A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Field’s on Sunday 23 May 2021 by Revd Catherine Duce.
The feast of Pentecost marks the birthday of the church and it celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit enlivening and energising our communities and our lives. It’s a joyous time of reconvening and reframing our life together.
How though do we make sense of stories carried deep within our hearts that aren’t so obviously upbeat, and Spirit-filled, but are overshadowed by pain and disillusionment? How do we know that the Holy Spirit is active in our lives?
Let me tell you a story.
In 2006 my life changed forever. All my childhood, my father lived with kidney failure. He balanced a creative ministry as prison chaplain with the daily ups and downs of kidney dialysis and kidney transplantation. My father was a great inspiration to me and when he was suffering I longed for him to be restored in energy and in strength. In 2006 an opportunity arose for my mother to donate a kidney to my father. This was a state of the art operation, at the time, enabling cross blood group transplantation. On balance it was a risk my parents were willing to take and a decision my siblings and I all supported. I’ll never forget the day, aged 25, when I watched both my parents being trollied down to the operating theatre wondering whether I’d ever see them again. My two siblings and I then sat in the local park of an unknown city numb as we waited six hours for news of the operation. The anticipation and hope, combined with the stomach churning fear and exhaustion, was a slice of life – as real and as raw as it gets. The operation was initially successful. My father peed out of my mother’s kidney. Now not many people get to say that. My mother bounced back to full health. But tragically six weeks after the operation my father ran into complications, and his weakened immune system was unable to fight back. He died aged 65.
Where on earth was the Holy Spirit in all of this? In the thick of it one could only feel the absence of God. The failure of God to protect my vulnerable father. What became of all the countless prayers from family members, friends, and our loving community of the church? What were they praying for anyway? It’s easy in these circumstances to be catapulted into confusion and doubt.
I find great comfort that my emotions described this morning are not far removed from the emotions experienced by the disciples after the ascension; people utterly bereft and emotionally rung out after their risen Lord and Saviour left them and told them to wait. To wait for the Holy Spirit.
I wonder in your own life whether you’ve ever had a similar cocktail of longing and waiting, hoping and dreaming, followed by grief, despair and disillusionment. It can pop up in all corners of our lives. It might be an illness or diagnosis. It might be a political situation in your country. Or a grievance and despondency with the church. How do we know whether the Holy Spirit is present here on earth and how do we make sense of these experiences?
Let’s take another look at my story.
The Contemplative Martin Laird writes: “God does not know how to be absent”. I find these words so compelling. The Holy Spirit was present in some surprising and remarkable places on that journey back in 2006.
I could sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in the expertise and wonder of science and in the compassion and dedication of the medical staff caring for my parents.
I could see the face of Jesus Christ in my mother’s gift of herself to my father. Noone has greater love than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend. It was like I was watching the text of scripture leap off the page into the fabric of life.
I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit around my father’s bedside, with all my family present, as the hospital chaplain celebrated the Eucharist; just before witnessing a death that was as peaceful and beautiful as any of us could hope for in our own lives. ‘This is my body given for you’.
I identified with the agony of God the Father in the powerlessness and waiting experienced by my siblings and I. Beholding from afar, standing aside, and letting love have its way.
With regards the local church, my whole family got caught up in the most extraordinary acts of kindness. People who delivered casseroles on the doorstep, people offering practical expressions of love, cards, flowers, special liturgies and prayers. The young, the old, the church in all its motley diversity showering us with blessing. If their prayers were for my father not to die – then, they failed. But if they were for the Holy Spirit to be actively enfolding our family, lifting us up at this painful time – then those prayers were answered in abundance.
The point is that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. Our scripture passages today remind us that the greatest gift the Holy Spirit gives us at Pentecost is to connect up our past with our future. The same Holy Spirit connects the creativity of the Father (hovering over creation at the beginning of time) with the redemptive love of the son, and with the joys of eternal life. Our past is soaked in forgiveness and our future is rooted in hope. And the same Holy Spirit calls despairing individuals like you and I, into the community of the church to build God’s kingdom here on earth.
At Pentecost suddenly the disciples journey from being isolated fearful individuals to being imbued with power from on high. They become a courageous community unafraid to confront the world with the truth of the gospel. This was not to be a world free from suffering. Many apostles would go on to become martyrs. But they were given a fresh confidence to be the church in all its diversity free of fear – rooted in the past, the present and the future activity the Holy Spirit.
My father’s greatest passion in life was to support international prison chaplains around the world. He edited a collection of papers that still exists today called Justice Reflections. He was one of the founding members of the International Prison Chaplains Association. Advocating for stronger collaboration between chaplains of different nationalities who serve in isolated and treacherous settings. It was like my father’s whole life was Pentecost – building church and building kingdom in some of the most hidden and feared places here on earth.
Peter Storey, former Methodist bishop in South Africa during the apartheid era, calls the feast of Pentecost: “the great nevertheless of God.” Even while surrounded by the strong-armed agents of repression, Storey knew that the Holy Spirit was active in his nation. The government had all the power; nevertheless, the Holy Spirit was with the poor in South Africa. The South African regime did not hesitate to use force in order to stop rebellion; nevertheless, Storey, along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others, led the black South Africans in a peaceful revolution. There was a strong temptation to retaliate against their former persecutors; nevertheless, the Holy Spirit gave them a means of forgiving enemies and discovering true reconciliation. No matter what the odds, Peter Storey began to recognise that no obstacle could block the great nevertheless of God.
My father died in 2006, nevertheless the unseen chains of God’s love have never been stronger in our family. Our past, our present and our future are shaped by presence – God’s presence. The Holy Spirit lifts us beyond our despair and fear of death. The Holy Spirit does not know how to be absent.
And at St Martins we all have a part to play in this greater story – learning to dream again. I smiled as I read this year that the Holy Spirit came when the disciples were ‘all together in one place’. There is value in gathering together in one place.
Last week when 30 of us gathered socially distanced for silence as part of the Nazareth Community sharing, I nearly cried with joy when one of our members started snoring in the middle of Richard’s address – a regular part of life here at St martins in non-Covid times is to hear people who are homeless catching up on sleep on the back pews knowing that they have found some sanctuary – after 18 months of hearing no snoring, I suddenly had a rush of homecoming and ‘at homeness’. St Martins has not been the same without its diversity of dwellers and seekers. We need each other. We look forward to this church being open and available to all once again. We need our Cantonese and Mandarin congregation. We need those of us in the flesh and those of us online. The disciples and “devout Jews were from every nation” assembled in Jerusalem. They began “speaking other languages as the Spirit gave them ability”. This is church for everyone.
To conclude, one of the most daring actions we undertake as a church is to sing the 9th century invocation “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire” which is our anthem today. The Holy Spirit, as well as being a Comforter, also exposes us to risk. It is a call to return to the deepest love for one another, the purest courage, and the renewing creativity of the living God.