This year’s Festival of Homiletics in San Antonio — and great to see so many of you there! — was Barbara Brown Taylor’s last time as a presenter. Her keynote was a recounting of what she used to think was important for her preaching and what she thinks now — an insight alone worth the price of admission. This live memoir narrated her journeys from certainties to questions, from assertions to wonder, from confidences to humility, reminding us all that as soon we find ourselves settled in our preaching, the Holy Spirit will come alongside us and whisper us forward.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s witness to the work of the Spirit in her life might just be the homiletic we need on Pentecost Sunday. Each of these texts is a testimony to the fact that, as Taylor said, “the Holy Spirit is something we trust, not something we understand.” Our sermons then might inquire, what do we trust the Spirit to do? John, Luke, and Paul all trust in the Spirit to do some rather amazing things, even astonishing things. Do we recognize these amazing acts of the Spirit in our lives? Or, do we disregard or dismiss just how incredible the acts of the Spirit truly are with a kind of spiritual indifference?
I wonder how often we take the work of the Spirit in our lives for granted, without pause for the kind of acknowledgment it deserves — an appreciation not merited by the Spirit’s activity alone, but grounded in the basic belief that the Holy Spirit is at work, perhaps when, where, and whether you like it or not. These numerous and extraordinary acts of the Spirit to which our biblical writers testify are likely too much for one sermon, but the fact that we can indeed trust in the Spirit to act needs to be at the heart of your sermon.
In other words, yes — we can and should preach a sermon certain of what the Spirit does, especially given the specific claims of these familiar Pentecost passages. We can preach a sermon that proclaims the particularity of the activity of the Holy Spirit as articulated by John, Luke, and Paul. We can preach a sermon that outlines each and every deed of the Holy Spirit so as to affirm that the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is actually embodied truth.
And so, we trust the Holy Spirit to bring peace to Manchester. We trust the Holy Spirit to stir us to prophesy when we witness injustices. We trust the Holy Spirit to inspire each and every one of our members to live into and embody their Spirit-given gifts. We trust in and celebrate the many and varied ways the Spirit works in our lives, especially the ways in which she manages to know just what we need individually and communally and when.
But we also need to preach the underlying promise that makes it possible to believe in the efforts of the Holy Spirit, regardless of the individual pneumatology expressed by the biblical writers — that the Holy Spirit will indeed act. Perhaps how the Spirit acts, therefore, is not as much what needs to be heard as that the Spirit will act — and in ways that will affirm, surprise, even upend our faith in Jesus’ ministry both then and now. And let’s be honest. “We don’t keep the Spirit of life in the back room because she is shy but because she is dangerous,” said Barbara Brown Taylor.
Isn’t that the truth? We tend only to believe in the Spirit’s activity in our lives if it is comfortable and convenient; if it affirms what we want to hear, not what we need to hear; if it allows a reasonable getaway plan. Our default reaction to the potential and possibility of the Spirit’s work? Blame it on new wine.
This may very well be the harder truth to preach, Dear Working Preachers. And it may very well be the reason why we don’t give the Spirit her due credit. That is, our reluctance to recognize the Spirit at work, our inability to see when the Spirit shows up, even our resistance to the Spirit’s persistence may very well be a belief we hold about the Spirit that seems to have more power than our trust in the Spirit.
A belief born out of fear. A belief rooted in the soils of despair and doubt. A belief quickened by hopelessness — the belief that the presence of the Spirit in our lives could actually be in question. The credence that the Spirit has better things to do than to show up in our lives. The conviction that there could actually be times in our lives when the Spirit is absent and why would we think this? Because of our unwillingness to attribute disruption to valid and necessary manifestations of the Spirit.
What these biblical writers have in common is their witness to the Spirit’s work regardless of whether or not we recognize it, agree with it, or accept it. A sermon on the Day of Pentecost should give witness to the same.