Amazed and Astonished
You can find the sermon transcript below these take-home questions.
Who is the Holy Spirit? Take-home questions
March 31, 2019, Fourth Sunday in Lent
United Parish in Brookline
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Who is the Holy Spirit?
Who first taught you about the Holy Spirit? What was your understanding?
Some of the images associated with the Holy Spirit include breath, fire, wisdom, wind, and a dove. What were your first images of the Holy Spirit?
How have these images and understanding been helpful? How have they been unhelpful? Do any of these particular images mean something special to you? Why?
Your evolving notion of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit seems to astonish and surprise us every time she shows up. When was the last time you were surprised by your faith?
How would you like to expand or deepen your image of the Holy Spirit?
Take Home Questions
How has your understanding of the Holy Spirit changed along your faith journey? How has it stayed the same?
How does your expression of the Holy Spirit compare with your expression of God and Jesus?
Exercise to try this week
In both the Hebrew Bible and in Christian thought, the Spirit of God has been closely associated with the breath (drawing from the Hebrew ruach, “breath”). Drawing attention back to our breath in breathing meditation can also become a way of drawing our attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit in scripture and in our lives.
Here’s a sample 5-minute breathing meditation from mindful.org:
1. Find a relaxed, comfortable position. You could be seated on a chair or on the floor on a cushion. Keep your back upright, but not too tight. Hands resting wherever they’re comfortable. Tongue on the roof of your mouth or wherever it’s comfortable.
2. Notice and relax your body. Try to notice the shape of your body, its weight. Let yourself relax and become curious about your body seated here—the sensations it experiences, the touch, the connection with the floor or the chair. Relax any areas of tightness or tension. Just breathe.
3. Tune into your breath. Feel the natural flow of breath—in, out. You don’t need to do anything to your breath. Not long, not short, just natural. Notice where you feel your breath in your body. It might be in your abdomen. It may be in your chest or throat or in your nostrils. See if you can feel the sensations of breath, one breath at a time. When one breath ends, the next breath begins.
4. Be kind to your wandering mind. Now as you do this, you might notice that your mind may start to wander. You may start thinking about other things. If this happens, it is not a problem. It’s very natural. Just notice that your mind has wandered. You can say “thinking” or “wandering” in your head softly. And then gently redirect your attention right back to the breathing.
5. Stay here for five to seven minutes. Notice your breath, in silence. From time to time, you’ll get lost in thought, then return to your breath.
6. Check in before you check out. After a few minutes, once again notice your body, your whole body, seated here. Let yourself relax even more deeply and then offer yourself some appreciation for doing this practice today. What did you learn about your breath, about yourself, and about the Holy Spirit?
Download the take-home questions here.
Download the accompanying Lenten Study curriculum packet here.
Let’s practice taking a breath together. Just one breath.
Are y’all ready? Ok.
(Take breath together).
How did that feel?
Some of us may feel more relaxed or more awake. I suspect a couple of us may even feel a little self-conscious about the coffee breath we just shared with our pew neighbors.
No matter how we feel, I bet we feel differently from how we felt just a few minutes ago, and all from taking that one simple breath together.
But here’s the thing: a breath is nothing groundbreaking. In fact, human beings take an average of 16 breaths per minute. Isn’t that incredible? That means we breath about 960 breaths per hour…23,000 breaths a day….and over 8 million breaths per year. Wow!
So we didn’t really do anything new when we all took a breath together. Instead, all we did was pay attention to something we so rarely take time to notice.
All too often, I think our relationship with the Holy Spirit, that wild and mysterious third lens of the Trinity in the Christian tradition, can be a lot like our relationship with our breath.
Sure, we mention it at the end of the Doxology we sing each Sunday, and maybe we even nod our heads along as we hear it in the Benediction blessing.
But out of all the other ideas and symbols within the Christian vocabulary, how often do we place the Spirit at the center of our attention?
Throughout our Lenten curriculum, “Exploring Our Faith,” we have devoted time in worship and study together to explore some of those other key ideas of Christianity that often receive the most airtime.
Several weeks ago, we started our series with a discussion about what we mean by “faith” and all the different ways we can share it with those around us. Over the past two weeks, Kent and Amy led us in explorations of the two other lenses of the Trinity: God and Jesus of Nazareth.
So this Sunday, we finally arrive at that third aspect of the Trinity we can so often overlook, the Holy Spirit.
In fairness to all of us, the Spirit can be a pretty confusing concept. After all, the Spirit shows up in a bunch of seemingly random images throughout the Bible, including breath, oil, a dove, wind, and fire.
Perhaps this is why, in the Christian calendar, we only devote one day to the Holy Spirit: the day of Pentecost, during which we retell the story of the appearance of the Holy Spirit amongst the earliest followers of Jesus.
We just read part of the Pentecost narrative together, and the images of that story are hard to forget.
Our story opens in Jerusalem during the Jewish feast of Shavuot, an important holy season and harvest festival. On this morning, the day we will come to remember as Pentecost, the streets of the sprawling city are packed with people from every corner of the vast Roman Empire, hustling together in preparation for the day’s festivities.
The narrow streets are crowded to the brim with bodies of all ages and voices tinged with hundreds of different accents in dozens of languages.
If we could walk the alleys and avenues of Jerusalem on that day, we’d find a kaleidoscope of sights, smells, and colors waiting for us- the booming orchestra of merchants selling their wares, the air shimmering with the heat of countless cooking fires, the hand-dyed clothing of a thousand different passers-by.
On the day of Pentecost, Jerusalem is a city overstuffed with noise and distraction, as busy and overwhelming and exhausting as it is beautiful.
And yet, right there, smack dab in the middle of a hustle and bustle we would probably recognize, the Holy Spirit shows up. And nothing else will ever be the same.
A small group, by Jerusalem’s standards- 120 people or so- are gathered in a small city square, their shoulders shivering together in the slight chill of the morning. As readers, we know that this group is the first community of Jesus’s followers. But for the average citizen of Jerusalem- or the average Bostonian, for that matter- this sight, by itself, probably wouldn’t be anything to write home about. Perhaps they are wedding party, perhaps a tour group. Who knows?
But look closer. Something else is happening.
A “violent wind” suddenly rushes through the square. “Tongues of fire” spark and flicker into being, compelling those present in the huddle to break out speaking in other languages.
Pentecost is probably the most iconic story we associate with the Holy Spirit, and from this over-the-top imagery, it’s not hard to see why. Unlike so many of our passing mentions of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost demands our attention, with a wind and fire show that would rival any rock concert.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit refuses to be an afterthought, to be ignored as we so often ignore our breath. But what is it the Holy Spirit is calling our attention to at Pentecost?
The scripture tells us that an onlooking crowd of passers-by in Jerusalem- people just like us, barreling through busy lives of raising kids and paying bills and keeping up with friends and neighbors- these bystanders are “amazed and astonished” by their sudden awareness of the Holy Spirit in this unexceptional huddle of people in the plaza.
Even on a busy day like this, in a world (like our own) overstuffed with noise and distraction and fear, something about the scene grabs their attention, forcing them to stop and stare in awe and wonder.
For once that morning, perhaps for once that week or month or year, each of them, no matter who they are or where they’ve come from, are quiet. Their mouths hang open in wonder, the edges of their lips curled upward in a shocked smile.
In this moment, there are no things to be done, no boxes to be checked, no emails to be answered. In these minutes, there is only amazement and astonishment at the present moment.
However, despite the fireworks show, it is not the wind and fire that grabs these busy folks’ attention. Instead, the scripture tells us that they are “bewildered” because “each one heard” the early followers of Jesus “speaking in (their) native language.”
That’s it. No mention of the violent wind or the tongues of fire.
At Pentecost, it’s not the Holy Spirit’s Super Bowl Halftime show that is the source of the witnessing crowd’s amazement and astonishment.
It is instead the both utterly simple and utterly miraculous event of human language, this astounding capacity we have to shape our breath with our lips and our tongues into words- words of joy, of comfort, of hope- that we can share with one another.
What manages to amaze and astonish the stressed-out, burned-out, city-dwelling witnesses of Pentecost- what stops them in their tracks- is nothing more and nothing less than the miracle of breath, and what it represents.
When we honor the breath, as the awed witnesses of Pentecost do, we remember that we are still alive- still carrying the Breath of Life passed down to us so long ago- and that we still have the privilege of sharing that life and that breath with each other.
The miracle of Pentecost is that, no matter how busy or burned out we might feel, we are alive, we are breathing, right here and right now, and that we can become aware of that fact once again.
Another word for this practice of bringing our attention back to the present moment, back to the miracle that we are alive and here, right here, with each other, is “mindfulness.”
Mindfulness is appearing everywhere nowadays, and we owe much of its popularity in America to the writing and teaching of a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh.
While many of us might hear the word “mindfulness” and assume that Nhat Hanh’s life was probably always peaceful and calm, the truth is that Nhat Hanh has spent most of his life as an outspoken critic of war and oppression.
He spent much of his life in exile from his home country of Vietnam, barred from returning due to his peace advocacy. In his nomination of Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that the monk’s “ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument…to world brotherhood” and “to humanity.”
One example of Nhat Hanh’s commitment to this mission is his interest in interfaith dialogue. In his classic book, Living Buddha, Living Christ- a book which has deeply influenced me on my own faith journey- Nhat Hanh offers his interpretation of key Christian ideas from the vantage point of a Buddhist.
One chapter in particular, “Mindfulness and the Holy Spirit,” has always stayed with me. In this part of the book, Nhat Hanh tells the story of a meeting he once shared with a Catholic priest in Italy.
Nhat Hanh writes: “We had time to talk with each other, and I asked him this question: ‘My friend, what is the Holy Spirit to you?’ And he said that the Holy Spirit is the energy of God, sent by God to us. I thought that expression is beautiful, and as a Buddhist practitioner I can accept it very easily.
In Buddhist circles, we say very much the same thing to describe mindfulness. To us, mindfulness is the energy that can help us to be there, in the here and the now. Mindfulness helps us to be alive, and since we are there, we are capable of touching life deeply, of understanding, of accepting, of loving.”
That’s it. There are so many ways of encountering and understanding the Holy Spirit- probably as many different ways as there are different people in this sanctuary- but for Nhat Hanh, like those gathered witnesses on an ordinary street in Jerusalem so long ago, the Holy Spirit is special not because it is something outside of our everyday lives, but rather something available to us right here, right now, if only we choose to become fully mindful of the present moment.
I first listened to Nhat Hanh’s book on audiobook while driving to and from shifts in a summer internship placement as a hospital chaplain, and I don’t think I fully understood the meaning of his words about the Holy Spirit until I saw my first death.
As a chaplain, I was often called to the Intensive Care Unit in the middle of the night to be with families and loved ones sitting vigil around a loved one who was actively dying. Typically these patients had been placed on “Comfort Care,” meaning that the machines and tubes doing the breathing for them- keeping them alive- had been removed, replaced instead by medicines designed to ease their pain and calm them while their natural breathing gradually slowed and finally came to a halt.
Sometimes patients on Comfort Care would last minutes. Sometimes hours. In a few exceptional cases, I saw patients breathe on their own for a full day or two. But no matter how long they remained alive, each breath- every single one- suddenly became precious, an object of rapt attention for each person around them.
Late on one particular night, just after two o’clock in the morning, I was called to be by the bedside of a patient in her early seventies who had just been placed on Comfort Care. Surrounding her in the fluorescent glow of her room were generations of her family and community- children, grandchildren, siblings, cousins, even a neighbor or two- all gathered in a hush, awed silence when I entered.
Every single person at that bedside had smartphone notifications, errands to run, kids to feed. But on that night, in that holy space, all that mattered was the breath- her breath, the breath of the woman who had hummed hymns while making them breakfast and called to check on them after a hard day.
On one level, none of her individual breaths were special. After all, she had already taken 8 million of them in the previous year. Yet, in that moment, gathered in a dumbstruck crowd like those first witnesses of Pentecost in Jerusalem, everyone present- even a few nurses standing in awed silence under a flickering light in the hallway- suddenly recognized each and every breath for what it was: a miracle.
In those long minutes, no one was waiting for a miracle, because we understood that we were living in one, each and every one of us, right that very second.
In that crowd of witnesses, we understood the lesson of the Spirit at Pentecost is not that the Holy is a one-day, showstopping, glitter-and-fireworks event. Pentecost is every day of our lives, every hour, every second, every moment we are breathing. Pentecost is right now, and we don’t have to wait until the end of our lives to realize it.
Breathe it in. The Holy Spirit reminds us: we are alive, right now.
That is amazing. That is astonishing. And that is enough.