See the gift with new eyes and a new Spirit

Pentecost B

In the name of God, living in us and through us in the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

With our nephew visiting the past couple of weeks, Michael and I have taken the opportunity to expand his theatre horizons a little bit.  I mean, if we don’t, who will, right?

When he was with us at Thanksgiving, we took him to his first-ever Broadway show.  On this trip, we took him to two more.  On the way home from the theatre this week, we were reflecting on the show we’d just seen – which always leads Michael and me into thinking about other shows, and sends us down all manner of rabbit trails about theatre we’ve seen throughout our lives…

At one point I explained my greatest love in theatre.  It’s not so much about hummable or memorable tunes – though that is important.  And despite my interest in whatever specials effects they throw at us – that isn’t really what makes a show live on in my memory.  What really does it, is when a show makes me think about something significant in a new way.  When it spurs thought.  The kinds of shows that will keep me thinking about them and talking about them for years to come are the shows that tell me stories that are either familiar or otherwise timeless, but that help me to see it and the world around me differently than I did before.

It's a pretty tall order, and frankly, a sort of unreasonable expectation that I hold theatre to.  But the same is true for pretty much any other media I consume – from music to books to movies – even the daily news I read and watch.  I expect it to make an impact on me, and if doesn’t, I don’t know why I bothered to give it so much of my attention in the first place.

As I was reading through the lessons appointed for today – for this Pentecost; this major feast of the church – my mind was brought back to another of those movies that I’d seen many years ago, but that keeps creeping its way back into my mind and my thinking.  The movie was Dogma.  It tells the story of two fallen angels who were banished from heaven and given over to life in Minnesota, but who are trying to make their way back into heaven.

At the time that the movie came out it was highly controversial.  The film challenged so much of traditional religious teaching, and really held a mirror to it, and sort of shamed the church for many of its shortcomings.  But, in all honesty, that was part of the reason that I loved it so much.  It made its viewers question themselves.  It questioned the very fabric of traditional Christian thought.  And, for my money, that kind of questioning is the surest way for us to stretch ourselves and to grow.

In the world that this movie creates, the angels can cut off their wings and become mortal any time they want.  But the thing is, though they could die as mortals, dying wouldn’t be enough to get them into heaven.  Having been banished, their death would mean that they would end up in hell.

So they’ve devised a plan to exploit what they believe is a loophole that would let them back into heaven, and to execute that plan, they had to travel to the Jersey Shore – because let’s be honest, if you were trying to open a portal to heaven, where better to start, right?

While on a train to bring them to Jersey, they meet someone and tell them their plan.  The person questions them – why can’t you, once you become mortal, make your way back into heaven the way everyone else does – through faith?  The problem is, they say, that having been in heaven before, and having known God intimately, and having seen God with their own eyes, they’re incapable of faith.  They have knowledge of God.  And that means they can’t have faith.

My mind went there this week reflecting on that reading from Romans, which says, “…in hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?”

That’s how my mind started turning to the story of the angels in the movie, Dogma.  But, as is so often the case with inspirational art, my thoughts didn’t stop there.  Part of the wisdom of the film, and part of why it does inspire so much reflection, is that it takes the traditional teachings of the church at their words.  It calls the church out for legalistic thinking and tries to follow that legalism through to its natural ends.  And whenever we do that, the old positions of the church almost invariably begin to unravel.  Indeed, the Bible itself, when thought of through legalistic literalism, quickly unravels.  The stories and the traditions just don’t hold up to that type of thinking.

It's like the difference between understanding the letter of the law as opposed to understanding the spirit of the law.  The “letter of the law” – the readings and the traditional teachings of the church – is a reasonable place to begin a journey through faith.  But the letter of the law can only take you so far.

Jesus famously said, “I came not to abolish the law, but to complete it.”  That’s a phrase that’s often thrown back at people of a more progressive bent who want to turn their minds toward the spirit of the law.  We’re told, “but the laws are still valid.  Jesus didn’t come to abolish them, to but to complete them!”

On Pentecost, we remember that it is precisely by the giving of the Spirit that Christ moves us more toward a complete understanding of God and this faith that was born through Christ.  So, maybe the way that Christ encouraged the “completion” of the law, was by giving us the Spirit – the underlying principle.  It’s not about abolishing what was given before, but it is about seeing it with new understanding.

And that’s what the Holy Spirit always is for us: a path to new understanding.  The Holy Spirit is that storyteller who helps us to see a familiar story in a new way.  The Holy Spirit is that wisdom that helps us to see what we’ve always seen (and maybe even always known) in a new way – with new eyes, and a new heart.

The most dangerous thing for “tradition” or “the way we’ve always done it” is to give ourselves over to the whim of the Holy Spirit.  When we pray for the intervention of the Holy Spirit, God’s deepest creativity is unleashed.  It helps us to see the world in new ways, and it helps God to use us in new ways in this old world. 

As we struggle to understand God’s callings for us in the world and in the church, the most helpful thing we can do is to pray for the Holy Spirit to intervene.  As we try to discern the unseen future of this church and our place within it, the most deeply impactful thing we can do is to turn to God regularly and say, “Come, Holy Spirit.”  And then, don’t be surprised when your prayers are answered.

I sort of think that one of the things God wants most from us is an openness to hearing and telling the story of God in creation in new ways.  This God who is primarily and most significantly a God committed to creation and creating, is a God who is longing to have us join in on the creativity.  Being open to the intervention of the Holy Spirit is one of the greatest gifts we can give to God.

It can certainly be a scary thing.  It can mean we won’t know what the future will hold.  But it can also be the kind of wild blessing that will light us on fire and teach us to speak and to understand in new ways – the same we heard that the Holy Spirit impacted those first disciples in the Book of Acts.

That’s what the Holy Spirit can do.  May we be open enough to take the gift that is being given.  May we be wise enough to ask for it and brave enough to receive it.  Amen.