Peace Called Beside Us: Sermon for May 5, 2013

"Dove of the Holy Spirit" by Bernini

“Dove of the Holy Spirit” by Bernini

Every Sunday, at the very end of worship, I stand in the back of the sanctuary and offer the final blessing. I use words that are nearly 2,000 years old, and that are shared by Christians of all times and places: and now may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be always with you.” And then, together, we all say “Amen”.

And when we baptize someone in this church, we do so using words shared by the universal church: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And we anoint the person with oil in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer.

And each Sunday we sing the the Gloria Patri and the Doxology and we sing “to the Creator, and to the Christ, and to the Holy Ghost”.

We talk about the Trinity a lot in our life together, which is to say we talk about who God is, and what God does. We know that God is our creator, our father and mother, the one from whom we come. And we know that Jesus Christ is also God and the one who redeems us. And then, we know there’s this third one we talk about.

Have you ever worked with someone who you’re not really sure what they do, but you know they are somehow really important? That’s sort of how a lot of Christians feel about the Holy Spirit. We know the Holy Spirit is important, in fact we know the Holy Spirit is God, but unlike God the Creator, or Jesus Christ, we don’t quite know what it does.

Jesus was speaking to his disciples for one of the last times before his Ascension, and he was talking about the time when he will no longer physically be with them. And he tells them that he is giving them an “Advocate”, the Holy Spirit, who will teach them and remind them of him.

And the word that is used in the original Greek text is “paraclete”. Now, it’s not important that you know that, but what that word literally means is “to call beside”. In other words, God is calling the Holy Spirit to be beside us. To comfort, and encourage, and guide us. And unlike Jesus who was standing there in one place with the disciples, the Holy Spirit will be with us everywhere and always.

And Jesus tells the disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

When Jesus tells the disciples about the Holy Spirit who is about to come to them, he’s telling them that he is going to give them peace. And in a few weeks we are going to read the story of Pentecost, when that Holy Spirit does come, and hear about how that event transformed the church.

But today, we have the story of a group of disciples who know they are about to be on their own again, trying to figure this thing out. And you’ve got to think that they were afraid, and unsure, and asking why Jesus wasn’t going to be right there beside them anymore.

You and I, we know a little about that. Have you ever thought to yourself, “this whole faith thing would be a whole lot easier if Jesus just came down and told us what he wanted?

I sure have. Anytime I make a big decision, I wish I could just ask Jesus, “is this what you want me to do?” I did it before I got ordained, I did it when I was trying to figure out if God wanted me to move here to Vermont, and I still do it whenever something comes up and I don’t know what the right answer is.

Maybe you can relate. Maybe you have been faced with having to figure our how to live as a Christian in this world, and you have had some decision to make, or some hard thing to grapple with, and you’ve wondered “God, where are you, and why aren’t you here telling me what to do next.”

About two years ago we started a discussion down at the church in Wilmington about what God wanted us to do. The town was shrinking, the church had been growing smaller and smaller for over twenty years, and it had become clear to everyone that God was asking us to do something different, and something new. And it was hard, and sad, and painful, and confusing. And we weren’t sure exactly what to do or how to do it.

It was around that time when we asked everyone to pray about it, both by themselves and together. We asked that God would guide us to the right decision. And we looked for God’s peace to be with us in the process. We called the Holy Spirit to be beside us during that process.

And I believe the Holy Spirit was there. We made good choices, choices that ended benefitting both this congregation and St. Mary’s. And we made them because we entered those meetings where we made the tough decisions not the way you might enter a corporate boardroom, but as people of faith, and as the church called together to truly discern God’s will. And in the end, it was hard, but we found peace. And when Jesus tells us “peace I leave with you”, I think that’s what he meant.

I believe the Holy Spirit was guiding us in Wilmington, but I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is only found in churches. I believe we can call on the Holy Spirit in every situation of our lives, and if we listen for what it is telling us, we will feel God’s peace.

Maybe you’ve felt that. In hard times, like when you’ve had to make the very difficult decision about letting a dying loved one go. Or when you’ve had to end a relationship that didn’t feel like the place you should be anymore. Or when you’ve had to leave behind something that you once loved and turn towards something new.

But maybe you’ve had that in not-so unhappy situations too. Like, when you had to pick what college to go to. Or when you had to choose between two job offers. Or you stood at any kind of crossroads and really both options looked pretty good, and you wished God would just tell you which way to go, which next right step to take.

We’ve all been there. It’s called being in discernment, a time when your sort through your options. And what can make this time Holy is calling upon the Spirit to show you where God is leading you.

Three years ago when I had a choice a few years ago between coming to this church, or another church in Maine, both filled with good people who I had already come to care about, I prayed about it. I discerned. And in the end it became clear that God was leading me here. And when I had made that decision, I felt deep peace, and I knew then that it had been the right one.

Next week we start the second part of a visioning process in this church, and each week we are going to have a discussion about one aspect of the church’s life. And this isn’t going to be a time to come into the room and say right off the bat “this is what I think we should do”. This isn’t a business negotiation about getting what you want.

Instead, this is going to be an opportunity to enter into a time of discernment with others in this church. And, together, we are going to call on the Holy Spirit to guide us and to show us what is right for our congregation. We will undertake this process the way we undertake prayer: with open hearts and minds, and with a willingness to let the Holy Spirit lead us to the place God has already prepared.

My prediction is that if we approach this process by deliberately opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit, we will find God’s guidance, and we will find God’s peace. That doesn’t mean the discussions will always be easy. That doesn’t mean there will always be clear consensus. That doesn’t mean that the church we are called to be will end up looking the way we might think. But it does mean that in the end we will find God’s peace waiting for us. By giving us the Holy Spirit, God has given us the tools to do this work. We just have to be willing to use them. Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Day 18

Today is Town Meeting Day in Vermont. That means that throughout the state residents are trudging through the snow to their town halls in order to sit through an hours-long meeting about the place they live. Perhaps surprisingly, they remain popular here, and in other places throughout New England.

This is a regional phenomenon that was unfamiliar to me when I moved here. Democracy is exercised not just in the confines of a voting booth, but in community. It’s complicated, and time consuming, and messy. But it’s also pretty effective. And in the end, the community is enriched by the chance to actually sit down and participate in governance.

It’s not lost on me that the town meeting system here is modeled on the governance of early New England Puritan meeting houses. My own church is descended from that tradition and our meetings look very similar to town meetings.

Sometimes this means that church gets messy. The pastor does not have absolute authority. There is no bishop who steps down from on high and mandates things. And decisions are made by whomever shows up, not by the whims of one person.

It also means we spend a lot of time in meetings. Time that some complain could be used for better things.

I’ll admit that sometimes I’m among them. But then I remember that the act of coming together and discerning God’s will for our congregation is indeed holy work. And as we pray to God for the wisdom of the Spirit as we meet, we accept an invitation to seek God in the place where we are gathered.

So, I’ll keep going to the meetings. Both the ones at town hall, and the ones in the church basement. And I’ll keep talking and voting and praying. Because I believe God is most present when community is gathered, and that even in messy disagreement, wisdom can arise.

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Town Hall in Dover, VT. (Copyright, Town of Dover)