Her name is Julia Butterfly Hill. Some of you may remember her. She is an activist, and a person of faith, who climbed a giant redwood on December 10, 1997, and lived on two 6-by-6-foot platforms, in that tree, for 738 days. Over two years. She was a literal tree hugger, for two years. She named the tree Luna. Luna’s trunk was Hill’s sidewalk and exercise treadmill. Hill learned many survival skills while living in Luna, such as “seldom washing the soles of her feet, because the sap helped her feet stick to the branches better.”(1) Hill used solar-powered cell phones for radio interviews, became an “in-tree” correspondent for a cable television show, and hosted TV crews to protest old-growth clear cutting.(2)With ropes, Hill hoisted up survival supplies brought by an eight-member support crew. To keep warm, Hill wrapped herself tight in a sleeping bag, leaving only a small hole for breathing. For meals, Hill used a single-burner propane stove.(3)Throughout her ordeal, Hill weathered freezing rains and 40 mph (64 km/h) winds from El Niño,(4) helicopter harassment, a ten-day siege by company security guards, and attempted intimidation by angry loggers.(5)(6)
One of the lessons that drew me to her story was this, described in her own words, “I learned and something that I use a lot now in life is how to survive a storm. I nearly died up there, in the worst winter storms recorded in the history of California. The trees taught me that the way to make it through those storms (and the storms of life) is to stay rooted and centered but not rigid. The trees and branches that try too hard to stand strong and straight are the ones that break. The only ones that make it through are the ones that know to bend and flow and let go. So, I’ve been using that now in my life. I use it when I’m being bar-raged by the media, by grassroots activists, by mainstream community, by everything. I just bend and flow when I see the wind coming; I loosen up and get ready to get blown, and then I kind of flex back into place. And I’m ready to get up the next morning and do it all over again. (7)
In our Church this is the Day of Pentecost, this very Sunday. . And it so good to be with you, here at Holy Spirit, for that Sunday. Completely appropriate in so many ways, not the least of which, if you had a patronal feast day, this one is yours, Church of the Holy Spirit, is the Church of the Day of Pentecost.
Often this day is called the birthday of the church. Many can accept that and many others would argue about it, but it is not totally wrong. It is the day when it becomes clear to those of us who follow Jesus and his way, that his physical presence will no longer be our guide, but now, the invisible, but always present Holy Spirit, will now be what we follow, what will direct us, if we let it.
That is what this day marks. You might say this is the day that Jesus turns it over to us, the alive and breathing disciples of this age, or whatever age we find ourselves in.
The notion of the Holy Spirit has been a mystery and a bone of contention in the Church ever since that first day of Pentecost we commemorate today. And just as we are prone to domesticate Jesus, we do the same with the Holy Spirit. What do I mean by domesticate? I mean to make Jesus to be what we need Jesus to be, we do the same with the Holy Spirit. We see this and hear it, in so many ways.
I had a Preist mentor that used to respond to the question, what is orthodoxy by sarcastically responding, orthodoxy is when your doxy and my doxy agree! Another way you see this is when people invoke the movement of the Holy Spirit to match whatever it is they need. An example, in any floor fight at any diocesan convention or even General Convention, you will often hear both sides of a decision arguing and using the Holy Spirit. The side that got their way says, this is proof of the Holy Spirit at work, and the ones that did not get their way will claim that the Body, all of us, have strayed from what the Holy Spirit wants. Two completely different attitudes about the wishes of the Spirit. You might say it as this, It is so amazing how often the Holy Spirit thinks exactly as I do! And if that is truly your experience, you are probably not digging deep enough.
This is us using this mysterious reality for our own convenience. It’s a partisan use of the Holy Spirit you might say. One commentator on this passage and this day in the life of the church said this,
To experience Pentecost it is necessary to search for change and to allow ourselves to be changed. To search for change, and to allow ourselves to be changed. (8)
Bend and flow and let go. Rooted and centered yet not rigid.
Margaret Wheatley once said she did not believe people feared change, what they fear is being changed. And I tend to believe her. It is one thing to stand and watch change, to witness it, even to feel it, and have the luxury of being a spectator to it, but to be changed, is far deeper, far more vulnerable, far more life changing. I believe, we humans, fear being changed a great deal. And so, in a way, we ought to fear this day, what this day points to, what it calls us too. It is not easy to let go and let the winds blow you, where they will, and yet that is what is being preached and modeled on this day.
As that same commentator said, we should constantly be on the lookout for the tantalizing temptation to divide our loyalties, to detach our worship of God from justice, and instead become comfortable with our worship of God being a ritual by which nobody is challenged, nobody is convicted, in which nobody is changed. (9)
I have to tell you what just about every priest knows very well. They see and hear this in so many different ways. You see it when you hear, “I don’t come here to be challenged, I come here to be comforted.” Or
“I don’t want to be perplexed here, I want to be taken care of here”. Or
“This is the one place I don’t want to have to think”. Or
“I go to church to escape.”
Tom T Hall, the country and western singer used to say it well in his song, Me and Jesus got our own thing going.
All of that is domesticating Jesus, domesticating the Spirit, domesticating the Gospel. We all do it, but it is a dangerous trap, and one of the quickest exit ramps off the path we should be on as we follow Jesus.
What makes it more difficult? Well, None of those feelings is wrong, we do get those things and deserve those things as we follow this faith, to be comforted, to be safe, to be cared for, even to escape, but those things cannot be the whole of it, the only things, the core. They are only part of this call, and perhaps the easiest.
When this happens our sin is the sin of seeking comfort, seeking solace, practicing being God, by, as one famous quote says, God once created us in God’s own image, and we have been returning the favor ever since.
This day, Pentecost, is the day we are reminded, if not on any other day, that it doesn’t work that way.
We cannot separate our worship from our practice. They must be completely entwined. Better yet, the Holy Spirit is something that cannot be tamed by you, or me, or us as a Body. It cannot be contained. You don’t bottle it, or put it in a box until you are ready to take it out. In fact, none of us have any control over it. It races through our lives, like the wind, all around us, through us. It goes where it will. You will feel it, but you can’t control it, change it, even redirect it. But, my how we will try.
Especially when it blows in directions we don’t want to go, or points us toward conclusions we don’t want to make, or convicts us of realities we choose not to face.
My rabbi friend that often meets our groups in the Holy Land shared with us once his take on the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist. He said, here, a tourist comes to ask questions of the land and the people. A Pilgrim comes to let the land and the people ask questions of them. Such a huge difference.
So often, what we say about the Church, and how we live in the Church seem almost exactly opposite. Sadly, what we too often see as we claim to follow this faith is really some kind of spectator sport, a passive reality, tourism, not pilgrimage.
So, I am going to give you some homework in honor of Pentecost, and this being your Feast day Holy Spirit. Your homework is this,
Take the toughest thing you have on your plate in life right now, and just let it be, you might visualize it right in front of you, just let it be there, if it scares you or threatens you try to let that go. Take a more compassionate look at whatever this is in your life, and let it ask questions of you, let it interrogate you, instead of you interrogating it. Think what you might learn from it, even if it is something you would never choose. Open yourself up, not only to change, but most especially to being changed.
You might say, our Pentecost gift and reminder every year is this, to let the winds blow, to bend, and flow and let go, to stay rooted and centered, but not rigid, to not just be open to change, but being open to being changed. May it be so for you, for me, for us as a Church, as the Body of Christ.
My beloved, happy Pentecost, I have shared these words today in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon, Year B, Pentecost
The Rt. Rev. Gregory H. Rickel
Holy Spirit, Vashon Island
May 23, 2021, Day of Pentecost
1.Martin, Glen (1999-12-20). “Tree-Sitter Recounts Life In the Clouds: Julia Butterfly Hill is tearful and triumphant”. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-09-18.
2. Hua, Vanessa (2000-06-18). “Julia ‘Butterfly’ Hill’s connections”. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-09-19.
3. Hornblower, Margot (2001-06-24). “Five Months At 180 Ft”. Time. Retrieved 2009-09-19.
4. Hornblower, Margot (2001-06-24). “Five Months At 180 Ft”. Time. Retrieved 2009-09-19.
5. Martin, Glen (1998-12-08). “A Year in the Sky”. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2013-11-25.
6. Butterfly Hill, Julia (2000-04-01). The Legacy of Luna. HarperSanFrancisco. ISBN 0-06-251658-2.
7. History is a Weapon: Surviving the Storm:Lessons from Nature, Julia Butterfly Hill, www.historyisaweapon.com.
8. https://www.workingpreacher.org/authors/claudio-carvalhaes, Commentary on John, May 23, 2021.
9. https://www.workingpreacher.org/authors/claudio-carvalhaes, Commentary on John, May 23, 2021