November 29, 1998
Celebrating From Pentecost Into Advent
Last night at midnight, we changed from the season of Pentecost to the season of Advent, from celebrating the kingdom of God at work among us to praying for the Messiah who will usher in the kingdom of God. Before we turn to Advent, I would like us to look back at the season of Pentecost. The Day of Pentecost commemorates the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the community of disciples. It is the birth of the Church. Moreover, for a few Sundays, we focus on the gift of the Holy Spirit and on the gifts that it evokes in the Church. However, in Seekers, and from my experience, in other churches, we turn away from Pentecost after only a month or two. Yet the season of Pentecost goes on for 26 weeks.
It seems to me that we cannot get into the season of Advent until we have completed the season of Pentecost. Have we felt the Holy Spirit waxing strong in our community? On the other hand, have we felt it waning in the summer vacations and doldrums, and then lost in the seriousness of September with the end of vacations, the return to school, and the excitement in Seekers for Recommitment? What did we receive from the Holy Spirit in those 6 months? What gifts were evoked? So let us look at the Holy Spirit for a moment.
The first thing to remember about the Holy Spirit is that it is always intended to encourage and sustain the community of faith. It is not merely intended to help one person grow more deeply into faith, to make him or her a better Christian. The second thing about the Holy Spirit is that it does not call attention to itself. Instead, it always acts in a way that points to the connectedness between believers and to their connection to God. Therefore, I invite you to look back a moment and reflect on how the Holy Spirit encouraged and supported the Seekers Church this late spring, summer, and autumn.
Let me give you a recent example. Several weeks ago, Casey Wilkens was baptized here. As you know from having taken a class in doctrine in our School of Christian Living (hint, hint), the practice of infant baptism goes back to the early years of the Church. There are references in Acts to baptism of the entire household of a believer, and it is clear from the Gospels that Jesus welcomed children into the kingdom of God. Whereas adult baptism is about repentance, and about God’s endless and bottomless forgiveness, infant baptism is about God’s grace of protection and about charging the congregation with the spiritual nurture of the baby.
Casey’s baptism was about a lot more. In the first place, she is a visible symbol of the universality of the Church. She reminds us that on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples in a way that allowed them to communicate with their fellow Jews who had come to Jerusalem from all over the Greco-Roman world. Casey is Vietnamese and she is American, and she is a child of the Church. As Peter and Marjory talked specifically about her Vietnamese heritage, I was reminded of the agony of the Viet Nam war, and I knew that she had come to us to help us heal.
When Sharon and I first came to the Church of the Savior, I was in the Army, assigned to the Army Exhibit Unit, whose mission was to “tell the Army’s story.” I had graduated from college with a major in international relations and had felt that the war was wrong, if not immoral. I had served two years in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, and I knew myself enough to know that I was not a pacifist; I would fight to defend my loved ones and, in the right war at least, my country. Therefore, I did not seek conscientious objector status. Moreover, since I was about to be drafted, I had enlisted. The early 1970’s were a hard time to be a service member in general. I was attending law school in the evening and after receiving a few stares and snide comments, I tried to change into civilian clothes every night before class. They were also a hard time for a service member to be in the Church of the Savior. In my memory, the congregation prayed for peace, but sometimes the prayers had a hard edge to them, a sense that everything associated with the military was evil and not even a necessary evil. Nevertheless, I knew that there were people in the congregation who were service members. Other people worked for the Department of Defense, and other people worked for other agencies involved in the war effort. The Church of the Savior missed an opportunity then, to have dialogue with each other and give each other support in living out the choices we had made.
When the war ended, there was no coming to terms with what had happened. Whether you never went to Southeast Asia, as I did not, and for those who did, like Peter Bankson and Doug Dodge and others, the questions, experiences and feelings inside of us from that time simply were buried. As the Seekers Church was born, and we looked into areas of social justice for women and children, we did not do too much with Viet Nam. Jane Leiper helped us understand the horror that resulted in Cambodia from the war, but we never got engaged with Viet Nam the way we have with, say, South Africa through Fred Taylor and Paul Holmes and Roy Barber.
My career has looped so that although I have worked in the field of child abuse and neglect for almost 25 years, I now work in that area for the Defense Department. Moreover, every time there is a world crisis, and we send men and women the age of my daughters into harm’s way, I get in touch a bit with my unresolved issues from more than 25 years ago. The Sunday of Casey’s baptism our nation was threatening to unleash devastating air strikes against Iraq, and so I was particularly attuned to how our faith community deals with war and peace. Seeing Casey welcomed as a member of the Seekers Church made me feel that not only that she was protected by God’s grace, but also that God was using her baptism to heal me of my conflicted feelings about that long ago war. The Holy Spirit was building community.
Then there was the fact that Marjory and Peter, who have no biological children, were conducting her baptism. In a sense, they have parented all of us through their gifts of preaching, serving as liturgists, as teachers, as clowns, as artists, as leaders. When the small group went to El Salvador several years ago, Marjory volunteered to look after April Sizemore and our daughter Erica. I know that her parenting during that time helped Erica experience the trip in a deeper spiritual sense. In Casey’s baptism, the Holy Spirit was blessing Marjory and Peter’s gift of parenting for us all.
Also, and not least, Casey’s baptism was a pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Diane and Rachel and their relationship, their love for each other, their love for Covey and Casey, and, I think, their love for this congregation. In addition, I think that it was, finally, a clear symbol of this congregation’s love for them. It has taken time. Their entry into Seekers Church was challenging for them and us as the inclusion of the Gentiles in the early Church at the instigation of Peter and Paul was for Jewish Christians. We are nice people. We know as Christians that we are supposed to be inclusive. Yet, for some us our homophobia was still there, in the form of questions and concerns. I do not exclude myself from that. Over the years, the gifts that Rachel and Diane have given us, given the children of this congregation, have won us over. These gifts won us over, at first, from tolerance to openness, then to full acceptance. Yet Casey’s baptism moved me, and I think others, as a symbol of how we have moved from full acceptance to love.
Therefore, Casey’s baptism was for me, a particularly vivid example of the Holy Spirit in action for this community. I ask you again, can you think of other examples in the last six months? If not, are we ready for Advent? On the other hand, do we need to do more work to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to discern the Holy Spirit in action in Seekers Church.
The Advent theme this year is “Just enough.” I have struggled to understand why the Celebration Circle has chosen this as a theme for Advent. The messages from the Hebrew Scriptures for today are not about finding or receiving "just enough.” Isaiah’s prophecy says that people from many nations – not just Israel – come streaming to Mount Zion. They say, “Come let us climb up on to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.” This does not sound like “just enough” to me. It sounds like exuberance, it sounds like the people and the hills themselves are full of joy. Indeed, Psalm 122, which is our Psalm for today, says
I rejoiced when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
The Psalm does not say, I was pleased to be invited to Temple, or I was okay about being invited to Temple. However, I rejoiced when I was invited. The Hebrew word for “rejoice” comes from the root “to jump.” We could translate it as “I jumped for joy when they invited me to worship in the Temple.” That does not sound like “just enough” to me. No, it sounds like this invitation was an answer to my deepest prayer; this tugged at the strings of my heart; I was so excited that I leaped into the air. “Just enough” indeed!
I have been told that the Celebration Circle chose the theme “Just enough” after reflecting on the busyness of the Christmas season that threatens to drown us in gifts to buy and decorations to hang and parties to attend and concerts to attend and food to buy. Well, we have all been there. However, Melvin E. Wheatley, Jr. identified the problem – Christmas is a season of celebration but we confuse entertainment with celebration.
“To be entertained is to be acted upon by others who perform for us.
To celebrate is to act out our own performance for ourselves.
To be entertained is to ask (and often pay) someone else to help us feel good by distracting us from the life we are living.
To celebrate is to market our own hearty affirmation of the goodness of life as it is, even with its distractions.
We greet life with a shout of YES instead of a sigh of maybe.
Like Zorba the Greek, we dance out of the exuberance of our indebtedness.
Sing out the joy of your appreciation.
Clap with the beat of your soul.
Praise the harvest of your love.
Bet your days on the gamble that life is
not just to be chewed but to be tasted;
not just to be sounded but to be heard;
not just to be touched but to be felt;
not just to be looked at but to be seen;
not just to be endured but to be enjoyed!…
What is there to celebrate: In the midst of affluence, if you are poor? In the midst of family reunions, when you are alone? In the midst of love, when you feel rejected?
What is there to celebrate: In the sparkling eyes of children when you are trying devilishly hard to deal with the deep scars of your own childhood? In preacher talk about “goodwill on earth among men” when you have just been fired?
What is there to celebrate? Maybe nothing, if the spirit of celebration is reserved only for the light-hearted and the gay. However, celebration need not be so limited.
Christmas celebrates not a heritage of undiluted happiness, but a heritage of indomitable hope.
The one whose birth we celebrate still strides across our minds as the man with the hope. When we join him, he teaches us what there is to celebrate:
not a world that has in it nothing but good, but a world that is good, while having in it much that is bad;
not a life that knows no darkness, but a life in which even those who walk in darkness see a great light;
not a God who gives us everything we want, but a God who gives us everything we have and offers us all we need, now and forever.”
If Wheatley is right, such a God is not a God of charity, who gives us just enough, but a God of generosity, who keeps on giving and giving. As we move from Pentecost to Advent, we move from a time of thanksgiving, celebrating the Holy Spirit active in our midst, to a time of hope, a time of hoping for the miracle of God’s generosity toward us to come yet again. In Wheatley’s words, “The occasion of Christmas is not the birth of Jesus. The occasion of Christmas is the birth of Jesus!”
Jesus invites us into the kingdom of God. It is through Jesus that we are set free, it is through Jesus that we get a fresh start on life and can live a life of love and wholeness and purity, it is through Jesus that we are welcomed home from exile into community. It is through Jesus that we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which energizes and sustains our community. Therefore, at Christmas we celebrate Jesus! Precious Jesus!
Wheatley goes on to say,
Some people seem greatly disturbed lest we lose Christ out of Christmas. I do not share their anxiety. I am concerned lest we lose Christ in Christmas. They are afraid that we will not talk enough about a baby born in a Bethlehem stable. I fear that we shall talk about that baby in such a way as to make him wholly irrelevant to babies born in Los Angeles hospitals. They fear that we shall neglect the good news that God was in Jesus. I fear that we shall neglect the momentous meaning of that news: God is in us.
So how do we wait during Advent? We wait with hope, and we wait with alertness. We stay alert because the kingdom of God is in us and all around us and we are in the midst of the work of the kingdom, and if we do not look with alertness, we might miss it. I nearly missed it recently. The daughter of a person I work with is finally getting her life together and becoming independent from her family, and as a result my colleague is feeling healed because the Holy Spirit is moving in that family. I had listened to my colleague grieve over the situation, and now I shared her happiness over the change. Nevertheless, I nearly missed that it was the Holy Spirit doing the work. Our mission group agrees to risk going deeper into our life together. Moreover, we did not state it, but we are trusting in the Holy Spirit to guide us. I nearly missed it.
For the Holy Spirit does not stop its work in us just because we turn our attention to God the creator and the incarnation of Jesus. It is transparent, but it is still active. Moreover, it keeps giving and sustaining us. It comes from a well of living water that can never run dry. In addition, it keeps filling us until we are sated, and it keeps on pouring out for us out of God’s generosity. The only thing we can do is celebrate.
Is Advent “Just enough?” No, it is far more than we deserve, far more than we need. So we wait in Advent with hope, with alertness, and with in celebration. There is a party going on, and we are invited to climb the mountain, we are invited into the Temple. In addition, hearing God’s love for us, in the law of love, and in the Holy Spirit, and in the incarnation makes us so happy we REJOICE! [Jump]
“Just enough.” Hah!