I married my husband Zack a little over 8 years ago. I was only 23 and he was 22, fresh out of college when we got married, and despite the fact that 8 years have passed and a lot of life has happened in those years, there are parts of our engagement and wedding planning that still stick with me. Things like dress shopping, finding a venue, figuring out the centerpieces- all pretty standard stuff. We had a pretty long engagement, so we had plenty of time to feel like we were really on top of things.
But as we worked to check all the boxes on our list, it turned out that there was one gap that wasn’t so easy to fill- the flower girl. Like I mentioned, we got married pretty young, and we were some of the first people in our families to get married. So while some families might have an abundance of small children just waiting for their turn to throw flowers all over the place, we really didn’t. So thanks to the deficit of young kids in our family, we zeroed in on the one kid we did have- Zack’s second cousin Isa, who lived in Port Charlotte, Florida and who we had met... exactly one time before.
Now, as a parent of young children myself, looking back on this, I am AMAZED that they agreed to travel across the country with a small child, spend their money and time on a distant cousin’s wedding! But they were all in, and were super excited to have Isa be a part of our day.
And while we were so glad they were coming to the wedding- and I was happy to even have a flower girl in the first place- I was a little nervous about how the whole thing was going to go. They were family, but in a lot of ways they were strangers. And we didn’t have a huge wedding- we kept it to close family and friends- so throwing people in the mix that we didn’t know that well...so we had no idea what to expect. Who do we sit them with? Who would they get along with...or who could they offend or be offended by? What were they even really like? We basically just invited people we barely knew to not only come to our wedding, but to be IN the wedding!
And so, because I am a very relaxed and laid back person, I made sure to work hard to control every detail I could- not just with these unpredictable guests, but with everyone! I designed carefully thought out seating charts, made sure that there were activity kits at the tables with kids, and worked hard to micromanage every little detail so that things would go the way I wanted them to.
Of course, even our best intentions don’t always work out, and those unpredictable guests are going to do whatever they are going to do, seating chart or not. And while it feels good to try and keep everything under control and according to plan, getting too caught up in that might make us miss something amazing.
And you know, I think we might carry a similar attitude toward the Holy Spirit as I did with these unpredictable wedding guest. Yes, we KNOW the Holy Spirit is part of who God is, and we SHOULD invite it to the party. We’ve heard good things-maybe we’ve even had a time or two where we’ve experienced it ourselves. But if we’re honest, we have to admit that we don’t really know a ton about The Spirit, and it seems unpredictable at best...so we make sure it gets seated at Table 10, stays far away from great-aunt Edna, and we keep it off the dance floor so things don’t get TOO crazy.
And just like those long distance relatives, most of the unpredictability we feel about the Holy Spirit probably comes from all that we DON’T know. Even in the process of writing this sermon, I realized how much I don’t understand about the Holy Spirit- there is so much mystery, so much that doesn’t fit the way I tend to live my life or even interact with God. And a lot of times, it’s what we DON’T know that can cause us to be pretty hesitant about this part of who God is. Maybe all that we don’t know, and the little we think we know has even made us a bit afraid of the what the Holy Spirit might do to us.
We might be afraid of losing control, of encountering something that’s unfamiliar, or experiencing God in a way that we can’t quite wrap our heads around or understand. Especially for those of us whose faith stories HAVEN’T focused much on the Holy Spirit, these fears are real, and they make us wary of getting too up close and personal with The Spirit because we just can’t be sure of what might happen when we do.
I know in my life, pretty much the only time I ever even heard about the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost, which seemed weird to me when I was a kid) was during the benediction, or on Pentecost Sunday. The Holy Spirit wasn’t a part of my vocabulary or anything I gave any amount of time or energy to until I spent a year living in Chicago, interning at a Puerto Rican Pentecostal church (and that’s a whole different sermon in itself). As you’d imagine, they had a ROBUST theology of the Holy Spirit, and encountering the Spirit was central to most of our worship experiences. It was the rule more than the exception, and people would come to worship expecting something supernatural to happen.
And it was on a different level than I was used to. I was still trying to figure out what to do with my hands during worship, and this was arms up, singing at the top of our lungs, speaking in tongues, moved by the Spirit worship. To tell you the truth, there were times that it freaked me out, and I felt like an outsider. On one hand I felt like I was really missing out, and on the other I was ok because it all seemed pretty far out of my comfort zone, and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to go there.
And here’s what that year of interning at that church did- it confirmed that the Holy Spirit was a real part of who God is, and it opened up a ton of questions for me. One of the biggest questions I was left with was- why didn’t I have what everyone else around me in that church seemed to? Was the Holy Spirit a luxury item that only came to really special, holy people...and am I just not one of those special Spirit-filled people?
Maybe some of you can relate to my experience of the Holy Spirit. Maybe the Spirit’s been playing the role of your distant, unpredictable relative. Maybe the Holy Spirit isn’t even on your radar. And so this morning I want to ask some different questions about the Holy Spirit, questions we can ask together, in community- what if there’s more? What if we could reshape some of what we think we know about this part of who God is, and let the Holy Spirit be a more central part of our faith? What if the Holy Spirit isn’t just a bonus part of God reserved for the most holy and charismatic among us, but a critical part of how God works through us in the world? What would change for us if these things were true?
These words of Jesus that we read today help us engage these questions, by letting us eavesdrop in on the conversation that took place around the table during the Last Supper. If I had to set the scene here, I’d imagine that this was a meal with friends that might have had an anxious undercurrent to it. If you think about it, in some ways this is Jesus’ farewell address to the disciples, and he is taking time to lay out all the things he wants them to know before he dies. And I have to think that even then, in that room, around that table, as Jesus makes a promise that there is something coming to the disciples, even after he departs, even then I wonder if the Holy Spirit was a guest that the disciples weren’t quite sure how to receive. How could they really wrap their heads around the words that Jesus was saying to them: I’m leaving, but you won’t be left alone, the world won’t be able to see me, but you will...it’s hard for me to understand what exactly this all means, and I’m willing to bet that it was difficult for those disciples as well.
And whether or not the disciples are able to fully understand and wrap their minds around what Jesus is saying, the core of this time with them is that he’s making them a promise- the promise that no matter what is about to happen, the Holy Spirit is going to both COMFORT and EMPOWER them. What a powerful promise- the disciples can’t fully even know in that moment, but they’re going to need that comfort, and they’re going to need it in a big way.
Jesus was going to leave them- and not just move on to the next town kind of leaving. No, this man who they believed was God present with them, this person who they had witnessed doing miraculous things, who they had formed a deep friendship with, this man was going to die in a public, humiliating way. Jesus’ death and resurrection was going to bring on some major trauma for the men and women who followed him. Everything they knew was going to be tested and pushed against. More than a passive comforter, the Holy Spirit was going to be a lifeline- a reminder that they were NOT alone, even when they felt the most abandoned and isolated, and that God would get them through this moment of their entire world being turned upside down.
And so The Spirit comforts them, but it doesn’t stop there. The Spirit also empowered them to keep doing the work that Jesus had prepared them for. Because when these first followers of Jesus might have felt sidelined, might have been tempted to think that the story was over and walk away, that’s when the Holy Spirit went beyond warm fuzzy feelings about God’s love and propelled them to keep going, and keep putting the life changing love of Jesus out into the world. Because this work- this was work that was too important to end with Jesus’ departure- and it’s work that the Holy Spirit enables us to carry on today.
Here’s the thing- the disciples probably couldn’t fully grasp what it would mean to have the Holy Spirit inside of them- in that moment, around the table, they couldn’t have foreseen all that would be done in the name of the man they were eating dinner with. They couldn’t have predicted how the church would grow, and that lives would continue to be transformed thousands of years later. And the good news, for them and for us, is that the power of the Holy Spirit isn’t limited by what we can or cannot understand. God is mysterious and surprising, and when we’re willing to follow, the Spirit leads us to places we would NEVER pursue or expect, and we find ourselves surprised by what God is capable of. The Holy Spirit steps into the gap between what we’re sure we cannot do and what God is calling us to do, and makes it happen.
Going back to that story about the unpredictable guests at our wedding, we found ourselves surprised by what THEY were capable of. See, it turned out that despite all my planning, one member of the family made quite a scene at the reception. It turns out that Tim, Zack’s cousin’s husband, had once been employed as a professional party starter. Because that, is apparently a thing that people get paid for. We had no idea that this was a thing or that he had such a colorful resume until it was time for dancing. And then Tim left his table, and headed toward the dance floor.
At first? At first, I thought he was crazy. And that all my fears about WHO ARE THESE STRANGERS WE’RE PUTTING IN OUR WEDDING were coming true. But then guess what happened? Tim was no longer alone on the dance floor- it started to filled up. EVERYONE- and I mean everyone, including some of our 80 year old grandparents- were dancing. And people danced all night long. The dance floor was full, the party was high energy all night long until we were contractually obligated to get out.
We didn’t know what to expect with these guests. We didn’t know we needed Tim at our party, and we definitely didn’t expect him to be the person who made it the most fun, and was responsible for one of my favorite photos from our wedding. If we hadn’t opened up space in our wedding to their family, or if they had just shown up and sat quietly at their table while Isa colored, we would have missed out on one of my favorite moments from the entire day, and a memory we STILL talk about almost a decade later.
When we can be open to the unexpected ways that the Holy Spirit wants to move in our lives, think about the possibilities. Even with a story like the one I just shared with you, I’ll be the first person to admit that I STILL try to avoid unpredictability in my life. It is so much more comfortable to BELIEVE in the Holy Spirit than be MOVED by The Spirit. But our challenge is that Jesus didn’t leave this gift with the disciples, with us, just so we could know about it. He gave it to us so we could do something holy with our lives. He gave it to us so that we can walk through life awake and aware of what God is calling us to do.
Last year, I met a woman named Joy Hoover, who runs a nonprofit called the Cupcake Girls. They support women who work in the adult entertainment industry, providing them with practical services, hope, and dignity. The Cupcake Girls started after Joy went on a trip to Vegas in 2009, and felt an incredible pull towards the women who worked in this industry. She realized that even though they were everywhere, these women were being forgotten about- churches didn’t know what to do with them- they either wanted to save them or tell them how sinful they were- and the world just wanted to get anything they could from them, no matter the cost.
But Joy knew there was more- and she realized that no one else was going to pay attention to these women if she didn’t. So she and her husband Phil moved from Michigan to Las Vegas in 2010, and Joy showed up at the Hard Rock Hotel during an industry convention, armed with a curling iron and a pink box of cupcakes. There was no great agenda, Joy didn’t have a degree in nonprofit management, or counseling. She was a hair stylist by trade who knew God was calling her to love people in a way that was intentional, and authentic. To love people in a way that would say, “you are not invisible. You are not a commodity. You matter to God, and you matter to me, and I see you.” And so day after day, she showed up in clubs and at conventions, and lots of other place where most good church people would never dream of finding themselves, curling hair and offering cupcakes. Listening, building relationships, building trust, learning about the women who so many had written off.
Today, the Cupcake Girls has grown beyond that single curling iron to being a 501c3 nonprofit that operates in both Las Vegas and Portland, and provides services for women in the industry that help with housing resources, domestic violence situations, obtaining a GED, and healthcare needs. They empower women to have the resources they need to be independent and whole, and remind them that they are people who are worthy of love, respect, and dignity. Some of the women the Cupcake Girls work with have said that the love and attention they’ve received from the women who visit has literally saved their lives.
And the whole thing happened simply because a woman named Joy was willing to listen to what the Holy Spirit was telling her to do, and go do it. She was willing to take risks when she didn’t have all the answers, she was willing to let God surprise her, and she was willing to be ok with the unpredictability of what might happen next.
And you can do that too. You don’t have to move across the country and start a nonprofit. What you do doesn’t have to result in a platform or speaking engagements or even look “significant” to the rest of the world. Encountering the Holy Spirit doesn’t have to be complicated; we experience the Holy Spirit when we notice and respond to the things that Jesus is drawing our attention to. That story someone shares that breaks your heart; that need you encounter that propels you into action; that problem you can’t stop thinking about how to solve- each and every one of us, if we are willing to be alert enough to pay attention, we’re ALL hearing a call. The Holy Spirit is alive and speaking to us. It’s there and we just have to listen.
When we can let ourselves listen, when we can be open to the unpredictable and unexpected When we encounter the Spirit, it does something to us that spills out into the world. When we are people who are filled with the Spirit, we experience the love of God in new, deeper ways, and we bring that love into the world. We start seeing things differently, our truth shifts to be the truth of Jesus- a truth that might not look like the rest of the world, but has the power to do something beyond our wildest dreams.
What is the Spirit saying to you- what has the Spirit already said? Where are you being led?
We’re going to spend the next 4 weeks talking about stewardship- connect to the HS leading us in this way. Maybe this is the year that God wakes you up in a new way to a passion you never knew you had. Maybe this is the year that you begin to notice a group of people in a different way, and now you can’t look away. Maybe this is the year you take a risk and follow God in a way you never thought was possible. Let’s be mindful of the ways that the Spirit is nudging you over the next four weeks?
Fills the gap between what someone could not do and what they were being asked to do- being willing to do what you don’t think that you can do. How is the HS a bridge for you from where you find yourself and where God wants to take you?