This is the text of a sermon preached by James Snyder on Pentecost back in 2000, at St George’s Anglican Church in Halifax. As many of you might be aware, Jim is the author of the saint benedict’s table Lenten book, Toward What We Can Scarcely Imagine and Scarcely Refuse.
At last: After brooding upon us all these millennia,
and intermittently turning things upside down, and episodically delivering us,
it comes sweeping through the world like a firestorm,
redeeming and transforming everything in its path.
And if you’re in its way there’s nothing you can do. There’s no escape.
It’s wild…it’s uncontrollable…it’s undeniable…it’s irresistable.
Ready or not, it is here…and it is here to stay.
The Holy Spirit will have its way with you, no matter what.
There’s nothing you can do to stop it, or deflect it…
neither can you hasten or importune it.
Those people in Jerusalem that day were just there.
They didn’t ask for it. They didn’t expect it. It just happened.
Suddenly the world was on fire with the Spirit of God…
and the followers of Jesus were ignited with a fury and passion that nothing could extinguish
—not even their own inevitable crucifixions.
They would have done it all over again without a second thought,
for they had been transformed into a new creation,
with a new purpose, and a new reason to live—and a reason to die.
And they went about it as wildly and recklessly as this One
who wildly and recklessly lived, and died, for them.
For his life was now inextricably bound to their own.
Were they ready for it, that day in Jerusalem?
How could they be? Is anyone ever ready?
Were we ready for birth? Were we ready when our parents brought us to the baptismal font?
Are we ready for those deaths we undergo along the way in life?
—and those resurrections that come unbidden and unforeseen?
The Holy Spirit doesn’t care if we’re ready.
These things happen when the Spirit is ready.
—Abraham, I want you to leave this ripe fertile land of Mesopotamia and go to a land that I will show you, where you will become the father of a great nation.
—Moses, I want you to lead this band of ornery Hebrews out of Egypt back to the land I promised to your forefathers.
—But Lord, I have a speech impediment, and I’m a murderer, and these people are defenseless against the Egyption army.
—Don’t worry, I’ll make it happen, just go.
—Jeremiah,I want you to prophesy to my people and save them from destruction.
—But Lord, I am but a youth and I don’t know how to speak.
—Don’t worry! I called you before you were born. I will put my words in your mouth.
—Saul of Tarsus—Paul—I want you to stop persecuting me.
—Who are you, Lord?
—I’m Jesus, the one you’re persecuting. Saul, I want you on my side.
So what do you say when the Spirit calls, in whatever manner it calls?
—Okay. Okay. And if that sounds a bit tentative and hesitant, maybe it should.
You don’t know what you’re getting into.
You don’t know what suffering and sacrifice may await you.
And you don’t know that this suffering will be your redemption…and your joy.
All you know is the ambivalence of being beckoned toward a strange land.
And there’s no way to embark without releasing your grip on everything familiar,
everything that has kept you secure.
The Spirit bestows new life. The Spirit bestows strength and nourishment for the journey ahead.
But it bestows it for its own purposes, not ours.
And its purpose always seems to involve: calling us out of our self toward—
toward whatever it has in mind, toward whatever it puts in our mind…and in our heart…
toward something, somewhere, that can only seem precarious and unclear.
Sometimes it makes sense—but sometimes it’s absurd.
And here’s where it gets tricky: for there are spirits, and there is the Holy Spirit.
What are the criteria for discerning whether it’s the Holy Spirit calling you—or some other spirit?
For we are each a conglomeration of diverse and conflicting desires…
appetites, compulsions, neuroses and fears, and mixed motives—at least I am.
And they compete with the Spirit. Sometimes they usurp it,
and sometimes the Spirit harnesses these drives for its own purposes.
But how do you know when the Spirit is in charge and not some other spirit?
How do you know it’s the New Adam and not the Old Adam impelling you to respond?
What’s the difference between the call of the Holy Spirit and self-deception?
Sometimes they are virtually indistinguishable.
People say: Trust your feelings. Does it feel right?
Well…be careful there. Be careful how you interpret those feelings.
The Spirit seems to have little regard for our feelings.
When the Spirit calls, it’s just as likely to feel unlikely…
or patently wrong, if not utterly crazy—even terrifying.
Back in the seminary, I confessed to my advisor how terrified I was of preaching.
I was not terrified of speaking, as such, but terrified of proclaiming the gospel.
—Such an awesome responsibility, such an impossible task: Who can do this? I implored.
And he sat back in his chair and looked at the ceiling for awhile, and then said:
— I know. It’s like surgery; people’s lives are at stake. I’ve been preaching for 30 years, and I don’t know that it gets any better.
How strange that I would find encouragement in that. He was right.
As we approached ordination, one of my classmates visited the bishop
and told him the Spirit was calling him to North Dakota.
—Oh? and why would that be?
—Well, because North Dakota is about the last place in the world I want to go.
Nobody wanted to go to North Dakota. Would you? It was synonymous with banishment.
We all felt we’d be far more effective staying where we were,
in the glorious city of Minneapolis, or St. Paul. But this guy said:
—No! let it not be anywhere I want to go, for if it were,
how would I know it’s the Spirit calling me?
Bizarre but true. My friend got his wish, and he’s still there…happily, I’m told.
Another fellow told the bishop the Spirit was calling him to be a chaplain
on a Caribbean cruise ship. [He must have been terrified of water.]
Why didn’t I think of that? Well, good thing I didn’t, for this young man
went to North Dakota as well. Sometimes it’s good to have bishops.
I know a parish in Seattle that built a beautiful sanctuary, and struggled sacrificially to pay off the mortgage in a short time. Then one day, while basking in the afterglow of this fine achievment, they wondered what grand new project they could embark on next.
The feeling among most of them was to build a new hall. Of course that was the most logical and appropriate thing to do. But a lone voice of dissent asked:
—Do we really need one? Why don’t we instead just raise a million dollars and give it away? Wouldn’t that be marvellous?
And that’s what they did. And over the past 20 years they’ve done it 5 times.
They still haven’t built their new hall.
And…something like an eternity ago, in the year 1998, as some of you recall,
I fell into the deepest moral and spiritual abyss of my life.
And when I met with Father Thorne I told him:
— Man, don’t ask me to preach. Please! I can’t, I’m not able, I’m empty, I’m dead.
Look at me now: What could I say with any credibility? I am utterly unworthy
to stand in that pulpit.
And—nodding in his inscrutable way, he carefully responded:
—Well… then…it would seem…that…you…have all the right qualifications to preach the gospel.
Of course. Why couldn’t I just tell him I was too tired? For immediately he added:
—In fact…I think you should probably preach more often. How about this Sunday?
—Okay. It will be impossible. But okay.
I remember that day. Julia Bruce-Robertson was baptized then,
and had I not witnessed that event I do not think I would have made it. But when,
in her utter and abject helplessness, the Spirit of God descended upon her like a dove, saying:
—YOU ARE MY CHILD
that same Spirit swept over each and every one of us. Even me.
And when I finally stepped into the pulpit I was able to believe what I was proclaiming,
and proclaim what I believed.
A little child is all it took.
That’s typically how the Spirit works – doesn’t it? – and when it calls us:
not when we’re ready, not when we’re qualified, not when we’re worthy enough.
Not even when we’re old enough to understand it—and almost never when it’s convenient.
And it doesn’t readily take no for an answer.
The Spirit of God is impetuous, spontaneous, invasive…
and apart from the Sacraments, utterly unpredictable.
You do not know when or how it will call.
But the Spirit is also patient and forbearing. The Spirit can wait for the opportune moment.
The Spirit can bide its time until the time is right.
And sometimes…it seems…to have all the time in the world.
I mean, I know a case where the Spirit waited 37 years, between the time it sparked something
and when it finally called a person out of himself toward an Other, 2,000 miles away—
to whom he was not destined but graced to unite with.
This was not destiny—for there is no retrospective logic to it whatsoever—
but the opportunistic invasion of grace. 37 years it took…
a virtual lifetime…and the fortuitous convergence of a million disparate variables,
for the Spirit to seize that moment and issue the call,
and then finally grab his heart and give it to that Other.
But even then, especially then:
It’s wild…it’s uncontrollable…it’s undeniable, and irresistable.
And if you refuse it, you refuse it at your peril.
What is the Spirit calling you to become…to do…to pursue…?
What is it calling you to bear witness to with your life?
Toward what…toward whom…is the Spirit calling you?
How do you discern whether it’s the Holy Spirit or some other spirit?
Is it calling you to make a million dollars so you can buy a new boat?
Or is it calling you to make a million dollars and give it away?
Is it calling you to seek something because it would be good for you?
Or is it calling you to seek someone else’s good?
Is it calling you toward an Other simply to fulfill your own life?
Or is it calling you to empty your life,
and offer her all that you are and everything you have it in you to become?
To love others in a way that’s risk-free?
Or to love them as Christ loved us—selflessly and sacrificially ?
I do not think it’s so terribly difficult, in the end, to discern the call of the Holy Spirit.
I think what’s difficult is believing it…and risking the venture it calls us toward.
For it so often calls us in the opposite direction of our inclination:
not Canterbury but North Dakota,
not in to ourselves but out—into that restless sea of floundering humanity;
or conversely, not out into a plethora of worthy projects,
but in—to the unexplored realms of our heart.
And it may just as readily call us, not in the direction of our strength and expertise,
but in the direction of our weakness and inexperience.
But the Call always seems to come…at the most unlikely time, in the most unlikely way…
from the most unlikely source, and the most unlikely person:
a child…a distant acquaintance…a stranger at the door…perhaps even your priest.
What do you do then?
Do you answer? Do you respond? Do you open the door to that ominous invitation?
Do you step forth into the realm of Wonder?
Do you plunge into the vortex of the unknown, knowing there may be no return…
that your life may be unalterably changed?
Well, what choice – really – do you have, if you’ve already been chosen,
as you were in baptism, when the Holy Spirit first called you into a new existence?
Do you doubt this? Then let me remind you, because that’s the one thing I’m here for:
The Spirit of the risen Christ pervades everything you are…
everything you behold…
and everything yet to be.
And there’s nothing you can do about it except, finally, in the end…GIVE UP:
give up your Self to it.
For the Spirit will have its way with you, no matter what.
Oh, it’s wild…and uncontrollable…and undeniable…and irresistable…
and it will never…not ever…leave you alone.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.