a screenshot from a video game, Untitled Goose Game, showing a goose walking down a sidewalk and being chased by a figure with a broom

Pentecost | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 28 May 2023 | Numbers 11:24-30 | Psalm 104:25-35, 37 | Acts 2:1-21 | John 7:37-39

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Spirit of wildness and comfort who renews the face of the earth. Amen.

Good morning. Welcome to the Feast of Pentecost. Today we celebrate the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate the birth of the church. And when we celebrate the Spirit and the church, we celebrate movements of God that include us but don’t belong just to us. We celebrate God’s abundant love that keeps on expanding even farther than we might think it should go. We celebrate a grace that sweeps us up into what God is doing, a wild grace we can’t contain or control.

In our reading from Numbers, the Holy Spirit comes on a group of new leaders, including a couple of them who are not where they’re supposed to be. And Joshua wants to stop them, but Moses says that’s the wrong direction to go: “Would that all God’s people were prophets.” What a world it would be if everyone could be touched with this Spirit.

In the story of Pentecost in Acts, the Holy Spirit comes into the house like a rushing wind and then rests on the disciples as tongues of fire. The crowd gathered can hear the good news of Jesus in their own languages. The circle of Jesus’ followers expands beyond those who first walked with him. The Holy Spirit is moving and the energy is high.

And somebody thinks this is all getting pretty out of hand; some people think the disciples are drunk. So Peter goes back to scripture, and he tells the people what the prophet Joel said. “God declares: I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” People of all ages and people of all genders, everybody will see visions and dream dreams and proclaim what God has revealed to them.

As we learned from Jesus John 3, the Spirit is a wind that blows wherever it will; the Spirit spirits wherever the Spirit wants to, and we can hear the sound of the wind, sometimes we can see what the Spirit does, but we can never pin the Spirit down.

Some Celtic Christians imagined the Holy Spirit as a wild goose. It’s a different image from our gentle doves in the stained glass, and I think it’s a good one to expand our imaginations. Because the Holy Spirit is strong and loud and fierce. She can fight when she needs to. The Holy Spirit isn’t afraid of causing a ruckus. And if you have encountered geese in parks or if you’ve played that video game where it’s a lovely day in the village and you are a horrible goose, you may know how much chaos a goose can unleash.   

And in our stories from Acts and from Numbers today, the Holy Spirit’s wildness makes people uncomfortable. Along with the lifegiving breath of the Spirit and the revelatory words of prophecy, some fears bubble up. There’s an impulse to tamp things down, to get things back under control, to restore order. And yet, the Spirit still goes right on doing what she came to do. There’s a pattern where the Spirit moves unexpectedly, and people react with discomfort but can’t stop the Spirit.

This pattern of the Holy Spirit’s movement reminds me of a time in the life of the Episcopal Church, and a group of women called the Philadelphia Eleven. So bear with me for some church history; and maybe you can tell me more if you were there. It starts in the 1970s when women weren’t yet ordained as priests in our church. For a long time, women had felt the Holy Spirit calling them to be priests, and for a long time, the Episcopal Church had said it wasn’t ready.

Women could be ordained as deacons at the time, and there were women deacons who believed that they were called to the priesthood. They had discerned carefully in community. They had met all the educational and organizational and spiritual requirements to be ordained as priests—except that they weren’t men. The 1973 General Convention (when we vote on church policy) was going to be the one that changed the rules and allowed women priests. People who supported the change had been working toward this for years and years, and they thought they had the votes.

But then there was a last-minute tweak in the voting rules that let split delegations block the change. So it didn’t go through; more waiting. Supportive men, bishops and priests and laypeople who’d helped in the fight so far, advised the women to be patient, to keep waiting, to try again in three years at the next General Convention.

And the way I see it, this is when the wild goose Holy Spirit comes in. Because this is the part in the story when some of the women realized that they were done waiting. The call the Spirit had placed on them was true, and it was bigger than the political mechanics that allowed a minority to keep stalling. The call the Spirit had placed on them was urgent, and they couldn’t keep waiting year after year.

And so they decided to be ordained a different way, a way that would answer the Spirit’s call and also force the church to make up its mind. They found retired bishops who were ready to ordain them before the church had said it was ready.

And on July 29, 1974, at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, eleven women deacons were ordained as priests in God’s church. In a church named for the Holy Spirit (the Advocate is another name for the Spirit), they claimed their calling as priests in the church the Spirit birthed at Pentecost. Their witness changed the Episcopal church and the world. They made a way for me, and for many others. 

And the way they did it made a lot of people angry. Bishops from across the country scrambled for an emergency meeting to condemn this ordination. Even now, some people in the church, some people I respect, who have no problem with women as priests still think that what these eleven women did was the wrong way to do it, and that they should have waited for the normal process. The ordinations were what’s called “irregular;” outside the regulations.

But the church couldn’t outright call the ordinations invalid, because in a spiritual sense, everything happened that needed to happen. We believe that bishops stand in the line of the authority Jesus gave to the apostles, and so they get to lay on hands and lead the vows and make people priests, and the bishops did that with these women. So were the Philadelphia Eleven priests or not at this point? It put the church in a tricky position. And the next Convention, in 1976, they did vote to allow women priests and also to affirm or “regularize” the priesthood of those first eleven.

Suzanne Hiatt, one of the eleven women ordained that day, was also a skilled public organizer, and she described the pressure the church was under this way: “In 1973, most delegates were faced with the decision of whether it would be more trouble for the church to ordain women or not to ordain women, and they decided it would be more trouble to do it. In 1976, when faced with the same question, the delegates decided it would mean more trouble not to do it.” The ordination in Philadelphia didn’t exactly cause new trouble for the church, but it shifted the balance of the trouble.

Some people think these women could have just waited a couple of years. Others think that the irregular ordination was the only way to make the official change possible, that without something like this the delays would have continued indefinitely. It’s hard to say for sure.

But whether or not it was the only way for the change to happen, I believe it was a way that the Spirit blessed. I believe that the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven was a movement of the Holy Spirit, in line with the ones we see in Numbers and in Acts. I think it was another moment when the Spirit decided to lift up people who weren’t the expected prophets in the expected places. I think it was another moment when the Spirit overflowed the boundaries of what was orderly and predictable to birth something new.

It’s beautiful when the Spirit moves this way—she can surprise us. The Spirit can lift up the lowly and cast down the mighty. She can show us that God’s love is so much bigger and freer and more alive than we could have imagined.  

And, to be honest, it can also be really difficult to move with the Spirit when she’s wild goosing all over the place and we’re just trying to get through the day. We all have expectations; we rely on some level of order and predictability to keep us safe and help us know what to do next.

Shortly after her ordination in Philadelphia, Suzanne Hiatt preached a sermon about the Holy Spirit. She said: “Religious people have a difficult time with the Holy Spirit precisely because we prefer to worship a God who is under control, whose ways are known and who can be trusted to feel as we do about events.”

I think it’s difficult because many of us look to our faith for stability and comfort in a chaotic world—I sure do. So it can be extra hard for us when it is God who is doing the chaos. The Holy Spirit’s wild goose ways can be a challenge when we’re already stressed and fearful; we’re looking for something steady to hold onto, looking for calm and comfort and not the flapping and the honking and the troublemaking.

And yet, Comforter is another name for the Holy Spirit we celebrate today. The Holy Spirit descends as a peaceful dove at Jesus’ baptism. The Spirit is promised as an advocate and guide who will come alongside the disciples and get them through the difficult times after Jesus’ death.

The Spirit broods over the waters at creation, and in our Psalm, she continually renews the face of the earth. In Romans, Paul says that to set our mind on the Spirit is life and peace. Paul says that the Spirit is with us in our weakness and intercedes with groans to deep for words whenever we don’t know how to pray.

So: the Holy Spirit is both; both the wild goose and the dove; the rushing wind and the gentle breath; present in both the fire of prophecy and the water of baptism; both an unruly agent of change and the steadiest thing we know; both challenge and comfort. The Spirit is God among us, and we don’t get to control what God does—but we get to respond. The holy wind will take us along if we say yes.

So on this day of Pentecost, and in the season of growth that comes after, I pray that we will have the grace to notice the Spirit’s movements and join in. And I wonder where you’ve seen the Holy Spirit show up lately.

Maybe the Holy Spirit has been with you as a gentle dove to bring peace and comfort. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is there in a kind word. Sometimes she’s with me in a deep breath when I know I’m loved, even in the midst of grief or stress or confusion. Sometimes it’s a sense of awe when we see something beautiful and know that God is with us.

Or maybe you’ve seen the Holy Spirit in full Wild Goose glory, God in goblin mode, reveling in holy trouble. I’ve seen her like this in creative disruption. I saw a video awhile back of somebody counterprotesting creatively. This was at a nazi rally where people were marching around trying to do very serious nazi things, and this guy showed up with a tuba and played dramatic music in a dopey way to make fun. I think that tuba was honking right along with the Spirit.

Maybe it’s listening to a new perspective even when the people sharing it aren’t being as polite or orderly as you’d like them to be. Or maybe embracing the Spirit’s wildness is as simple as finding joy in a day that didn’t go as planned, relaxing into what’s actually happening instead of trying to get back to what we expected to happen.  

However we might meet the Spirit in this season, I pray that we will be able to receive the gift. I pray that we will hear the Spirit’s voice among us, whether she is cooing or honking. I pray that we will be alive to the Spirit’s movement, whether the Spirit is breathing with us gently or asking us to throw our expectations to the wind.

And in this season, I pray that the Holy Spirit will make all of God’s people prophets. I pray that the Spirit will comfort us and challenge us, embrace us and trouble us, and help us to see the vision of God’s hope and dream the dream of God’s love. I pray that the Spirit will renew our hearts, renew the church, and renew the face of the earth. Amen.

A screenshot from Untitled Goose Game by House House, taken from the game’s website.
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