Sunday, May 28, 2023

Sermon: "Follow the Thread", Acts 2:1-8/Romans 8:26-30, 38-39 (May 28, 2023)

Today is Pentecost. It’s the day that we mainline Protestants finally remember that the Trinity is more than just the Father and the Son, that there’s another divine person who often gets forgotten in our sacred storytelling. So the pastors all unpack their trusty metaphors for the Holy Spirit and the props that help drive their descriptions home: pinwheels, bubbles, red streamers, candles; basically anything that can be used to represent wind or fire.

Now, this is a perfectly reasonable instinct, given that we ALWAYS read Acts 2 on Pentecost, and these two metaphors for the Holy Spirit are front and center in this passage. But Scripture contains a myriad of descriptions for the Holy Spirit, in both the First and New Testaments: comforter, counselor, advocate, guide, helper, and on and on. While the Holy Spirit IS certainly as unpredictable, wild, and unrestrained as wind and fire so often are, maybe limiting ourselves to those two metaphors is keeping us from being able to understand all that the Holy Spirit is and does. After all, fire and wind tend to be destructive forces, and while there’s a time and a place for destroying the old to make room for the new, destruction is not generally something that human beings need any help with. What we DO need is help moving towards the connection and renewal that characterizes the heavenly kindom that we long for.

When Pentecost Day arrived, the people were all together in one place – together, but not TOGETHER; not united. In a section of scripture that I cut from the reading in order to prevent the liturgist from panicking, we learn that there were people from all nations gathered there that day: Parthians and Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, and Cappadocians, even Egyptians and Romans. Some were born Jewish, and some were converts. They were gathered to celebrate the Jewish festival of Shavuot, but that was pretty much the only thing that they had in common. Their cultures were different, their appearances were different, and their languages were different.

Then along came this force, this Holy Spirit, with the strength of a mighty wind and the mischievousness of fire. But it didn’t behave as you might expect wind or fire to behave – it didn’t knock anything down or catch anything on fire. This force wasn’t destructive; it was CONstructive. It set to work binding the individuals gathered together into a community. Like a thread in the hands of a skilled seamstress, it deftly wove back and forth among the disciples, touching each of them in turn and allowing those in the room to hear them speaking in other languages, until every single person gathered in that space was drawn to them.

Although the vivid descriptions of wind and fire in this passage appeal to our senses, they don’t do much to help us understand what the Holy Spirit is actually doing here. Thread, on the other hand, seems to be a much more apt metaphor. Thread is a means of connection and restoration – it joins flat pieces of cloth together to create clothing, it mends tears, it gives new life to old garments. Sometimes it works behind the scenes; other times it’s impossible to miss. It’s nimble and versatile. And often, people completely overlook how important it is. Sound familiar?

In the course of its thread-like work of connection and restoration, the Holy Spirit inevitably runs into obstacles – like, for example, a language barrier. And in this respect, too, the Holy Spirit is more like thread than either wind or fire. Neither wind nor fire is especially nuanced in how they deal with things standing in their way. But thread is agile and adaptive. It can work around obstructions without batting the eye of a needle.

Humanity’s first instinct when encountering an obstacle is to get rid of it, but thread – and the Holy Spirit – work differently. The first time I used a sewing machine, I assumed that I’d have to remove the pins temporarily holding my project together as I sewed. I figured that they were an obstruction that would either break the needle or get all tangled up with the thread – but apparently, the thread didn’t share my concern. Instead, as I fed the project through the machine and the needle came to the pin, the thread neatly wove itself over and under it, keeping at its task as if the pin weren’t even there. The thread managed to do its job in spite of the pins in its way. The Holy Spirit doesn’t require a “clean slate” to create a connection, either. Instead of pulling the pins out, she just goes right on binding us together.

If humans had been in charge of the Pentecost story, the disciples might have told the crowd that they should learn to speak Aramaic if they want to hear about Jesus. They would have seen the crowd’s foreignness as a pin that needed to be removed in service to the gospel. But instead of changing the crowd to “fit in” with the disciples, the Holy Spirit just sewed right around those pins that were in the way. Although the disciples probably still only knew and spoke Aramaic, the Holy Spirit gave everyone in that room the gift of understanding one another. She honored the complexity of what makes us human by creating unity without requiring uniformity. Everyone still spoke their own language. Nobody had to change who they were. They just had to follow the thread and trust that the Holy Spirit would figure something out.

But creating community among human beings is small potatoes to the Spirit. She’s an accomplished tailor who’s even able to sew together two pieces of fabric with completely different natures. Romans 8 describes how she works to keep humanity connected to God in spite of our sin, in spite of our impatience, in spite of our ignorance and our weaknesses. It would be easy for our relationship with God to unravel if it were left up to us alone. But the Holy Spirit is always at work, taking our humanness and making sure that it remains woven tightly together with God’s divinity.

When words fail us once again in our efforts to connect with God, the Holy Spirit stitches around them, “interceding with sighs too deep for words”. She’s the reason we don’t need to change who we are to remain reconciled to God forever. She’s the reason that we don’t need to understand everything in order to be understood. She’s the reason that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights nor depths, nor anything in all creation can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.” The Holy Spirit keeps us stitched together with God no matter what.

When we honor the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we aren’t just celebrating a party trick that God helped the disciples to perform two millennia ago. We aren’t just celebrating the Church’s birthday or its (theoretical) diversity, either. We’re celebrating the way that the Holy Spirit weaves us together with each other and with God in a complicated and beautiful tapestry, in spite of ourselves and all obstacles that stand in the way. We’re celebrating the divine mending of a holy community, the one that God desired for humanity from the beginning. We’re celebrating the very first stitches of what will eventually become the Kindom of Heaven.

This is God’s purpose, the good that Paul assures us God works all things together for. And indeed, as Christ’s Church, we have been chosen ahead of time, “predestined”, as the NRSV puts it, but not to be the sole beneficiaries of these holy connections. No, we’ve been called as co-workers, as assistant seamstresses to the Holy Spirit’s work, through whom ALL of humanity will become interwoven with one another and reconciled with God, until all things on heaven and on earth have been sewn together in a quilted kindom of love.

We may not know the details of the pattern, but the Holy Spirit does. So, our job is to follow where the thread goes, to see what God is stitching together, and to reinforce the Holy Spirit’s connectional work. Others may question the wisdom of her work, but there’s no reason for the members of Christ’s Church to be responsible for ripping out any of these holy seams. In places where someone is feeling loved and accepted for the first time, we cannot impose conditions on their belonging. In places where genuine dialogue and cooperative compromise are happening, we cannot interject ourselves to obstinately demand our way. In places where entire groups of people are being denied the rights that all human beings share, we cannot let them be “othered”. We cannot fight against what the Holy Spirit is doing. Our calling is to follow the thread and trust its path – a path made up of healthy relationships, collective well-being, and boundless love.

God calls us into relationship with one another and with Godself; Christ shows us how to live a connectional life; the Holy Spirit stitches these ties into being. For this year, at least, that’s the message of Pentecost. So go out into the world and live as if you were connected to every single person you meet by a divine thread – because you are. Watch for every opportunity to make these connections stronger, and pay attention to where the Holy Spirit might be leading you next. Follow the thread, wherever it leads, and you will find yourself one stitch closer to God’s kindom. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this week’s message.