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A Feather on the Breath of God

A Sermon for the Day of Pentecost

Hildegard of Bingen said a faithful life means “to be a feather on the breath of God.”

And what does a feather know about wind?
What does a kite have to understand in order to fly?
How much knowledge of meteorology does a sailboat need to feel the strength of full sails?

The Day of Pentecost is a day to celebrate the baptism of the global church. It’s a kind of birth-day for the church. Shall we sing? Sounds straightforward as church days go.

But I have questions, and I hope I’m not alone. Like:

What is this Holy Spirit that Jesus promised would come after he himself leaves?
And what is this X-files scene in the story of Acts?– The rushing wind, the flames on people’s heads?

A story like today’s from Acts 2 reminds me that there are a whole lot of things I don’t understand about God, faith, our tradition. And a whole lot I don’t know about how God works.

That’s why I appreciate Hildegard’s idea of being “a feather on the breath of God.” That image of a faithful life is very freeing, isn’t it? It helps me know what trust feels like.

Grace and peace to you from God who is above and beyond us, God next to us in our neighbor and within us as a breath. Amen.

Let’s get into this with the Holy Spirit.

In the Hebrew scriptures — the Older Testament which was Jesus’ Bible— the word for spirit is the same word for breath. It’s Ruach. Say that with me: Ruach. (ROO-ahk) Good. At creation, the Ruach of God was hovering over the waters.

In the New Testament—the part of the Bible written after Jesus’ time—the word for spirit is pneuma. Say it with me: Pneuma. (NOO-mah) In the Gospel of John, Jesus says God is Pneuma.

What’s this Spirit of God like? Well, in the gospels Jesus promises that this holy Spirit is an Advocate much like a defense attorney is a champion for vulnerable people in court. God is for us. Paul writes in Romans the pneuma of God intercedes on our behalf when we pray, especially when we don’t know how to pray. God is with us. In the Acts 2 story of Pentecost, there is described a rushing pneuma wind among the people gathered. And it says they were amazed and astonished. So God’s spirit also inspires the people. Like breathing, filled with breath or spirit: in-spire. God is in us.

God is for us and with us and in us. And invisible. To live with a God that is for us, with us, in us and is invisible but whose influence we experience every day makes wind or breath a pretty good image for God.

Those followers of Jesus were amazed and astonished at this windy day of Pentecost. They didn’t understand what was happening to them. I like that this is in the Bible because I feel that way a lot. I don’t always understand what’s going on, not completely anyway. Sometimes Trish explains things to me. Sometimes Sam our eight-year-old does. Most of the time if I can’t get my head around things, I’m okay with that; it helps me tend honest trust in my life. But… But sometimes, I desperately want to understand the world and how God works in it.

In fact, may I confess something to you? [deep breath. pregnant pause]. That got your attention, right? There have been times in my life when I have been tempted into idolatry. Now, don’t be shocked. You have, too. An idol is simply anything that takes our attention away from God (Perfect Love, Holiness, Ground of Being, etc.). Paul Tillich says idolatry it’s anything that distracts us from our Ultimate Concern. Which is your understanding of God.

So anyway. I confess to you there have been times when I have placed something ahead of God. Namely, my concern for understanding God. I have sometimes found myself thinking that the more certain my faith is the better life will be and the better human being I will be. Certainty has been my idol. The thing that has sometimes deflected my thoughts from love, and has sabotaged my trust in the Living God. Certainty. A craving for knowledge. Mostly, I don’t do that now. Mostly, that seems like a long time ago. But I consider myself in recovery, and like all addicts know, I will never be out of the woods completely.

Now knowledge is good, but I’d stake my life on the fact that you don’t have to be smart to be faith-full. To be intellectual is not to be a better human being. God loves all of us the same and just as much as Albert Einstein and Steven Hawking. Just as much as those with mental challenges and clinical brain damage. If you need a reminder of that perfect love today, I invite you to touch your hand in the water in the Baptismal font in the narthex. Touch your head with your wet fingers and make the sign of the cross. You belong to Christ who loves you without fail.

Now. Do we like to learn? Sure. BUT the pursuit of knowledge with the objective of certainty can get in our way. Ever read Ecclesiastes? Trying to wrangle God into a corner with words we understand can sabotage honest faith. As soon as we think, “Oh yeah, God. I know God. I read the book, passed that class, learned all I need to know.” At that point, God is no longer living. Like the second commandment to Israel, God has become in that moment a chiseled graven image in our consciousness. And dead.

Some say even reciting the creed on Sunday mornings can be idolatry if it stops our imagination of what God is.

Think right now of someone who loves you. How do you know they love you? How could you possibly be certain of that? When I think about how my wife Trish loves me, God’s honest truth, I’m not sure why she does. I’m a nice enough guy, but she really loves me. I don’t totally get it, but I think I’d stake my life on it. That’s called trust. But this trust is in a different category than certainty.

One of my favorite authors, Thomas Moore writes that the greatest sin in the world right now is literalism. In politics, ecology, religion and personal relationships, any time we’re convinced things are black and white, this or that, we’ve got an idol on our hands and we’ve missed the essential wonder, beauty and life of it. That’s why seeking knowledge about God instead of seeking God is missing the point.

That’s why I am passionate about asking questions and inviting others to ask their questions. Because the remedy to dead faith is imagination and trust.

But I know why some of us are drawn to certainty instead of trust. A huge part of our culture is about looking smart, knowing the right things to say to dazzle people. Impress the boss, the other dads, the other moms. Have it together for class. Buy the right clothes and the right phone for the part. Get the pic for the Facebook post. Look confident, look smart.

But listen: paying attention to our scriptures and our own life stories shows us something completely different. A whole lot of finding ourselves in Christ’s Life is about not having a clue about what this amazing and astonishing life is up to. When we’re surprised at the twists and turns in our stories, we’re reminded that we don’t own this Pentecost God. As Jesus said, the wind blows where it will; you don’t know where it came from or where it’s going, but watch what it can do!

To be a feather on the breath of God. What a wonderful place to be: To know that there’s no test to pass, that we are free from the requirement of comprehending. And free to trust the invisible wind.

Now I am prone to over-thinking. And today, friends, some of us are working like crazy to make sense of  life. To get what’s up with your family or where things are at at work. Some of us are working hard to calculate the smart move financially or in an important relationship. Listen: Good News! God is for you, and it Does. Not. Matter. if you can figure these things out or not. God is carrying you like a feather on the Christ wind. You don’t have to pretend to have it all together. In fact, confessing together that we need help for our lives, as we did earlier in the service today, is a powerful way to pray.

My friend Bernie lived down in Texas all his life, never traveled much. When he came to visit me near Okoboji one January, he was totally freaked out by the concept of winter. It was really kinda fun for me to introduce him to snow and ice. I invited him to take a walk with me on West Lake Okoboji.  You’d think I asked him to jump off a cliff. It was like the most radical thing he’d ever heard. Walking. On. A lake. But we went out together, and after a few steps he relaxed a little. When I told him we could walk all the way across, his heart raced a little more.

His fear that the ice wouldn’t hold him had no bearing on its ability to easily do so. His doubt or certainty didn’t matter. In the dead of winter, if you decide to step out on a frozen lake, it isn’t your belief in how thick the ice is that will keep you safe. It’s the actual thickness of the ice that counts. Gingerly wiggle your boot out there or jump on out. No difference.

So on this Day of Pentecost we celebrate being feathers together on the breath of God, and trusting that the Holy Spirit is not only trust-able. She’s in charge. Just like Jesus is called the “author of faith” in the book of Hebrews, faith is not just up to us; Paul writes that faith is a gift of God. So we can let go of anything that looks like a hoop to jump through.

But here’s what’s funny: a lot of us also love doctrine. We like to have words to memorize and say confidently what we believe. We like to have it right. Ha! Doctrine is interesting and consider my seminary education a great gift. Talking doctrine can be a wonderful starting place for conversation about God and who we think we are in the world. But some of us need reminding: are we willing to loosen our grip on our ideas about God for the sake of trusting who God is? How attached we can be to our ideas! Our beliefs! Our, ours, my, mine! It can be exhausting pressure to feel responsible for who God is.

What if we gave up thinking we have to understand? What would that look like at church? What would faith feel like when you get into bed at night? Let’s practice being a feather held in God, totally available to be guided to holy places in perfect timing.

To close, I want to teach you a prayer that has been helpful to me in the last six months. If it’s helpful, practice it. If not, let it go.

Step One is to practice giving up our expectations, our certainty on how God will move, the rules we think God has to follow. I invite you to close your eyes for focus if you like.

Whatever is on your mind today, begin by affirming that you probably don’t know precisely what the whole issue is or what’s supposed to happen with it. You do not know everything, and you’re not supposed to.

Repeat after me: I don’t know HOW.  (I don’t know HOW).

We begin with the words, “I don’t know HOW I’m going to make the rent this month…” or “I don’t know HOW this relationship will heal…” or “I don’t know HOW this trouble will come to an end…”

What is on your mind that deserves this kind of honesty?

I’ll give you a moment to crystallize this in your imagination. [Invite a full silence]

In this space, do you feel how open your life is? This is vulnerable. It can be scary. There are things we do not know or understand in our lives. And this is just fine. This is not the time to figure things out. This is a time to let that go, if only for this moment.

Part two of the prayer is surrendering to God that is with us, for us and in us. Listen to Romans 8: If God is for us, who can be against us; nothing can separate us from God’s love. Psalm 23: Goodness and love are pursuing us all the days of our lives. Romans: The spirit intercedes for us in prayer with sighs too deep for words.  And Jesus in John 3: I came to love the world– not to condemn it. God is with us and God is for us, God is in us.

So part two of the prayer is trusting God who loves us. Repeat after me: I only know (I only know) God is taking care of everything (God is taking care of everything).

“I don’t know HOW I’m going to make the rent this month…I only know God is taking care of everything.”
“I don’t know HOW this relationship will heal…I only know that God is taking care of everything.”
“I don’t know HOW the trouble will come to an end…I only know that God is taking care of everything.”

We are giving up our rules of what God should do. We are allowing, blessing and inviting God to move in any way God desires, to blow the wind with any holy speed, depth and direction. See how this helps us pray with Jesus, “thy will be done?”

Some of you are thinking: “This is way too simple-minded. There’s stuff to be done. I can’t be in my room all day praying, I need to take action”.

And often there is action in prayer. But this is a model to remind us that the Holy Spirit prays for us. It reminds us that prayer does not depend on us saying the right words as if it’s magic. This prayer is for letting go of the premise for a particular action, for a particular outcome or for anything but God who is love surrounding you and taking care of everything.

Practice this prayer whenever you are expecting yourself to figure everything out.

Again, close your eyes a moment, if you wish. Blue sky, a few fluffy clouds. Beautiful day, powerful day. You are a feather. Notice your colorings and texture. On the breath of God. What aroma is in the air? You are a feather. What can you see from here? On the breath of God. Look around and see you are not alone.  You are a feather. What presence surrounds you? On the breath of God.

Brothers and Sisters, fellow feathers on the breath of God: Happy Day of Pentecost. Amen.

Delivered May 31, 2009
First Lutheran Church, Cedar Rapids, IA