The Rev. Melanie McCarley
“When the day of Pentecost had come, the apostles were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.”
Could there be any better way to portray the day of Pentecost, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, than in terms of wind and fire? Wind and fire blow, breath and burn with life and energy that cannot be quenched. These are elemental forces of the universe—they are immeasurable, unpredictable and often uncontrollable. … rather like a three-year old.
When Phil, Hannah and I moved back to Virginia from Indiana, I had a few Sundays when I wasn’t occupied in the pulpit. One of these was Pentecost. Phil, who was a chaplain at the University of Virginia Medical Center was on call. I decided to go to church incognito—and, because it was the Feast of Pentecost, I dressed a three-year-old Hannah in a bright red dress and white bonnet and we headed to Beaver Dam Baptist Church.
The time came for a children’s homily, and the Rev. Bruce Hunter (who knew Phil, but didn’t know myself or Hannah as of yet) looked around for children. Hannah happened to be the only child present that particular Sunday. Bruce brought out his fan (which was his prop) and invited Hannah to participate. This was no problem—Hannah was already a church veteran. Bruce turned on the fan and asked Hannah if she could catch the wind.
Now, I must pause here and say that while children’s homilies are shorter than sermons, and appear as though they should be less work to put together; they are liturgical moments fraught with the possibility of disaster at every turn. One never knows what a child will say or do. Personally, I think one of the best things about them is when the unexpected occurs—it’s a true test of a clergy person’s mettle--unless, of course, I’m the one giving the homily. At any rate, Bruce had a great theme—which was just about to be derailed by my child.
Positioning Hannah in front of the fan, Bruce inquired: “Can you catch the wind?” “No.” replied Hannah—loudly and clearly. “But I can catch a bug.” And she proceeded to tell him about a bug she had recently caught. Gamely, Pastor Bruce tried to redirect. “But can you catch the wind?” Again: “No. But I can catch a bug. And I can kill it.” And here she proceeded to stomp with her feet—displaying her destroying capacity to the congregation.” It was a delightful picture of a little girl in feminine attire and a lace cap upon her head stomping the life out of some unlucky bug. Snickers arose—okay, I confess, mine were included. Bruce tried to redirect for the third time, the two of them facing into the fan. “Can you catch the wind?” And once again, Hannah tried to help Pastor Bruce to understand that while catching the wind was beyond her capacity, bug stomping was firmly in her domain of control. And finally Bruce gave up. I confess, I don’t remember anything else he said—nor, I suspect, did the parishioners. In truth, it remains one of my all-time favorite homilies. Because, if there is any Sunday when the unexpected should occur and things not go as planned, it is Pentecost.
Wind and fire—these elements seem to operate of their own accord. As Jesus says to Nicodemus in the third chapter of the gospel of John: “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 Spirit.” (John 3:8). The nature of the Holy Spirit defies our capacity to comprehend. It motivates and moves us, but it is largely a mystery—one which is understood not so much by the head, but in the heart.
As far as I can see, this is true. The Holy Spirit stirs us up, ruffles our feathers, presses us onward and guides us to places we would not have imagined ourselves going. The Spirit cannot be contained or controlled—it defies our attempts to subdue, subjugate, or in any way quash. You cannot catch the wind. You can try, but it cannot be done.
However, you can catch that wind’s power—but in order to do this, you have to put yourself where the wind is blowing. You have to let the wind do its work on you—rather than you trying to control the wind. Put yourself in front of where that wind is blowing and allow yourself to be led.
This is true of how the Spirit leads the church. Part of the art of living in a Christian community is coming to terms with the fact that our best ministry is done when we follow the Holy Spirit, rather than trying to control where we, as the church, are headed. The world hands us issues—war in Ukraine, the scourge of gun violence, climate change, Covid…and the list goes on. It is the Spirit that guides us as to how to respond—in love, courage and with compassion. There is much we can’t control—but we can trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We can follow where the Spirit leads.
Today, on the Feast of Pentecost, we have the great joy of welcoming Sawyer Archibald into the family of God. I pray that in Sawyer’s life there will be moments where the Spirit of God will move her with a gentle breeze, encouraging and guiding her along the way. I pray, as well, that there will be times when her feathers will get ruffled by a stiff breeze—and that she will have the wisdom to respond to those moments with faith. And in those times when a strong wind blows, I pray she might have the courage, perseverance and fortitude to follow where it leads—even if it brings her to challenging places she would not have chosen on her own. I pray the same for each of us.
We cannot catch the wind. We cannot tame the Holy Spirit. Try to capture it and put it in a jar and it ceases to move, it becomes as if it never was. Yet we can be led by the Holy Spirit—both individually and corporately, as the Church of God. We may not be able to catch the wind—but if we follow where the Spirit leads, there is no doubt that we will change the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.