As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
— (Rev) Andrew Jensen
Passion for God
Scriptures: Numbers 11:24-30
The day of Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the church. It’s when we, the church, stopped hanging around in Jerusalem and became able to go beyond our comfortable boundaries to encounter the world.
To celebrate this, we generally read the Acts version of the event, complete with blowing wind and tongues of flame. Not to mention different languages being spoken by people who didn’t know them.
But that certainly wasn’t the first time God’s Spirit burst into the world in several people at once. In fact, it wasn’t even the biggest time.
Our lesson from Numbers shows an ancient precursor when the 70 elders of Israel were (mostly) on the mountain, and they began to prophesy: a sure sign that the Spirit of God had inspired them.
The potential trouble for the two men who stayed in camp was brushed aside by Moses, who said that we should wish that everyone would be touched this way.
The message of Pentecost is that everyone in the church has been inspired by God’s Spirit. No one is left out.
That’s an important part of Paul’s message to the church at Corinth: that people shouldn’t feel left out. Because there are many gifts of the Spirit and we each have one: each gift is unique.
The list of gifts Paul makes isn’t exhaustive, but it makes a deliberate point: that we are all linked by the same Spirit and that Spirit makes us into the Body of Christ, with each part having a different job.
That vision of our connected nature through God’s Spirit is important to the United Church. Not just now, as we deal with COVID-19, but right from our earliest days we have understood that we are all touched by God’s Spirit.
We take this inspiration from John Wesley, founder of Methodism, a great opponent of slavery who found that simply referring to scripture wasn’t enough for his fight. Slavery is all through the Bible; not always rejected, either.
Wesley was clear that slavery was appalling, so something beyond scripture alone was needed. So, he developed a theology of four pillars for faith decisions.
One is scripture itself, another is tradition, which must be re-examined continually, a third is reason, which must be informed by the Holy Spirit, and the fourth pillar is our own experience as people of faith.
Functionally, Wesley saw this working when people gathered together to wrestle with a problem: in the gathering & sharing, he encouraged people of faith particularly to listen to the voices from the margins; the people on the edges of life, with the greatest challenges. And some of the Holy Spirit’s most important work in this process is to let the voices of the marginalized inspire the discussions, the debates, the reasoning of the church, so that the decisions we make really are led by God.
That’s why absentee ballots are never allowed in church meetings: such a thing means our minds are made up ahead of time and we are not open to change; not open to the leading of the Holy Spirit; not open to listening to the voices of others and possibly being moved to change.
These principles work fine for electronic meetings like Zoom, or Skype, or tele-conferences which all give us the chance to do what was always intended: to listen, to participate with each other and to be open to the Spirit’s moving.
But there are limitations, especially when people have no access to these high-tech connections, and I would invite you to wonder what the voices from the margins would say as we figure out how to be the church during this pandemic.
What are the challenges for people with autism, whose schedules have been terribly disrupted and who can’t return to the order that comforts them?
What about the people who simply cannot use technology to connect, to place orders, to avoid being alone?
What about the people with mental health issues? COVID restrictions feel like imprisonment to many people and we all have extra stress and new worries. But what about the people who feel like that all the time and are now being pushed even further?
We heard some of the stories earlier in the pandemic, as journalists interviewed single parents stuck in tiny apartments with multiple children & no parks or outdoor spaces to visit. One comedian in Vancouver even quipped that there’s a new way to classify Canadian “haves” and “have-nots”: those who have a back yard, and those who do not.
We know the challenges of poverty are always harder when something like this comes along and it’s truly dreadful for those who are homeless. But that’s not the only reality. Statistics show us that immigrant populations and people of colour are being infected at higher rates, often because the jobs they have put them at higher risk.
Some voices are finally getting heard after too much silence. Sadly, in some cases it is taking the army working in long-term-care homes to get the word out. It’s not part of our traditional thinking to consider the Holy Spirit working through the army, but there’s the evidence, right there, and one of the reasons that our traditions need re-examining.
But the Holy Spirit isn’t just an amplifier of marginalized voices. God’s Spirit is a live wire, a powerful connector linking us to our creator and each other.
And when we hear these marginal voices, we’re not supposed to shake our heads and remark on how bad things are for those poor folks. We are supposed to be inspired to work for change, we are supposed to become passionate: passionate for God’s work in God’s world; passionate for God’s justice becoming real; passionate for living in a way that reflects God’s values.
As we care for each other and as we find creative ways to help the people who have the most challenges, theirs are the voices we hear, if we really listen and if we let the Spirit move us.
We are called to do this together: connecting with others, calling or writing or Zooming as needed because God never intended for us to be alone, isolated in our faith. We are at our most faithful when we can put our heads together and consider what the scriptures say, what we’ve done before, what human experience is calling for and how we can figure out a good way forward. And it is the Holy Spirit that ties all this together.
I will confess that this is a lesson we all need to re-learn regularly. Because of my own background, I am cautious of the approaches Evangelical churches take. But there was an open letter in May 30th’s Ottawa Citizen from a group of Christian leaders in Ottawa, a group that is dominated by Evangelicals. It’s a great letter: very encouraging and practical, and it leads people to a web site listing churches who offer online services and study groups.
I’ve asked them how we can add Knox to this list. The United Church is a large church and sometimes we can feel self-sufficient, become a bit insular. We can navel-gaze a bit too much and lose track of other perspectives that may challenge us, but may also bring fresh ideas that are well worth considering.
That’s why Paul describes us as the Body of Christ: we fill in each other’s gaps. No one of us has all the gifts the church needs, but together we have gifts in abundance.
And if we are the Body of Christ then the Holy Spirit is our nervous system, connecting us with energy, with inspiration; coordinating us so we can work together and accomplish so much more than we ever could apart.