The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Looking for the Spirit in Your Community

Pentecost Sermon at St. Philip's in Greenville, South Carolina

by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori


Would anybody ever think [your] congregation was drunk at 9 or 10 in the morning? I know there are Episcopal congregations who serve mimosas at coffee hour, but I don't know any that pass them out before the service! The onlookers in Jerusalem clearly thought something strange was going on, but Peter insists that at 9 in the morning, they are not drunk. They clearly were in the midst of a life-changing experience, and somebody was reporting outbursts of liveliness.

What would this place look like if the spirit descended on us all at once? That's really why we come here, isn't it? Don't we hunger for at least a taste of that kind of stirring spirit? Yet most of us spend our lives living rather more tentatively, not quite sure that God is present with us, empowering us, giving us strength to do the unexpected and impossible - but we keep coming back here hoping to get a little dose of that spirit - just not too much of it all at once. Because then you never know what might happen. I've heard Garrison Keillor say that Episcopalians are the only ones God trusts enough to give a summer vacation - maybe because we have such a reputation for avoiding sudden change or earth-shattering insight. We're all just a little afraid of Pentecost.

Pentecost got its start as a Jewish festival, when the community gathered to give thanks for the gift of Torah, the first books of the Bible, the living word of God in the law, present in the midst of the faithful. And if you've ever seen a Torah festival, it can be pretty lively - people dancing around with the scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, singing and carrying on. Episcopalians just don't do that, do we?

But the Jesus community did the same thing it's always done - it took over that earlier Pentecost tradition, kept a good chunk of its meaning and practice, and reworked it. We still celebrate the gift of God's presence among us on Pentecost, and it has a lot to do with word, words, and understanding, but now we call it the birthday of the church. We recognize and give thanks for the continuing presence of God's spirit among us, and we acknowledge that it can come in surprising and challenging ways. Those tongues of fire lighting on the apostles aren't just warm fuzzies - they burn, and what's left after the fire visits is pretty radically changed - something's been consumed, and the result is a different person. It's another chapter of the baptism story - another death and rising into new life - if you're willing to enter in and say yes.

Tom Ehrich says that the disciples got spine at Pentecost - they were encouraged and strengthened to meet the challenge before them, to enact what the prophet Joel talks about: that God's going to pour out the spirit so young people prophesy and elders dream dreams. The created world isn't going to be healed until that prophesying and dreaming is happening all over the place. We can't share God's creative work if we can't imagine something better than what we see around us, and tell the whole world about it.

Are the youth around here prophesying, and the elders dreaming big dreams? It's a cooperative project, this aim of God's, and it needs the gifts of all parts of the body. What do young people hope for around here? Adequate and meaningful employment? A community where children grow up knowing they're deeply loved and cherished? Do you hope for a repaired and healed world that isn't getting hotter and dirtier by the day - can't we figure out how to reverse global warming, ensure that there are no more oil spills, recycle all the garbage, and clean up the toxic waste buried out back?

What dreams do the elders dream? To see new generations grow up and build on the gifts you've offered? To watch and support those younger ones to heal and make whole the brokenness their generation has received? Can we stop the wars and violence that take lives not yet beginning to be fully lived? Will your lives have made a difference for those who will follow - as our native brothers and sisters say, even to the seventh generation?

Where is the spirit coming down? What fire is the spirit lighting in you? How much time have you spent out there asking that question? Because we're never going to experience that wholesale descent of the spirit if we're disconnected from the world out there, where God is already and abundantly at work. When Christian communities begin to do that kind of looking and listening in the world out there, the results are amazing, transforming, and most definitely spirited.

There's a big, wealthy Episcopal church in Dallas that could be the sort that serves mimosas on summer Sundays. But a number of years ago, they went looking for the spirit in their community. They discovered a part of Dallas that had been cut off by freeway development decades ago, a 60 block area that didn't have a grocery store, decent school, park, or anyplace for the community to gather. They found a lot of houses that were falling down, and a lot of violence, and not much access to employment or health care - or hope. Slowly, over many years, the partnership that has grown there has become a source of far greater freedom and hope, and both the church and the Jubilee Park community have been transformed by their common ministry.

There's now a pastor in Jubilee Park, an Episcopal priest who spends most of his time wandering around the neighborhood - and many of you know Jemonde Taylor, who came from this congregation. An old church building in the neighborhood has been transformed into an education center. There's a new basketball court. Houses are being rehabbed, and new ones built through a Habitat-like partnership. Children are thriving, vegetables are being grown, crime is being confronted, elders are challenged to share their gifts, and lives that were too small are being expanded. The spirit's fire is blazing all around, in both communities.

What's might happen if you went looking for the spirit in your community? What do you think you'd find? I'll warn you, however - that fire will burn - it'll burn away a lot of what's unimportant, like old and dead wood. That fire has the possibility of getting rid of the useless so that the spine of the disciples can be put to work - that central character of God's creativity, meant to be at work within us. That fire is a spark of new life, the same kind of new life that was birthed in us at baptism, and is nourished here week by week. That fire will change the world, if you're willing to get burned by it.

A challenge: are you willing to meet one person here in this neighborhood this week, and look and listen for the spirit? The spirit is already out there, at work, we just have to go and meet it. Meet and listen to one person this week, then come back here and tell somebody what you found, and listen to what your friend discovered. Then go meet another person the following week, and see what you all discover. Listen to where the spirit is calling you, and then see what the spirit does to the church! And you might even hear some rumors of excessive liveliness around here - even at 9 or 10 in the morning...

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]