From the Rector

May 13, 2002

A Not Very Impressive Sermon

Filed under: Father Matt's Writings,Sermons — admin @ 12:07 pm

Matthew preached this sermon in May, 2002 at the very impressive St. Michael’s Church in Grosse Pointe Woods.

Pentecost, 2002

Preacher: The Rev. Matthew Lawrence, Chaplain, the Episcopal Center at the University of Michigan

Well, today is Pentecost. I see a lot of people wearing red today — thank you, and you look wonderful… if only I didn’t feel like I was at pep rally for the University of Wisconsin!

Have you ever had a Pentecost experience?

some kind of encounter with the Holy Spirit? Sometimes they can be small experiences — the Spirit seems to brush past us and we catch a breath, a beat of her wings; or sometimes they can be huge, life-changing experiences: tongues of fire, devastating conversion moments.

the day when the Holy Spirit descended
a crashing sound like the rush of a violent wind
tongues of fire appeared among the disciples
and somehow transformed these imperfect and some might say not too bright average joes into the founders of a global movement that would change world history

the day when a spiritual force the likes of which the world had never seen before would make its presence known
and the world would never be the same
we call this the birthday of the church

This is a very impressive event that we’re trying to celebrate here
I wanted to do it justice
So on Friday morning I left my office
because I can’t get any real work done in my office
and went to my favorite coffee shop to work on this sermon

Got a seat next to the window on State Street
busy pedestrian thoroughfare near central campus

And if you want to know the truth: I wanted to come up with a really impressive sermon for you
not just to do justice to this impressive event
but because I knew I was coming to Grosse Pointe Woods

Now, I don’t know really know Grosse Pointe Woods from Grosse Pointe Shores or Grosse Pointe Farms;
all I know is the Grosse and the Pointe both have e’s on the end
and that’s very intimidating for a guy that grew up in Minnesota

So I went to this coffee shop and brought with me some very impressive books
including a source on the early Christian theologians
because I wanted to look up what St. Augustine and Iraneus had to say about the Holy Spirit
I was hoping to find a bunch of very impressive quotes for you

so I sat down with my overpriced cup of coffee and started reading St. Augustine and this is what I read:

Scripture does indeed say: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 16); and so has left us to ask whether it is God the Father, or God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit, or God theTrinity itself, who is love. Now it is no use to say that love is called “God” because it is a gift of God and that therefore it is not a substantive reality worthy to be named God.

Okay, now I mean no disrespect to St. Augustine
he was one of the most important theologians who ever lived
but even though I had a very strong cup of coffee with me I actually started nodding off before I finished that last sentence.

Has anyone here ever wondered how it’s possible that we can talk about something so life giving, so utterly powerful and transformative as Holy Spirit, and manage to completely bore ourselves to tears at the same time?

Sometimes I’m reading the Bible at my desk
and, again, I mean no disrespect to the Bible — it is our sacred text and Holy Scripture and I know it changes lives because it has changed mine
but nonetheless I’ll be reading the Bible, some of the most thrilling words ever to be set down on paper, and I’ll actually bruise my forehead as it hits the desk

While I’m being honest I might as well also tell you that I was feeling pretty depressed last Friday which didn’t help much
a friend of mine died earlier this week
and my mom is sick in a nursing home
other things too boring to mention have been going on that have me a little depressed
and I found myself staring at this text from St. Augustine and thinking,

Who am I to be preaching about the Holy Spirit?

Who am I kidding? What do I know about the Holy Spirit? I’m depressed! If I really knew something about the Holy Spirit I wouldn’t be feeling so depressed, would I?

I gave up on Augustine and I turned to the ancient theologian Irenaeus and he says, “the Holy Spirit makes our old natures new with the newness of Christ”
well heck I was thinking, I certainly don’t feel made new right now
In fact I feel pretty darned old and lousy

So now I was starting to feel pretty anxious because I’ve got to write this impressive sermon and get up in front of a bunch of impressive people and talk about this Holy Spirit as if I knew something… but what do I know?
So I girded my loins and drank more coffee and dug my nose further into the books,
I read all about the ancient Jewish festival of Pentecost
in fact I spent about an hour reading about this and trying to stay awake and then at the very last paragraph the writer told me that there’s no relationship whatsoever between the meaning of the Jewish festival of Pentecost and the Christian Pentecost!
Well thanks a lot!

and then I read about the early church in Jerusalem
and about St. Paul’s ideas about the Holy Spirit
and the more I read the more depressed and anxious I got

All these stories about this powerful force that came into the lives of the disciples turning them into fire-breathing apostles ready to die for Christ
I couldn’t help but wonder: where is that Pentecost spirit now?
If the Holy Spirit is so big and wonderful why does the Episcopal church seem to be dying off?
As a proportion of the US population, we’ve lost 44% of our members over the past 30 years!
Why are so many of our congregations struggling to survive, and unable to afford a full time priest, and failing to attract young people?
If the Holy Spirit is supposed to be this force of growth in the church then why are we Episcopalians shrinking instead of growing?
Are we supposed to become Pentecostal churches?
Because while the Episcopal Church has shrunk by 44%, the Assemblies of God church has grown by 211% over the same time period
(John Ashcroft’s church)
Pentecostalism is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world today
I suppose on a day like today when we’re celebrating Pentecost we should be happy about that

And again, I mean no disrespect to the Pentecostal churches but I’m wondering, do we all have to be speaking in tongues and preaching hellfire and worshipping in gymnasiums and fainting in the aisles now in order to have a church that will grow?

I mean I’m all in favor of trying new things in the Episcopal Church but do we have to go that far?

Then I started thinking about my own life and really got depressed:
maybe it’s all a big fraud, I thought.

I mean, if the Holy Spirit is so powerful why did my wonderful Godly friend die last week at the age of 45?
…why is my Mom, for whom I’ve been praying for twenty years, slowly dying of Multiple Sclerosis?
…and why am I so depressed?

Anyone ever have that experience?
you come to church and hear all this confident talk about how Great Thou Art
and from where you’re sitting down in the dumps you just can’t help thinking it just sounds like a bunch of hooie?

So I was sweating it out there in the coffee shop, getting more and more anxious, and pouring through these books and thinking maybe I should get out of his line of work altogether, go back to being a managment consultant or something
and a little voice inside just said, “Stop.”
“Just stop.”
Fine, I said. I gave up. I closed my book, put my pen down, put my feet up and just sat there looking out the window.
I started watching this parade of crazy Ann Arbor characters walk by:
an old man went by, with a beard and a blue french beret and a red velvet smoking jacket — sort of like Santa Claus dressed for Spring
I found myself staring as he went by and he looked back at me and gave me a little nod
Then this blind guy walked by; he was Asian and his hair was down below his shoulders and he was smiling and laughing and talking to his seeing eye dog like they were best friends which I suppose they were
Then this very impressive woman walked by — she looked like she just had stepped off the pages of the New Yorker with an expensive coat and color coordinated Saks 5th Ave camel hair sweater and slacks set and matching accessories and she looked very serious
and the parade continued, one very interesting person after another
a 300 pound black man wearing a neon orange shirt and spandex bicycle shorts
three impossibly thin blond girls showing off their belly buttons wearing skin-tight sweat pants and looking very cold and grim
one interesting person after another
a friend walked by and saw me and smiled and waved hello
and as I watched this incredible diversity of people go by I was struck by the fact that they were all so different,
….and yet they were all breathing the same air

This struck me as incredibly intimate. All these different people,
homeless and rich, eccentric and conventional, wise and foolish, black and white and asian and latino, sighted and blind, stoned and sober
all breathing the same air
and despite all my complaints and anxiety and blues
I felt a great love for them rise up in my chest

I was reminded of this story in Acts
how Luke, the author of Acts, goes out of his way to describe the amazing diversity of people who were there on that day of Pentecost
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia…
he goes on and on like that
people from Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya and visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs, Jews and Proselytes
and yet through the power of the Holy Spirit their diversity no longer divided them
they all spoke different languages but all of them were united in the Holy Spirit,
they were all breathing the same air of the Holy Spirit
they were all able to understand one another and hear the story of God’s work in Christ

Sitting there in that coffee shop I realized:
It’s not rocket science
it’s not complicated
you don’t need a PhD to understand this
you don’t need to be a St. Augustine or an Iraneaus to get it

It’s this simple:
if God can love all of these people, as different as they are
then God can love me to

Desmond Tutu is a very simple man
he likes to say when he gets up to preach that he only has one sermon
so if you’ve heard him preach before you can go because you won’t hear anything new.
This is his sermon: “God loves you.”

Physically, he is not very impressive
but he has eaten with kings and presidents and princes
he has received the Nobel Peace Prize
he is a best selling author
one of the most highly honored and most sought-after speakers in the world
but he has only one thing to say
God loves you:
this love has been given to him as a gift from the Holy Spirit

But you might ask, what about all those things that were getting me depressed on Friday?
Am I saying that if you are depressed that your depression can be cured by sitting in a coffee shop in Ann Arbor?
of course not.
But on the other hand, it’s not a bad idea every day to stop what you are doing
let go of all your efforts to be impressive
get off the treadmill for a moment
just stop
and look around you
and breathe
— breathe in the spirit
open yourself to the peaceful quiet presence of God all around you

which is why at Canterbury House we begin every worship service with silence
and with an invocation: come, holy spirit

And am I saying that the whole story of Pentecost can be reduced to some kind of trite, politcally-correct proclamation that God loves diversity?
of course not
but on the other hand, it is true that we wouldn’t be here right now celebrating Pentecost — we wouldn’t even be Christians — if it weren’t for the fact that God in her wisdom sent the Holy Spirit into the midst of what was at the time the most diverse and cosmopolitan collection of people the world had ever seen

people who up to that point were convinced that the heavens were filled with a multiplicity of gods;

every ethnic group had their god
every city had their god
every family had a household god

and so when they encountered this God that broke through every language and every cultural difference

a God proclaimed by Moses: “Hear o israel, the lord our God is One”

they discovered this most powerful truth, which makes it possible for us to declare that despite all our differences, despite everything that divides us, we are united, pagans and believers, slaves and free, jews and gentiles, by this one God
then finally a new kind of love is realized
and finally, the dream – that we might all live together in peace, as brothers and sisters in God — can be dreamed, and perhaps one day, realized

which is why at Canterbury House we have readings not only from the Bible, but from other parts of the world, and other religions,
and that is why we have music that comes from all over the world —
Africa, France, Brazil, England, Black america, Scotland

so that we might learn from the ways in which God lives and moves and has his being in diversity

And finally, am I saying that if we Episcopalians are going to really open ourselves to the presence of the Holy Spirit we have to give up all the things we love about the Epsicopal Church — our beloved hymns, our wonderful organ, our blessed prayer book — and start pretending we’re a Pentecostal church?

of course not
but on the other hand, if we’re wishing we could grow as a church
we might have to admit that maybe those pentecostals are on to something
and maybe we have something to learn from them.

That’s all I have to say today about Pentecost. Sorry, not too impressive. But maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Somebody say


The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Chaplain, Canterbury House
Director, Institute for Public Theology

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