and uncontrollable. For the early Christians of Britain, the wild goose was a better representation of the unpredictable and untamed nature of the Holy Spirit and reminded them that the Spirit is often sent to disturb as well as to comfort. When I visited the Island of Iona, off the West Coast of Scotland, I learned that geese fly in formation. And they fly faster and farther than they would alone. Maybe that’s a good lesson for us to learn as the Church. To remind ourselves that we’re generally better off in community than when we are by ourselves.
We all know that Pentecost has been called the “birthday of the Church” because from this day, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the first apostles went out to proclaim the Good News in extraordinary ways. How fitting that we are having our “Forty and Forward” Anniversary on this feast, commemorating our 40 years as the Cathedral Church of the Diocese. Maybe we too can be empowered by the Spirit to do extraordinary things--looking ahead, living in community like the Celtic Christians, flying in formation like the wild geese.
So I invite you on this birthday--on this anniversary, to follow the Wild Goose--to join me in a Wild Goose chase! It’s risky business. The Spirit is unpredictable and out of our control. And following God’s Spirit can mean that we have to let go of things we hold dear. It can mean taking chances, seeing things from a different perspective, broadening our horizons and going deep inside our souls. Chasing the Wild Goose--following the Holy Spirit--is never easy.
But God has given us gifts, and one of the greatest is that of one another, to support and to encourage us on our journey. So we rejoice in that, and pray that we might share God’s Spirit in all of its diversity, opening ourselves up to be filled with the breath of New Life--then breathing out, sending forth God’s Spirit, God’s Breath, so that in some way, our lives and the lives of others will be renewed, refreshed, and strengthened for God’s service. AMEN.