Introduction: Being a Pentecost people
Good morning everyone. It’s three weeks since Pentecost Sunday when Lucy led the service. She was thinking about what happened in Jerusalem on that day that “… they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” I’ve continued to think about what it means to be a Pentecost people, what it might mean to be a Pentecost person. What might it mean to be filled by the Spirit, led by the Spirit, enabled by the Spirit.
Today we are also remembering refugees. What might it mean for them to find God’s way for them through their trials and tribulations, when disaster looms both behind them and potentially ahead of them?
You may recall that a couple of months ago I mentioned a few key opportunities that were coming up in which I thought there might be a chance of influencing leadership in Tonga and in New Zealand to improve the lives of people affected by dementia – both people who live with dementia and the families and whānau that care about them. Thank you for holding me in prayer for those opportunities. Another moment with significant potential is coming up this Tuesday. I will be meeting with Minister David Clark and Associate Minister Jenny Salesa, together responsible for health services in New Zealand. We are meeting to talk about services for people affected by dementia and I hope to gain their agreement to enable effective leadership of the improvements in the health system that are badly needed. I will value your prayers once again.
One of my colleagues said to me a few weeks ago, when she heard about that meeting, that she would pray for me. This set me thinking: how, exactly, does one pray in this situation? What, precisely, does one pray for? What might it mean, in that office in the Beehive on Tuesday, to be filled by the Spirit, led by the Spirit, enabled by the Spirit. What might it mean for you on Tuesday, wherever you will be? What might it mean for our church family as a whole this morning, and this week?
To begin this thinking together, let’s start by praying a medieval prayer from Old Sarum, Salisbury in England:
Reflection: Here Am I, Lord.
These days, whenever I think about being led by the Spirit of God, the first story I think about is not the otherworldly drama of Pentecost, but the somehow very human and rather quiet story of Samuel’s call. I love the way the story introduces itself: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” You may remember the details. The old, half-blind priest Eli and the boy Samuel are asleep in different parts of the temple when Samuel is woken up several times by a voice calling his name. It takes a while for the penny to drop so it’s not until the third time that we find out “… the Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening”.”
This speaks of a different approach to being filled by and led by and enabled by the Spirit. I have to say, this is something I can identify with much better than with drama, signs and wonders. The Northumbria Community has turned this moment into a simple song. Can we learn it together as a way of practising this attitude?
Here am I Lord, I’ve come to do your will.
Here am I, Lord, in your presence I am still.
Let me put the question that has been preoccupying me this month to you again: What might it mean, in that office in the Beehive on Tuesday, to be filled by the Spirit, led by the Spirit, enabled by the Spirit. What might it mean for you on Tuesday, wherever you will be? What might it mean for our church family as a whole this morning, and this week? How should I pray? What is the sign I am looking for?
The lectionary asks us to consider two very interesting stories today, the third Sunday after Pentecost Sunday. Deborah read the very old story to us of what happened to Elijah after the high drama of his face off with the state-backed prophets of Baal. You’d think that there would have been a day of national repentance, or at the very least the formation of a holy resistance movement centred around Elijah, but the first thing that happens is that the government sends a message saying “You’re dead meat, mate. Literally”. I’m guessing this is not how Elijah was expecting things to go, but as a modern reader, it doesn’t seem so bizarre given that the religious face-off the day before had ended, as they often seem to, with the losers being systematically murdered by Elijah and his followers. The reader is left with some uncertainty as to whether this follow-on act was quite as divinely intended as the fire from heaven. Surely those who live by the sword shouldn’t be too surprised if they risk dying by the sword, Elijah?
So this man who has been personally associated with very public and very emphatic victory of the highest drama is left running for his life into the desert. No wonder his prayer has become “…I have had enough, Lord … take my life.” And then he lies down, perhaps to die. Now, my detractors have never come after me with guns and knives, unlike Elijah’s and far too many of the refugees that have finally made their tortuous way to this country. But I still totally identify with Elijah’s exhaustion. When my back has been completely against the wall, I typically feel very, very tired. Sick and tired of the whole things. And I am prone to whining. I can so identify with Elijah’s repeated statement: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty.” I did everything I thought you were asking. I even extemporised, which I’d like you to know was quite difficult, in fact, no-one else went that far, but I did it. Everyone else gave up but I soldiered on. “And now they are trying to kill me too.”
God’s reaction is to enable his flight, then throw more drama at him: “Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks … After the wind there was an earthquake … After the earthquake came a fire.” This is the same kind of irresistible power that Elijah had only recently witnessed before he had to flee in confusion: “… the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.” Yet this is not the way that God’s Spirit is going to fill Elijah now that he’s in deep personal trouble, it is not the way that God’s Spirit will lead him or enable him. Instead, it will be that famous “gentle whisper”. The still, small voice. The strangely warmed heart.
I admire Elijah most in this story for the way he instantly recognised this moment for what it was and pray that we, too might recognised God’s Spirit in these moments. “When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”
And what was God’s message? “Go back the way you came”. Here’s the plan.
It is in this same light that I approach the famous story of Jesus and the man with the Legion of demons, as strange a story as you could hope to find in the gospels. There’s a lot going on here, but what I want to consider is the experience of the person who was previously in the violent grip of something so anti-God, so anti-life that it had left him alienated from everyone, feared and shunned, vile and violent, living outside of the community. From this state, he is brought back to himself. Like Elijah after the Mount Carmel victory, the question for him is “what now?” How do you undo the years of trauma that passed between him and his community – two-way violence, no doubt. The healing is miraculous and astounding, no less so than the fire from heaven burning up Elijah’s impossibly wet sacrifice, but it doesn’t fix the wider context. No wonder the man sits at Jesus’ feet, but no wonder “the people of the region … asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear.” Jesus got up to leave. What?! The man “begged to go with him.” I get it, I really do. What is the leading of God for this man now? No further drama. The pigs have gone, the tumult is over, the big-time miracles have ceased here too. Echoing God’s whispered instruction to Elijah, Jesus simply says in a straightforward way, perhaps without the commanding tones and very public oratory he may have needed when he was speaking to the Legion of darkness some time earlier, but rather, perhaps quite quietly and personally: “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” From a psychiatrist’s perspective, this makes sense but it’s not easy. After healing comes normalcy. After the wonderful medical treatment comes a need for a big dose of normal, with the knowledge that this is phase two of healing, the reinvention of oneself that is required after a long absence, the recovery that is essential after the cure. Hard work!
So what might it mean, in that office in the Beehive on Tuesday, to be filled by the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, to be enabled by the Spirit. What might it mean for you on Tuesday, wherever you will be? What might it mean for our church family as a whole this morning, and this week? How should I pray? What is the sign I am looking for?
Most of the time, in these days when “the word of the Lord [is] rare; [when] there [are] not many visions”, I think we should be looking more to the silence, the stillness, the straightforward, the personal for the Spirit of God. Like Elijah and the Gerasene man, we might discover that there’s already a plan afoot, that the Spirit is well ahead of us, and all we need to do is follow our previous instructions and Go Back.
Here am I, Lord, I’ve come to do your will.
Here am I, Lord, in your presence I am still.