Sheepscott Community Church May 31, 2009
Acts 2: 1-21
John 15: 26, 27; 16: 4b-15
Pentecost at the Fish Ladder
Pentecost! Everything has been all about going up lately––Jesus rising up, Jesus ascending to the Father. Finally, today, there is some thing, Someone coming down. The Holy Spirit, the One that Jesus promised he would send when he returned to the Father––we commemorate and also experience that One being sent, poured out today. It’s a holy and a happy day for the church.
When I was thinking about this sermon, Jim Croce’s song “Time in a Bottle” drifted into my head. “If I could save time in a bottle/ the first thing that I’d like to do/ is to save every day til eternity passes away/ just to spend them with you,” and so on. The impossibility of indeed saving time in a bottle to spend with those we love the most is a little bit like trying to capture the living flame of the Holy Spirit in a bottle, and then to examine it closely. Ain’t gonna happen. Maybe the closest we do get is when we or our kids or grandkids capture fireflies and watch them futilely signal to potential mates about their availability. Better we should let them do their flashing over the field. I think that’s much more like the Spirit, who freely brings the light and mystery of the power that continues to push the whole project of life forward, unhindered by natural predators, including kids with mayonnaise jars out and about on the Fourth of July.
Taking this would-be theological illumination of the Spirit a bit deeper into the natural world, Jon and I went to see the progress on the alewives fish ladder restoration project last weekend, as I’m sure many of you did. Cyndi Brinkler’s husband Jim, who has been involved in the welfare of the alewives for years, gave us a guided tour along the waterway.
After the alewives have come up the Damariscotta River from the ocean, and thence to Great Salt Bay, they angle off toward Damariscotta Mills. As they pass along the channel of water, they make a fish decision to go right or to go left. If they go to the left, which is the wider, easier choice, they come up against the metal grate that prevents their further ascent to the spawning ground. Their fate as lobster bait is now sealed. Those who choose to go to the right, or are simply carried along with the mob, are channeled into a much narrower passageway. Forgive me, but I can’t help myself: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7: 13 and 14.
In fact more than a few found that narrow way at the fish ladder. They were slipping and sliding against each other as they began the ascent, packed in like sardines, if you’ll forgive me that as well. Their journey up the fish ladder would be a 47-foot ascent through 50 resting pools. They looked, well, let’s say I projected on them, a youthful, eager naiveté in the first few pools. By the time they were nearing the top, they looked tired, older, and yet more determined than ever to reach the spawning ground of Damariscotta Lake, where they could swim freely and easily and spawn, hopefully an ample reward for their struggles. The older alewives would then die happy, and the younger return the way they came, back to the sea, to return again next year.
If I may appropriate the whole transparent analogy for this Pentecost Sunday, we too have our struggles in this life, but we doggedly keep at it. I note that we are not alone in these resting pools, where we come aside from whatever our trials are for a breather, for some prayer perhaps, or just a nap. The Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, if you prefer, Sophia, is with us there. As Jesus called the Spirit the Comforter, the Counselor, whom he would send following his ascension, I think you can add Divine Cheerleader to that litany of epithets. That presence of God is in the struggle with us, urging us on, reassuring us we have the strength to do it, whatever “it” is for us in our lives––a difficult decision; a disappointment in love, finances or friendship; concerns for our children and grandchildren. It’s a truism that God will never ask more of us than we are able to do, meet, or deliver. God is not a sadist, notwithstanding the bad press God has received on many fronts forever.
In fact, God is the empathizer par excellence, the Compassionate One who, yes, is indeed in the pool with us. Also above the pool, beside the pool, under the pool, in fact the pool itself––God is with us. Suffering with us, encouraging us by the sense of that One’s presence. So when all you hear from the critic is that God is disinterested transcendence, if a reality at all, test God’s immanence, test the presence of the Spirit in the world, by how you feel in a rough situation when you do turn to God. God is in the pool with us in the midst of the struggle up the fish ladder.
I was talking with a woman who has gone to view the alewives’ running a number of times because she experiences a real sense of empathy herself with the fish. She recalled a very difficult relationship she was in and from which she was trying to extricate herself. Watching the fish was like looking in the mirror and there was healing in that for her. That is only one way we are blessed by nature, when our understanding is opened so we can see our situations more clearly. I am happy to report that this woman did finally extricate herself from the situation.
If the alewives were an inspiration to that woman, I think I would be accurate in saying that Donna Krah’s little Maltese dog, aptly named Spirit, has been an inspiration to her on the road of recovery, if not as a mirror of her suffering, as a source of unconditional love for her, and nothing, NOTHING heals like that. Anyone who is a lover of animals knows that. As much as the doctors and technicians have helped Donna on her road, as much as our prayers have, her mother Joyce and her dog Spirit have been the Holy Spirit’s primary agents toward restoration. That’s what I believe anyway.
You see? The Spirit of God reveals itself in myriad ways: in a pool of alewives on the fish ladder, in a small white dog who loves his mistress fiercely and unconditionally. What is identifiable in these two manifestations and in all manifestations of the Spirit, is this drive towards life. At its most basic and beautiful is the act of procreation, the continuing of the species, whether it’s by spawning, as with the alewives, or in the context of a human family, where love desires full expression of itself and is sometimes rewarded in that with a child, whether that child comes in the birds-and-bees way, in a petri dish, or by adoption, or any other way. Love holds up a mirror to itself and continues the species, all on their way up the fish ladder.
No less creative and a full expression of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is each work of art we create. And we do create, in imitation of the One who created us, and with a sense of inevitability because we can do no other. A painting by Jan Kilburn or Barbara McCarthy, a sweater knitted by Sonnie, a quilt stitched by Cyndi––for my money, these are all works of art. I have to include Jon’s wooden bowls and his 17th-century book bindings, also works of art. Who are the other artists among us? Sam Low, who works so well in so many media that I can’t pin him down as an artist of this or an artist of that. Carroll at the organ, a dedicated artist as musician.
If you held up any of these objects of art, you could object that they are not animate, in fact they are inanimate. You hear the word anima in those words, which is Latin for spirit, lower case. A plant, a tree, an apple, even a stone, certainly water, a child, all of these we have little trouble thinking of as animate, as having spirit, as being alive. It’s a bit more difficult with an apple or a turnip, but we do know that although these objects don’t have independent mobility, one characteristic of animation, they have the power to nourish and potentially transform another organism toward health. Perhaps that could be considered a kind of mobility.
What about this painting? It has no independent mobility either. But it has the power to transform the individual spirit by the revelation of a level of truth the person might not have seen before. Is it not animate in that sense? I would argue that when the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, inspires, infuses a work of art, that an aspect of the life of God is communicated to others by the artist who has been inspired. What is true in the work will resonate with the viewer, the listener, the reader, will change them in some way, known only to that person and God.
There is little mobility, little if any change brought about by a work that is not inspired. It does not lift off the page, does not cause a little hum at the base of the spine when we see it or when we hear it sung or spoken. It’s hard to listen to Mozart without getting a little silly and danc-y oneself; hard to listen to Beethoven without being made ready to roto-till the 75’ x 75’ garden all in one afternoon. Nothing is impossible to the appreciator of Beethoven. Hard to listen to Gershwin without being inspired to do better at whatever work we are called to do in our lives.
Art, whether in song, graphics, sculpting, writing, fabric, film making, photography––the list goes on. Art, as surely as procreation or spawning are expressions of the spirit of God in living creatures or organisms––and I didn’t even get into flowers; who cannot see the face and hand of God in them or in the wing or eye of a bird? As surely as procreation and spawning are creative acts, so is the work of the artist at the easel, the keyboard––whether computer or instrument––the sewing machine, the garden, the barre in the dance studio. In all of these places, in all of these ways, praise is ascending in the creativity of us creatures to the One who inspires them in the first place.
Another angle into this is the person himself or herself as a work of art, a container for the Sprit of life. What do I mean by that? Think back, or think about your present life, for that matter. Can you think of someone who inspired you to live a better life? Thomas Merton? John Wesley? Jesus? Dorothy Day? Rachel Carson? For many of us, it is often someone who called us forth, who saw in us something that we didn’t see in ourselves. One person I would name––and I love paying tribute to him in this venue––is Louis Giannini, who was my Problems of Democracy teacher in my senior year of high school. He appreciated me and my work and let me know by his encouragement. Unconditional love, which is the action of God’s spirit in the world, calls us forth into ourselves. We need each other, whatever our formed communities, to do that. I had the happy gift of seeing Lou again, when he turned up at my office at Bates College four or five years ago, a few years before he died. We had a wonderful visit over coffee in the Den, reminiscing, one of the great consolations of later life.
Is anyone willing to share briefly, to give tribute to a person who had an effect on your life? Who was an agent of the Spirit of God for calling you into your fuller self, whether by inspiration at a distance, like Thomas Merton through his writings or accounts of his life; or in a person in your own life?
Notwithstanding all of these ways of the Spirit operating in the world––alewives, procreation, all the arts, through human beings––I haven’t yet addressed the most straightforward way that the Holy Spirit of God reveals that One’s self in the world, and that is directly to the individual, or in a gathering of people, as it happened in the Upper Room at the time of the first Pentecost. That was a religious phenomenon in time that is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, the writing of which is credited to the writer of the gospel of Luke. The church has sacramentalized the experience in the rite of confirmation, at which time an individual chooses to become a confessing member of a church.
You heard Ted read the account of the descent of the Spirit as tongues of fire and a driving wind. That’s pretty exciting stuff, and I assure you that God in God’s sovereignty can do that again at any point in any form as God wills. It isn’t just a story of and for another time because the Spirit is not just a Spirit for another time. No, the Spirit is God forever, which means now, for us, here in this place with these people––look around––these are the people with whom we are making our heaven on earth. These are the other fish in the resting pool with us, struggling with us, not against us, to reach the lake, the spawning ground. And God is with us in that resting pool and for us in every other one all the way up the fish ladder. And you can rest assured that that same Spirit of God will be ushering us into the peace and tranquility of the lake, when we reach it. Amen.