I have to begin by telling you that I don’t completely understand this sermon. This sermon is apparently being written under the influence of the Holy Spirit and I am quite sincere as I tell you I have had very little to do with it.
Last night I went to bed, the sermon still unformed, and I began to pray for the Spirit to come in, as she always seems to do, and guide me as I worked on these ideas about Pentecost in my sleep; and just as I closed my eyes, a very clear little dream came to me: I saw a rope, coiled, on the ground, ready for use; and a set of keys resting on top of it. It was so clear I woke up and started asking, like the disciples in our lessons from Acts: What does that mean? And the answer was this: the rope: that’s the key. Rope? What's with the rope?
And then I went downstairs and sat at my desk and started writing this sermon. And I don’t really understand it. In fact half way through I thought, this is going nowhere, I don’t get this, I should just stop and try a different approach – but I just couldn’t get off it. It just kept writing itself. And eventually I just said, you know what? It’s Pentecost. If this is what the spirit is saying, this is what I have to preach, even if I don’t get it myself.
So I think it’s entirely possible that, of the 250 or so people who hear this sermon by the end of our last service today, there might be just one person who understands it – and the rest of us will just have to put up with it.
So here it is:
Sometimes, it seems, no matter what we do to avoid it, we can’t escape the sensation that we are in freefall.
Maybe you know what I mean.
It’s like this: our lives are like we’re climbing a mountain; and when we’re young we are happily dancing up the foothills and skipping over rocks without much thought of danger; and then as we get older the air becomes thinner and the slope becomes steeper and we have to start being more careful; after awhile we find we have to use crampons and ropes; and before we know it we’re 70 years old and there we are, near the summit, acutely aware of the void – and we’ve got this whole elaborate system of ropes that keeps us from falling off the edge.
I’m talking about the rope of financial security, if we’re lucky enough to have any; the rope of a roof over our heads, if we are blessed with that; the rope of family ties; the rope of friends and church and clubs and even Facebook friends – all of these ropes tying us to earth, linking us to safety and connection and comfort – even as we find ourselves breathing the thin air at 15,000 feet and we can imagine death with every step.
And then finally something gives way – we have a stroke, a heart attack, a complicated surgery; we lose our house; we go bankrupt; our marriage ends; our spouse dies – and suddenly we’re in freefall. And that’s when all our preparations – all our impressive ropes with their fancy knots – that’s when they’re tested. We find out who our true friends are; we see who it is who comes to our rescue – who visits us in the hospital; who cares about the fact that we’re in crisis and who doesn’t – or at least, who doesn’t seem able to express their care.
So we find ourselves in crisis. And between the moment when our foot slips on the ice and the moment the rope grows taught and catches us, there is this infinity of time; we’re in freefall; we’re clutching at the air; we realize there is nothing we can do now but trust in the rope. We wonder, is our health insurance paid up? Does anyone know where we are? Do they know to check on us if they haven’t heard from us? Would they know where to look? Have we prepared our children or our spouse or our neighbors for the possibility that we might need them some day? Have we invested in those relationships so that they might be willing to help us when we need them? Have we spent enough time helping others that there might be someone out there willing to return the favor? Is anyone connected to us? Are they tied down and ready to take hold of the rope as it flies by?
All of these thoughts race through our heads as we’re in freefall.
And then we realize: when we’re in freefall, there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. There’s nothing we can do now but trust – in the ropes we have knotted; in the doctors and nurses; in our children if we have any; in our community, our church. If we have invested well during the course of our lives, we might just have a safety net beneath us. Or we might not. We might be falling too fast for anyone to catch us. We might be too far out in the wilderness for anyone to find us. It really doesn’t matter at this point, because there’s nothing we can do about any of it anymore. What will be will be.
And that’s when we call upon the name of the Lord.
A friend of mine sent me this little poem yesterday, by Denise Levertov – maybe this has something to do with all of this:
I had grasped God's garment in the void
But my hand slipped
On the rich silk of it.
The 'everlasting arms' my sister loved to remember
Must have upheld my leaden weight
From falling, even so,
For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
If you’ve ever been in freefall, I think you might know what she’s talking about.
We call out to Jesus – only to find out he isn’t here; he’s ascended to the Father – and we find, instead, the presence of the Holy Spirit. It seems that the Holy Spirit comes to us when we’re in freefall. When the disciples went on the road, carrying no money and no extra clothes, and threw themselves on the benevolence of the people they were with – they were in freefall. When, as a young man, I went hitchhiking through the US and the British Empire and threw myself on the mercies of those who would stop to pick me up – I was in freefall – and the Holy Spirit found me there. When the disciples realized that Jesus was no longer with them, and that they were now on their own, they were in freefall. And that’s when the Spirit came to them, giving them meaning, giving them energy, igniting their passion for this gospel of love.
So the Spirit is like a rope when we’re in freefall – we throw ourselves into the ever-loving arms of God. But the Spirit is not like a rope anchored to the mountain; it’s a rope connecting us to the ones we love, and to God; it’s not a rope that keeps us from falling, but instead it brings our loved ones to our bedside as we fall out of this world. It’s a rope that brings casseroles to our doorstep when we’re too sick to cook for ourselves; it’s a rope that makes the phone ring when we’re alone – or perhaps even more helpfully, it’s a rope that inspires us to pick up the phone ourselves and speak words of love before it’s too late.
In the end we learn that it’s not about climbing the mountain and reaching the summit; in the end it’s about the inevitability of the fall, and learning how to trust the fall.
I think this is why we say we are “falling in love.”
It turns out we’re all in freefall, all the time. After all, what is holding up the entire universe? Nothing at all. The entire universe is falling through the infinity of space. The fact that we don’t realize it is simply because it’s all falling at exactly the same rate – so that as far as we can see, it’s all standing still. But it’s not – we’re all in freefall. Everything is. And in that weightlessness, the Holy Spirit finds us.
So that’s the sermon I was directed to write. Like I said, I don’t exactly know why. But maybe there are some interpreters of the Spirit here in the congregation. Maybe you have a story about being in freefall triggered by this sermon. Maybe there’s something here that speaks to you somehow. If so, let’s have a conversation. Tell your story. What does this mean to you?
[At this point Fr. Matt moved around the congregation with a microphone and people offered their own interpretations and stories. Some were very tearful and profound.]