Monday, June 15, 2009

B: Proper 6

There’s a movie that was hugely popular about 25 years ago called Chariots of Fire. Some of you, know doubt, remember it. For me, the most memorable part of the movie was the opening scene, which took place at the funeral of the main character (the rest of the film was then, of course, a flashback). And what I remember most vividly about that scene was a particularly stirring hymn that they sang at the funeral, a hymn that, in its day, was known by just about every Englishman, and it’s from this hymn that the title line of the movie comes from—“bring me my … chariot of fire.” It is a setting of a short poem by William Blake, which you may be familiar with, and which I will shortly read to you.

But first, two bits of information: the poem was written during the Industrial Revolution in England, so the expression “dark satanic mills” refers to the factories which employed thousands of workers in sweaty and back-breaking labor. And, it is based on the legend—interesting but not really based on anything resembling historical fact—that the young man Jesus, before he began his public ministry, travelled to England with his uncle, who was involved in the tin trade. So, with those two observations in mind, here is Jerusalem, by William Blake:

And did those feet in ancient times Walk upon England's mountains green? And was the holy lamb of God In England's pleasant pastures seen? And did the countenance divine Shine forth upon those clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold, Bring me my arrows of desire. Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold, Bring me my chariot of fire. I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, Till we have built Jerusalem In England's green and pleasant land.

“Till we have built Jerusalem...” Jerusalem, of course, is a sort of biblical code word for the perfect society, the kingdom of God come in all its fullness, where the lion lies down with the lamb and children play with snakes and nobody goes hungry or poorly housed or is treated unjustly or has any reason to weep. William Blake looked at the “dark satanic mills” and vowed to labor without ceasing until “Jerusalem”—the perfect society of his dreams—was built in his country.

We all have a “Jerusalem” that we would like to build. We all have some area of intense discomfort with things as they are, and are anxious to make the transition to things as they will be. We are all aware that the kingdom of God is here, but not yet completely here, and poems like Jerusalem make us want to join the struggle, and storm the gates of hell like the soldiers who invaded the beaches of Normandy on D-day.

The “Jerusalem” that we would like to build may be, as it was for Blake, one of social justice, changing the structures and fabric of our society to reflect God’s justice and compassion and love. The “Jerusalem” we would like to build may be one of restoring morality and virtue and moral fiber to our nation and our community, of strengthening families and developing character. Or, we may have a burning concern to build up the church, perhaps even a particular parish—perhaps even St Anne’s! I will admit that building St Anne’s has been the “Jerusalem” of my life for the past two years. Or, the Jerusalem that we seek to build may be entirely interior: a quest for knowledge, or skill, or spiritual growth. Indeed, when we pray “thy kingdom come”, the vision of the kingdom that each of us brings to that prayer varies greatly from person to person.

What these different visions have in common however, is the notion that we are key players in bringing the dream to reality, that God is depending on us to “make it happen”, and that the only reason mankind has not yet achieved the ideal society is that we haven’t yet all gotten together and coordinated our efforts and work hard enough. It seems like plain common sense. When president Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961, said that “God's work must truly be our own”, who would have been inclined to question him? Of course God’s work must be our work, and where can we sign up? The same thing goes for the expression, “God helps those who help themselves.” After all, it's even in the Bible, isn't it?

Or is it?

Actually, “God helps those who help themselves” may at times be a useful piece of advice, but it is nowhere to be found in Holy Scripture! And the idea that God’s work must truly be our own may find some support in the Bible, but not in the way President Kennedy was thinking. Through the parables of Jesus recorded for us today in Mark's gospel, God gives us a reality check. He lets us in on an important bit of information about his kingdom and when and how it will come into its fullness. A farmer goes out and plants his crops—preparing the ground, sowing the seed, giving it a little water.

Then he goes home and takes a nap! And it's not a fretful, anxiety-ridden sleep. He sleeps like a newborn baby. And he rises, and goes back to sleep, and rises, and goes back to sleep, and before he knows it, the seeds have sprouted, and grown, and the next thing the farmer does is harvest the crop. What he had thrown into the ground as dry, lifeless seeds has now become a lush, mature, edible, marketable crop. The farmer prepared, and the farmer planted, and the farmer tended, and the farmer harvested, but as to what took place in between those activities, and how it was accomplished and when it was accomplished, the farmer is completely in the dark. He does not make the crops grow.

And you and I do not make "Jerusalem" happen. God wants us to be available for him to work through us, but he does not depend on us. There is absolutely nothing we can do to either advance or hinder the progress of the kingdom of God. God is in charge of seeing that his kingdom comes, that “Jerusalem” happens. I admire William Blake's spirit and courage, and the music to which his poem has been set is uplifting and thrilling, and I love hearing it sung! But William Blake went to his grave without ever having built “Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.” And you and I will go to our graves without ever having built “Jerusalem”, whether “Jerusalem” is a vision for peace and social justice, public and personal righteousness, church growth and evangelism, or personal spiritual development.

Some of us have the privilege of laying the foundation of some corner of God's kingdom, and some of us pound a few nails here or install some plumbing there, and other of us at times have the honor of opening the doors, but we are not the builders. God is the builder. The city gets built his way and in his time, and, although we all have jobs to do, the project belongs to God, and there's really nothing any one of us can do to either slow down the work or speed it up.

To the extent that we take responsibility for God’s work, we find ourselves engaged in maneuvering and manipulating, fretting and worrying. To the extent that we leave the building of God’s kingdom to God, and stick to our job of announcing it and living it and taking care of those relatively small tasks that are assigned to us, we exercise the eyes of faith that see the crop already in the seed, the fulfillment already in the promise. If we try to build Jerusalem, we find ourselves wrapped up in legalities and technicalities, and a bunch of anxiety. If we remember that that Jerusalem is the city of God, we give ourselves over to waiting and watching that will enable us to see it over the horizon and proclaim the good news with boldness. As long as we cling to the burden of making God’s kingdom happen, we are subject to doubt and anxiety. When we yield that burden back to God, we open ourselves to confidence and hope.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” Amen.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


This is the Day of Pentecost. I’ll refer you to the Liturgical Notes in the service booklet for all the technical details, but simply reiterate here that it is one of the “Big Seven” in our liturgical calendar—those special occasions that are styled “Principal Feasts.” But even within that elite group of seven, there is a sort of unofficial hierarchy, in which Pentecost would occupy the top tier, along with Christmas and Easter. Historically, in the Church of England, you were considered in good standing if you received Holy Communion on at least those three occasions. But we have to admit, in terms of popular imagination, Pentecost is a shrinking violet in comparison with Christmas and Easter. It has nowhere near the emotional appeal, nowhere near the sentimental associations that those holidays have. Nobody tells stories about their memories of family gatherings on Pentecost. It’s not a time for exchanging gifts, I’d bet most of us here would be hard pressed to name our favorite Pentecost hymn, and, this year so far, I have yet to receive even one Pentecost card!

No doubt, the main reason why Pentecost, as a feast day, has failed to occupy a very large place in our hearts is that the Holy Spirit, the One whom Pentecost celebrates, is one of the least understood aspects of our Christian belief system. Yahweh, the Lord, the God of the Old Testament, is at least somebody we’re familiar with. He’s a “character,” with a lot of outrageously memorable words and deeds to His credit. And in the New Testament, Jesus, of course, is human, so we can identify with him. He eats and sleeps and walks and talks just like we do. But the Holy Spirit is slippery, difficult to pin down. The Spirit therefore remains, for many, an abstraction, a concept . . . unless, that is, you are one of those who believe they have experienced the Holy Spirit in a dramatic and personal way.

Most of the time, such a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit comes by means of witnessing a healing miracle, or, better yet, being the subject of a healing miracle. When broken bones and damaged spinal cords heal in ways they’re not supposed to, when cancer cells voluntarily disappear, when nearsightedness corrects itself to 20/20 overnight, it’s suddenly a lot easier to talk about the Holy Spirit.

Or, much of the time, when someone testifies to a close encounter with the Holy Spirit, it is after receiving the gift of tongues—the ability to pray aloud in speech patterns that one has not learned and does not recognize, but which flood the soul with warmth and a conviction that one is in the very presence of God.

People who have had these sorts of experience sometimes—and I do stress sometimes, because it isn’t always the case—such people sometimes “major” in the Holy Spirit at the expense of a fully balanced Christian walk. Just as it is a mistake to overlook the Holy Spirit, it is equally wrong to dwell on the Holy Spirit, to the exclusion of the Father and the Son—or, for that matter, the church, the sacraments, the scriptures, or a disciplined life of prayer. But the more dangerous temptation that beckons those who have experienced the Holy Spirit in a powerful way is to become smug and superior, to scorn, belittle, intimidate, and become generally obnoxious toward those Christians who have not had such an experience. This can be as overt as a finger-pointing lecture, or as subtle as a condescending smile. Either way, the implication is that Christians who have not had some obvious powerful experience of the Holy Spirit are somehow inferior, second-class, or maybe not even authentically Christian.

So let’s get back to basics, and see if we can’t begin, at least, to clear up a misunderstanding or two. We are going to do some baptizing today. The discipline of our church recommends that baptisms be reserved for five specific occasions throughout the year, and the Day of Pentecost is one of those occasions. After we take these three young people into the water— “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” —we will anoint them with oil and sign them with the cross and say to them, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Then we will say a prayer over all of them together, and in this prayer we will thank God our Father
that He has bestowed on these newly-minted Christians the forgiveness of sins and the life of Christ’s resurrection by means of “water and the Holy Spirit.” We will then go on to ask God to “sustain them in [His] Holy Spirit.”

If we indeed believe as we pray, what this means is that these young people are about to be given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of the Living God, who has already been working on their hearts in preparation for this day, will take up full-time permanent residence, and become a personal resource more valuable than any mentor or teacher they will ever have. But what’s even more remarkable is that, along with this gift of the Holy Spirit, they will also receive, through the sacrament of baptism, gifts from the Holy Spirit.

Some of these gifts may include items from the various list of spiritual gifts that were find enumerated in various passages of scripture. At the time of baptism, we don’t know who’s going to be getting what gifts. Nor are these exhaustive lists—the Holy Spirit is an abundant giver.

Moreover, the Holy Spirit is not for an elite minority within the church who have had some kind of dramatic experience. The Holy Spirit is for the whole church, and for all her members. If you are baptized, you have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t matter whether you feel it or not, you have it! The Holy Spirit dwells within your soul, ready to fill you with the life of God, ready to unleash His power within you as soon as you give the green light. Indeed, St Paul, when he writes to the Corinthians, says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit...”. However, he doesn’t stop there. He qualifies his statement. The gift of the Holy Spirit is universal to all Christians, but there are strings attached. Along with this essential birthright comes an equally essential responsibility. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The gift of the Holy Spirit, and the gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit, are not personal playthings. They are to be employed to the glory of God and the building up of His church.

In the book of Acts we read of a fellow named Simon Magus. He was impressed with the power of the Holy Spirit, particularly as it operated in the gift of healing in the ministry of St Peter and other early apostles. Simon was a man of some means, and he offered Peter cold hard cash in exchange for the spiritual gift of healing. As we might say today, he was “clueless.” The Holy Spirit is not for sale to the highest bidder. No gift from the Holy Spirit is for our own selfish use. Rather, they are all for the building up of the whole people of God, for the strengthening of the church in her mission and ministry.

Now, it must not be left unsaid, many gifts of the Spirit are woefully and tragically underutilized. If all Christians became aware of their gifts and began to exercise those gifts in a faithful manner, the impact on the church—and the church’s impact on the world—could scarcely be imagined. The situation as it actually exists in many Christian communities can be likened to that of a professional soccer match in South America, where 60,000 fans desperately in need of exercise are watching 22 athletes desperately in need of a rest! So as we baptize these young people, let our prayer be that they develop an early awareness of the gifts they receive in this sacrament, and that one of those gifts be faith sufficient to exercise the others.

The Holy Spirit is the birthright of all Christians; it is not just for a few, but for all. And exercising the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the responsibility of all Christians; again, not just the few, but all. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Fill the hearts of your faithful people and kindle in us the fire of your love. Alleluia and Amen.