Sermon for the Day of Pentecost
May 15, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Once in a while, every priest gets a phone call from a desperate person. Last week, I got a call from a woman in another city. She was experiencing a complex crisis and had reached a state of panic, having exhausted every option she could grasp at. She came to the church as a desperate last resort and the priest there suggested she call me. I sent that priest an e-mail expressing, very delicately, my… perplexity… at her decision to refer the woman who had been standing right in front of her to me. But first I told the woman that I could not help her from a distance; the best I could do was that I would try to find somebody who could. After I hung up, in order to help somebody else who had just come in, I sighed. I was just passing her off, making a halfhearted promise on behalf of a world that had already failed her. But I kept my promise, for the sake of my own integrity, not because I had hope.
Ministry can feel so frustrating, and not just for the clergy. Everyone with a good heart, knows how it feels to want to help others in need, but being stopped by time, distance, lack of resources, or a combination of these. It’s true that we are fortunate to have the resources and freedoms we do have, but faced with the needs of the world, everyone with any capacity for compassion soon feels daunted, and can easily lapse into despair.
Yet we keep going. I don’t know how the Grace Center and its volunteers keep going every week. Those saints — volunteers, staff, and clients, all of them — struggle to respond to more misfortune in a day than I do in a month. Or maybe I do know.
When you’ve ruled out the pedestrian explanations, what remains must be true. And I believe the enduring empowerment of compassionate people, and the ministry that happens as a result of that empowerment, has a supernatural origin.
Our Presiding Bishop is fond of using the phrase, “the Jesus Movement,” to talk about the church. Some people are pushing back against that term. Some think it sounds glib, trendy, and calculated. Others have bad memories of the Jesus People of the ’60s and ’70s. Still others are uncomfortable with the seeming navel-gazing. They are worried that the movement part will distract from the Jesus part, and Jesus isn’t half of what’s important, but all. They point out that the Church is supposed to proclaim Jesus, and worship Jesus, and lead people to Jesus, not a movement. These are all valid concerns, but I think they misconstrue the phrase.
I understand the phrase as expressing what Jesus is doing, not what we are doing. Jesus is moving. Jesus moved the Holy Spirit to come down from heaven, in order to move his disciples. His resurrection had already brought them out of doubt, fear, abandonment, denial, guilt, and despair, and into the greatest joy. But amazed rejoicing is not the mission Jesus set out for his church; it’s merely the spark that ignites the flame. Jesus moved the disciples to become apostles. In English, he moved the followers to become the sent. On Pentecost, the followers of Jesus are sent out into the world to share the grace and love he gave us. And as our sacred story teaches us time and again, God doesn’t set us up in order to let us down. God doesn’t bring us so far just to abandon us. God gives us what we need; God’s grace provides for us, and it is sufficient. The First Mover cannot be stopped.
Whether we know it or not, God empowers us to do great things, to reach beyond ourselves and the boundaries the world sets up. Luke’s story of Pentecost shows this through the transcendence of national, ethnic, and language boundaries, the wind of the Spirit toppling them like a house of cards. We experience the same Spirit in a multitude of ways. Usually more subtle ways, but no less powerful. Conversations that seem mundane to us can elevate others from despair to hope. All the time, I hear about our parishioners changing lives and giving hope, whether through the Grace Center, the Thrift Shop, Eucharistic visits, small acts of charity, even casual phone calls. Or take me: after I told the panicking woman that I would “see what I could do,” I made a perfunctory search online and found an agency in her town that seemed tangentially related to some of her problems. I called them, found the person who might be able to do something… and got their voicemail. Another dead end, another frustration. I left a message anyway, halfheartedly, relaying the sketchy information I had received. And they never called me back. Too bad, I thought.
But later that day, the priest who had referred her to me replied to my e-mail. The agency had called the woman, tracked her down, and solved her problem. There was no reason why that should have worked! The world’s version of that story is, “too many people passed her off, she fell through the cracks, what a shame but what can you do, the system doesn’t always work.” But instead the story has a happy ending, and I believe that is a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, the happy ending that awaits all of us.
Jesus has hope for us even when we don’t, for he knows that everything will be all right in the end. And he sends us, moves us, with the power of his hope, all the power we need to bring his good news to a world that is desperately hungry for it. When we accept his mission, the Spirit’s power comes with us, and the Jesus movement continues.