Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Sunday, May 21, 2017 (6 Easter)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
When I was a student Chaplain, I would ask my patients first about their sickness; the reason they were in the hospital, and then turn to their family. Eventually though, I would need to ask about their faith. Something like "Where is God in all this?" For many people, that was a totally unexpected question. "God? What’s he got to do with it?" I might then ask "What do you think an encounter with God would be like?" And many would answer "I don’t know really… maybe there would be bright lights, angels singing, or something like that." This is a really revealing answer. For many people today, and maybe even for some of you, if God exists at all, God seems remote and distant. Perhaps God lives on some galaxy far far away and comes down to Earth occasionally to wag his finger at us about human sexuality, and then goes back, leaving us to run things on Earth pretty much how we like. A lot of folks like that idea… "with God out of the way, there is no stopping us!" Many would claim that they have never had an encounter with God and if they ever do, it would be a once in a lifetime experience (and probably not a good one) or it means that they have died and gone to heaven!
I don’t know the God they are talking about. For me, God is present; "closer to me than I am to myself" 1 as someone put it. That is true, thanks to the incredible promise that Jesus made in today’s Gospel, that he would ask God to send another Advocate… a helper…a comforter… a Spirit… The Holy Spirit to dwell within us. Yes! The Spirit of God dwells inside each of us; the Spirit that gives us hearts of flesh to live with, rather than hearts of stone. And there is a part of us… the true self… that knows that Spirit and is known by that Spirit… and has been known by that Spirit all along… right from Baptism… maybe earlier than that.
Now, there IS someone else inside me also... someone who thinks that they are actually the one in charge, and that’s my ego. My ego thinks it’s pretty lonely in here, and that’s just fine… there’s not really enough room in here for two folks to be in charge. This ego of mine (yours is probably similar) was formed in my childhood as a way to get love and affection, to avoid hurt and insecurity, and most importantly, to obtain control over my parents and anyone else impertinent enough to think they might want to have a little influence over my life. My ego developed rich and excellent strategies throughout my childhood and into adulthood that helped me to get what I wanted, and to project the image I wanted others to see. It worked like a charm. For me, that meant appearing brilliant and infinitely competent. My poor parents couldn’t compete with that. Your ego may have developed a different, but equally effective strategy. Maybe you were helpful beyond measure to everyone… maybe you were always sad in a way that invited people to have pity on you… maybe you were the class clown. However it developed, your personality had a lot to do with controlling others in your life and projecting a way to be seen.
My ego keeps a running narrative in my head all the time, because it is in charge and there is no room for anyone else. But it turns out that none of that is true. When I say to myself "I am alone and far from God", that is just the story that my ego tells me to assert its control over God. It’s not true. There is the Holy Spirit inside… has been all along, at least since Baptism. And if I can quiet my ego into silence (and boy, that’s not easy!), my true self, the one actually known by the Holy Spirit within me, has a chance to rest in the Spirit. I have to make an important point here. We are not God and God is not us. Nevertheless, God dwells within us, and that is something our true selves can be in touch with and scares the hell out of our ego-selves. For me, that idea… that God actually dwells within me unlocks three ways of thinking about God… its very Trinitarian! There are more than three of course, but certainly not less.
First, it reminds me of one of the most striking lines in chapter 17 of Luke’s Gospel; "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, "Look, here it is!" or "There it is!" For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you." That kingdom is held in our hearts and is carried with us into the world. Part of the reason Jesus was crucified was because he proclaimed the good news of God’s Kingdom, and from Caesar’s viewpoint, there was only room for one Kingdom; his… sounds remarkably like the ego doesn’t it? The Kingdom of God has been inaugurated and is in daily operation here at St. James, in this part of the Body of Christ, and throughout the world. Someday it will enter into its fullness, but in the meantime, it is hard at work through us no matter who else thinks they are in charge… and that includes every Caesar, every Napoleon, every King of England, every tribal leader on every continent, and every U.S. President. And we don’t just emerge into the world at the end of this service with nothing to say or do; not at all. Here’s one of the best ways I have heard it said:
"When we sit with our neighbors to listen and enter their stories, we are there as one who is shaped week in and week out by the liturgies of worship with the confessions of faith, the reading of Scriptures, and the affirmations of forgiveness. We are formed weekly by the Eucharist as we receive the bread and wine. We can no more sit at the table of our neighbors as a blank slate than we can deny we are human. The Spirit is present in the midst of this being sent. She is right there, present in the conversations and working in the spaces between our conversations in ways that will surprise us because we have come as a stranger in need of hospitality, in need of receiving, without any tactic that turns our neighbor into an object of our ego. This is the amazing place where God does things we could never imagine." 2
The Kingdom of God is like that, every day.
The second thing this indwelling of the Holy Spirit does is enable us to see Jesus all the time… every day. I should be able to ask any of you (and I just might!) "where did you see Jesus this week?", and NOT get a funny look back. Because the same spirit dwells in you that dwells in me, I should be able to look into your eyes with my heart, especially if there is suffering in there, and see Jesus looking back at me. And if I am really on my game, and can get my self-pride and ego out of the way, I just might be able to make the Jesus in me, apparent to you. And this can happen in the most surprising places and the most unexpected faces. Look for Jesus with your heart and you will find him looking back at you.
The third thing that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit does is fill our hearts with gifts of the Spirit. Sometimes these are not the gifts our egos want. My ego wants brilliance and competence 3, but I get kindness, generosity, and gentleness. My ego sort of scoffs: "What am I supposed to do with these?" That is the other thing the Spirit does…. She sends us out into the world to put those gifts to good work with one another and with strangers. She fills our heart and sends us.
The God we worship is NOT on some distant galaxy, but is present in our hearts thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate that Jesus promised us in today’s Gospel… available to be seen in the eyes of the stranger every day… filling our hearts of flesh with gifts to be used in our common life together. This God, who suffered the shame and degradation of crucifixion, sends us into the turmoil and chaos of the world, carrying the Kingdom of God within us, to put those gifts to work healing, reconciling, and restoring creation. This isn’t about dying and going to heaven; this is good news about living our lives as true, spirit-filled humans who have cross-shaped kingdom-work to do.
Will you pray with me? Father almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth; set up your Kingdom within us. Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God; help us to see you among us. Holy Spirit, breath of the living God, fill our hearts and send us4. Amen.
- St. Augustine of Hippo
- Roxburgh, Alan J. (2011-03-01). Missional (Allelon Missional Series): Joining God in the Neighborhood (p. 170). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Note: slight modifications to align with the context.
- That’s gnosticism for those of you keeping score!
- Modified from a trinitarian prayer often used by Bishop N.T. Wright.