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A Parting Word

San Williams

May 27, 2012
Romans 8:22-27

5-27-12 Sermon Pentecost Sunday.  This is the day we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples of Jesus.  As we seek to understand Pentecost, two limitations immediately present themselves.  One is our tendency to understand the Spirit only in the past tense. We often say that Pentecost is the birthday of the church, that momentous day long ago when—as Luke describes it—the Spirit came upon the disciples like tongues of fire and a mighty wind. Thus it’s easy (and safe) to confine the presence and work of the Spirit to the distant past.  The other limitation is that we tend to talk of the Holy Spirit in vague or abstract terms.

Well, this morning let’s strive to overcome both these limitations.  Where and how is the Spirit present and at work in our midst today?  As most of you know, this morning is my last Sunday in the pulpit until August 26th.  Tomorrow, Jan and I will begin the summer sabbatical so graciously offered to us by the UPC Staff Committee and Session. As we begin this season apart, the affirmation that I want to pin on your hearts is this:  The very same Spirit that empowered and helped the disciples of old is with us today, throughout the summer, and into the future.

Let’s begin, though, where our passage from Romans begins–with a hefty dose of reality. It’s easy to see that the gift of the Spirit has not yet totally transformed either the church or the world.  Paul acknowledges as much in his sweeping statement, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning…” Even though God came among us in Jesus, even though Jesus died and was raised, and even though the Spirit is with us as the earthly presence of the glorified Christ—the creation continues to groan, to suffer, to reel in anguish.

And if the groaning of the creation was obvious in Paul’s day—and it was—how much more severe are creation’s groans today.  Paul couldn’t have foreseen the global mass extinction of plant and animal life that is happening today.  An article in Christian Century this week highlighted scientists’ concern over the recent disappearance of bees.  Researchers call bees ‘the canary in the coal mine.” If bees cannot live, soon other forms of life will also be unable to survive.  No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more people. That’s just one example of today’s accelerated stress on the world’s ecosystem.  We don’t yet know what this means for human and non-human life, but we do know that the whole of creation is groaning, suffering and imperiled.

And notice that the followers of Jesus are not immune from creation’s distress. “Not only the creation,” Paul declares, “but we ourselves groan inwardly.” Like the rest of creation, the disciples of Jesus are unfinished and incomplete.  We don’t know how to pray as we ought, worship as we ought, or love one another as we ought.  Our bodies and minds are subjected to the same diseases and decay that afflict the whole of creation.  We are all—church and world, plants and animals, human and non-human—being subjected to what Paul accurately calls “the bondage to decay.”

Yet surprisingly—miraculously!—even in the midst of decay and despair, we are given hope.  Paul interprets the groaning of creation not as its death throes, but as its labor pains.  Out of the present suffering, Paul declares, will come God’s New Creation.  Given all that threatens the well-being and even the survival of creation, on what grounds does Paul, or anyone, have reason for hope?  Human progress?  Not likely. Technological innovation?  Questionable.  The resurrection of Jesus?  Yes! answers Paul.  Our hope is grounded in the faith that Jesus is the first-born of all creation. In Christ, then, lies our hope that suffering will end, death shall be no more, and all creation will be raised to new life with God, neighbor, and nature reconciled, healed and made whole.  In other words, our radical hope is that the world as we experience it is not the final expression of God’s creative purpose.

And even now, Paul assures us, we who are in Christ Jesus have been given a taste of God’s future, what Paul calls the first fruits of the Spirit.  Without a doubt, those first fruits are abundantly evident in our midst. We taste the first fruits of the Spirit in our congregation’s hospitality to strangers.  We can see the work of the Spirit as our doors are increasingly flung open in welcome to those needing community, food, assistance with basic needs, or a word of hope.  We do not deceive ourselves. We know that we do not yet possess, and cannot fully represent, the Kingdom of God, but we do have the first fruits of the Spirit as a guarantee that more is to come.

Last Wednesday, we had a small ceremony to inaugurate our new church kitchen and Great Hall with a luncheon.  The kitchen captains who have been trained in the use of the kitchen put on a small but lovely event for the church staff and a few special guests.  The tables were beautifully set. A tasty lunch was served–Tuscan soup, homemade biscuits, a broccoli salad with tomatoes, nuts, and bacon.  We were served refreshing iced tea and lemonade, and apple crisp for dessert. Lively conversation and laughter were heard around the tables.  As we ate together, we acknowledged that this small luncheon was just the beginning, the first of what we hope will be many banquets, receptions, fellowship and mission events.  This inaugural lunch served as a kind of metaphor for how we see the work of the Spirit among us.  We are experiencing the Spirit’s presence now, and we are nourished by it even as we wait, and plan, and hope for even fuller expressions of the life of God among us.

So perhaps God’s word to us this morning is a call for patient waiting.  I imagine my sabbatical leave this summer will be a time for patient waiting. (I’m not just thinking of fly fishing). That is, a sabbatical is a time to cease regular work, duties and responsibilities in order to wait on the Spirit. Concurrently with my sabbatical, an Envisioning Task Force will be leading the Congregation in what we’re calling “Holy Conversations.”  These gatherings will give the congregation an opportunity to talk together about what the Spirit might be up to in our midst.  Patient waiting as a spiritual practice means creating some time and space for  listening, for praying,for discerning God’s will for us. The question I leave with the congregation is the same question I take with me on my sabbatical:  What new things are possible? What might the Spirit empower us to be and do in the next few years?

Of course, our ability to answer such questions is limited. Our knowledge of God is inadequate. We don’t have a crystal ball that spells out God’s will for us.  But let us be encouraged.  The Spirit helps us in our weakness.  We who have the first fruits of the Spirit can count on the Spirit to guide us, intercede for us, and help us to discern our future according to the will of God.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”