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Pentecost: Space for Grace

May 30, 2012

A sermon preached by Lynn Dunn, M.Div.,

at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012

First Reading: Acts 2: 1-21

Second Reading: Romans 8: 22-27


For the past seven weeks we have been celebrating Easter in weekly worship.  While for some Easter is just one Sunday in the spring, for the church it is a season, Eastertide. It takes seven weeks to observe Easter.  And when we say, “observe” Easter, we mean that two ways:  both observing the liturgical celebration of Easter; and, to observe, by paying close attention, looking for the signs of resurrection and the risen Christ in our midst. It takes seven weeks for us, in worship, to consider the many ways the risen Christ is seen among us.

It’s been a journey from Easter to Pentecost, a pilgrimage of faith that prepares us to receive anew the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit.  In this time between the empty tomb and the tongues of fire, we accept God’s gift of Jesus’ resurrection and take time to consider what it means for us.

The first Sunday of Easter began with a sunrise service, followed by a meal together, and then the great, joyous worship service of Easter Day.

The next week, Emmaus Sunday, we remembered that the disciples first recognized the risen Christ, “in the breaking of the bread.”  We broke bread together with the third grade children, who participated in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for the first time that day.

On the third Sunday of Easter, we rejoiced in the Christian hope of a New Creation, as we participated in acts of earth care by planting a tree in remembrance of the late Dr. Wangari Maathai, the remarkable Kenyan woman who became a Nobel Laureate for her work that began by planting trees.

The next week, we celebrated God’s gift of cultural diversity and saw Christian faith transform the sadness of a Jamaican folksong into a vision for a future in which all would be fed at God’s table, in the hymn, “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ.”

The following week, we celebrated communion with the youth of this congregation, as we considered how the risen Christ is active in their lives.  We rejoiced that, as Peter proclaimed in his first Pentecost sermon, “the promise is for you and for your children, and for all those who are far away.” (Acts 2:39)

On the next Sunday, we broke into small groups during the sermon to discuss how new social media may further Christ’s reconciling work in this world.  If Jesus were on Twitter, would you follow him?

Last week, the seventh Sunday of Easter, we began to prepare for the 300th anniversary of this church, as we brought forward the eight confessional banners that hang on our walls and learned that each one represents a statement of the church at a distinct point in history.  We saw the majesty of Christ’s church through time, as Christians sought to be faithful to their Lord in particular places and at particular times. [1]

And now, after glimpsing the risen Christ at work in our midst during the past seven weeks, we come to Pentecost, when we remember and celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, and hope to receive this gift anew, praying, as we did earlier, “Send your Holy Spirit!”

As one commentary notes: “Every year, on the Day of Pentecost, we are reminded of who we are as a church, what we proclaim, and the source of that proclamation.  It is a message to the church from the church, passed down through millennia to each generation…. Pentecost sums up the gospel with simplicity and audacity:  Jesus Christ offers salvation to all, and the church exists to proclaim it.” [2]

But these are troubling times for the church we know.  Diana Butler Bass, in a new book, notes the steady decline of all churches in the past forty years.  And yet, she has found that, “there exists an unnoticed spiritual vibrancy in some mainline congregations, based around a serious engagement with faith practices such as prayer, hospitality, and enacting justice.”[3]

Which brings me, finally, to the heart of my message.

The Holy Spirit did not fall upon the community gathered in Jerusalem as a surprise out of nowhere with no preparation or warning.  They had created a sacred space within their community, invoking and welcoming the Holy Spirit. The community had gathered, in obedience to Jesus’ command to await a baptism by the Holy Spirit.  They were gathered in expectant hope, but also in fervent prayer and living according to all that Jesus had taught them.  The seven weeks before Pentecost had been a period of spiritual preparation for the community. And the Holy Spirit did not descend on one, or just a few.  It filled them all, gathered in community, and empowered them for mission, “in Jerusalem… and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

When we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit,” at Pentecost, do we know what we are asking?  It strikes me that this might be a very dangerous prayer, not to be offered without considering how we are expected to live that prayer.

Simone Weil, the early twentieth century activist and mystic, wrote: “…desire directed toward God is the only power capable of raising the soul.  Or rather, it is God alone who comes down and possesses the soul, but desire alone draws God down.  He only comes to those who ask him to come; and he cannot refuse to come to those who implore him long, often, and ardently.”[4]

But how does the Holy Spirit both shape and answer our prayer? How does the Holy Spirit come?  The British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote of a transitional space, when describing how an infant develops within the safe holding environment of parental love.  He expanded this concept to describe the space of play, the space of cultural activity, the place where we all live.  His theory of this paradoxical transitional space can be used to understand how we grow spiritually within the larger context of God’s embracing love for us.[5]

I have to be honest as I stand here proclaiming good news.  As I was preparing this sermon, I was filled with inner turmoil.  I’ve had a rough couple of weeks.  With too much going on in my life, I have felt tattered and shattered, puddled and muddled, and overwhelmed. At times like these, my own shortcomings seem huge, and my whole life seems like a series of mistakes compounded by flaws.  To top it off, I have a histrionic streak that pops up when I’m frazzled, making me prone to think a paper cut signals the end of the world. I wear my heart on my sleeve, so when I’m having a bad day, everyone knows it; and I wonder what kind of minister could I possibly be when I can’t even pretend that everything is OK when it isn’t– if only for the benefit of those around me!  And that isn’t the worst of it– when I am feeling edgy like this, I tend to see the all the things I dislike most about myself in everyone around me, and then I become angry with them.  We all have our idiosyncrasies; these are mine, and only you and God know yours.

Well, that’s the truth.  But it isn’t the whole truth, because I know from years of spiritual training and practice that this is not what God sees.  And if I step back, pause a moment, take a deep breath, I can stop this ugly pattern.  Then I consider what God sees, and miraculously, a tiny gap develops between my inner mental picture of myself (and others), and the picture that God shows me in Christ: beloved by God and equipped and empowered to love and serve God in the world.  This gap, this tiny little space in my thinking, is the “space for grace.” Only when I relax my steel-tight grip on all the negativity, can God’s Holy Spirit enter into my mind and heart and transform me.

It’s easier for me to forgive others than myself, but it can be a challenge, too.  It’s hardest when the other person mirrors something in me that I don’t want to see.  It takes God’s grace, and my willingness to admit that I might not have the whole picture.  Then, that little gap begins to open.  In that miniscule space, a crack widens between my certainty, and God’s immeasurable, ineffable, mysterious compassion and goodness.  In that gap, I am reminded that the other is also beloved by God and integrally important to the beloved community that God seeks to create among all humanity.  That is the space for grace.  When we learn to relax into God’s great love for us, we can let go of our certainty and the space for grace opens.

The poet Mary Oliver has said:  “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention.”[6] Paying attention to the signs of resurrection, the signs of God’s activity in the world, is a spiritual practice that will help us enter into this space for grace.  For in paying attention, we relax our grip on our own inner reality and convictions, and are open to what the Spirit may show us.

All Christian practices aim at opening and holding open this space for grace, this space we all hold open for one another in community.  It is the space of hospitality, of listening, of generosity of spirit, of forbearance and forgiveness.  It is the space of courage.  Whether our own preferred spiritual practice is the inner work of prayer and contemplation, or the outer work of peace and justice, the outcome is the same: it opens within us and within our community a space for grace.  We hold open space for one another to be safe, to be loved, to be known and to be valued.  Together, we hold open space for the Holy Spirit, praying, “Come, Holy Spirit.

Everyone here today has a role in God’s reign, which is always both coming and already here.  Our role is to hold hope in our hearts, letting go of all that may keep us at odds with one another, and together hold open a space for grace, that sacred space for God’s Holy Spirit to enter.  Each of us, right now, is responsible for holding open this space for the Holy Spirit to enter, to renew, to enliven, and to do a new thing.  It’s hard work and requires courage and determination to be that community together holding open that space for grace.  But when we pray, Come, Holy Spirit, holding open for each other this space for grace, God empowers us to be the church, commissioned to witness to the risen Christ, to the ends of the earth.

May this Pentecost show us what it means to be a community gathered in love, centered in Christ and empowered for mission!  Amen.

[1] Counting the seven weeks of Easter reminds me of the ancient Jewish practice of “counting the omer,” counting the days from Passover to the Festival of Weeks, or First Fruits.  (See Psalm 90:12) In later rabbinic tradition, remembrance of the giving of the Torah at Sinai was added to the Festival of Weeks, but it is thought that it did not have this association at the time of this first Pentecost following Jesus’ crucifixion.

[2] Kristin Emery Saldine, in Feasting on the Word, CD-ROM, Year B, vol. 3, pp. 4, 6. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011)

[3] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), p. 15.

[4] Simon Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Crauford (New York: Capricorn, 1951), pp. 110-111.

[5] For insight into Winnicott’s theories and their relevance to spiritual life, see Ann Belford Ulanov, Finding Space: Winnicott, God and Psychic Reality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005).

[6] From her poem, “The Summer Day.”

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