June 12, 2011
Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost
June 12, 2011
The Rev. Bradford Ayers Rundlett
Psalm 104:25-35, 37b
1st Corinthians 12:13b-13
God’s Peace be with you.
How did you get here this morning?
I don’t mean what mode of transportation did you use; I mean among all the infinite possibilities of life, how did you get here?
How did you become an Episcopal Christian? Who or what shaped you into a person who in a few moments will stand and claim to believe the incredible things written in the Nicene Creed, put a substantial amount of money in the offering basin, pray to a God you can’t see for people you don’t know, consume bread and wine believing it to be the Body and Blood of Jesus, the Christ, and then strike out into the world to forgive the people who hurt you, love your enemies, and exhibit fearless generosity toward complete strangers?
How did you get to this moment in your life believing the things you believe?
There’s a story of faith!
We all have one. And each story is different, of course. But in every one there are brushes with grace, indications of Divine Presence; there are God moments and God things.
So, how did you get to be the person you are , believing the things you do, putting your faith into action?
For what it’s worth, I didn’t have much of a chance to do or be anything else. I was born and raised in this faith. My forebears were Anglican/Episcopal Christians as far back as 1640 when Charles Rundlett, an indentured servant, made his way to Massachusetts from England. And generations before him, the Rundletts were Scottish and Irish Protestants, and French Huguenots. It’s in my blood.
So of course I was Baptized, as an infant, in St. Phillip’s Cathedral Atlanta, and sang in the youth choir until my voice changed and they invited me to leave. I was Confirmed in St. Anne’s Atlanta, and attended youth group until I graduated from high school. I dutifully sat in a hard, uncomfortable pew every Sunday, Feast Day, Fast Day, Holy Day, and Holy Night – about six dozen times a year for 18 years! I never missed a service until I was old enough, and big enough, to shout to my parents (through a locked bedroom door) “I’m not going and you can’t make me!” I thought I handled that rather maturely.
Other than praying and waiting for miracles that didn’t materialize, being told if I didn’t stop asking questions I’d be expelled from Confirmation class, and giving my life to Jesus in a Methodist Church [more about that in a minute], my spiritual journey in those formative years was fairly unremarkable.
And just for the record, I wasn’t expelled from Confirmation class; that’s an ugly rumor. I probably did have “an attitude” but I also had a lot of questions, and I thought that was the place to ask them. Maybe not.
So, about giving my life to Jesus in my best friend’s Methodist Church? Everyone else did it, so I did too. We Episcopalians are taught to be polite and respect other people’s belief and practices – no matter how unEpiscopal they are.
But between you and me, I don’t think it counted; I’m not sure Jesus wanted me at that time in my life; I’m sure he had better offers.
And back to my Confirmation for a minute; in all modesty I want you to know that I invented lip-synching. It’s true! You see everyone in the Confirmation class had to stand up in front of the entire congregation and recite – from memory – the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed, and the 23rd Psalm. Well, memorizing religious stuff was not my thing. So, while everyone else did memorize those things, and did recite them, I just moved my mouth hoping nobody would know the difference.
I thought it was pretty clever. It worked. I passed. I was Confirmed.
By the time I got to college, I had enough; I was churched out. I majored in Fine Art, practiced Transcendental meditation, and decided I could be a good person without all the holy mumbo-jumbo. I graduated, got my degree, and after a few fits and starts, went to work at Central Advertising in Columbia South Carolina. I wasn’t in love with my job, and I certainly wasn’t making a lot of money, but I thought overall, things were pretty good, and bound to get better.
Except, that I had this nagging sense something really important was missing. I felt incomplete, and I didn’t know why. There was a hole in the middle of me that I didn’t know how to fill. And I felt really miserable.
I endured that as long as I could, hoping it would resolve itself and go away. It didn’t.
One morning I walked out of my apartment, like I did every workday, and just stopped in the middle of the parking lot like I’d slammed into a brick wall - which in a manner of speaking I did. I couldn’t go on. I threw my fists up and screamed at Heaven “God take my life! You can have it! I don’t want it anymore!
Why I said those particular words, I have no idea. But I know a lot of people who in stressful times pray for God to take over. “Be careful what you ask for . . . “
I have to tell you, it was one of the most disappointing moments of my life.
I just surrendered everything to the Creator and Ruler of the Universe, and there wasn’t the slightest hint that The Almighty heard me, or even cared – no lightning or thunder, no angelic choir, no dove descending to land on my shoulder, no rejoicing by the faithful departed – not a single alleluia or hosanna echoed across the sky!
I stood there feeling like a total fool, desperately hoping no one saw me.
Eventually - shoulders slumped in despair - I trudged off to work. If God won’t have you, what’re you going to do?
Time passed, and my sense that something vital was missing grew more and more intense. Everything in my life seemed all out of balance, even meaningless.
Then one day a thought came to mind.
I had noticed a Church, an Episcopal Church, right around the corner, and for some very strange reason, decided I was going to check it out next Sunday morning. It had been five years since I had escaped Church; why I thought I should venture back in is a mystery to me. But I did.
Now picture this. It was the early 70’s. I had long curly hair – I mean long curly hair - a generous moustache, earth shoes, bell bottom jeans, and a shirt with pointed collars out to my shoulders. I could have passed for one of the Bee Gees. Thank God there are no photographs of that!
And little did I know, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Shandon was the premier, upper crust, “blue-hair”, old money and lots of it, sophisticated, politically connected, you-really-have-to-be-somebody-to-step-foot-in-this-place, Episcopal Church, in the entire state!
I walked in, and dear aunt Bertha, I froze! There I was, looking like Dennis Hopper in the movie Easy Rider, standing paralyzed in the center aisle of a Church with silver, brass, marble, stained glass, and hardwood floors polished to absolute perfection! In a burst of brilliant insight I realized my walking into this Church was a huge mistake! But it was too late! I couldn‘t retreat! People behind me were pressing forward to get to their pews, and the ushers were “ushing” full-tilt. The Prelude was coming to an end! The Crucifer, torchbearers, layreaders, and clergy were lined up for the Procession. I was trapped! I couldn’t breathe! Panic roared through my body! I was on the verge of passing out!
Then, from out of nowhere, I heard a soft, lovely voice. To my right an elegant elderly woman - with an air of dignity that would have made the Queen of England look like a chamber maid - leaned out of her pew, into the aisle, took my arm, pulled me into her pew, and said with sincere charity “Come on honey, you sit next to me, and we’ll share my prayer book.”
I am not making this up.
And in that moment, I knew I was home. God had me, and the hole disappeared.
Five years later when I finally figured out that God had heard me – in the Methodist Church, in that parking lot, and lots of other places – I was in Seminary studying to be a priest (God help the Church!). And that wonderful woman who invited me to sit with her (Ms. Louise Chambers) sent me a check every month for the entire three years of Seminary; it was the check that bought groceries for me and my family.
Talk about glimmers of God and glory! And we wonder how we got here? Is God present and active in our lives?
The way I see it, someone has most definitely been directing my life all along. And it most certainly wasn’t me.
Not a single day of my life has gone the way I thought or planned. I never imagined becoming a priest to serve congregations in South Carolina, DC, Maryland, and Virginia. I never thought I’d do mission work in Haiti, fix up houses in Appalachia with younger folks of the Church, or attend Pow-Wows with other members of St. Timothy’s and the Lakota people in South Dakota. I never dreamed I would someday stand at an Altar with women (that wasn’t possible when I was younger), or with people [of every color] as John described in his Book of Revelation “from every language, tribe, and nation” all of us together singing hymns of praise to God. O what things God’s Holy Spirit is doing!
I never believed I’d be in such a wonderful, beautiful, faithful community of people, from all over the world, as here in St. Timothy’s!
I have come to realize that all of the goodness in my life is the doing of God’s Holy Spirit.
The Spirit of God is Ruach in Hebrew, Pneuma and Sophia in Greek - the breath of life, the wisdom of God! We are told in the Acts of the Apostles that God’s Holy Sprit, the Spirit of Christ, was let loose in this world to complete the work of Jesus, to fulfill God’s plan to redeem the whole world. And when the Holy Spirit is welcome and invited – though an invitation is not required – she will move in, she will fill the hole, she will make herself at home in the hearts and minds and spirits of God’s people.
The Gospels tell us that the Holy Spirit works in us, and through us, to spread the love of God, to build and extend the Kingdom of God, in this beautiful yet broken world. And we – you and I - are God’s instruments.
And yes I did refer to God’s Holy Spirit as “she.”
Here’s your trivia factoid for the day: though we refer to the Holy Spirit as “he” in our Creeds, in the Bible – in the Old and New Testament - the Holy Spirit is never masculine; in the Hebrew and Greek she is always feminine or neuter. She is the Comforter, the Guide; the One who creates new life out of her own being. She is the bestower of Knowledge and Wisdom, the Great Teacher. She is the Sanctifier, the Healer; the Forgiver. She is the Gift Giver, the Designer of things far greater than we can ask or imagine. She prays for us when we cannot find the words, or the faith. She fills the holes in our souls, and mends the tears in our hearts. She surrounds us; she shapes, molds, and moves us. And yes, she dwells within us. She pulls and pushes, cajoles, persuades, and very often takes us in directions we would never choose, to do things we never imagined.
She is all around us! And she lives within us.
So, how did you get to be who you are and where you are today? Who is steering your life? What are your gifts, and how are you using them?
Today is Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter. It is our annual commemoration, our celebration, of the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. We acknowledge the presence and activity of God’s Holy Spirit working through us, and throughout the world, to comfort and heal, to direct, teach, and guide, to renew and redeem.
We are here by heaven’s design, we have a mission, we have been given gifts to accomplish our part in building up this Body of Christ, and spreading the love of God in Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. And the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, and the Peace of the Lord will always be with you.