June 4, 2017 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
In 1944, Ronald Hall had a problem. As Bishop of Hong Kong, he was responsible for the Anglican Christians in Macau, then a neutral territory under Portuguese control, but Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and parts of China during the Second World War had made it impossible for clergymen to travel and administer the sacraments to them. They were a church without a priest. A few years earlier, Bishop Hall had sent them a deaconess, who, as a woman, was able to travel behind enemy lines in order to care for them. She had even been given special permission to distribute the Lord’s Supper to them, but, as a deacon, she wasn’t able to celebrate Communion—only give out the bread and wine that a priest had already consecrated in another service. Eventually, even that special arrangement became unsustainable, and Bishop Hall was forced to make a choice.
He wrote to William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to explain his decision: “I’m not an advocate for the ordination of women. I am, however, determined that no prejudices should prevent the congregations committed to my care having the sacraments of the Church.” In January 1944, Bishop Hall ordained her a priest, and Florence Li Tim-Oi became the first female priest in the Anglican Communion. That was more than thirty years before any Anglican church would officially accept the ordination of women. When Archbishop Temple got news of Hall’s plan, he publically condemned it, but there wasn’t anything else he could do. The rules were clear—only men could serve as priests—but these were extraordinary times. For the rest of the war, Florence Li Tim-Oi was able to preside at the Eucharist and care for the people of Macau as their priest no matter what the rules said.
Then, in 1945, when the war ended, Li resigned her license to function as a priest. She wanted to defuse the controversy that had erupted throughout the church over her ordination, but that doesn’t mean that she gave up her identity as a priest. Once you’re a priest, you’re always a priest. But Li voluntarily surrendered her license to function as one and resumed the work of a deacon until the 1970s, when the rest of the Anglican Communion finally caught up with her and changed the rules to reflect what she and Bishop Hall and the Anglican Christians of Macau had known for three decades. Sometimes it takes human beings a while to figure out what God is up to, and the fact that, still today, in forward-thinking, developed nations like the United States, women clergy are disproportionately relegated to second-tier jobs and make considerably less money than their equally qualified male counterparts suggests that we still have some listening to do.
A long time ago, long before women were ordained, even long before the church itself was breathed into existence, the same Holy Spirit was already at work breaking the very rules that human beings had set up to help them accomplish God’s plan. As the People of Israel journeyed through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, they began to grumble and turn against Moses and against God, who had led them out of bondage in Egypt. “If only we had meat to eat!” they cried. “We remember the fish, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic upon which we feasted for nothing back in Egypt. All we have out here in the desert is this awful manna.” This wasn’t the first time that the people had complained, but this time Moses had had enough. “Why have you treated me so badly?” Moses asked the Lord. “Did I conceive this people? Did I give birth to them? Why are they my responsibility? And where am I supposed to get enough meat to feed all these people?” Moses was at the end of his rope, but God was not deaf to his plea.
The Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, and bring them to the tent of meeting. I will come down and take some of the Spirit that is upon you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you.” Moses must have been relieved to know that God had provided a way for him to share the struggle of leadership with others. I bet he ran back to tell the people what God had declared and set straight away to gathering up the seventy people whom he thought were fit for the task. Then, as soon as he had chosen the right ones and led them down to the meeting place, the Lord came down in the form of a cloud and took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and spread it around the others. Immediately, they began to prophesy, speaking with the sort of insight that only God himself could provide. On the previous day, that had been an ability that had only belonged to Moses, but, in this Spirit-filled instant, that clear sign of leadership had been bestowed upon a host of other leaders.
Then, something even stranger happened. Before Moses could return to his own tent, Joshua, his assistant, ran out to meet him in order to report that something terrible had taken place. Two men, Eldad and Medad, who were among the seventy elders whom Moses had selected, were back in the camp prophesying with the same authority that the other sixty-eight elders had expressed. For whatever reason, they hadn’t made it to the tent where God spread his Spirit among them. Maybe they had just been running late. Or maybe they had forgotten altogether. Or maybe they just hadn’t thought that it was important for them to show up. But, whatever the reason, Eldad and Medad didn’t make it to the place where God shared his Spirit with the other elders. They had been registered for the job, but, when they didn’t make it, God didn’t allow their dereliction to stand in the way of his gift. Instead, God sought them out back in the camp and bestowed upon them their own share of his Spirit, and, when the people saw it, they panicked.
“They aren’t allowed to do that!” they declared. “That’s Moses’ job!” Even if God had intended to share that authority with others, surely those who didn’t even bother to show up shouldn’t get a full share. Joshua ran to tell Moses that these two men were breaking all of the rules. He begged Moses to stop them, but what was Moses’ reply? “Are you jealous for my sake?” he asked incredulously. “Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!” Seventy people were chosen because they had demonstrated their capacity for leadership. Two of the seventy failed to show up. But God’s Spirit wasn’t going to be stopped by that, nor was Moses going to be discouraged. “Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets!”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like it when people break the rules. I get uncomfortable (if not angry) when people think that they can disregard centuries of tradition and do whatever they please—like ordain women and change the definition of marriage and let unbaptized people receive Communion and change the prayer book and pull the altar out from the wall. I know myself well enough to know that I would be among those who decried Florence Li Tim-Oi’s ordination. I am embarrassed by that, but I know that I am a Pharisee. It’s who I am. Through prayer I am seeking a softer and more open heart, but I recognize the sort of tradition and rule-idolizing person I am. But I also know that God isn’t going to let me or you or anyone else in all of creation stand in the way of what God is doing in this world.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost. Today we celebrate how the Holy Spirit came down and filled the hearts and minds of the disciples, enabling them to speak the good news of Jesus Christ in all of the languages of the known world. This is the day when the Holy Spirit enabled the good news of salvation to be shed abroad to the ends of the earth. Not only in Hebrew. Not only in Greek. Not only in Latin. But, on this day, the mighty deeds of God were declared in the native languages of every person gathered together in Jerusalem. What could possibly stand in God’s way?
What a sight to behold! The crowd took one look at the disciples and concluded that they must be drunk even at nine o’clock in the morning. Well, at the early service, by the time the sermon is finished, it’s approaching nine o’clock in the morning, and I wonder whether this Sunday’s assembly could possibly be mistaken for a drunken party. Who are we? Are we the crazy, Spirit-filled leaders whom God is using to break down every barrier that stands in the way of the fully liberating grace-filled good news of Jesus Christ? Or are we the crowd that complains about the supposedly-drunken disciples causing too much racket or the two out-of-place prophets doing what only Moses is supposed to do? Who are we? Are we filled with the Spirit? Or are we shaking our heads at what the Spirit is doing all around us?
Since the beginning of time, the Holy Spirit has been the breath upon which God’s love has flowed to all of creation. God’s love is transformative. It is intimidating. It takes everything we think we know about love and forgiveness and inclusion and shatters our understanding. It is always bigger than we are ready for. It is always more powerful than we are comfortable with. It always brings more people to the table than we expect. I don’t like it when the Holy Spirit leads the people of God into uncharted territory because I prefer to be in control. But no one can be in control of God’s Spirit. I’m learning to trust that my job isn’t to build a wall to make sure that no one interrupts what God is doing inside the church but to seek the Spirit’s strength to tear those walls down so that nothing and no one can stand in God’s way. What about you? Are you ready for what the Spirit will do next?