The title to this article is a riff on the 1997 book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. It’s the story, ultimately, of a culture clash that leads to a devastating missed opportunity.
In the wake of Pentecost, I wonder how often this happens, in microcosms, in our daily lives: the culture clash between our humanity and God’s Spirit that leads to devastating missed opportunities. In my first year as a pastor, I was asked by a 7th grader, “So how do you know when God is speaking to you?” It was an incisive question that cut to the core of something many of us (yes, even us, fellow Working Preachers) dread doing:
speaking, out loud, about God, outside of church.
This is not true of all flavors of Christianity; in my experience the Pentecostal and Nondenominational branches seem to do an excellent job of training disciples who speak more freely and without inhibition about the way God is working in their lives. Being a Lutheran myself, I can remember the first time someone spoke about the Holy Spirit in a way that made me think She was actually actively working — and I was a summer camp counselor by that point, not a camper. There is much about the stereotypical, Garrison Keillor-esque portrayal of Lutheranism that has been conflated beyond what actually is (think #decolonizeLutheranism), but for me one of the stereotypes rings true: speaking, out loud, about God, outside of church is something that still, even with my collar on, makes me feel a bit embarrassed.
In this season of Pentecost, perhaps one of the most helpful things to preach on for those of us within a tradition with a spiritual speech impediment is how we can know when the Spirit is speaking to us — and when the Spirit is asking us to speak. Do you know when that is, Working Preacher? Is it something you could pinpoint in yourself — an awareness of being in a moment when the Spirit is calling you to speak a certain word, message, or idea to a certain person, place, or group? More importantly, is it something that your people could pinpoint in themselves?
Speaking about God outside of church for those of us who were not trained young is scary. It requires guts. It requires boldness. And, it requires a honed awareness of when the Spirit is shouting at us to open our mouths and let holy words flow through us. I have spent the last five years searching for a better answer than the one I gave to my innocent 7th grader, which I’m sure was something along the lines of, “*cough*, *mumble*…it’s something you realize when you look back on the moment.” Real helpful.
What could be helpful is a sermon series focused on people of the Bible and how they knew when to open their mouths. The experiences fall across the board: Moses had a huge advantage in knowing when God was speaking (Burning Bush), but actually had a speech impediment which made him afraid to open his own mouth — and how powerful would that be for our congregants who have similar fears of speaking in front of crowds? Elijah didn’t actually wait for God’s Word to come and give him a message for the king — he opened his big mouth and caused a drought upon an entire country in order to get back at a misbehaving monarch; but really, who gets hurt from a drought? Orphans and widows, as God shows him as God teaches Elijah how to listen first, and speak second. Does that sound familiar to anyone besides me? There’s wonderful Esther, called to speak a word of truth to a person of power; the Psalm writers speak to God and about God when life stinks and they’re hurting; and Joseph who is called upon by his community to speak to the Pharaoh in his time of need, a wonderful example of how we can help each other know when the Spirit is calling us to speak.
Whatever way you preach this sermon, my hunch (Spirit-led?) on it is three-fold:
- Your people probably already have an inkling of when the Spirit is “catching” them, and the encouragement to pay deeper attention to it will be a blessing.
- They likely feel horribly uncomfortable with how to speak and what to say when they do notice that feeling and any suggestions you can offer will be a blessing.
- This type of sermon is one that lifts up the real, true, honest reality that God IS moving in our lives, that the faith we have in Jesus actually does DO something, that the Spirit is calling and chasing and catching each one of us — and that assurance, truly, will be a blessing.
Best of luck, Working Preachers. And may the Spirit catch you in wonderful ways.