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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Smack-dab in the presence of the Living God

“I still have many things to say to you,
but you cannot bear them now.”

The Day of Pentecost – May 31, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

When I was vicar of St. Barnabas Church in Newark, the organist there once sighed very deeply and said, “You know, Pentecost is the only time I miss my Baptist roots.”

“Why?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

“Because all of the hymns in the hymnal are . . . well, they’re beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but they're all so . . . I don’t know . . . so ‘tame’.

I had to take out my hymnal and thumb through the section on “The Holy Spirit” before I could respond. And, you know what? She’s right. ‘Tame’ is a good word.

Okay, so we processed in on “Hail thee festival day,” which is about as upbeat as a good Anglican hymn gets about practically any topic, but, there’s something about it that makes me feel as if I’m rather in a high school marching band.

Our hymnal contains music that is either a marching-triumphal hymn or the always lovely, “Come Down O Love, Divine.” Or, one of my very favorites, “Like the murmur of the dove’s song.” The one we’ll process out to is also lovely, “Holy Spirit ever dwelling.”

Lovely. All simply lovely, indeed.

Now, compare the words – or, especially the music – of those hymns with the events described in the book of Acts. Errrummm . . . let’s see: “When the day of Pentecost had come. . . suddenly from heaven, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly hear the ‘murmur of the dove’s song’ anywhere in that – do you? But, let me continue:

“Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” Well, there it is, then. Maybe that ‘s what the second verse of Hymn 511 means wherein we sing that the Holy Spirit is ‘quickening, strengthening and absolving, setting captive sinners free.”

How does that old saying go? Ah yes, “Close, but no cigars.”

So, what should one say, what should one do, when one finds oneself smack-dab in the presence of the Spirit of the living God? And, what music would be playing in the background? I mean, if you were the Director on the set, producing this made-for-TV movie event, what music would you choose as the soundtrack?

I’m thinking it might not be something out of the 1982 Hymnal.

I do believe, for the past 35 – 40 years, this church of ours has been standing smack-dab in the presence of the Spirit of the living God. Actually, it began earlier than that, when we, as first, individual clergy and laity and then, as an institutional church began to be involved with the Civil Rights Movement.

Episcopal Priests? In protest demonstrations? Marching in the streets? Jailed for civil disobedience? Whoever heard of such a thing? Why, we are the church of the Presidents! Our private schools and churches and prayers and music have shaped and formed some of the best minds and styles of leadership in this nation! We don’t get involved in protesting the government – we are the government!

Well, you might have noticed: TEC has been though a bit of a change over the past 35 – 40 years or so. This is a newspaper from the Religious section of The Washington Post. It is dated Friday, February 25,1977 – the year I was received into The Episcopal Church.

This newspaper clipping is emblematic of the reason. Look at the headlines: Catholic Theologian Hans Kung says ‘Christianity Obscures Christ’ – and to prove it, here’s another headline:

‘Catholic Bishops to Study Change in Communion’. Through exhaustive scholarly study, they were trying to decide if it was ‘permissible’ to receive wafers of Holy Communion in the hand. (I’m not making this up!)

Here’s another: ‘Evangelical Christians Claim Vast Growth in Numbers, Income’ – but then again, aren’t they always claiming that?

Right under that is this headline: ‘Nude Therapy Sessions Put Minister on Leave of Absence’. No, it was not an Episcopalian. Methodist, in fact. Hey, it was the 70s.

The Episcopalians made this headline: ‘1st Negro Woman Priest Holds Service in N.C.’

The article claimed that she had ‘officiated at a worship and communion service earlier this month in the church here where her grandmother was baptized as a slave in 1854.

Well, I thought, THAT’s the church for me. That’s the church where God is clearly doing something – where the grand daughter of a slave who was baptized in that church can become a priest and preside at that altar.

At that time, TEC was clearly in a mess – people threatening to leave, people withholding their money, people having angry conversations in the parking lot – (hmm. . . does any of that strike a familiar note?) which was precisely how I knew that the Spirit of the presence of the Living God has been in that place. And, I wanted to be there, too.

You know, some of YOU are standing in the Spirit of the Living God but you just don’t know it.

You think your lives are a mess – some of you think you are on the path to failure, doomed to abysmal destruction. Some of you are grieving losses – or anticipating losses. Some of you are feeling deep shame. Others are anxious and scared.

I’m remembering a story I once heard about the great psychologist, Carl Jung. It is said that two patients came into his office, one after the other. The first was a man who burst into the waiting room, beaming with happiness.

When Dr. Jung came out of his office, the man said, “Oh, Dr. Jung, it’s wonderful! Life is wonderful! I have a new job, we just bought a new home, and my wife has announced that she’s pregnant with our first child. Isn’t it all wonderful?”

“Yes, yes,” said Dr. Jung, “Come in. Come in. We shall talk about this.”

As he was leaving Dr. Jung’s office, another man was coming into the waiting room. He was clearly distraught and, in fact, looked as disheveled as if he had just walked through a hurricane.

“Oh, Dr. Jung,” he said, “it couldn’t get much worse. I just lost my job, my wife is going to leave me, and I’ll probably lose my house as well.”

Dr. Jung perked up and slapped the man on the back and said, “Wonderful, wonderful! Come in. Come in. We will open a bottle of champagne and celebrate.”

The man looked perplexed and asked, “What do you mean, Dr. Jung?” “Ah,” said Dr. Jung, “all this means is that God is about to do something wonderful to your soul.”

If you’ve been brought up thinking that the sound of the presence of the Spirit of the Living God sounds like music in The Episcopal Church, you might be as distraught as Dr. Jung’s patient; but I can tell you from personal experience that when the Holy Spirit moves through your life, it is like a violent rush of wind. It can get as hot as a Holy Flame, burning through your body, from the top of your skull to the bottoms of your feet.

Whenever an angel of the Lord appears to someone in Holy Scripture, the first words spoken are, “Be not afraid.” There’s good reason for that. It is a fearsome thing, indeed, to stand smack-dab in the middle of God’s presence.

In those moments, when you think your life is in shambles and it must mean that you are going to hell in a hand basket, instead of falling into despair, I encourage you to consider, instead, the story of Pentecost. Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it.

I want you to read the 15th chapter of John and hear these words of Jesus: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” And then, quiet your self, still your heart and open the ear of your soul to listen for the sound of the Holy Spirit.

It probably won’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard before – especially not anything like church music – but in it, you will begin to be able to bear the words Jesus is trying to whisper in your ear.

Remember, the Holy Spirit was His first gift to us – the gift of His resurrection.

But, know this: if you listen to Jesus, your life will be changed and transformed and never again be the same.

Because, perhaps the only sound to be heard when you are smack-dab in the presence of the Spirit of the Living God is not music, but rather, the thundering, wild sound of the beating of your own heart – which is the Holy Spirit, stirring within.



Fr Craig said...

c'mon - you can't do much better than 503!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, I'll give you the beauty of 503 - for an ordination. Indeed, most of the hymns in our hymnal about the Holy Spirit are beautiful. Even so, not one of them - in words or music -begin to square with the account we read it the Book of Acts.

Elaine C. said...

Have you read the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray's retelling in her autobiography of preaching and presiding in the Chapel of the cross -- and you realize -- of course, in addition to being the granddaughter of a slave, she was a member of the rainbow family as well -- though she used terms like polka-dotted to indicate that dimension of self ... see _Song in a Weary Throat_ by Pauli Murray for the story, and the archival newspaper articles about it -- for her self-descriptions. And Charles Kuralt produced an "On the Road" segment on her & that day!

We sang "Siyahamb' ekukhanyen' kwenkhos'" we are marching in the light of God -- for an offertory today -- and rocked out a bit -- at least for Episcopalians.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I am a HUGE fan of Pauli Murray - having read all of her books and her poetry.

Thanks for remembering her here.