Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Today’s sermon probably needs a new title, given the events of this week here in Seattle, but at least let me explain where I was headed with that choice of words, before some new things needed to be said...
Did you know that the word “conspire” in its most literal, root sense means to breathe together? The Greek word for spirit, pneuma, is also the word for breath (we find the same two meanings for Hebrew ruach), and con- is a prefix meaning together. So on the count of 3, let’s all take a deep breath… blow it out again… There! We’ve just launched a conspiracy. To conspire: to be filled with the same spirit, the same wind. When we come together to worship God, the Holy Spirit comes among us, and invites us to join in God’s conspiracy to share his love and grace with the world.
Now take another breath. Isn’t it fascinating to think that within our atmosphere is all the air that ever was? The same ancient air keeps recirculating, in a sense, which means that every time any of us breathes we breathe air left over from the creation of the earth…We breathe the same air that Plato breathed, and Mozart and Michelangelo. “Every time we breathe, we take in what was once some baby’s first breath, or some dying person’s last.” (Barbara Brown Taylor).
Barbara Brown Taylor imaginatively describes the last moments of Jesus’ life: “When Jesus let go of his last breath – willingly, we believe, for love of us – that breath hovered in the air in front of him for a moment and then it was set loose on earth. It was such … breath – so full of passion, so full of life – that it did not simply dissipate as so many breaths do. It grew, in strength and in volume, until it was a mighty wind, which God sent spinning through an upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. God wanted to make sure that Jesus’ friends were the inheritors of Jesus’ breath, and it worked.
“Before the day was over, the church had grown from one hundred twenty to more than three thousand. Shy people had become bold, scared people had become gutsy, and lost people had found a sure sense of direction. Disciples who had not believed themselves capable of tying their own sandals without Jesus discovered abilities within themselves they never knew they had. When they opened their mouths to speak, they sounded like Jesus. When they laid their hands upon the sick, it was as if Jesus himself had touched them. In short order, they were doing things they had never seen anyone but him do, and there was no explanation for it, except that they had dared to inhale on the day of Pentecost. They had sucked in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it. The Holy Spirit had entered into them the same way it had entered into Mary, the mother of Jesus, and for the same reason. It was time for God to be born again – not in one body this time but in a body of believers who would receive the breath of life from their Lord and pass it on, using their own bodies to distribute the gift.” (Tayor, Home By Another Way, 143-144).
I love this story in Acts 2 – the birthday of the church, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with these incredible dynamics of wind and fire and multilingual preaching. The question for us to consider as we celebrate the day of Pentecost today is this: do we believe in a God who still acts like that? Do we believe in a God who still has power to transform us, both as individuals and as a people?
I’ll tell you one thing for certain. The Holy Spirit has been blowing through the campus of Seattle Pacific University over the last few days. There have been many disturbing images and stories making the rounds since Thursday’s tragedy, and I suspect we’re all going to remember where we were, where loved ones were, and how recently we’d driven by that campus when the news broke. But other kinds of stories and images have also been getting around, including the fact that the entire SPU community responded to a violent, evil act… in worship. Worship, that very evening. Worship that included prayers not only for those injured, and for Paul Lee, the student who was killed, and his family. But prayers for the shooter, too. Prayers for the shooter. That very night, while they were all still reeling, while it was hard even to know which end was up, that community remembered to look up, and to pray, even praying for the disturbed person who had taken so much away from them that day. To see photographs of students and faculty gathering in prayer circles on the commons, too, that very evening…Wow.
There is nothing good to be said about a 19-year-old student losing his life through such a senseless act. And absolutely nothing of redeeming value I can find in such a wonderful, faithful community of people being terrorized in this way. I have no interest in putting a positive spin on this. We are invited, above all, to weep with those who weep today, to mourn with those who mourn.
But as I’ve thought about what to say about all of this on Pentecost, of all days, the day when we remember the Holy Spirit blowing through the early church, I keep coming back to a line from one of our Presbyterian creeds, the Brief Statement of Faith, which says: “In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage…”
In a broken and fearful world, God’s Spirit gives us courage…
I also find myself looking to our text from John, as much as to our text from Acts. For there the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and, after blessing them with his peace, simply breathes upon them, a gentler, more intimate Pentecost story if you will, with fewer pyrotechnics. But again, that same gift of divine breath. And again, that gift of the Spirit’s courage to a frightened community.
I think it can be helpful to read both of these texts together, John 20 and Acts 2. Because sometimes we may experience dazzling or spectacular acts of God; but other times we encounter the Holy Spirit through quieter moments of power and grace.
I’ve long suspected anyway that the greatest miracle of Acts 2 was not so much the rushing wind or the tongues of fire or even the sudden ability to preach in different languages. It was the fact that an exhausted band of Jesus’ followers, who'd had the wind knocked out of them just a few weeks earlier, at Jesus’ death, suddenly found that wind knocked back into them again -- and then some -- by the power of the Holy Spirit.
God knows our city, our neighbors, and particularly our friends and family at SPU, need to feel that divine breath right now. They need every sign they can get that God is with them, and for them, and loves them, in the midst of everything they’ve been through.
But there is no question in my mind that God’s Spirit is already with them, and with each one of us. Because in a broken and fearful world, God’s Spirit gives us courage. And that community has demonstrated extraordinary courage this week. Both as individuals – we think of the heroism of Jon Meis and others who took down the shooter, of SPU president Dan Martin and others who have needed to put public words around what has happened – but also the courage exhibited by the school as a whole.
Courage to pray. Courage to love. Courage to act.
Certainly it’s easy to be paralyzed into inaction at times like this. But “don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can." (John Wooden) At the very least, today and in the days ahead I invite you to keep these words in mind, from a benediction one of my colleagues often uses at her church: "Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who journey the way with us. So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind."
Remember that God is holding the SPU community - and all of us - in the palm of his hand.
Remember, too, that in a broken and fearful world, God’s Spirit gives us courage, breathing peace, and love, and grace upon us, just when we need it most.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.