Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Atlanta, Ga.
Readings: Ezekiel 36:25-28, Luke 12:1-12, 2 Corinthians 3:7-18
I wish I could stand in front of you today without my sermon written word for word on the page. I prayed about it last week. As I stood here as an acolyte last Sunday, I took a moment to ask God to please give me the strength, the courage, and most of all the words to speak, without having to read you my sermon word for word. So, what keeps this page in front of me? Fear. Abject fear. What am I afraid of? Oh, many things … not knowing what to say … not knowing how to say what I might want to say … making a fool of myself by standing here “um-ing” and “ah-ing” over every misplaced word.
In short, what I am afraid of is listening … I mean really listening … to the Holy Spirit. Next week we celebrate Pentecost … which was when the Holy Spirit, the companion that Jesus promised his disciples would come in the wake of his crucifixion, death and ascension … finally arrived. The Spirit’s arrival changed everything. The apostles worked miracles, healing people and spreading the Good News of Jesus to Jew and Gentile alike. Wherever they went the Holy Spirit empowered them to be understood no matter who they talked to. The apostles didn’t need to write their sermons down … they trusted the Holy Spirit to give them the words.
But still, I am afraid of tossing aside this crutch of written words on a page. Even though Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, has promised each of us that even if we are brought before “synagogues, the rulers and the authorities” that we need not worry about what to say because “the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say,” I still cannot do it. I mean, here I stand before a group of people that I know and love — not a hostile crowd of rulers and authorities — and yet I cannot seem to trust the Holy Spirit to give me the words at such a time as this.
I come by my fear of the Holy Spirit honestly, however. As the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister, Pentecost was a dirty word in our house, because it was the prefix of “al” … as in “Pentecost-al.” The official Baptist doctrine on Pentecost, I believe, but don’t quote me on this is, “Pentecost? We don’t need no stinkin’ Pentecost!” In a wicked twist of irony, my old hometown church sold their building to the Pentecostals. Or as my mother sneers, “The Pentecostals bought it.” She then told me how gaudy the sanctuary is now, commenting that with that purple carpet it looked like a French whorehouse. Discretion being the better part of valor, however, I didn’t dare ask my mother how she knew such intimate details of French whorehouses. There are some things about my mother I’d just rather remain a mystery.
I remember many phrases from my childhood in the Southern Baptist church. I remember hearing about Jesus and how he died on the cross for my sins. I remember being told that I must be born again … baptized with full immersion, thank you very much. I remember hearing about how I was saved by Jesus’ blood and how I was washed in the blood. I also remember hearing that Jesus loved me “Just as I Am,” but apparently they didn’t really mean that. But I don’t remember hearing a lot about the Holy Spirit. Oh, my mother would tell me that I was lazy and only did things “when the spirit moved.” But somehow that seemed to have a completely different connotation from what the Bible talks about.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I haven’t seen or felt the true movement of the Holy Spirit in my life before. I certainly have! Every time I sit down to write an article for Whosoever, I get this feeling that I can only call “inspiration.” It’s a driving feeling … a feeling that no matter what else I need to be doing there is nothing more important than sitting down right at that minute and putting the words in my head onto the page. God compels me to write. I cannot do anything but write. Usually, to my great irritation, this sort of inspiration occurs at odd hours of the morning … or right before I’m supposed to get ready to go somewhere. The Holy Spirit is nothing if not inconvenient.
And isn’t that why we resist it so much? The Holy Spirit IS inconvenient. It demands our attention. When we are in its grip we cannot escape. We have no choice but to listen, to speak what the Spirit tells us to speak. It’s inconvenient because it interferes with how WE want to live our lives. It interferes with what WE want to say. It interferes with what WE want to think. That’s such a frightening thing for us because it means WE no longer control our own lives. Listening to the Holy Spirit means giving up control. It means giving up our own desires. It means truly trying to align our will with God’s will. We can only do that when we listen to the Spirit and stop trying to control God and make God in our own image.
When I feel the Spirit move me while I write, I liken it to channeling or body possession. Often my fingers just move on the keyboard without effort … without typos … without too much conscious thought on my part.
It reminds me a bit of one of my favorite Xena episodes in which Xena has died one of her many deaths. But, Xena’s spirit is still alive so she enlists the help of one of her friend, Autolycus the thief, to get her body back so she can live again. In one scene, Autolycus has found Xena’s body at the Amazon camp but fears he’s too late to rescue the body since the funeral pyre has been lit. Xena tells him it is not too late, but to save her body he must “let go and hold on.” He manages to mutter “let go and hold on?” just in time for Xena to take over his body. In the scene that ensues, Autolycus fights just like Xena, does the war cry just like Xena, and later on he even kisses Gabrielle, just like Xena.
The Holy Spirit is like that with us. It takes us over … it lets us do things that under our own power, we would find impossible to do! When we have the Holy Spirit we do everything that God wills for our lives. All we have to do is let go … and hold on! Many times I go back and read things I’ve written and I don’t remember really having those thoughts in my head. I have no idea where it came from! Well, I suppose I do … it came from God through the Holy Spirit. All I had to do was let go and hold on!
The apostles learned the lesson of letting go and holding on at Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit first fell on them the people around them didn’t understand what was happening. Some believed they were drunk! When the Holy Spirit moves it can be exhilarating … it can feel like that euphoria of being drunk … or even that euphoria of being in love. When we first fall in love, nothing else in the world exists for us … just the object of our love. When we give in to that love … when we let ourselves go … hold on! We do things we never thought we’d do before … like being eager to move to Senoia. We put aside everything that seemed important to us and we focus on this new love … this exhilarating feeling!
But, we can’t go on living in that overwhelming feeling that we have when we first fall in love. If we did we would not be able to function in the world. The Holy Spirit is much the same way. It wouldn’t be good for us to be caught up in the Spirit all the time. Nor should we seek to be in the Spirit all the time. If we were we wouldn’t be able to do anything else! Remember that the Spirit comes and goes as it pleases. We can’t make it come to us, and we can’t make it stay when it does. We can however, open ourselves up to the Spirit, and welcome it when it does come our way.
Often our reaction is just the opposite though … because the Spirit is so inconvenient. It does often come at what we may feel is the wrong time. But, the Spirit moves when God commands. So, when the Spirit comes we need to not resist it. That’s easier said than done, of course. I stand here full aware of the irony of this sermon. I’m here reading a sermon written a few days ago to urge you to open yourself up to the spontaneity, the unexpected nature of the Holy Spirit. But as I stand here I am not practicing what I am preaching. But, to use myself as a sermon illustration … I am in this moment resisting the Holy Spirit — with all my might. We all do it because opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit makes us vulnerable. It makes us frightened. We’re afraid of what the Holy Spirit might have us do at any given time. Maybe we don’t want to do it! Maybe we’re going to look silly doing it. Maybe someone will think we’re drunk or insane! But God calls us to let go … and hold on.
When we let go, God promises us, in Ezekiel, that he will put a new spirit in us and that spirit will change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. God promises if we’ll open ourselves to the spirit our cold, selfish nature will change … our heart of stone will dissolve. In its place we’ll find a warm heart, a heart open to compassion, justice and righteousness. Our encounters with the Holy Spirit make us into new creations. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom! The Spirit frees us to put aside our selfish wants, to put aside our own fears and needs and wants. The Spirit transforms us “from one degree of glory to another.”
Theologian Paul Tillich in his book, “The Eternal Now” sums up the Spirit’s work so much better than I can.
“The Spirit can work in you with a soft but insistent voice, telling you that your life is empty and meaningless, but that there are chances of a new life waiting before the door of your inner self to fill its void and to conquer its dullness. The Spirit can work in you, awakening the desire to strive towards the sublime against the profanity of the average day. The Spirit can give you the courage that says ‘yes’ to life in spite of the destructiveness you have experienced around you and within you. The Spirit can reveal that you have hurt somebody deeply, but also can give you the right word that reunites [them] with you. The Spirit can make you love, with the divine love, someone you profoundly dislike or in whom you have no interest. … The Spirit can liberate you from hidden enmity against those whom you love and from open vengefulness against those by whom you feel violated. … The Spirit can create warmth in the coldness you feel within you and around you, and it can give you wisdom and strength where your human love towards a loved one has failed. The Spirit can throw you into a hell of despair about yourself and then give you the certainty that life has accepted you just when you felt totally rejected and when you rejected yourself totally.”
The author of Ezekiel said the same thing, only more succinctly: “A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
The Holy Spirit may not give you the fighting skills of Xena, and sadly, it won’t enable me to kiss Gabrielle, but when we let go and hold on, the Spirit changes us in profound ways. After each encounter, we get a little closer to God. After each encounter, we see a little more clearly what God wills for our lives. After each encounter, we want another one, and another one until one day we no longer fear the Holy Spirit, but we instead welcome its presence, its power, and its transforming effect on our lives.
So, I challenge you in this moment, to open your heart to the Holy Spirit. Let it find a place in your heart of stone … let it work inside of you to transform it into a heart of flesh. Let the Spirit give you a heart that hears the cries of the lonely. Let the Spirit give you a heart that heeds the call of mercy, a heart that seeks only to do justice, a heart that wants desperately to walk humbly with God.
Let go of your selfishness. Let go of your blindness. Let go of you own self-interest. Let go of your fear. Let go of your thoughts of “what’s in it for me.” Let go and feel the power of the Holy Spirit in your heart.
Let go … and hold on.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.