Sermon: Naming and Claiming Spirit and Power as our Own

This is the first sermon in our Lenten series on “Spirit and Power.” 

John 15:1-17

Have you ever had the experience, sitting with people in meditation or worship, where you felt this energy in the room or within yourself, like some bigger Spirit or bigger Power was present?

Have you ever been pierced by beauty  — El Capitan at sunset, the eyelashes on a child’s face, a piece of music that you had to listen to over and over again?

Have you ever felt this deep sense of connection — to yourself, to others, to creation — where you knew yourself to be a part of the web of life that includes all things?

Have you ever been stricken by conscience? Have you ever, with clarity, seen your own sinfulness — the way in which you “missed the mark” — and been convicted of the need to make repair or restitution in some way? Or, have you ever found yourself, inexplicably, to be more generous, more caring than you knew yourself to be? Where the concerns of the other became more important than your own? 

Have you ever been at a demonstration or a march or an action where you felt like you were experiencing a foretaste of the Kindom of Heaven, where people were standing up together for truth and a just world and you realized, “This is it. This is what I’ve been longing for”?

If you’ve ever experienced any of these things — and there’s many more experiences that could have been named — then you have experienced the Spirit. You have had a “religious” experience, an experience of what’s sometimes called the “numinous.” My spiritual direction training called such experiences the “depth dimension” of life. Such experiences often bring tears to our eyes. Or they leave us with that “wow” feeling — like something happened there. Or they make us feel enlarged, in touch, plugged in, connected. You don’t have to be a mystic or a special sensitive type of person to have these experiences. I have been pastor or spiritual director for more than 25 years, and I can tell you that everyone has them. Because these experiences are our birthright as human beings made in the image of the Creator. 

So why do so many of us — and I’m talking about the people in this room here not some “people” out there — why do so many of us not talk about these experiences or shy away from naming them as religious experiences, as the way God has been at work in our life? Why do so many us feel hesitant to claim the reality and power of the movement of the Spirit? Because this naming, this claiming is the birthright of everyone who walks the Christian path, who seeks to follow in the way of Jesus. 

There’s many different answers to those questions, but I want to name two. I think many of us have been either educated or traumatized out of this naming and claiming. Cyneatha Millsaps said to me, when she was here recently, that the more education we get, the less we think we need God and the less likely we are to accept the power of Spirit in our life. We are educated to be in control, in command, competent, rational. Very, very rational. If you can’t measure it, see it, taste it, touch it, it does not exist. And the more privileged we are, the more we can believe that we’ve got it together; we don’t really need a Higher Power to get through our days. So we can get to this place, as educated, progressive religious people, where we are “functional atheists.” We think that we pretty much have got to make anything good we want to see in the world or in our lives happen because we’re all we’ve got. There’s nothing Out There that’s going to help us. We  may say we believe in Something Else but we don’t live our lives as if we believe that.

Or we get traumatized out of naming and claiming Spirit in our lives. Some of us grew up in more conservative or evangelical churches and may have had deep experiences of Spirit and Power there, or we had a relationship with Jesus that fed our souls and then — we came out or we realized just how deeply patriarchal that church was or we started questioning some very sacred theological cows. And we realized we were no longer welcome in that place. We realized we had to leave that place of Spirit and Power in order to save our souls. We were cast out. And we came to equate, I think, those experiences of Spirit and Power with that community, that belief system that so hurt us. And, in defensiveness, we came to see ourselves as superior to “those people,” who were so irrational or overly emotional, who waved their hands in the air when they sang, or who had such a simplistic faith, who didn’t even know enough to know that God was not a guy! Joanna said she thinks of it as “liberal superiority complex,” and I think that’s a good description of it. I’m not saying there aren’t beliefs we should reject or stand against. I’m saying: Did we throw out the baby of naming and claiming the work of the Spirit in our lives with the bathwater of a bad and wounding theology?

I and Pat and Joanna have seen a hunger developing in this congregation to reclaim Spirit and Power for ourselves. To not just let evangelical or charismatic communities have it. Jim Lichti, who is on our worship planning team, put it powerfully, I think: “The image that comes to mind (when I think of this reclaiming) is an evangelical revival. That power, dynamism, confidence, tears, and clarity. I want us to claim that same kind of energy. This is ours! It’s not (just) theirs.” 

It’s ours! It’s not just theirs.  A few days before our silent retreat in early February, a lovely serendipity happened. Lisa Hubbell directed me to a book by a Quaker mystic named Thomas Kelly, who lived almost a century ago in the turbulent years between the two world wars. I used this book for my retreat reflections and it has also become a prime source for my thinking about this series on “Spirit and Power.” Kelly was an educated, rational Quaker man who became even more transformed as he opened himself to the movement of the Spirit in his life. He writes of how this Spirit belongs to all of us:

Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives… calling us home until Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul to the Light Within is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us… It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it. It is the Shekinah (which is the Hebrew word for the feminine naming of the Divine Presence) of the soul, the Presence in the midst. Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be wakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And Christ is within us all. (29)

This is ours! It’s not just theirs.  Our Scripture passage from today names it so clearly: “Abide in me as I abide in you.” One translation puts it: “Make your home in me as I make my home in you.” John is saying that the Divine already has made Her home in us. Our only “job” is to abide in Her.  To make our home in the Presence that is already in us. This is how we become “fruitful” — not by diligently using all our competency and cleverness and strategy to make things happen — but by abiding in the Spirit that is already at home within us.

This is ours! It’s not just theirs. The early Anabaptist movement was a movement of Spirit. They explicitly named their spiritual and political transformation as one brought about by the Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit that enabled them to stand up to the powers and principalities of that time and to often pay the ultimate price with their lives. They were witness to the fact that when the Spirit moves, it doesn’t just move in your heart and stay there. It also seeks to change those things in the world that do not conform to the Creator’s desires for this world. It seeks to change those things in the world that break God’s heart. 

I think it’s really important to emphasize this. Because it’s easy to take the idea of Spirit and neutralize it of all of its subversive and political intent. Mark van Steenwcyk, who is a friend of Joanna’s and the director of the Center for Prophetic Imagination, puts it this way: “A Jesus-shaped spirituality moves us to love specific people, to struggle for tangible solidarity, and challenges us to work for particular justice. If your spirituality provides positive feeling and comfort because it helps you cope with the pain of the world, without ever addressing that pain, then it is, ultimately, a spirituality of empire… a spirituality of neo-liberal style ‘wellness’ that lacks deep roots.” Ouch. And: true.

Those of you who were here remember that four years ago, Patrick landed in the hospital after having had a seizure at 3 in the morning. He was unconscious for almost 24 hours. And he woke up. And after about a day, we knew he was going to be OK. That our prayers and the prayers of so many had been answered. It was an awful, awful experience — one that I dearly hope never happens again — but it’s also true that I felt so alive to the Spirit during those days. And one of the reasons I know that it was a Jesus-shaped Spirit was that — after Patrick was out of the woods — this phase kept going through my head, over and over again: “Every mother’s son. Every mother’s son. Every mother’s son.” I thought of all the mother’s sons in east Oakland, not far from the Kaiser hospital in Oakland, killed by a police officer or a rival gang member. I thought of all the mother’s sons slaughtered over the centuries in our senseless, stupid wars. I thought of all the mother’s sons in Suriname, poisoned from mercury that has leached into their rivers from gold mining operations. And I couldn’t stand it! I couldn’t stand that any other mother was feeling the pain I had so recently felt —the panic, the terror — and I re-devoted myself to doing what I could to keep others from feeling that pain for no good reason. I mean: Life is precarious. Sometimes, your kid catches a virus, like Patrick did, and bad things can happen. But sometimes bad things happen because we make them happen to each other for no good reason other than greed or the need for power. Because we numb ourselves to the reality that every mother’s son — every parent’s child — is so very precious that someone is dying inside because their child is dying. During those days where the Spirit was so alive in me, I felt that pain of every mother, every father, every parent.  And some days, I am courageous enough to pray that I be returned to that pain.

This Advent, we sang every Sunday: “There’s a new world coming. There’s a new world coming. There’s a new world coming. I can hear Her breathing.” There is  a new world coming but it comes through us (and all the rest of creation). Who else could it come through? Through what hands, hearts, ears, eyes, mouths, feet could the Spirit come into this world, except through ours? We’re it. We’re the means by which the Spirit of Life comes into this world. “Here (point to chest) is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be wakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And (the Spirit of) Christ is within us all.” Amen.