A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 24, 2015
University Baptist Church
When you go to seminary, you end up with a whole new vocabulary. You learn about exegesis and hermeneutics. We learn that the Hebrew Bible had many authors, not just Moses. There was the Jahwist, the Eloist, the Deuteronomist and the Priestly schools of writing. You can wax theological about hypostatic union of the godhead. You learn words that are sure to be used again throughout your career. Words like eschatology, soteriology and heuristic theology. I’m not making this stuff up, honest.
Then there’s the paraclete. Not parakeet, paraclete. It’s a fancy name for the Holy Spirit, that fiery presence that moved like the wind over the people at the feast of Pentecost and made people understand different languages. Actually, it’s one of many names for the Holy Spirit. In the Hebrew Bible the word is Ruah. This is translated as Spirit, but it’s also translated as wind and breath. In Greek they use the word pneuma to describe the same thing. In the wisdom literature Sophia is the name for the Spirit of Divine Wisdom. In John’s Gospel, it is the paraclete. Here how John puts it in the 15th chapter, verses 26 and 27: ”When the paraclete (the Advocate) comes, whom I will send to you from God, the Spirit of truth who comes from God, the paraclete will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”
The Holy Spirit is up to different things in John than in Acts. In Acts, the Spirit breaks down barriers and infests the people with inspiration. They do audacious things because of this fiery spirit, including selling all of their goods and creating a first century commune as the best and first manifestation of the church. This Spirit makes us do amazing things and imagine brave actions.
In Luke’s Gospel, the Spirit is invoked by Jesus during his very first sermon:
The Spirit of God is upon me because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, to loosen the bonds of slavery, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of God’s favor.
In John’s gospel, the Spirit is the paraclete, the advocate. The paraclete is also translated as "counselor", "helper", encourager, advocate, or "comforter". All of those things are great, but they seem a bit more passive than the image in Acts, where 3000 people join the church because they have been slain by the spirit and can’t imagine anything else. But the paraclete, the Advocate, is the Spirit all grown up. It’s the Spirit who has graduated. It is the one who encourages, comforts and stands beside us.
I like the word Advocate for the Holy Spirit. That’s a name I can get behind. An advocate steps in and supports us when we can’t speak for ourselves. We have advocates in the form of people trying to preserve historic Dinkytown. Last night at the Roots Cellar concert, Pop Wagner thanked UBC for launching the series to support not only local musicians, but also the history and heritage of Dinkytown as an incubator for the voice of the people. We have advocates who lobby for rights. We have advocates who take to the streets demanding fair wages, environmental protection, an end to police brutality. As Christians we have a mission that is one of advocacy. It is spirit-led work because it is not about self-interest. It’s about other interest. An advocate doesn’t support just himself or herself. That’s self-interest. An advocate is someone who does something on behalf of someone else for the better good of all. That is spirit-inspired work. On this Pentecost Sunday, be an advocate. Who have been your advocates? For what or whom do we advocate?
On Pentecost, the people received the presence of this spirit and the movement that became the church was born. It was a spirit-inspired movement meant to be an advocacy organization, not simply a place of personal spiritual fulfillment. The first thing the Spirit did was break down the barriers of language and culture. And people understood each other. It was not just about the language. They understood each other on a more personal level.
They say in negotiation that it’s important to find that place of mutual self-interest with your opponent. You’ll be on the same team then.
And the first thing the church did after this was to eschew money and give to the people as they had need. No further tax breaks to those who didn’t need it. They looked after the least of these. They became each others’ advocates.
Oscar Romero was beatified as a martyr and saint yesterday. He was an advocate for the poor in El Salvador and continues to inspire generations of advocates including yours truly.
Ireland just passed marriage equality, the first country to do so by popular vote. It was an advocacy move.
Cody Sanders, a member of the BPFNA board and the new pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church wrote an article for the online journal “Perspectives” entitled, “A birthday party on our deathbed: Pentecost and the Pew study.”
Here is a little of what he wrote:
Statistics like those in the Pew study have a lot to say about the social trends of church attendance these days. But it’s hard for statistics to convey what it’s like to get caught up in the movement of a congregation’s life — even in a precarious era like ours. We need to tell stories in order to convey that sense. Here are a few I know:
• White congregations that resisted “white flight” and resolved to stay within the city they call home to serve those in their community. They shrink to a dismally small number of congregants, wondering if they will survive another year. Many years later, they are thriving churches with a penchant for the work of racial justice deeply embedded within their congregational narratives.
I served a church like this in Hartford. While it lost white members to the suburbs, they were replaced by inner-city Jamaicans, African-American, Romanian and Haitian neighbors. To this day, they run a soup kitchen for the needy inside their gistoric and crumbling church building. They are advocates. Cody continues:
• Congregations that resolutely decided that the only way to love their LGBTQ neighbors was to become fully welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ people in decades like the ’50s when McCarthyism targeted gays and lesbians as “sex perverts,” or the ’80s when the prevailing public image of queer folk was gay men dying of a mysterious, incurable disease. (An aside: A lot of churches and denominations are catching up these days, when the prevailing cultural image of queer folks is shifting toward the affluent white gay couple with adopted children (think Mitch and Cam of Modern Family), but we’ve still got a lot to learn from the narratives of churches that were far, far ahead of the wider culture in their embrace of LGBTQ people.)
It sounds like he’s describing our church.
• Churches that open the doors of their historic buildings for creative partnerships with nonprofits and community groups that are desperate for affordable space in which to conduct their good work, refusing to allow the brick and mortar and stone they own to become protected shrines to their past.
• Congregations that stand up to their denomination’s bullying in order to support the equity of women in the church or inclusivity for LGBTQ people or to take a defiant stand on an array of other concerns of justice, refusing to uphold an oppressive ecclesial status quo.
• Churches that pass the offering plate an extra time to collect bail money for arrested activists on the front lines of racial justice demonstrations in Ferguson, MO.
• Congregations that allow their own needs for capital improvements or sound systems or musical instruments to be put on hold — perhaps indefinitely — because their community is in desperate need of a group home for adults with developmental disabilities or an addiction recovery facility, realizing that if they don’t build it, no one will.
These are all churches I know. I bet your church has stories like this, too. They may be buried deep in your institutional memory, but they’re worth digging up and sharing at this Sunday’s birthday bash. Embedded in these narratives is a lingering sense of our own congregational call that can get lost in our anxiety over the stats.
What I’m learning from the convergence of Pentecost and the Pew study is this: We really aren’t guaranteed a future. Every now and then, we need to put the security of our institutional life on the line for something we really believe in. At least once every decade or so, churches need to do something so audacious and risky that it can still be said, “Folks in the community talked back and forth about that church, confused, saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ And others joked, ‘They must be drunk.”’
I can think of some Pentecost-inspired advocacy that we have done here:
Way back in 1965, we sent then-pastor Ken Huyck to Selma to March with Dr. King and the others.
We helped found the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which became Families Moving Forward and is now run by Beacon Housing, providing temporary shelter in our church buildings for homeless families.
We have opposed many wars.
We helped found the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. We even hired the first openly lesbian senior pastor of an American Baptist Church.
We supported marriage equality before supporting marriage equality was cool.
We have been a partner congregation of the Baptist Peace Fellowship including hosting a summer conference a few years back.
We stood by our sisters and brothers in Harlan, Iowa ten years ago when forces of exclusion were looking for a scapegoat.
We supported gun control, banning firearms on our church property.
We continue to stand up for and with the LGBT communities.
We were strike headquarters not once but twice when the clerical workers were advocating for fair wages at the U.
We have been a safe space for congregations, schools, and others doing good work at an affordable price.
The church is the place where we make and nurture advocates. We see the needs of others and we wonder how we can do better by them. That’s what we need to do. That’s who we need to be.
So, my friends, on this church’s birthday, you have been given the gift of the Advocate. So, inspired by that Advocate, be an advocate. You won’t be alone, for God will be by your side in the form of other Spirit-filled advocates. And that’s good news that’s worth celebrating.