Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
May 20, 2018
Texts: Psalm 25; Acts 2:1-21
A few weeks ago all the traffic on a busy street came to a grinding halt. Several families of Canada geese were crossing the road from one feeding place to another that had a small pond as well. Sometimes it seems that we are overrun with flocks of geese that are here in New Jersey winter as well as summer. Where did they all come from? And why are they still here instead of Canada?
There are two distinct populations of Canada geese. There are the resident geese and the migratory ones. Although they group separately, they are not really two different species of geese. The resident geese are one of the few species that eat grass; that’s why you will see them in parks and on large corporate lawns.
The migratory geese are the ones that move be-tween points farther south and Canada. They can fly up to 40 miles per hour and if a good tailwind catches them, they can move up to 70 miles an hour. Although the species known as the Canada goose exists in Ireland and Europe, there are many other species of migratory geese that take to the skies.
The image of wild geese in Irish literature and art dates from the earliest period of Irish history and was incorporated into Celtic Christian images of what we cele-brate today, Pentecost: the Holy Spirit, or Wisdom in Hebrew literature.
The traditional image of the Holy Spirit is that of a dove, but I prefer the ancient Celtic image: that of a Wild Goose, something that cannot be tamed or domesticated. The image of the dove derives from the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels when the spirit of God is said to have descended on Jesus as a dove.
In art, God’s Holy Spirit as a dove dates from at least the sixth century and can be found in the Rabbula Gospels, a Syriac illuminated Gospel book. However, the ancient Celtic image of the wild goose is one that should be ex-plored, for God’s Spirit cannot be domesticated but is wild and free, and calls us to be open to new ways of looking at how we should be as Christians and as a church community.
The idea of the Spirit of God as wild goes back to the time of the prophets, most of whom were considered to be irritating to traditional and comfortable ways of life, not to mention quite possibly mad, insane. The prophet Hosea who called Israel to repent of its sinful ways, realized that the people of Israel considered the prophet a fool, a man of the spirit who was mad. Society has also considered prophets in our own time to be mad.
When Jeremiah railed against the evil of his day, he was thrown into prison just as some of our modern day prophets have been. When Martin Luther King Jr. called for racial justice in Birmingham, the religious establishment of that city urged him to go slow. Don’t upset the apple cart by making too many demands.
People who tell it like it is, who call out abuses of power, and who make demands on society are generally not appreciated. We are settled into our ways; they offer us comfort and assurance that we can just plod along without having to face the demands of the Gospel. But God’s Spirit keeps gnawing at us, forcing us to come to terms with the disparity between a vision of what the world can be and the state of our society today.
Pentecost, the feast we celebrate today, is not just some event recorded in one of the books of the New Testament. It is easy to label it as such and just move on. Historically and theologically, it is called the birthday of the church. But that’s not quite the case. For the small com-munity that had developed around Jesus was not thinking of creating an organization but trying to simply survive.
Consider the context of the story in Acts. The man Jesus for whom the small group of followers had pretty much given up everything had been crucified. The follow-ers had for the most part scattered. Rome was in control, and, quite rightly, they feared the same fate. Then these three women show up and tell the small band that they had gone to the tomb and had found it empty.
The men didn’t believe them at first, but later had some experiences that convinced them that Jesus of Nazareth was not really dead but somehow alive. By the time the Acts account was written, probably fifty years after the events of the mid 30s, writers had put the events following Easter into some kind of context. So, the story goes that shortly after Jesus had been crucified and re-appeared to his disciples in some form, they were all gathered in the same upper room of their last meeting with Jesus alive, that a violent wind shook the entire house and the disciples began to speak in various languages about God’s deeds of power, as the text puts it. And then Peter, now recovered from his previous fear, speaks the words we read this morning.
Scholars can argue about what one may call history, but what counts for us is how we think about the questions of faith. How do we, how can we, how must we address the challenges that we face in the context of in our day and time? I think this is the challenge of Pentecost, for if nothing else, Pentecost is a challenge.
Pentecost is a challenge to take our faith seriously. Over the past forty years we in the church have retreated from the prophetic. Like women caught in the web of domestic violence, we live out a battered spouse syn-drome. We have been more concerned with shrinking numbers rather than with the challenges coming from those who claim they speak for us and only do so in hate and antipathy for the modern world.
We in what we call the liberal churches have allow-ed others to control the debate. Rather than speaking with a prophetic voice and living as if we really believed what we preach, we have retreated. And as long as we live in retreat, we will fail in the mission to create a just world, one that reflects the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the One we say we follow.
The liberal churches preach a good line. We say to those in the federal regime: feed the poor, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and welcome the immigrant. We in the liberal churches have been feeding the poor and clothing the naked through such organizations as COG and its emergency food program. Even though this kind of assistance is necessary, as we all know it’s like trying to hold back a flood with a finger in the dike – which clearly is not possible.
Those of you who were around in 1968 may remem-ber something that Martin Luther King Jr. was going to lead called “The Poor People’s Campaign.” It’s being revived this year under the leadership of Rev. William Barber, who has become a prophetic voice on poverty and the moral crisis it creates here in America. And poverty is a moral crisis, to be sure.
But because we are America, we can’t have just one moral crisis. Although we are now riveted on yet another school shooting with 10 dead by a student who had access to his father’s rifle and revolver, this past week also in Texas a father murdered his three children, ages 4, 6, and 8, and shot his former girlfriend before turning the gun on himself. What was his access to guns? We don’t know yet, but make no mistake about it gun violence is a moral crisis.
What we need is a few honking wild geese, not a cooing placid dove. Now the early Celts believed that the Spirit of God could best be described as a wild goose, be-cause it flew free and unhampered by expectations and tradition. The Spirit of God, the breath of God catches us and envelops us when we least expect it. That’s the power of the Spirit.
How does the imagery of the wild goose say to us? It tells us to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things, new approaches to addressing issues and prob-lems, to the totally unexpected. There’s no question that being open to the unexpected is not easy. But it is so very, very necessary.
The wild goose of God’s Spirit does not only affect our actions in the world beyond this place but should also affect us internally as a community of faith. We should be open to changes in worship. What such changes should be we need to discern through reflection, prayer, and conver-sation.
Most of the wild geese have passed us on their way farther south, but the determination of their journey should steady us as we move forward as a people open to the many directions the Spirit can take us.
Let us pray: Spirit of God, be with us and show us how best to reflect the power of the vision of Jesus of Nazareth as we strive to serve you in today’s world. In the name of him who could speak to the wild goose, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.