Texts: John 14: 1-3, 18-19, 25-27; Acts 4: 23-31; Galatians 2: 20a
The Elements of Worship: Invoking the Spirit
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Here’s a scene that takes place in a film released last year, though it actually occurred back in 1971. It’s called Amazing Grace, and it documents Aretha Franklin’s recording of her gospel album of the same name. The footage, captured on film by the director Sidney Pollack, was shelved for nearly 50 years, but with Franklin’s death in 2018, the footage was finally released. In 1971, Aretha was coming off a string of hits, but she aimed to return to her gospel roots. And so a theater in downtown Los Angeles was transformed into a church service that fairly pulsed with energy as Aretha and her band, backed by a superb gospel choir, laid down each track. When it came to sing the title song, “Amazing Grace,” the MC, the Rev. James Cleveland spoke briefly about the importance of that song given the previous 20 years of American life, and specifically in black American life. And then the song begins.
Aretha takes her time with it. It builds slowly, while she masterfully emphasizes and elongates various phrases and words. Her powers of concentration in that moment were immense. The camera catches the sweat pouring down her face. She is summoning something, calling something forth, and the whole theater feels it, prepares for it, and they ready themselves to go there with her. You can see members of the choir and audience members alike leaning forward, listening closely to every word, and to every melisma in her phrasing. Suspense builds as the song progresses.
And then it happens, as if a jolt of electricity had flashed through the seats. She comes to the words: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares…” She pauses on “Through,” repeating it for emphasis. “Through, through, through, many dangers…” she sings, and to a person, the choir behind her spontaneously erupts, leaping to their feet in a moment of ecstatic recognition. They knew what she was singing about. They knew the dangers they had all passed through, and might yet face in the future. But Aretha, you see, is calling forth the Spirit, and it’s working, because everybody’s feeling it, everybody’s being strengthened and encouraged by that voice and those words and the very Spirit that’s moving between all of them. At the conclusion of that verse, Cleveland, who had been playing piano, retreats, sitting alone and weeping into a handkerchief. Aretha herself takes a seat, looking exhausted and spent, needing time to recover.
I recognized her look in that moment. It was the same exact look that I’ve seen in Cuba and Haiti when spirit possession takes place. For a time, the person is transfigured, becoming a channel for divine speech and energy, which then has the effect of spilling over to everyone else gathered in that space. It requires an immense amount of concentration, and when it’s over, the person frequently slumps on a chair off to the side, gathering him or herself again. It is, you see, “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” as the Bible puts it. But it is also a wondrous thing, a mysterious thing, and most paradoxically, a humanizing thing, to fall into the hands of the living God. To my eye, that’s exactly what was happening in that Los Angeles theater, temporarily transformed into a church by Aretha Franklin. She invoked the Spirit, and it did arrive. When it did, the Spirit affirmed and renewed the humanity of all those who were there to receive it.
Those of you who have been following along these past several weeks know that I’ve been asking everyone to consider each of the different elements within our own worship services here at FCCOL. I’m convinced that each of them – the prelude and the call to worship, the hymns and the offering and all the rest – speak to moments within our ordinary lives. And I’m convinced that they’re each worth taking seriously for the living of our days. I want to persuade you that there’s a sculpted beauty and vitality within our worship that has the capacity to lift you up, but one that might also interrupt you in a productive way. I want to convince you that, whether you realize it all the way down or not, Sunday matters.
And so today I want to think with you about the moment of invocation. Think of where it falls in the progression of our service: we’ve crossed the threshold into something like sacred space. Hopefully we’ve been greeted by other people, and we may have sat for a little while in silence. We’ve opened ourselves to God via music, we’ve sung, and we’ve been drawn more deeply into the ceremony through a call to worship. And then comes the invocation. What is it?
Well, it’s the moment when we summon, when we call forth, the Spirit. There come the words: “Would you pray with me?” and we then close our eyes. And for the first time in our order of worship, we address not one another, but something Other, something intangible that we’re all of us trying our best to trust. It’s an incredibly risky moment, when we open ourselves to the Void, to the Infinite, to that which we can neither name nor understand, but that we dare to address, in direct speech, as God. And not only that, we invite that strange and intangible Presence to come, and to be here, and to enter our lives. We ask that Presence to do things for us – to strengthen us, to help us remember certain things, to calm us, to quicken us, and so forth. And then we cap it off by speaking a few sentences together, words that have been passed down from generation to generation for two thousand years now, words known to have particular power to call forth the Spirit in human lives. In other words, we finish our summons of the Spirit with the words known to us as “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Whether you know it or not, it’s one of the most provocative, and controversial, moments within our worship service. Because think of it: we’re calling down a Spirit – almost as though we were having a seance. Oh I know, we call it the Holy Spirit, and we’ve come up with all sorts of interesting ways to understand that language, but still: we’re summoning a spirit and asking that spirit to inhabit our lives. Which is to say that in essence, we’re asking that spirit to take hold of us – to possess us. “Come, Holy Spirit, Come,” we pray. Or, to put it in the words of the song we sang after the pastoral prayer a few moments ago: “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me. Mold me. Fill me. Use me.” It might sound strange to put it this way, but we’re using the language of spirit possession!
That summons has been a stumbling block for a lot of people, especially for those of us living in a post-Enlightenment setting like our own. We’re rationalists. We trust in the work of science. When something takes place that we can’t explain, we trust that a natural explanation can be found. I don’t know about you, but I don’t generally think of the world as inhabited by invisible beings who have the ability to make certain things happen. When illness strikes, we don’t tend to attribute it to the work of a spirit. We understand the illness as a biological event. When a seizure occurs, we tend to understand it as a biological reaction within the body, not as some divine visitation. When a natural disaster occurs, like a flood or an earthquake, we don’t, like some sectors of the Christian public, think that God made it happen as a punishment. In other words, we don’t tend to think that there are spirits working invisibly behind the curtain of the world, no matter what that spirit is called – God, Jesus, Santa, whatever. The very idea tends to make those of us who find our way into churches like this one skeptical, dubious, and more than a little uneasy.
That’s how I feel at any rate. I’ve been around enough religious gatherings to know how language about “the spirit,” or communications with God, can be profoundly manipulative. I mean, how do you argue with someone who claims to have received a message from God? You don’t – the best you can do is to just walk away. I feel a profound distrust about that form of religion. When that kind of direct communication with the divine is claimed, I’m sorry, but I grab my hat and head for the door, because I know that what follows will be a command that, for all its pretenses of being divine speech, is really just human all too human, so much will to power masquerading as God. In other words, count me out.
To protect ourselves against that kind of manipulation, we’ve built up all kinds of defenses. We want to remain in control of ourselves, and so we move our bodies sparingly. We tend to devalue inner truths or intuitions, because, a little voice inside tells us, we’re probably just kidding ourselves. The result is that we often shrink back from mystery, ecstasy, and awe, because those emotions threaten to undo our control, rendering us more vulnerable to manipulation, spiritual exploitation, or just delusion. And so religion becomes mostly a matter of the head, a system of beliefs we work out, which we then translate into social ethics. That’s the liberal Protestant way, and while that strategy meets certain needs for certain people, myself among them, it also winds up leaving out an awful lot of the human experience.
It’s a little like the old story of the woman from a more spirit based tradition who went into a big city church run by one of the mainline Protestant denominations. We’ll say it was a Congregational church so as not to upset our Presbyterian or Episcopalian neighbors. Anyway, the woman heard something she liked and she shouted from the pews, “Amen.” An usher made his way toward her and told her that she needed to keep quiet, to which she replied, “But I’m getting religious!” The usher was clear. “This is a Congregational Church,” he said, “and this is neither the time nor the place for you to get religion.”
It’s a caricature, I know, and a broad one, but it lands close enough to resonate. I suspect that’s why a lot of people go searching for something else. Some people stay closer to home, and transfer their allegiance to another kind of Christian expression. That’s part of why evangelicalism is exploding around the world. It incorporates the world of “spirit” into its practice, even if in a fairly narrow way. Others find it necessary to travel a little farther afield. It’s why many of us find ourselves hungry for the kind of experiences that occur in sweat lodges or sun dances out on the reservation. It’s why many of us are drawn to practices like yoga, or reiki, or other forms of mindfulness. It’s why some of us, including me, have been drawn to practices deriving from Africa, like Vodou, and Santeria, for those systems incorporate the mysteries of that category “Spirit” into their practices. Still others wish to remain in the secular, areligious realm, and they wind up becoming patrons of the arts. Dance, opera, to say nothing of clubs and music festivals – these are the places that mystery and transcendence went to live after the Enlightenment displaced our more religious impulses.
And yet we do continue to invoke the Spirit. It’s still an integral part of everything we do around here. Acknowledging some of the potential pitfalls at work within the invocation, but also acknowledging the deep hunger many of us have for that dimension of our existence, what are we to make of that element within our own service? Without needing to become something other than what we are, without needing to apologize for who we are, how do we take that invocation of a spirit world seriously? And what difference could it possibly make for our daily living?
A few moments ago, we heard three different readings from the New Testament about the life of the Spirit. They suggest a private component of what it means to encounter the Spirit, but they also suggest a powerful public dimension to that experience. That’s especially true in the Book of Acts. When that book describes the earliest followers of Jesus receiving the Spirit, we have to recognize that those events occurred among a poor peasantry, laboring under a military occupation. I don’t mean a simple peasantry – these were complex and sophisticated people. But they were poor, and they were marginalized. It was a situation not unlike what we find today in Haiti, where vodou, a terribly misunderstood religion, affirms the agency and worth of a people. It was a situation not unlike modern Palestine, where traditions of dance and storytelling, to say nothing of insights derived from Islam and Christianity, confer on people a lost or forgotten worth. For that matter, it was a situation not unlike the one that unfolds in the documentary Amazing Grace, where a community and individuals alike discover, or rediscover, their agency and power, having walked through hell itself, and still having miles yet to walk. To be given the Spirit is to be affirmed in the deepest aspect of one’s humanity, which has the effect of freeing individuals and groups alike to do extraordinary things. That freedom is catching. It spreads. That is the work of the Spirit.
That happened here. Do you remember what it was like during those seven months when Malik and Zahida and Roniya were living with us? When we didn’t know quite what we were doing, but somehow kept finding ways to improvise, discovering moments of grace that bound us together as a community, and that kept us going? When the way got discouraging and we gathered in a circle to pray for them, and then to sing, of all things, Kumbaya? Do you remember that? Those were all expressive-ecstatic moments of the Spirit in the New Testament sense. And they’re representative of what it is we do when we invoke the Spirit in our own worship. It is to be supplied with visions of the fullest and best of our humanity, and that frees us to live with boldness, with grace, with “in-spiration.”
I cite that example because it’s one we may soon need to recall – not because of an immigration crackdown, but because of what is on most all of our minds just now – the coronavirus. I confess that until recently, I had hoped it would remain relatively contained. Now I’m not so sure. Of course, I don’t know anything more than anyone else about how all of this will unfold, but whether through the spread of the virus itself, or through its secondary effects – in the markets or in event cancellations, in school and work closures or in quarantines – it seems increasingly likely that it will affect us in some way.
If it does, let us remember what it means to invoke the Holy Spirit. The invocation calls us toward ecstatic-expressive moments that renew the best and the truest parts of our humanity. It calls us toward the care of others. It calls us toward acts of courage. It calls us toward moments of shared struggle. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.
Depending on how this progresses, there will be those who behave selfishly, or who become swamped by fear, paranoia, or denial. But there will be others who choose a different way. I think of the medical personnel tasked with treating infected patients. I think of the volunteers delivering food and other supplies to people under quarantine. There will be those who reach out to those directly affected to let them know they are not alone. There will be those who allow the moment to bring out the very best of who they are, developing a sense of common concern within the crisis. And there will be those who sense the kernel of a strange and paradoxical hope within it all: that here, at last, in the face of our shared vulnerabilities, we will discover one another across all the differences that separate us. The virus doesn’t distinguish. Neither should we, because we’re all vulnerable before it. There will be those, in other words, like Aretha, like the earliest followers of Jesus, who know how to invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit. I am confident, that when so invoked, the Spirit will arrive. Let us be among those who invoke that Presence. Let us continue to be among them.