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.