Finding the Holy Spirit in worship (of all places!)

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, March 25, 2012 the Fifth Sunday of Lent. If you are in town, please join us @ 10:30 am.

There is an intimate connection between God’s Holy Spirit and authentic human freedom – and most of the time this scares us to death. I’m not kidding – it terrifies and bewilders most of us – because we cannot control the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes she comes to us like a lover with a gentle and tantalizing promise of renewal.  Sometimes she comes like an explosion of dynamite or tongues of fire that shock us out of our doldrums and clearly set before us the ways of life and death. 

And sometimes she comes as that still small voice that invites us to let God heal and transform and lead our lives from the inside out:

Listen carefully Jesus said: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal.

As I hope you have discerned by now, today we’re going to talk about God’s Holy Spirit – or the Spirit of holiness in our lives – and what she might mean for 21st century people of faith.  Over the years, it has become clear to me that most people who come into our tradition don’t know a great deal about the Spirit even though the Spirit has come to them from time to time with blessings and warnings.  For most of us, there seems to be a great deal of ambiguity – and outright fear – at work when it comes to the Holy Spirit.  Theologian, Roger Shinn, has noted that:

In a managerial-minded society, where we have invented new disciplines of crisis management and risk management, it has become uncomfortable for many of us to experience a Holy Spirit we cannot control… after all, our American society, especially in its so-called ‘respectable’ forms, tends to distrust emotional freedom – especially in religion.  And sadly that often creates a condition where we are so emotionally inhibited that we deprive ourselves of authentic human experience and shut ourselves off to the Spirit of the Lord.  So much so that we have crowded religious emotion out of many of our churches and into sects and cults… that are now filled with our young people who are starving to cultivate their inner and spiritual lives in freedom…

Do you know the old story about the little old Pentecostal woman who wanders into one of our Congregational churches in Boston?  It’s one of our tall steeple, blue-blooded churches – build in a big and impressive way by the captains of industry for God’s elite – and this little old soul wanders in just as the opening hymn begins.  Somehow, she eludes the head usher and heads for the center pew right up in the front of the Sanctuary.

And as the morning prayers begin, she carries on a dialogue with the liturgist saying:  Yes, yes Lord, help them… and bless them.  And when the next hymn begins she starts to clap her hands on the offbeat.  And when the preacher starts to read his sermon, she calls out, “Oh help him, Holy Spirit, help him.”

Well, that prompts the head usher to rush over to her side and whisper loudly, “Madame, WHAT in God’s name do you think you are doing?”  She looks up and says humbly, “Why I’m just getting me some religion, brother.”  To which he replies:  “Well, PLEASE, madam, PLEASE don’t do that here!”  There is a reason, my friends, why sometimes we have been known as God’s frozen chosen, right?

But if you know anything at all about God’s Spirit in the Bible you know that there is nothing frozen or stifling about the appearance of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Lord’s people:  the Spirit is wild and mysterious – powerful and gentle – liberating, inspirational and challenging all at the same time.  What’s more, Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit blows where she will – we are not her master – for the Spirit is like the wind:  we can feel it and know it is real and come to trust it, but we can never see or control it.

And that is because most of the time the Spirit of the Lord is sent to us to create community and strengthen the presence of God in our lives.  As we say in the United Church of Christ:  God bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ and binding together in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues and races.  

Did you get that?

·         The Spirit comes to us to create community – covenant – for faithful people.

·        And the Spirit comes to renew and transform each and all of us with the presence of Jesus Christ. 

I love the words of the prophet Jeremiah who said as much in today’s text:  Be ready – the time is coming – when by my Spirit I will make a brand-new covenant with God’s people. It won't be a repeat of the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took their hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt… it will be a new covenant… for by the Spirit I will put my law within them—write it on their hearts!—and be their God. And they will be my people…They will then know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow. And I'll wipe the slate clean for each of them… and forget that they ever sinned!

So here’s what I want to try to do this morning:  First, let’s do a quick survey of 6 Essential Holy Spirit stories in the Bible so that you get a USA Today overview of what the Spirit looks like and does in action.  And second, let’s also look at what we do in worship together to see how this, too, can be a place to receive and welcome the Spirit. 

+ Is that reasonably cleare?  Are you with me?

+ Two goals:  the Top Six Essential Holy Spirit stories in the Bible and the Seven places in worship you might encounter the Spirit.  

And let’s do it like they do on Letterman – counting backwards – so that we wind up with the Number One story about the Holy Spirit in the Bible.  The number six story in the Bible about the Holy Spirit comes from…

·     Ezekiel 37 and the valley of the dry bones (read parts of the text)

·     Notice that it was the Spirit that brought all things dead back to life and it was the Spirit – not the prophet – who created renewal and hope for God’s people.

How about the number five story of the Holy Spirit in the Bible? 

·     Isaiah 61 – the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring glad tidings to the poor… and release of all who are oppressed…

·    This is, of course, the text Jesus used to inaugurate his public ministry, too – and that brings us to the number four story of the Holy Spirit in the Bible:  Luke 4 (read the text)

Do you see the connections here – how Ezekiel and Isaiah speak and inform what Jesus does – all by the Spirit?  Ok, now here’s number three… St. Paul’s insight about the Spirit in I Corinthians 13 – the Holy Spirit empowers and impels us to love one another like Jesus – rather than wallow in selfishness.  He writes that all of us have been given gifts and blessings by the Holy Spirit – but the greatest of these is love

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn't want what it doesn't have. Love doesn't strut, Doesn't have a swelled head, Doesn't force itself on others, Isn't always "me first," Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of the sins of others, Doesn't revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always,

Always looks for the best, Never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

And now we’re ready for the number two – and number one – essential stories in the Bible about the Holy Spirit: 

·        Number wo is the opening chapter of St. John’s gospel:  In the beginning was the Word – and the Word was with God and the Word was God – and at just the right time by the Spirit of God the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of truth and grace

·    And number one – from the book of Genesis – the inspiration from which St. John drew his insights – is…:  In the beginning, there was God – nothing but God. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.  God spoke and gave us the word: "Light!" And light appeared. God saw that light was good and separated light from dark. God named the light Day, he named the dark Night. It was evening, it was morning—

Six biblical stories – fired off in popcorn fashion – about the presence and importance of the Holy Spirit: What did you hear in this collection of stories?  Any insights?  Or questions?

Now let me suggest to you that every Sunday morning when you come to worship there are at least 7 places that have been time-tested over the years to serve as “thin places” where if you are open enough to drop your defenses you could let this very same Holy Spirit speak to you.  And love you from the inside out. And transform you. 

And I’m talking about the very same Spirit that brought the dry bones to life – that inspired Christ’s ministry – and the creation of the world and a transforming love.  So here’s what the spiritual masters have suggested about where we might meet and experience the Holy Spirit in worship.

First in the opening words and music of worship – it is a centering time – a time to let go and start to rest.  The opening music is not intended to be background music for our conversations, right?  Rather it is to help us slow down and open our hearts so that maybe we hear Jesus say:  come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest…

Second is during the contemplative prayers that take place early in worship.  Do you know what I mean by contemplative? 

In the truest sense, contemplation asks us to take a long, loving look at what is real:  in our lives, in our world and in our relationship with Christ.  So we use words – and silence – and song to focus our attention. Most modern people have what the Buddhists call “monkey mind” – our thoughts jump all over the place faster than a New York second.  So, this part of worship gives us a short time to be still so that we can know God is god.

Third there is our time of seeing and touching and sharing in community.  We make a circle and hold hands – we practice being together – and seeing one another and the face of Christ among us.  And often we share prayers and joys and concerns – any ideas how this experience opens us to the Spirit?  How about love? Or compassion?  Or trust?

The fourth element of worship that creates a thin place where we can meet and hear the Spirit speaking to us personally and as a faith community is…. in the scriptures and my reflections.  Here we both connect to tradition and we use our minds to discern what God’s word is saying to us for this moment in time.

So far I’ve noted that we can be open to the Spirit in our centering music in the centering start of worship, the contemplative prayers, the community sharing as well as the reading and reflection on Scripture.   And there are three other “thin places” for those who are open…

Fifth is found in returning gifts in gratitude to support the mission and ministry of this community.  Sharing gets us outside of our comfort zone.  It invites us to return to God what began with God – the offering is actually an act of prayer and trust and commitment – that connects us to acts of love and compassion and justice all over the world.

Sixth is the charge to serve others in the world once you leave worship.  Sometimes at the close of worship there is a blessing – sometimes there is a homework assignment – but always worship ends with the words:  the Celebration has ended, let the Service begin!  Did you know that?

And the seventh place you might meet and be touched by the Holy Spirit is… in the fellowship or so-called coffee hour.  New friends and guest are often uncomfortable to come into the parlor because it takes a lot of courage to hang with people you don’t know.  And while we old-timers can always be better about welcoming and noticing and speaking with you, it is still challenging. But here’s what can happen if you try it – and it works: 

·       You can start to build relationships with people who are learning to love God just like you.

·       And you can make play dates for your children – or watch children and adults do the Irish jig like we did last week – or meet and talk with those who shared music during worship.

So, if you’ve never come over to the parlor after worship for some refreshments and conversation… maybe today is the day? How about this:  maybe an old-timer could INVITE one of our new friends to the party? How Christ-like and Spirit-filled is that?

Each of these moments in worship – centering music, contemplative prayer, sharing and touching in community, listening and reflecting on the scriptures, giving gifts to support the ministries, serving the wider community and coming to the table of love during fellowship hour – are time-tested ways to help you meet the Holy Spirit. There are tons of other ways, too – and I’m not suggesting that worship has a monopoly on God’s Holy Spirit.

I mean Jesus was clear: the Spirit always blows where she will – and is available to us beyond Sunday morning, too.  But never forget that she is also right here among us waiting to make us whole and holy – and this is something you can count on in an uncertain world.

Look: the human condition NEEDS the Spirit – the Spirit of comfort and healing – the Spirit of hope and renewal. The Apostle Paul understood 2000 years ago something we still need to grasp today:  we can’t live deeply in God’s love all by ourselves.  We need help. We need the Spirit.  That’s why he wrote:

The moment we get tired in our waiting, God's Spirit is right alongside helping us along.  And if we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter: She does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs and our aching groans. The Spirit knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our condition, and keeps us present before God always…

So here is the good news, beloved:  God’s Spirit NEVER gives up… she is always coming to set us free – and is always waiting to meet us just where we are - even in in worship! I pray that this truth brings you a sense of Christ's comfort so that you might be open her whenever and however she touches your heart.


Black Pete said…
{With very wide grin} Encountering the Holy Spirit {aka God} in worship--what a concept!
RJ said…
Who'da thunk it, yes?

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