In recent weeks, I’ve been watching the events in Joplin, Missouri, where a tornado decimated the city. I’ve watched television interviews with the victims. Over and over again, people spoke of their sense of dislocation, of disorientation. The vengeful wind that rolled through had obliterated all of the landmarks with which they were familiar. Their homes and their sense of place were upended in a horrible way. They were transformed.
Some said, “Thank God we’re still alive. The house is gone, but we survived.” Others wept and cried out, “We’ve lost everything. How can we begin again?” Still others were desperately looking for loved ones whose hands they had been clutching just moments before the twister reduced their house to rubble.
Different words, different responses to be sure. But the one thing they all had in common – mayor, firefighter, nurse, mother, pastor – was that they had been indelibly changed by a wind that blew through their lives.
Now take that image, a wind that turns your life upside down, and imagine it in a different time and place. Feel yourself in a room with the disciples in those few moments before the wind rushed through.
You’ve been together, praying, arguing about what to do next, eating, adding another disciple to replace Judas the Betrayer. You have gotten your instructions, to be sure: you are to stay put until the Holy Spirit comes, whatever that means. You’ve moved from a mood of grief and fear in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death, to one of joy and renewed hope when Jesus came back raised from the dead. And now you are….where? Wondering what to do in this seemingly endless wait-state, wondering what the Holy Spirit will be like, look like, sound like. Wondering how it will feel, how you will feel. A group of people who are no more than a whirlpool of hope and anxiety, waiting for what comes next.
And then, a wind. Unlike Joplin, there are no tornado sirens to precede it. One minute there is the squabbling in the room and the noises of the livestock and the fruit sellers and the women haggling for a better price and then, a wall of sound that obliterates all that came before. White noise. It hurts the ears. It presses down so you can hardly breathe. And then it stops. An utter absence of sound, but in the silence a rising insistent murmur as a strange thing happens. Tongues of flame descending, not burning, just gently resting on each and every head. And the murmur transforms into a cacophony as each person with their fiery crown dancing on their skulls begins to proclaim the word, each person speaking a different language, a language that they could not have spoken before this second.
A wind, transforming them, rushing through and turning their very souls upside down in their hearts. Not a destructive wind, as the one we saw in the past few weeks, but a constructive one, transforming each person in that room, each follower into a person with a voice to speak and praise and sing and teach and proclaim in new ways, with new power.
And in that moment, I wonder if they noticed that no one in their group was excluded from the wind and the flame. No, each one was transformed. Each one was given a gift of some sort. This Spirit-wind carried the power to transform every person in that room.
Peter, the same Peter who had denied Christ, who had hidden in a corner of the courtyard and had not made a move to defend his Lord…he stood up and boldly responded to the naysayers in the crowd. And he too reminded them that such a strange and wonderful blessing of powers had been foretold by the prophets, and that all those who believed were given such a gift.
Every one. But we forget that, don’t we?
I wonder if we think that not everyone gets that tongue of flame dancing above their brow. I wonder if we doubt that God has given us any gifts. It’s easy to get an inferiority complex and believe that only the most worthy people get that Spirit moment. We aren’t in an upper room with a bunch of other disciples dressed in long robes, so we think that Pentecost, that the gifts of the Spirit, are something far distant from us. We don’t get those powers, do we?
Ah, but we do. Each of us sitting here is actually sitting in that upper room. Each of us who has been baptized has that flame flickering above us. Each of us has gifts from God through the working of the Holy Spirit, that great breath of God inflaming us with love. Each of us has some unique ability that we haven’t even begun to perceive yet. Trust me on this one – this is real, for every single one of you. You have all been transformed by the powerful wind of the Holy Spirit, given gifts to use.
Sometimes I look around this room and I see these gifts in action. I see those who embody wisdom, who can take the long view and gently and kindly advise others in matters both spiritual and secular. I see those who are amazing listeners, patient and sensitive, and those who give good counsel. I see those whose courage in the face of life’s difficulties is inspiring. I see those whose daily prayer life and study of God’s word is an example of piety. I see those for whom the love of God is not an abstract, but an everyday certainty that informs how they interact with the world around them. These are not gifts that necessarily take any kind of special training – no, they are pure gift from God, and I’ll bet you can think of some folks around you who have these gifts.
But the thing about these gifts of the Holy Spirit are that they come with a responsibility, a responsibility to use these gifts. Perhaps one is a Sunday School teacher or a youth group leader, giving guidance to our beloved children. Another might be one who has taken the time to doing some serious Bible study, or who helps lead a study or prayer group. Another might help out a hurting soul with a kind word or an errand run. We live into our gifts by acting on them, by using them in God’s service, by celebrating the gift we have been given by passing on what we can, however we can.
This is not about money, or skill sets, or tools. It is about giving in love what God has given us. It is about bringing about God’s reign in action.
Is it easy? No. It is work to discern these spiritual gifts, and to see how best to use them in this place. It is a process of prayer and reflection to see beyond simply doing tasks necessary to keep the parish running and see into the work that God has in mind for each of us. It might take some experimentation until we find the thing that makes us feel, “Ah, this is what I was supposed to be doing.”
For me, when I finally faced the scary proposition that I was called to ordained ministry, when I finally stopped fighting the gifts God had given me and surrendered to the responsibility that came with those gifts, when that moment finally came, I breathed a deep and satisfying sigh, and was happier than I had been in a long time. I had tried every kind fo lay ministry that was available to me, but none had given me that moment of sighing and joy that I felt when I accepted God’s invitation.
Are spiritual gifts always about ordained ministry? Of course not. Some of the greatest practitioners of responding to God’s gifts have always been laypersons. Are spiritual gifts the work of a lifetime? Sometimes yes, more often not. We may discover that we are given a gift in one time in our life – showing God’s radical hospitality to others – and then suddenly we are called to a different gift, a different task – facilitating a Bible study, or providing support to parishioners who are ill. God’s gifts are infinitely variable and we can expect that the Holy Spirit’s sense of humor will sometimes call us to the last place we want to be!
One of the things I’ve been reflecting on this past week is the great depth and breadth of spiritual gifts we are blessed with in this parish, and yet sometimes I fear we doubt we are capable of doing great things. We think that we are a small parish with modest people with modest gifts.
I’ll let you in on a secret. There are no modest gifts. They all come from the all-powerful, all-loving God who cherishes each one of us with infinite generosity. How could the gifts that we have received from such a God be modest?
And how could the work we do to live into such extraordinary gifts be anything less than amazing?
I know, I know. Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” I beg to differ. I believe that each and every one of us can do great things, because the gifts we have been given come from great love, the greatest love.
So on this day when we wonder if we can feel that little red flame just a millimeter above our head, when we fear that we have no gifts because we are not special enough, reach deep inside. Feel a whisper in your heart. Be still and listen to that whisper: it will grow until it is an awesome roaring wind of God’s love for you, and you will trust that your gifts from a mighty wind will give you what you need to do mighty things.
Give thanks for the window-rattling whoosh of the Holy Spirit to convey God’s gift to you, and go do something with it!