This sermon was preached on Sunday, August 23, 2015, at Triangle Park, Dayton, Ohio, at an ecumenical service with Christ Episcopal Church, First Baptist Church, and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.
I used to live and work in Bath, Maine. Bath is the City of Ships—shipbuilding started there in 1607 and continues to this very day at the Bath Iron Works.
One summer, just down the peninsula from Bath, a replica of Leif Ericson’s Viking ship was built. Named the Snori, it was taken to Greenland where it was then sailed to Nova Scotia—tracing the voyage that Ericson had made nearly a millennium before.
There’s a saying that there are two seasons in Maine: winter and July. Later that same summer, one July weekend was particularly hot. There was no air-conditioning given that there was only a month of summer. When I got to the church early on that Sunday morning, I propped open the main church doors as well as two other doors in the back of the sanctuary do ventilate and cool the space.
About half an hour before the service began, a squirrel entered the church. I discovered it as it jumped from the altar to the pulpit. Two ushers and I gave chase, only to be eluded at every turn—over and under pews, up and down the aisles—you can imagine. It only left as others arrived for worship—the squirrel apparently decided that it was getting too crowded. So out the door it ran without so much as a glance back at its frustrated pursuers.
I later told the congregation that I had a new symbol for the Holy Spirit—who, like the wind—goes where it will, completely beyond human control. A few weeks later I was presented with this stole to commemorate that Maine summer—a representation of the Viking ship and, of course, my squirrel. It seems appropriate for me to wear my “summer stole” today as we worship on this glorious day in Triangle Park.
That description of the Holy Spirit as being like the wind comes out the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus—in the third chapter of John. Jesus tells Nicodemus that to be part of God’s Kingdom, a person has to be born again.
Nicodemus – a literalist—has a hard time trying to get his mind around how he can get back into his mother’s womb. At which point Jesus says that what he means is that one has to be born of the Spirit.
The wind* blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ (John 3:8-9)
To a Pharisee, a literalist, a legalist, the idea of sitting loose, being free like the wind or a squirrel—“How can these things be?”
Well, here we are on another summer Sunday, Episcopalians and Baptists getting ready to share bread and the fruit of the vine. How can these things be? We have all kinds of jokes about wine and grape juice that arise out of doctrinal differences about the meaning of the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Mass, the holy Eucharist, the Last Supper. These different understandings have led to division and pain.
About 40 years ago one of my seminary classmates participated in blessing a mixed marriage (Just so you know how much things have changed, back then a mixed marriage was between a Roman Catholic Bride and an Episcopal Groom. The service took place in the Roman Catholic Church. When it was time for distributing the bread and wine, my friend was disinvited, by name, from participating—right along with the groom and his entire Episcopal family.
Seething, my friend bided his time. He was asked to offer the prayer at the reception. He began, “Unfortunately Lord, we were unable to share earlier at the church, so this reception meal is going to have to be for us the true communion this evening.” –Not the most politic thing to say, but many of us have been there—where in the midst of worship—the people of God were unable to share the holy meal.
I don’t mean to diminish or disparage anyone’s dearly held doctrinal understanding of what does or doesn’t happen to the bread and the fruit of the vine. But I do suggest that we can become so protective of our particular doctrines that we lose sight of a larger calling – as St. Paul so clearly said:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:12-13)
So you see, regardless of what we think about what happens with the bread and grape juice—the real body of Christ is the Church—the baptized—you and me.
In a world where
- people are terrorized,
- fearful for the economy,
- fighting terrible diseases,
- being exiled in overcrowded refugee camps,
- made homeless and marginalized,
- so desperate to escape such unimaginable conditions that they’re willing to risk all in unseaworthy vessels to cross the Mediterranean
- with global warming proceeding unabated while politicians play Russian roulette with the future of humanity
- where candidates for the presidency of the United States promote racial and ethnic hatred and ignorance.
In such a world the church does not have the luxury to squabble over the meaning of communion, how much water must be involved in a baptism, or whether we have bishops in order to be part of the Body of Christ.
We have too much to do—too many issues to address—too many demons to slay—too much hatred to overcome—too few resources to draw upon—to be distracted by doctrinal subtleties. Our work as the Body of Christ is too important.
So what we do here this morning is to throw out the divisions. It is why I so treasure our relationship. We are proclaiming and living out a message for the world. Even with our different doctrines, Episcopal and Baptist—we are one. One Body, one spirit, one Lord, one God and Father of us all.
The Holy Spirit of God, wind or squirrel, is a Spirit that eludes our divisions. It is a Spirit that calls us beyond ourselves to minister to the world.
In the Episcopal tradition, as we distribute the bread’ we say, “The body of Christ.” I have long advocated that we say, “You are the body of Christ.”
It bypasses the liturgical and doctrinal divide about what happens to the bread and the wine. It places the responsibility to be Christ’s body directly on us. It gives us meaning and purpose and courage to follow wherever the Spirit leads
Thanks for being here. Thanks for caring enough to transcend the barriers that separate. And most of all, thanks for the willingness to be Christ’s body to feed the hunger of the world.