Pentecost and Mother's Day - a new heart and a new spirit
Today is Pentecost Sunday. It is also Mother's Day. I've decided to try and bring both of these themes together in the one sermon. Three readings, then, to begin.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
...[it was] what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams...'
(Acts 2: 1-17 excerpts)
For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant...Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you...For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.
(Isaiah 42:14/44:1-3 excerpt)
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me "Mortal, can these bones live?"...Then he said to me "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord."
(Ezekiel 37:1-6 excerpt)
In these three texts, we have three different models of renewal. Three different ways of understanding the transformation of soul. In the first, the classic Pentecost text, we have something dramatic - the disciples are gathered together in prayer, and there's a rushing sound, and tongues of flame, and the Holy Spirit comes on the disciples and they begin to speak in strange tongues. This is the moment where the small, sad and frightened group of those who had followed Jesus is transformed into a group of apostles who speak publicly and boldly about the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection. They had witnessed Jesus being killed, and then experienced him as present and alive among them. Then he left them again, in the Ascension. How would they have understood his instruction to wait? What were they wondering and hoping and fearing as they gathered together day after day. They probably met quietly, in secret, concerned not to be identified as people who had been with Jesus, but unable or unwilling to give up on all that Jesus had meant to them and head back to their homes to get on with life as it had been. A strange time of limbo and uncertainty, I expect. And then the day of Pentecost came, and they experienced a rush of power and transformation, a sudden and dramatic presence of God in sound and flame. From then on - so the story goes - they formed the bold little church that birthed Christianity in the world. Peter, one of the apostles, immediately interprets this experience of the Spirit as a fulfilment of prophecy - the time looked forward to through all the prophets, when God would renew God's chosen people, by the activity of God's Spirit within and among them.
This event as it's told in the story from Acts, was communal, sudden, and immediately effective. It's the beginning of the spread of Jesus' teaching out from Jerusalem and the Jewish people to the Gentiles, and far off lands. It's unusual, in that it's marked by phenomena such as tongues of flame, and sudden ability to speak in other languages. It's instantly transforming, in that a group of people who had previously been so slow to grasp the meaning of Jesus among them, suddenly had the wit and courage to move into the public arena with their story about the dead Jesus who had risen and ascended. It's decisive, in that it marks a turning point, a conversion of heart and life for those who were already part of the group, and those who joined their number that day.
This Pentecost story is, for many of us, something of a grid by which we measure the activity and presence of God's Spirit in the world. Many of us have worshipped in contexts where this type of sudden and unusual sense of God's presence has been expected and welcomed. Those who have been part of Pentecostal churches will have been particularly formed by this expectation - it's in the name. When many Christians gather for prayer and worship, the underlying narrative is this story from Acts, with its unusual phenomena, its sudden decisive transformation, its public proclamation. Many of us have experienced worship events where this type of activity of God's Spirit is yearned for to the point of being manipulated, by means of music and other techniques of generating mass phenomena.
I'm not saying that God's Holy Spirit doesn't act decisively, unusually, and powerfully in the context of group worship. I'm not saying that our experiences of God's Spirit are always manipulated. But, what I'd like to do today is look at a couple of other models of God's Spirit at work - models that are slower, and more organic.
They are the earth mother model, and the creation breath model. The texts associated with these give me a sense of God's Spirit as midwife, mother and life-force - earthed in the processes of creation.
In the passage from Isaiah, God is depicted as a labouring woman, one who has been slowly gestating, waiting, hoping, watching the progress of her people, formulating a plan for their renewal - a plan that is now ready to come to birth in the return of the Israelites from exile. This is a plan that, while it is directed toward a group of people, is imaged in terms of the renewal of the earth - streams on the dry ground, water on thirsty land. It's reminiscent of the passage from Romans 8, where we read that the whole of creation groans in labour pains, waiting for the revealing of the children of God.
In the Isaiah prophecies, God speaks gently to her people, encouraging their return, reminding them that God has formed and carried them in the womb, and will not forget them any more than a nursing mother can forget her baby. The outpouring of the promised spirit is imaged by water, rather than fire: flowing, greening, healing dry and cracked places, refreshing wells, renewing dried up springs, quenching thirst. These are the waters of birth - God cries out in labour and the Spirit midwifes a new beginning for the people of Israel.
In the Ezekiel passage, the vision of the renewal of Israel is a vision of dry bones being made into living, breathing, human people. Again, it's a process - one where the bones are connected with sinews, wrapped in flesh, covered in skin, and finally, animated by breath. God's activity of renewal is like the process of gestating new life - it's organic, it happens in stages, and it's not complete without the spark of breath, which is the Spirit of God. In this passage, as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the word for spirit is interchangeable with the words for breath and wind. When God breathes life into Adam, formed from the dust of the ground, God is breathing God's Spirit into him - making him human, uniquely in the image of God. In Ezekiel's vision, God calls on a wind, which is also God's breath, which is also God's spirit, to bring life to the bodies formed from the dry bones. These restored people aren't zombies, or golems, they are God's children, because they have God's breath in them. Here God is the life force of creation, the energy of being, the presence of God in all that lives.
So, what are we to make of these models of God's transforming presence?
I think we can say that wherever God is at work, God's Spirit is an infusing power for change...whether this is sudden, dramatic change, or the long slow change of gestation and growth. God's breath sometimes blows gently in the womb, nurturing new ideas and new hopes into being, and giving them flesh so they can emerge into the world. And sometimes God's power comes like a rushing wind and flame. God's waters of renewal sometimes flow like a river or a flood, bringing sweeping change, amid devastation. Sometimes they are like a fresh spring, trickling out of a once dry rock.
In all cases, there is one direction that God wants to move us - from death to life, from drought to oasis, from fear to courage, from having hearts of stone to having hearts of flesh. This is always the work of God's Spirit, whether it happens suddenly or gradually. And it is the work of God's maternal love. God engages with us in whatever way we need, because God formed us in the womb, and knows us at a cellular level, and does not forget us. The work of God's Spirit as midwife does not stop at bringing us physically into this world. God's Spirit goes on 'midwifing' all our births...the birth of understanding, of faith, of pain, of love. God's Spirit continues to renew us, and transform us, and cause us to grow.
What in your life feels dead, dry, or broken?
What are the hard, closed parts of your heart...the places where you can no longer access compassion?
What fears or anxieties are burdening you?
What aspects of your life need mothering, nurturing, restoring?
Bring these things to God, inviting God's Spirit to breathe new life, to flow with living water and holy courage into the dead and fearful places in your own spirit.
To close, here's a little prayer by Michael Leunig:
God be with the mother. As she carried her child may she carry her soul. As her child was born, may she give birth and life and form to her own, higher truth. As she nourished and protected her child, may she nourish and protect her inner life and her independence. For her soul shall be her most painful birth, her most difficult child and the dearest sister to her other children. Amen
(Michael Leunig, 'When I talk to you')
I think this can be read in several ways - the obvious, as a prayer for the mother, who knows intimately the process of nurturing and giving birth to a physical life, and who must go through this process with her own inner life. Also, as a prayer for all of us, mothers or not, who need to learn to nurture our own souls, with the help of God. And, also, as a prayer for God herself, as the mother of this good earth, and of all the people in it. As God created this world, and birthed Israel as a people, and sent forth the child Jesus to live among us, so God births the Spirit into situations where she is needed, and fills the world with soul. As Julian of Norwich, whose saint's day was this Thursday past, says: 'And our Saviour is our true mother in whom we are eternally born and by whom we shall always be enclosed.' On this day of Pentecost, and Mother's Day, let us give thanks for the God who carried us, who gave birth to us, who gives breath to us, and who sends the Spirit - as a rushing wind or a gentle whisper - to renew our lives day by day.