Guylaine and I moved up to our summer cottage a few weeks ago, on the Gatineau River between Chelsea and Wakefield. It’s a beautiful place, and we are very thankful to be able to spend time there. When we arrived and went inside for the first time after a long winter, the air was kind of stuffy. You know how it is when things have been closed up for a long time and there’s a bit of a musty smell? So the very first thing we did when we arrived at the cottage was to open up all the windows and let the wind blow through. And that makes all the difference.
There’s a movie version of the gospel of John that I like. In the movie version of this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus that we read about in our gospel today, Nicodemus arrives in the home where Jesus is staying, at night as the gospel tells us. As they talk, Jesus leads Nicodemus up the stairs, out of the hot, stuffy air of the house with its animal and kitchen smells and up onto the flat roof top, outside, where the air is clear and stars are shining overhead. On the rooftop, the wind is blowing, we can hear it rustling in the trees, and a gust of wind comes up and it ruffles Nicodemus’ cloak. And Jesus says,
“What is born of the wind is wind … the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the wind.”
Have you been born of the wind?
In the original language spoken by Jesus the word for wind is ruach. It’s not just the word for wind. It also the word for breath, and for Spirit.
What is born of the Spirit is Spirit … the Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Last week, on Pentecost, and this week, on Trinity Sunday, we are reminded that God is Spirit. And Spirit is like the wind. It can be gentle or it can be a gale force, it can be refreshing or it can be disruptive, but one thing is for sure: the wind is always in motion. You can’t put the wind in a box.
We like to put God in a box. God’s a little easier to manage that way. We work hard to construct a belief system, doctrines and creeds that try to define who God is, that put God in a box. We build elaborate codes of behaviour, right and wrong ways of doing things that not only put God in a box but tend to put us in boxes as well. Now, don’t get me wrong. Articulating our faith and striving for justice in how we act are good things. But the boxes we construct out of these good things, and perhaps a few things that aren’t so good, these boxes will never be able to contain the wind. The Spirit of God is both a mystery that we will never fully comprehend and a dynamic force that we will never be able to constrain.
I think that’s what makes Nicodemus nervous. He is after all, an elder in a religious tradition that leans towards box-building. But when Jesus tells him that he must be born again, must be born of the Spirit, and that the Spirit blows where it chooses, but we do not know where it comes from or where it goes, Nicodemus is astonished. “How can these things be?”
To be led by the Spirit is to not know where you are going.
Just over ten years ago, I was asked to start a new congregation in this historic church building. As part of that process, I did some brainstorming with some colleagues about what we hoped for in a new church. Out of those conversations and prayers, the following hope emerged: that we would be a “Spirit-Led, Christ-Centred, Contemporary Urban Church.
Two weeks ago when I spoke to you, I talked about the Christ-Centred part of that vision. How it is that being Christ-Centred grounds us. We are grounded in Christ, in his teachings and actions, in his life, death and resurrection, and in his commandment that we love one another. And you know, I think it’s because we are Christ-Centred that we can take the risk of being Spirit-Led.
To be Spirit-Led is to embark on an adventure, to be open to where the wind is blowing, to know that we will not stay the same when that wind blows through us.
Returning to our church planting adventure of ten years ago, the next step after articulating that initial vision was to build a team that would guide our new venture. All the books, all the experts, said that the team should be carefully selected and that invitations should be issued. But we had said we would be Spirit-led, and so we leaned into that. We issued an open invitation on social media to anyone that wanted to join us for a meeting at the Royal Oak Pub that Wednesday night to talk about starting a new church. To my great surprise, seventeen people showed up that first night, quite a diverse group. Among the seventeen were two who are still with us today, two people from the neighbourhood who wanted to see something new happen. Both of you have been such big part of this community for the past ten years. Thank you.
Though we met in the basement of the Royal Oak Pub, it was as if there was a wind blowing through us that night. There was energy in the room, and the conversation was both inspired and inspiring.
I think that for most of us who met at the Royal Oak that night and in the weeks that followed, we felt like the church had become a little bit like my cottage after a long winter. The windows had been sealed tight and the air was getting a bit musty. We were dismayed at the church’s reluctance to adapt culturally and to provide a spiritual home for young adults. We knew that we needed to do more to address the harms done to LGBTQ people by the church. We were passionate about social justice and especially about ministry with the poor and those who were homeless, people who often felt excluded from our churches. We were worried that sometimes our churches were becoming captive to traditions rather than doing the hard work of renewal that would keep our traditions vibrant.
And so we tried to open the windows, let the wind blow through and be led by the Spirit.
Sometimes, we’ve been faithful to that vision, and sometimes less so. To be Spirit-led is not as simple as opening the windows and just letting things happen. It is not a passive thing at all. It requires discernment, prayer, conversation and active listening. Sometimes we just have to try stuff, not knowing whether it will work or not. It’s not always comfortable, but it is an adventure.
For most of the past ten years, most days as part of my morning prayer, I have prayed the following prayer from our Book of Alternative Services:
“Let us ask the Lord to renew the church by the power of his life-giving Spirit.”
There’s something powerful about praying the same prayer every day. Sometimes there’s an answer to prayer. I believe that this community of St. Albans is one of the ways that God is answering that prayer for renewal. I believe that we have a vocation as a community to renew the church by the power of God’s life-giving Spirit. I believe that we are indeed a Spirit-Led Church.
Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “All who are led by the Spirit are children of God.”
That is to say, that as a Spirit-Led community, we may not always know where the Spirit is leading us, but we always know who we are. Our identity and our belonging is secure. We are born of the Spirit. We are children of God.
It is time for me to move on. That too, I believe, is Spirit-led. I have been in prayer, conversation and discernment, for quite a while, trying to figure out where the Spirit is leading. Let me tell you, that’s not always easy to figure out.
But the time is right. St. Albans has always been a sending church, and now I’m the one being sent. I am going to a new parish which has been praying for renewal and is ready to open the windows and let the wind blow through.
And you are ready too, ready for the next stage of your Spirit-led journey.
You are a special community, beloved by God, and by me. And you have a special vocation, to be the life-giving wind that renews the church, and the world.
Embrace your vocation. Be Spirit-led.
Homily: Yr B Trinity Sunday, May 30 2021, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 6.1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17
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