Holy Goose

Below is my sermon from Pentecost Sunday, May 20. It is also the day that we celebrate Affirmation of Faith (Confirmation) at St. Paul’s. What do you think about the wild goose as a representation of the Holy Spirit? What animal might you suggest?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Pop quiz: what animal, specifically what bird, is most often associated with the Holy Spirit? (The dove.) You are right, of course. The dove has been associated with the Holy Spirit for a long, long time. At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit is specifically mentioned as coming in the form of a dove. Doves appear as representations of the Spirit in all kinds of art. There are some in our stained glass, and on our font.

For Celtic Christians in the Middle Ages, though, the Holy Spirit was not symbolized by a dove at all, but instead by a wild goose. I was shocked when I learned that, because, honestly, geese have never been my favorite animal. A whole flock of them used to make their home on our field hockey field every fall—it was not exactly what you wanted to run through.

But then, my junior year in high school, a goose made its nest on an island in the parking lot. The island right next to my brother and my assigned parking space. Right next to, in fact, the passenger side door that I had to get into and out of every day.

The goose became such a nuisance that announcements were made over the intercom, imploring everyone to leave her alone. She was nesting, she would become aggressive, she would hurt you. And believe me, I wanted nothing more than to leave this mother goose alone. I had seen how nasty she could be. My brother, on the other hand, saw this goose as an opportunity to have some fun. He would pull the car into our space and park so my door lined up exactly with the goose. And then he got to watch as I opened the door just wide enough to squeeze out and tiptoe past the nesting animal, doing everything I could to appear non-threatening.

Geese seem like an odd choice for the Holy Spirit. They’re not pretty, or calm like a dove. They don’t coo gently, they honk obnoxiously. They’ve always been more annoying than anything else to me. And here the Celtic Christians are, making the Holy Spirit into a goose.

But maybe they were on to something. Maybe the wild goose, as obnoxious and inconvenient as it is, might just be a better representation of the Holy Spirit than a dove. Or at least it’s a good alternate interpretation. Because geese aren’t cute, or calm, or controllable. And neither is the Holy Spirit.

In our reading from Acts, about that first Pentecost Day, it says that the Holy Spirit appears not as a gently blowing breeze, but as the rush of a violent wind. It takes over the place the disciples are staying, filling the whole house. Fire appears above the disciples’ heads, and they are driven out into the street to start testifying about Jesus. They are given the ability to speak in other languages so that everyone there can hear and understand.

This is not a calm event. Everyone stops to stare and to listen. The Holy Spirit has come upon them and made such a spectacle of them, that some in the crowd even think they are drunk. Peter even has to deny it, telling the crowds that the men aren’t drunk, simply filled with the Holy Spirit.

At our Ascension Day service last week, our preacher Pastor Pat Davenport talked about the Holy Spirit, saying, “Let us be so filled with the Holy Spirit, that people wonder what the heck happened to us.” Let us be so completely taken over by God’s Spirit that people start questioning: “What happened to so-and-so?” “Why is Mom acting weird?” “Why are my kids doing what they’re doing?” Let the Spirit inside us be so strong, that we act like we’re out of our minds.

Geese are more than just wild, though. As much I might dislike them, they’re very loyal, committed animals. When they’re flying in formation, migrating, if one goose is injured or sick and has to land, another healthy goose will land with it. Will stay with the injured goose until together they are ready to rejoin the flock. Geese do not abandon each other.

The Spirit of God which descended at Pentecost is the same Spirit of God which moved over the waters at creation, calling forth life into being. It is the same Spirit, the same breath, that Ezekiel called into the dry bones, giving a hopeless people a future once again. It is the same Spirit that came down at Jesus’ baptism, declaring him to be beloved. It is the same Spirit that comes to each of us at our own baptisms, declaring us beloved, bringing new life and hope. God’s Spirit does not abandon us, especially not when we need that help the most. When we are injured, in mind or spirit, the Holy Spirit stays with us until together we take flight again.

It’s confirmation today, and eight of our young people will soon be affirming their faith and the promises made for them at their baptisms. And I will pray over each of them, asking God to stir up in them God’s Holy Spirit. And I can only hope that they are so filled by God’s Spirit that they have the rest of us asking: what the heck are they thinking? (In a good way, though, you guys.)

I say this to everyone, but especially today to our confirmands: be filled with the Holy Spirit. Be like geese. When you see something that isn’t right—be annoying and disruptive. You will be promising to strive for justice and peace in all the earth—make yourselves a nuisance to injustice, interrupt hatred and bigotry with God’s love. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God which moved over the waters at creation, which breathed new life into dry bones, which brought together those of different cultures and nationalities—that same Spirit is in you. And she will never abandon you. Be filled with the Holy Spirit: the Spirit that will sustain and keep you, embolden and uplift you, comfort you and challenge you. And never, ever leave you. Amen.


Ordinary Saints

My sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter focused on our reading from Acts, the selection of Matthias to be an apostle. But, as I mention, I was more drawn to Joseph, who was not selected. What was his story? What did he do after this? We don’t know, just as we don’t know the stories of thousands of ordinary saints. Who were the ordinary saints for you? Perhaps you are one to someone else without even knowing it!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It was only a couple of minutes into recess and already the teams were starting to divide. The two boys called off names one by one, and we joined whichever side called our name to get ready for the kickball game. I got picked somewhere in the middle of the pack. I was a girl, but already by the fourth grade, I had a reputation for being scrappy.

Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. They remained waiting, hoping to be picked, until finally there were only two girls left. And one spot left. We wanted the teams to be even, so that meant someone was going to be left out. The teachers were sitting in the shade far away from the kickball field, or everyone might have had to be included. The final choice was made, and the poor girl who wasn’t picked trudged off to watch from the sidelines.

That’s the feeling I got listening to this story from Acts, of the disciples casting lots to figure out who was going to take Judas’s place among them. There are two equally-qualified candidates: Matthias and Joseph, sometimes called Barsabbas, sometimes called Justus. They both meet the main criterium: following Jesus from the beginning. The disciples pray about it. And still there is no clear choice, so they roll the dice. Matthias gets the last spot, and Joseph is left to watch from the sidelines.

It seems a terribly random way to do such an important thing. Casting lots. In Amish communities, it’s still a standard practice. All the men—only the men—take a hymnal at random and the one with a piece of paper in it is the preacher for the year. The process will repeat itself again when the new year begins.

We shouldn’t be so fast, though, to shake our heads at these odd, primitive processes for selecting church leaders. We, too, have what many would consider a very odd, old-fashioned method of electing our leadership. Our system is just more elaborate than pieces of paper in hymnals. We have nominating committees, and call committees, and congregational meetings instead.

Last weekend, at our synod assembly, we elected a new bishop, using a process called ecclesiastical ballot. Which means the over five-hundred voting members are given a blank sheet of paper and told to write down a name. We should consider ourselves lucky that only eighty-something people ended up being nominated. After those who wished to withdrew, the second ballot had 28 names, then it was narrowed to seven, then to three, and then we had a bishop. The Rev. Pat Davenport, the first black woman elected bishop in the ELCA.

After living through the election process, the idea of casting lots starts to seem appealing. But honestly, comparing the bishop’s election with the selection of Matthias in Acts, we find a lot of similarities. There is a discussion of what is needed: someone to fill this role. The synod underwent a self-study, much like congregations do before calling a pastor to think and to pray about what type of leader we need.

Then, you determine who is eligible for the position. In Acts it was anyone who had been with Jesus from the beginning. For the bishop’s election it is any ordained minister of the ELCA. You could have been ordained for 50 years or 50 minutes—you’re eligible. And once you lay out the need and the candidates, you pray, and you trust the Holy Spirit. In Acts, they prayed and rolled the dice. Today we pray and pass out ballots. And you have to trust that the Holy Spirit will use this flawed, human process to do something amazing.

I find myself drawn today, though to those who aren’t chosen. To those who didn’t win. Matthias takes the last spot among the apostles, and Joseph is just left to watch from the sidelines. Pat Davenport is elected bishop, and the others just go back to their calls and their churches and their lives.

In the book of Acts, neither Matthias nor Joseph is ever mentioned again. We don’t know what they get up to. Can we imagine a different ending for Joseph than the sidelines? He wasn’t called to this particular position, but can we imagine that he was called in some other way to bear witness to Jesus? He lost the toss of the dice, but nowhere does it say that he lost his faith.

We don’t hear about him ever again, so we are left to imagine. But I can only imagine that this man Joseph, who has been with Jesus from the beginning, continued to be a part of the church, continued to share what he had seen and heard. That he was there on Pentecost, when the Spirit descended like tongues of fire, that he preached and shared in the life of the community. That he became one of the hundreds, then thousands of ordinary people who carried this extraordinary gospel from generation to generation.

Most of us don’t have our first experience of God’s love through interacting with a bishop. Instead, we interact with the ordinary people in our lives. The Josephs, and those others whose names are never even mentioned. Our parents, grandparents, friends. Sunday school teachers. People who may never even be mentioned at synod assembly, but whose lives bear witness to God’s love in Christ.

These people may never get the recognition of even St. Matthias, but these are the ordinary saints who God uses to share that extra-ordinary story. The book of Acts and the history of the church unfolds because of hundreds upon hundreds of unnamed people. Who were those people for you? Who are those ordinary saints who made a difference in your life. A name I hear around St. Paul’s a lot is Mrs. Laudenslagger. She taught Sunday School for years, and impacted hundreds of lives. She is one of those people of faith whose ordinary life God used to do extraordinary things.

And so are you. No one is relegated to watching from the sidelines in the continually unfolding story of God’s love. No one is left to watch without participating. Maybe the roll of the dice will land on you, and you will be called to a public and well-known position, and you will use it for God’s glory. If so, thanks be to God.

But maybe the dice will never land on you. If that’s the case, then thanks be to God for that, too! Because in that case, we have the great calling to share God’s love in ordinary ways. To be the Josephs and the Mrs. Laudenslaggers of the world. To share God’s story with other ordinary people. And in doing so, we are a part of that extraordinary story: the story of God’s great and unfolding love for all people, and all creation. And that is never just ordinary. Thanks be to God. Amen.



Love, love, love

Love is all you need. So say the Beatles, so says our Scripture (kind of). Our readings for the sixth Sunday of Easter focused on love, but is it really all you need? Read the sermon and let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“All you need is love.” Given today’s readings, we start to get the sense that the Beatles might have been right after all: all you need is love. Jesus says in the Gospel of John: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you…I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” And the First Letter of John teaches us that “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” Last week in our reading from First John, we heard that we ought to love one another, because love is from God. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

All you need is love. But is that really true? When the Beatles first sang those words in the turbulent 60s, the reactions came in amongst two extremes: an enthusiastic embrace of love as the simple solution to the world’s problems, and a critical rejection of love as a dreamy emotion serving only to distract people as the problems got worse. One side pleads for tolerance, asking “can’t we all just get along?”, while the other demands an acknowledgment of and response to the real problems plaguing society. Love alone won’t cut it.

We saw these two sides play out in the news recently, with the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, also known as the lynching memorial. The memorial traces the history of lynching, and displays the names of the over 4,000 black people who were lynched in this country. It has been lauded as a step towards acknowledging and confronting the evil of racism. But others wonder why it needs to be there at all. Quoted in USA Today, white Montgomery residents said, “We’ve moved past this. I think they just need to leave it alone. It keeps putting the emphasis on discrimination and cruelty, why can’t we focus on getting along?”

Is simply loving each other really the answer to such complex and painful problems? The answer, I think, lies in more questions: what does love really mean? What does loving our neighbors look like? What kind of love is Jesus describing? Does it mean just getting along, putting a happy face on things? Is love what Hallmark would have us believe?

When Jesus tells the disciples that his commandment is for them to love one another, he also describes exactly what that means: as I have loved you. The love of Jesus is love in action. It is a servant love: pouring out its life for the sake of another. Love for Jesus is not an emotion, or a feeling, it’s not simply getting along. Love is an action.

Love is washing the feet of others—even those who will betray and deny you. Love is sharing a meal. Love is standing with those who are oppressed and denied their rights. Love is speaking out against unjust systems. Love is caring for those often forgotten by the rest of society: the homebound and sick, the day laborers and migrant farmers, those far from their families.

When Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” he means you are my friends if you act in love towards one another. Not just feel love, but act in love. That is Jesus’ command. All the other commandments in Scripture stem from this one: to love one another.

Sometimes, when we hear the word, “command” it can be off-putting. Especially the way Jesus puts it: “if you do what I command, then you are my friends.” We balk at being told what to do. But as First John says: God’s commandments are not burdensome.

God’s commands, including this command to love one another, should not be viewed as a burden, but rather as a gift. The commandments are gifts from God to help assist in personal and communal living. At the second service (in just a few minutes) when Mara Roe is baptized, we will hear some of God’s commandments. Today, they are being spoken to those who will be Mara’s sponsors, and not Mara herself, but as sponsors you promise to teach Mara God’s commands and help her to grow into them: to trust God, to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace. In other words: to live in love towards God, other people, and the whole world.

These commandments are a gift, because they show us God’s love. They hold our community together in God’s love, and they provide the way that we might live as Christ did: in love.

In a sense, the Beatles did have it right. All you need is love. But not cheap love, not flighty love. Not love without giving of ourselves. Not love without action. But instead, the servant love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus. We love because God first loved us. Because God continues to come to us love, claiming us, serving us, and naming us as beloved children. Our love flows from God’s love, and so it takes on the character of God’s love: service, action, accompaniment.

On Tuesday, we celebrate Julian of Norwich, a theologian and mystic. Julian lived in the thirteenth century, as an anchorite, a nun living in an isolated cell attached to a church. When she was around thirty, she received a vision, which she details in her book, Revelations of Divine Love. I’d like to close with a quote from Julian, and a quote from Jesus:

“For we are so preciously loved by God that we cannot even comprehend it. No created being can ever know how much and how sweetly and tenderly God loves them.” And from Jesus: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

People of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, God’s commandments are not burdensome, but are in fact a gift and ground to our lives. Let us allow God’s greatest gift to us—God’s love—to guide our actions and our hearts. Amen.