The Spirit and the Gift

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Day of Pentecost
June 9, 2019

John 14:8-17, 25-27

Seven years ago, I stood before you and before this congregation for the first time. Leaving the somewhat comfortable, non-confrontational life of an assistant rector, you had called me here. The Spirit of God had called me here. Like those apostles gathered together on the Day of Pentecost two thousand years ago, you could feel the raw emotion in the church that day. The anxiety but also the hope and the expectation was just oozing out of the walls; not unlike the nervous beads of sweat that ran down my spine. And so I climbed into this pulpit in that old church and preached my first sermon here. And I’ll admit it, I said some pretty ridiculous things. 

I said that churches, in general, refused to embrace the imagination and creativity that had been given to them by God because they are afraid. I said that Christians had bought into the lie that a life with Christ necessarily meant that we would be successful in the eyes of the world. I said that during my ministry here, we would take risks. I said that we would ditch what we didn’t need and hang on to dear life for what we did. I said that we would fail. Yes, on my first Sunday in this pulpit I said that we would fail. I said that the only way for us to make sense of who we are is to cling to the cross and to be crucified ourselves. I read that sermon back to myself now and wonder that you didn’t run me out of town. But I still stand by every word.

And indeed, seven years on, I see that even when I didn’t believe those words I spoke, you did. I have seen your trust and your faithfulness in the Lord God. When our sacred cows were getting in the way, you let them go. When you heard that over twenty thousand cars pass by our church every day, you had the idea of doing Drive-Thru Ashes on Ash Wednesday. When you saw the elderly trapped in loneliness and isolation in all the nursing homes around here, you started worship services in those places. When you saw that we had families and kids, you stepped up to provide community and support and love. When the septic lines broke, when the pipes in the Parish Hall rusted through, when an untold number of air conditioners have gone down, when the power went out and we had church by candle light, when Harvey drenched our church and our homes, you were undaunted. When you came up with the dream of this place, you found the will and the way to do it. Yes, we have failed many times over during these last seven years, I have failed you too, but God has provided. In this 2019, our Year of Abundance, we are celebrating the extravagant generosity of a God who paid no attention to our failures and provided us with all that we needed and more.

In that last supper with his disciples, Jesus promises that those who believe in him will do even greater works than he has done. I had studied those words in seminary and scratched my head. How in the world could we do more than Jesus? But I have seen those words of Jesus bear fruit here in these last seven years. The Spirit of God has empowered you to adopt an elementary school, to nurture a loving parish family, to launch six missional communities, to help the homeless get a job, to lead three summer youth mission trips. In this time, the Spirit of God prepared 49 people to be baptized, and today we count 50 and 51. This has not been my work; this has not been your work; this has been the work of God.

This is the great theological truth of Pentecost. At our best, we are vessels of the grace of God working within us; not because we are necessarily righteous people but because God has chosen us for this work. Think of the glory of that for just a moment – God does not only live far off in the highest heaven, God lives inside of your own heart. This, this, is God’s habitation. Can you think of any better news? The work of the Church is the work of people insofar as those people are motivated and inspired by the Spirit of God; a Spirit that descends upon us, enlivens us, and sets the world on fire. The same Spirit that has set this church on fire. The same Spirit that has set me on fire, because I have seen that Spirit in you. This is the same Spirit that gave Peter the words to preach, that gave Paul the words to pray. This is the same Spirit that led our forebears to start a church here in 1971. The same Spirit that led me to seminary, to Waco, and to here. And I’ll tell you what – it’s never been about me, it’s never been about you, it’s always been about the Spirit of God.

This is not my church, this is not your church, this is God’s church. I will leave for a sabbatical, yes, but you don’t need me. You’ve never needed me. What we need is each other and the Spirit of God from on high. It’s an important lesson for us, as we baptize Samuel and Calvin today; that the church is never about the priest, the church is about the people and the Spirit of God. The Spirit that now comes upon these two young boys for baptism.

Take this Spirit for what it is – a gift. The Spirit of God that dwells in your hearts and in your homes is a gift. Listen again to the words of Jesus, “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” I do not give to you as the world gives.

And how does the world give? The world gives with strings attached. The world gives meagerly. The world is stingy. The world gives just enough to whet your appetite but then dashes your hopes. We are lured into the suburbs, thinking they will provide all the community we need. But as it turns out, we have to pay for that community. We are lured in by a low interest rate on that credit card, but we are gouged if we miss a payment. The discount may look really good, the deal might sound sweet, but they will get you coming or going. The world gives by telling you that you are not enough and that you can be enough if only you buy more from them. That is how the world gives.

Not so with God. Not so with the Church. The grace of the Holy Spirit is poured out freely. With an abundance, an extravagance that we can hardly fathom. The Spirit of God is poured out upon these children freely, without cost. I have labored alongside you in God’s vineyard, not to be paid but as my own gift to God. And now you have given me the gift of this time away, and I receive it as a gift. If anything, this Year of Abundance is about the abundance of gifts we have given each other. And I am grateful. 

So yes, part of this day is about me leaving. I get that. But the Spirit does not leave with me. I trust, and I expect, that you will come to church, week by week. As I will still be going to church week by week. If we turn our backs on worship, then we are turning on backs on the Spirit. I trust, and I expect that you will take care of each other, pouring out yourselves as gifts to one another. I trust, and I expect that you will pray, day by day. You will greet the visitors, you will help out at Vacation Bible School, you will pray for our kids as they go on mission trips. You will start Sunday School in the fall. You will raise up Calvin and Samuel in their life in Christ. It will be the Spirit who gives you the strength to do all that and more, not me. 

So do not take this day as a celebration of me going away. Heavens no. Take this day as the day that the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples two thousand years ago. Take this day as the day that the Holy Spirit has been gifted to these young children in baptism. Take this day as the day that the Holy Spirit has been gifted to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid. Be grateful. Be joyful. For we have already received more than we can ask or imagine. The true gift, the gift that has empowered this parish for life in Christ, has always been the Spirit of God.

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