glory of god

glory of god

Monday, June 13, 2011

On Endings, Beginnings, Graduations, & the Gifts of the Spirit: A Sermon for Pentecost


I’ve been thinking a lot about endings and beginnings lately. I think that’s because of this time of year—the ending of a school year, for some even it’s even the ending of a school career with graduation season upon us. But then, of course, just when something ends, like high school, college, or graduate school, a new beginning is set before us as well—or at least the hope of a new beginning—whether that’s a job or more school in a different place. I suppose it’s not too profound to say that whenever we experience any kind of ending in life, we experience a new beginning at the same time. Whatever circumstance life hands us, there is always the hope of something new to follow.

Later this afternoon, my high school will be holding its graduation ceremony at the Target Center (the arena of the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team) in downtown Minneapolis--the very same place that my own graduation ceremony was held 20 years ago when the Target Center was just a few months old. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years on the one hand, but then on the other, it really seems like a foggy, misty life-time ago that I can barely remember.

Perhaps like you, sometimes I wonder, if I were to go back and look at my former, younger self, who would I find? A very skinny guy with a lot of insecurity and doubt, who didn’t always get along with his mother and new stepfather, who didn’t even have a drivers’ license and was tired of working for $3.85 an hour at the Dairy Queen, but who also looked forward to a future full of possibility. Most especially, I looked forward to going away to college, to starting over, to figuring out what my life should be all about.

What I definitely know is that I would never have expected that I would be here, in this place with you, 20 years later. When I graduated from high school, my plan was to go to college and major in German and Political Science, with a goal of being a German teacher, or if I was thinking really big, to work in international politics in Austria or something. But as it turns out, I didn’t end up majoring in either German or Political Science. Early on I discovered my deeper interest in religion; the college’s German department fell apart so I switched to Swedish (Minnesota is probably the only place in the country you can do that with no more than a blink of the eye!), I learned about the Episcopal Church, and my life was somehow set on a very different trajectory than I had planned when I donned my graduation cap and gown. My mother jokes that she sent her Lutheran son to a Lutheran college and he came out wanting to be Episcopal priest!

Our lives take many unexpected, bumpy, twisty, windy paths, don’t they? Sometimes there are forks in the road that force us to make difficult choices. We find roads closed that we had planned to take, sometimes we have to ask for directions, and we may even have to turn around and go back when we get lost. I suspect that for many of you, life has been much the same. And for those who are younger, thinking of graduation, college, jobs, and your own life’s future, you should remember that whatever plans you might have, whatever road you have mapped out today, may not be the one that God has planned for you. But that’s okay. It’s even as it should be. Because somehow, in some way, you will get to where God wants you to go, even if it may seem like you have to take more than your fair share of detours to get there.

One of my favorite people is David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to National Public Radio and the PBS Newshour. Recently he wrote a column for today’s college graduates. But actually, I think his insights apply to just about all of us. He writes:

Today’s graduates are told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams…. But, most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution….

The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things … that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most…. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.

Well to me, that sounds an awful lot like something Jesus said to his disciples 2,000 years ago. They likewise followed a bumpy, twisty, windy road. For them, like us, there was no map, no GPS, no life plan. They must have wondered: Was there any kind of future in this disciple business or would it be better to try fishing, net mending, and tax collecting once more? Would their friends and family take them back? Would their employers? Or did the path they followed Jesus on prevent them from going back to the life they had known previously? And if so, where would it lead them now?

Of course they had that promise of Jesus that he would not leave them comfortless, that God would send the Holy Spirit to fill their hearts, sustain them, uphold them, and help direct their path. But until the Spirit came, during the time of waiting, it must have seemed like one more impossible puzzle, one more confusing mystery among many since the fateful day they decided to drop their nets, to give up their lives, and fish for people.

Eventually, of course, on Pentecost, the Spirit did come and filled their hearts. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that the Holy Spirit came like a rush of a violent wind and descended on them like fire, giving them the ability to speak in a multitude of languages. Of course, we can’t be sure if that’s how it really happened, or if that’s more of a dramatic, pictorial way of describing something that, like the resurrection, defies explanation. But however it happened, the disciples came to believe, in a new and different way, that indeed Jesus had not left alone, that there would be some guide or at least a light on their path, that God would uphold and sustain them through whatever lay ahead.

What’s interesting, though, is the fact that much like David Brooks’ suggestion about a finding a meaningful life today, the Bible never tells us that the life of discipleship became easy, even after the gift of the Spirit. We don’t read that suddenly it all became clear and smooth or that there were no more bumps or potholes in their road. In fact, the Bible tells us just the opposite. We read that those who chose to follow Jesus faced many, many trials and challenges—people didn’t listen to them and held them up to ridicule, some were imprisoned, and some were even killed for their faith, just as Jesus himself had been.

The gift of the Spirit didn’t prevent any of these trials. Rather, what the Holy Spirit did was empower them to face the great challenges of life, confident in the power and promise of God to sustain them through anything the world might dole out. It doesn’t mean that life wasn’t still hard or that they didn’t have serious questions and doubts, because they surely did. But it does mean that when they stopped, when they prayed, when connected again with the Holy Spirit that lived and breathed in them, when they drank from the Spirit, to use the language of today’s readings, they realized that their strength was in God and not in their own ideas, their own plans, or their own accomplishments. They realized that whatever happened on the road they followed, God’s light would shine on them and through them. And that, for them, was enough.

And it’s enough for us, too. Because the same Spirit that the disciples received in such a dramatic fashion on that Day of Pentecost 2,000 years ago lives on still, in us, today. The Spirit empowers us to be who God created us to be and helps us to fulfill whatever dream God has in mind for us. Sometimes, the Spirit even encourages us to consider challenges and opportunities that don’t even seem possible. I think that’s why Paul’s writes, “To one is given the utterance of wisdom, to another knowledge, to another faith, to another gifts of healing, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.”

In this, Paul reminds us not only of the diverse gifts that God showers on us in the Holy Spirit, but also, and I think more importantly, of the power of those gifts to literally transform us from the inside out, helping us to be who we could never have imagined, to take on tasks that we could never have imagined, and in the process empowering us to transform the world, in big and small ways, into the kingdom that God is bringing into being through you, through us, together.

Whatever your gifts may be, whatever ours are together, God gives us the energy we need to take on life’s challenges, to see that each day is full of new promise and new possibility, to work for transformation, and to make all things new. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we won’t always succeed. We’ll stumble more often than we’d like. Sometimes, we’ll find ourselves on roads that seem like dead ends or that lead to nowhere good. But then, just as we throw up our hands in despair feeling like we can’t handle any more, we realize that we already have what we need to get us through--a spark, a flame, God’s spirit, burning within us, giving us courage and power to face another day, to take on another challenge, to embrace another opportunity.

That’s what this day, this Pentecost is all about. It’s our reminder that God is ever and always with us: guiding us, challenging us, shining light on our path and in our hearts, and opening to us new possibilities, new hope, and new life, each and every day.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

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