The Goose of Pentecost
May 30, 2004
John 14:15-16, 23b-26
We cannot see the Holy Spirit. So throughout the centuries writers and artists have struggled to come up with an adequate image to represent the Spirit. The evangelists had an idea. At Jesus’ baptism they represented the Spirit descending upon Him in the form of a dove. The image of the dove has been widely accepted. Most works of Christian art that represent the Spirit as a white bird floating in the sky. Throughout the middle ages there was a custom that on the feast of Pentecost hundreds of white doves would be released from church steeples. This custom continued until people realized that the cleanup for the doves was as extensive as its symbolism. The dove is graceful, gentle, seductive. These are qualities of God’s Spirit, but they certainly are not all of them. The dove is an incomplete image, perhaps too sweet and sentimental.
The Irish had another idea. In the old Celtic tradition the Holy Spirit was not represented as a gentle dove. It was pictured—get ready for this—as a wild goose. Now geese are very different than doves. They are uncontrollable and their honk is wild and obtrusive. They have a habit of biting those who try to contain them. They always travel in flocks and their attitude is such that farmers routinely use geese as a kind of watchdog. This is perhaps why the Celts thought that the goose would be a good symbol for God’s Spirit. For the Spirit comes into our lives not in quiet complacency, but demanding to be heard. Its message is not attractive to many. It calls us to respect one another and to travel as a group. And those upon whom the Spirit descends become noisy, passionate, courageous people who are guardians of the gospel.
Pentecost is the wild goose of a St. Patrick, who risked his life to evangelize the Emerald Isle. It is a Francis Xavier, who traveled to China and died there in order to spread the gospel. It is a Dorothy Day, who was taken to prison as she voiced justice for the poor. The wild goose of Pentecost is the whistle blower, the Meals on Wheels provider, the hospital visitor, mothers organizing against drunk driving, college students giving a year of their life in the Jesuit Volunteer Corp in Appalachia. Those on whom this brash Spirit descends become noisy advocates for justice: advocating health care reform, running drug rehabilitation programs, helping people find jobs, trying to make a difference in the world. When those who are possessed by this Spirit see big corporations such as Nike profiting hundreds of millions of dollars on running shoes and realize that those shoes are being produced by poor women in Viet Nam who receive a handful of change for an 18 hour day, they babble “That’s not right.” The Spirit of God does not come into our world to preserve the status quo. God’s spirit insists that wrongs must be righted; that justice must be done.
So what would happen to us if we opened our hearts and let this wild goose of the Spirit in? We might find the courage to face problems in our marriage, insisting that dialogue happen, seeking counseling, demanding that things change. We might find the strength to break off destructive relationships and to stop habits that are degrading our worth and integrity. We might push our way into situations where people are being demeaned because of their race, creed, or sexual orientation and insist that there be fair treatment for all. We might stop fattening ourselves with wealth and power and instead use the things that are ours for the betterment of others.
We need to claim this wild and uncontrollable goose because it is all to easy to domesticate God’s Spirit. It is all too easy to live day to day seduced by the quiet, lulling, cooing of our own comfort. Every once in awhile we need to hear that wild honk that calls us back to the original message of Jesus which demands responsibility and justice, which insists that we stand up for ourselves and for others. We must be startled by that Spirit squawk that reminds us that whatever we do for the least of our brothers or sisters we do for Christ.
All in all, I think the Celts had it right. Pentecost is a Feast of Geese, wild, dirty, loud geese, honking the gospel, biting those who would oppress the weak, insisting that we travel together in worship and in service; geese that challenge our comfortable Christian coziness and remind us that we have dignity and that we must fight for the widow and the orphan; geese whose song expresses the truth so well voiced in the Letter of James that “faith without works is dead.”
This homily has been adapted from a Pentecost homily by Fr. William Bausch in “A World of Stories.”
Seeing the Invisible
May 27, 2007
God acts in visible and invisible ways. The scriptures describe God visiting our ancestors in visible form. God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the garden, visited Abraham in the heat of the afternoon by the oaks of Mamre, spoke to Moses face to face on Mount Sinai. Of course, we as Christians believe that God became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is for us God made visible. But God’s actions are not limited only to these visible manifestations. In fact, God acts more frequently and more universally in ways that we cannot see. This brings us to today’s feast, the Feast of Pentecost. Because today we celebrate the gift of the Spirit, and it is through the Spirit of God that God works invisibly in our lives and in our world. When we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” we say that God is present and active in all things, in all things but sin. When we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit”, we say that there is no natural process, no historical development that is independent of God. God is present invisibly in all things, guiding the events of nature and history.
The famous Jewish comedian, Heni Youngman, was famous for his one-liners. On his ninetieth birthday a friend asked him, “Heni, to what do you give credit for your long life?” Without skipping a beat, Youngman responded, “Breathing.” There you have it. There’s no argument about that. Where there is no breath, there is no life. It is our invisible breath which sustains our lives from minute to minute, day to day, year to year.
In today’s gospel Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It is the Spirit of God who is the breath of the world, working invisibly to carry creation towards the Kingdom. In the Holy Spirit we believe that there is no time or circumstance, in which God is not somehow invisibly active.
Let me just give you one example. You are the person you are largely because of the genetic makeup you receive from your parents. It was the genes from your mother or father which made you male or female, short or tall, healthy or prone to disease. But your parents in turn received their genetic makeup from their parents who each had two parents. So, as you move from generation to generation, the genetic material doubles. If we were to take a period of time, say 500 years (which amounts to about 21 generations) and do the math, everyone sitting here this evening has over 2 million people in your gene pool. That is a huge amount of people. And you can be assured that in that pool there were some geniuses and some goofballs; there were some poets and some dunderheads; there were some lovers and some loners; some saints and some sinners. All of them made a contribution. All of them contributed to the people we are today.
What I just described was a natural process. All I did was do the math for the last 500 years. But because we believe in the Holy Spirit, we believe that that process was invisibly guided by God. God was working through the lives of all our ancestors to make us the unique daughter or son we are today.
In the Holy Spirit we believe that in every age and in every circumstance God is present moving us toward the Kingdom. Such belief should give us constant cause for hope and for courage. It should give us cause for hope. If the Spirit of God is always active in every time and place, then there is a force in our world that is opposed to the evil that surrounds us. Even though there might be problems in our family, sickness in our body, or violence and hatred in our world, if the Spirit of God is invisibly moving among us, there is always the possibility that evil will be vanquished and that good will be victorious. If the invisible power of God is moving among us, there is always reason for hope. There is also reason for courage. If God’s spirit is real and active, we can dare to do the right thing, even when we face opposition. We will dare to make peace even though there is no guarantee that the forces of hatred or violence will respond. We will dare to work for justice even though the powers of selfishness and greed seem overwhelming. We will support the poor and the vulnerable even though those who are unconcerned are indifferent. When we believe that the Spirit of God is active and moving among us, we will find the courage to work for what is right even though it seems impossible, because we know that we are not alone.
The Spirit of God is the breath of the world, constantly holding onto creation and moving it towards the Kingdom. Believing in that Spirit gives us constant reason for hope and for courage. We hope that God’s that there will be a better future, that God’s plan for creation will be done. We find the courage to cooperate with the Spirit to make God’s plan a reality.
The Light of the Spirit
May 24, 2010
It is impossible for us to conceive of an adequate idea of God. God is so much greater than us and so different from us that we can never completely understand God. In fact we can only approach an understanding of God by using images that try to capture at least an aspect of who God is and who God is for us. This is nowhere more true than in our efforts to describe God the Holy Spirit. There are a variety of images in our tradition which point to an aspect of who the Spirit is. We see one in today’s first reading where the Spirit comes upon the disciples as tongues of fire.
What can fire tell us about the Holy Spirit? Again, there are many aspects of fire. But today I want to reflect upon the quality of fire which is light. The Spirit of God is given to each one of us to be light for others and light for the world.
An American traveler was visiting Switzerland and he spent one evening with a Swiss family in a remote mountain village. After dinner the family informed him that they were going to church for an evening prayer and invited him to go along. He did. They walked through the city to the parish church which was an old but beautiful building on a hill overlooking the town. They arrived there around twilight. As the visitor looked at the church he noticed it was without any modern amenities. It had no electricity, and therefore no lights. He began to wonder what would happen as night fell. The family with whom he had come had brought a lantern, but one lantern would certainly not be enough to light the church. But as the waited for the service to begin, the visitor looked through the window of the church. He saw lights coming from the houses and the hills all around the village, like so many fireflies at dusk. Each family coming to church was bearing a lantern. When all the families arrived at the church building, the church was filled with light. They prayed evening prayer together. By the time the prayer was over, it was completely dark. The visitor watched as the lights of each of those individual families went forth from the church, back into the town and the surrounding hillside. His experience of that evening prayer service is a wonderful image of the light of the Holy Spirit.
We believe that each one of us has been given the Spirit of God as a flame within us, a flame that gives light. But believers understand that they have to regularly come together so that that light can be brighter and clearer. This is why we gather in this church regularly to join together in worship of God. When we come here the light of our faith becomes amplified and strong. Those who come whose light is dim are encouraged by the light of others. Those who experience loss can find comfort here. Those who carry hurts can open themselves to healing. Those who struggle with sickness can regenerate hope. We come together carrying individually the light of the Spirit. But in this place our light is revitalized. We find our faith strengthened in the presence of one another because our individual lights have been made one.
But the purpose of our coming together is more than just our own strengthening and comfort. Because the mission of the church, our coming together equips us to go forth from this place renewed, bringing the light of Christ to others. We go forth bringing the light of the Spirit into our homes, into our workplaces, into our relationships. We come together to be strengthened. We disperse to bring the light of Christ to every aspect of our society. It is not by chance that today’s feast of Pentecost, which is the feast of the Holy Spirit, is also called the birthday of the church. The Spirit and the church work together to fulfill Christ’s mission and Christ’s Gospel.
We gather together as a church to renew ourselves and to strengthen our light. We go forth to bear that light to others. We gather in this place so that we might recognize the light of the Spirit within us. We disperse from this place so that the light of the Spirit can transform the world.
The Groove of the Spirit
May 19, 2013
John 14: 15 – 16, 23b -26
We all know what it’s like. It is one of the best experiences of life. We all know what it’s like. But we use different words to describe it. Sometimes we say that we have “found our groove.” Other times we say that we have “entered the flow.” We are describing a time when everything works exactly as it should, when everything is right, when everything clicks. Now, you do not find your groove without some effort. You do not enter the flow without planning to do so. But what sets these particular experiences apart is that when they happen they are effortless. They come to us not as something we have planned but as a surprise, perhaps even as a gift.
We decide to refinish our grandmother’s rocking chair and it comes out perfectly. We stand looking at it and realize that it is a beautiful reminder of the person we loved. We have been working at it for months, but suddenly our golf swing gets stronger (and at long last) straighter. We plan a simple day with the family at the beach and everything turns out perfectly: the weather, the conversation, the fun. It becomes a day that we will always remember. We have been working for days on a social studies paper and suddenly it comes together. We sit down and write something that was better than we could have imagined. We face a difficult conversation with a teenage daughter or son. But when we have it, it works. We leave feeling we understand one another a little better.
Now we could have tried to do all these things many times before, but this time we are in the flow. We know we are not doing anything different this time. In fact, in some sense we are not doing it. It is doing us. We do not so much find the flow as have the flow find us and then carry us along with it.
Now from the aspect of faith these moments of finding the groove have a strong connection to today’s gospel. Because in the gospel, Jesus says that if we love him and follow his commands he and the Father will come and dwell within us. Jesus is not promising to look out for us or to guide our lives from afar. He is saying that he and the Father will actually live within us and through the gift of the Holy Spirit—whose presence we celebrate today—our lives will mesh with the very life of God. When we connect to that power of God within us, we enter the flow. We begin to understand that life is not simply about developing our powers and abilities but allowing the power of God to flow through us.
So finding the groove is not so much about doing as about tuning. How do we tune our life so as to allow the power of God to play through us? How do we in our relationships, in our work, and in our projects, find out what we need to do more or less of in order to hit the sweet spot of living? We may need to be more active and organized or we might need to be more open and trusting. We might grow by being more active and assertive or by being more deferential or humble. It might benefit us to do more research and critical thinking or to be more imaginative and hopeful. We must strive to find the balance in our life that allows the power of God that is within us to come out.
Now I’m not saying that if we find this balance that we will always get an ‘A’ on our social studies paper or have a perfect golf swing. But, I am saying that we will understand ourselves and relationship to God in a deeper way. We will understand that the joy of living is not something we attain solely on our own power but through our connection with the God who lives within us. When we connect to that power, we enter the flow of God’s love. Finding that groove is fundamental grace. Because when the love of God flows through us, we have discovered the best way to live.
The Holy Spirit as Fire
June 9, 2019
“Out of sight, out of mind.” We all know this proverb, and we all know what it means. When something is not visibly present before us, we can forget its reality. This is often not a good thing. When we do not see the water leakage in our basement, it only postpones dealing with the problem. When a dear friend who lives out of town is not with us, we can begin to forget the joy and the power of that relationship. This loss that comes from not seeing is only intensified when it comes to the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is God’s invisible presence to us. Because we cannot see the Holy Spirit, there is always the risk that we put the presence of God out of our minds and thereby rob ourselves of the comfort and power of God’s love.
So what can we do to remember God’s invisible presence? What steps can we take to assure that we realize that God is with us? Today’s first reading from the Book of Acts offers us a way forward. In that reading the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples in visible form, in tongues of fire. Now I realize, the Holy Spirit doesn’t come to us in our lives in tongues of fire. But there are particular concrete qualities to fire that can serve as signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.
Fire is warmth, light, and burning. When we find ourselves in a cold and empty place, perhaps resulting from the death of someone that we love, or a special relationship that has broken up, or a mistake that we have made which has tremendously impacted our families, we feel hollow and numb. Then our 5-year-old climbs on our lap and gives us a hug. A friend makes us laugh. Our spouse finds just the right words to say. And for the first time in weeks we can take a deep breath and feel the blood move again within us. Those moments of humanity and hope that occur to us in the cold are the warmth of the Holy Spirit’s fire.
Sometimes things are confusing and dark. We have problems that will not yield to us: how to resolve a negative financial situation, how to speak to a teenage son or daughter who is acting out, how to deal with an aging parent. In such confusion we are paralyzed. Then we see a step we can take, a conversation that we can begin. That insight, that path through the darkness, is the light of the Holy Spirit’s fire.
Sometimes we know things are wrong in our family, in our church, or in our world. We realize that we have been ignoring and facilitating drug or alcohol abuse by a member of our family. We are scandalized by the way that our bishops have mishandled child sexual abuse. We look at the political scene, and instead of service we see self-promotion. In place of honesty, there are lies. An anger grows within us and we say, “This is not right. This needs to change. I have to do something.” That powerful force within us moving us to do what is right is the burning of the Holy Spirit’s fire.
The Holy Spirit is invisible but real. That is why it is important to be attentive to the way that the Spirit touches us with warmth, light, and burning. So on this Pentecost Day, let us pray: Come Holy Spirit, give us your fire. Warm us, enlighten us, and if necessary singe us, so that we might know that you are with us and might believe that you will never let us go.