If you’ve read Brian McLaren’s chapter in We Make the Road by Walking this week, you’ve already heard some of what I want to say this morning. I like his analogies for tapping into the Spirit. It’s not like the Spirit is here one minute and not the next. It’s that we have to be aware and pay attention to the presence of God that surrounds us all the time. McLaren says it’s like electricity that runs through our homes all the time, but we can’t use it until we plug something in. We are surrounded by air, but we have to breathe it in for it to nourish our bodies. There are always tunes being broadcast, but we have to turn on a radio and tune in to hear them. I like that analogy best. I love music and I love to sign along with the radio or a CD, especially in the car when I’m alone. After I’ve heard a song a few times, I begin to know the words and I can really have a good time. The songwriter’s words become my words.
When I read scripture, and sing hymns, and pray, the Holy Spirit has a chance to write words and ideas in my brain and in my heart. Those words and ideas become my own. They begin to shape me. God’s desires become my desires. At least that’s the idea. I’ll tell you, it really works with Taizé. Every Tuesday evening we sing six songs from the Taizé community over and over again until I forget that I’m singing and it becomes prayer. Those words float up into my mind unbidden during the week:
Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us,
Let not my doubt or my darkness speak to me.
Our darkness is never darkness in your sight.
The deepest night is clear as the daylight.
Come and fill our hearts with your peace,
You alone, O Lord, are holy.
Come and fill our hearts with your peace. Alleluia!
Without my having to think, God speaks a word of peace or hope in my heart. That is such a gift!
Jesus uses a more organic image. He says that we are like branches that grow out of a vine. As long as we are connected, we flourish and produce good fruit. But if we get cut off from the vine, what McLaren calls the “aliveness” of the vine can no longer feed us. We can’t produce fruit if we are not connected to the vine. I want that sense of aliveness flowing through me. I want to bear good fruit. I want my days to count. So McLaren suggests an exercise every morning to keep us connected to the vine. When we first wake up in the morning, “before your feet hit the floor, open your heart to the Spirit. Ask God to help you walk in the Spirit, step by step through the day. Ask God to help you abide in the Vine so good fruit will naturally develop on your life. Ask God to keep the fire burning within you.” What a great prayer to start the day!
This is the disclaimer part of the sermon. If this were a commercial for a medication, this would be where the stern-voiced announcer would tell you all the awful side effects. I am no Polyanna and I resent theology that promises pie in the sky if you just hold your mouth right and pray without ceasing. Life is complicated and uncertain. Theology is only good if it works in the tough times as well as in the good times, if it’s true no matter what. I know that there are times when everything goes wrong—sometimes by our own actions and sometimes through no fault of our own. That’s when I count on the Holy Spirit to pray for me when I can’t pray—when I don’t have the words, or the energy, or even the desire to pray. The Apostle Paul says the Spirit helps us in our weakness; when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words. When I turn my back on myself and on God, the Holy Spirit continues to pray not only my heart’s desire but also God’s heart’s desire.
I can tell you from experience that I have felt a nudge from the Holy Spirit to do something good and I have delayed too long or ignored it all together. And there have been times when the Spirit has nudged me to cease and desist—and I have delayed too long or ignored it all together. But I believe that the Spirit continues to pray for me even when I’m not plugged in, even when I’ve turned off. Because God made me and loves me. God made you and loves you and God will not let us go. The Holy Spirit helps us to keep going when we’re tired and weary, when we’ve failed and want to give up, when the road seems to be uphill both ways. That’s when it’s especially important to walk together. The Holy Spirit is that presence of God that continues to hover over and through us calling us back to our right selves and into God’s heart.
But presence is a tricky thing. It’s easier to feel God’s presence in and through our faith companions—when we are not alone. There are times when I have a powerful sense of God’s presence when I’m alone. But those are rare. More often I feel alone when I’m alone. But when I’m with you, I feel God’s presence. We are the mediators of the Holy Spirit for each other when we are sharing love and support and encouragement. We have the power to put the wind back in each other’s sails when we allow the Holy Spirit to blow through us.
Every day presents a new challenge. We make the road forward by walking, by putting one foot in front of the other. If we learn to listen for the leading of the Spirit, if we pay attention to where we see the fruit of the Spirit, we can make our way forward more confidently. Sometimes the path forward seems clearer than others. It helps to have developed a habit of listening and paying attention when a path forward is not so clear. We’re listening now, in this church, for the Spirit’s leading in whether or not we should declare ourselves to be a reconciling congregation, meaning, in the United Methodist denomination, that we would welcome the gifts and ministry of all persons, including gender minorities, not just in the pew, but also in the pulpit. We will consider how we can more fully welcome, learn from, and share God’s love with every person in our community. If we walk together in the Spirit through this discernment process, whatever our decision at the end, we can feel confident in our decision. If we walk together in the Spirit, we will have seen the signs of the Spirit’s leading in the fruit that is produced. Along the way we will watch for the fruit of the Spirit that the Apostle Paul describes in the book of Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I like how Eugene Peterson describes these same fruits in The Message:
But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
May it be so.