Colleen Hartung’s Homily, May 15, 2016

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The Spirit on the Threshold of a Hard Question

John 14: 8-17, 25-27

Acts 2: 1-21

Colleen Hartung

May 15, 2016


A week ago Friday, I turned 60 years old and as part of my surprise celebration, Michael and Mary Kate came with me to the SA to help with CLW.  Partly they did it to humor me and partly they did it because they loved CLW when they were regular participants here at the SA.  It was fun to have them participate and to hear their reflections on our scripture story.  Last week, we read a story called “The Birthday of the Church” based on Acts 2.  So this is my second week reflecting on the themes of Pentecost.  You might be thinking that is a good thing, an efficient use of time.  But you would be wrong.  In fact, this engagement with the themes of Pentecost, two weeks in a row has become a struggle of epic proportions.  The CLW story contained all the familiar elements; the sound of a strong wind, bits of fire dancing around, the disciples talking in new ways, questions about drinking too much wine, Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah and many being baptized because they wanted to live in God’s way.  The story ends saying, “soon there were people in many places who knew about Jesus.  These people got together to help each other, to eat together, to remember the things that Jesus said and to talk about living God’s way.  When people came together like this they called it a church.”  Lovely, heartwarming, a simple enough proclamation of the birth of the church, right?

Back home, gathered in our kitchen around good food and the rest of the family, Michael asked a question that had been brewing for him since our morning reflections on the birthday of the church.  “Mom, isn’t organized religion, in all its forms, the root of the problem when it comes to all this hate and the violent acts of exclusion that are overwhelming our public speech and our interactions with each other.”  I took a deep breath.  It was, in fact, the same question he had asked me a couple of weeks earlier when he had called to tell me that he was OK but that he had been assaulted physically and with hate speech filled with religious invective for holding his boyfriends hand in public.  In a desperate sounding voice, on the other end of the phone, he said, “This kind of thing doesn’t come out of thin air.  People are taught to hate and even encouraged to hate, mostly in the name of religion.  And of course he is right.  There is the bathroom law in North Carolina based on outdated biblical understandings of gender.  There is the resistance to marriage equality based on outdated biblical understandings of sexuality, sex and gender.  There are the myriad issues that affect women and people of color based on outdated biblical hierarchies having to do with ethnicity, race and gender.  And there are the xenophobic proposals to build walls, limit immigration and keep people out of this country simply because of their nationality or religious identification based on outdated biblical understandings of choosenness, exceptionalism and our relationship to people of other faith traditions.  Last Sunday, I stood there, in my kitchen, and waited, on the threshold of this question, that he had asked a second time, for something to say but there was no rush of wind and no tongues of fire signifying an inspiring spirit.  After a bit of back and forth, I suggested, weakly, that anything that inspires great good in the world has within it a flip side with a potential for great harm.  I knew it was lame and so did Michael.  “Mom, it’s too easy and besides it’s a copout that doesn’t really address the problem.” And then I changed the subject because he was right.  It was a shallow answer to a really deep, hard question.

Were it not for this homily, I would have put this challenge on a back burner.  Life is busy.  So many tasks to complete, emails to answer, people to love and on and on.  And even given the demand of this homily, Michael’s question is a question that is so deep and so hard, so personal yet so divisively public and shared that it is difficult to imagine a way in and out of this question in the space of a single homily.  Really, it’s the kind of a question that can keep you in this threshold moment, this moment of statio, that doesn’t quite offer answers but makes you aware of something that might grab you and never let you go, something like a virtue of presence or maybe even an inspiring spirit.

In today’s reading from John’s gospel, Jesus is anticipating his crucifixion and is saying goodbye to his disciples.  They have all gathered in an upper room, eaten the Passover meal together and Jesus has washed their feet.  And then he assures them that no matter what happens in the days to come, they will not be abandoned.  The disciples don’t understand what he is saying, in part because they are standing on their own threshold, a threshold between life and death, between Jesus at their table and Jesus hanging on a cross.  And into that space, John’s Jesus invokes an inspiring spirit.  He suggests that this spirit will transcend the boundary between life and something like eternity where Jesus will remain in them and they in him.  In this way, they will be reminded of everything Jesus said and all the work that he did and thus they will be inspired themselves to do even greater works.

In today’s reading from Acts, 120 followers of Jesus gather in an upper room.  They have been suspended for 50 days, waiting within a liminal space between the death of their beloved teacher, Jesus as well as their preconceived hopes for the future and what might come after.  And, so the story tells us, into that space of waiting pours an inspiring spirit.  They find themselves reaching out beyond the barriers of language that divide Parthians from Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia from residents of Judea or Cappadocia or Asia or Egypt.  Inspired by this spirit, they proclaim and enact Jesus’ message of love and service to people outside of their circle of relationality defined by their own native languages so that God’s spirit pours out not just on their Jewish sisters and brothers or even the residents of Judea but upon all flesh.  In this passage, the spirit inspires Jesus’ friends to speak and interact in ways that transcend the boundaries of language that divide them along lines of status, religion, ethnicity and geography.

But back to Michael’s question and the surprising way it creates a threshold of pensive waiting at least for me.  Michael knows, I know and perhaps we all know that there is a whole lot more than language that divides us today and that it is these divisions that give birth to the current free for all of vitriol and hate and to Michael’s question about the church’s complicity.  In a recent interview about her new book “Becoming Wise”, Krista Tippit, the host of NPR’s On Being, says that “if I have learned nothing else [from interviewing some of the greatest spiritual, scientific and social thinkers of our time], I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing….  It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question…that invite[s] honesty, dignity, and revelation.”[1]  And I would add that the thing about generous, hard questions, at least in the context of this reflection, is that they pull us into a posture of statio which enables us to wait and be within the thresholds that divide and separate us.  But there is also something more.  During CLW, we read that day’s scripture story twice and we color while we are listening.  It is part of our practice of lexio divina.  Every week we talk about how the coloring helps us to listen with the ear of our heart as St. Benedict would say.  We focus on this question, “how is God or the Spirit touching each of us with this story”.  Last week, when it was Michael’s turn to share the word or phrase that told how the story touched him, he lifted up this picture (which I know most of you can’t see).  The phrase he shared was “listening with the ear of my heart.”  There is something about waiting on the threshold of a hard question that invites or at least leans us toward something like generous listening.

Ok so bringing this around to an ending.  The truth – if there is any truth to be had in this reflection – is that any defense of the Christian church – local or global – based on any certain interpretation of scriptures is bound to fail, bound to incite some form of hatred or judgment or vitriol bound to be exclusive and excluding.  But perhaps this Pentecostal celebration of the birthday of the church actually points in the direction of another possibility, another way of thinking about what it is that makes us church.  Maybe church is a place where we come together to ask generous, hard questions, to listen attentively with the ear of our heart, and to hospitably reach across the chasms that divide us in order to wait, together, on a threshold; on the threshold of eating a meal with your friend and watching her die on a cross, on the threshold of not knowing what your mission is and knowing what it is, or on the threshold of some event that breaks your heart and the hope for a healing.  So maybe church is a place where we wait together in a threshold moment, a moment of statio, that doesn’t quite offer answers but makes us aware of something that might grab us and never let us go, something like a virtue of presence or maybe even an inspiring spirit.


[1] Popova, Maria. “The Wisdom of the Heart: Krista Tippet on Love and the Power of Asking Better Questions as a Spiritual Technology for Mastering the Art of Living,” brainpickings. 

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