Paraclete, My Sufficient Other

Sermon: Paraclete, My Sufficient Other

Texts: Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, 25-27

Date: June 9, 2019

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

One of the Washington Post headlines grabbed me this week: “He asked the FBI to analyze ‘Bigfoot’ hair 40 years ago and never heard back. Until now.”[1] Of course I had to read the story! It was about a Sasquatch enthusiast named Peter Byrne who thought he had glimpsed Bigfoot (the Anglicized term for Sasquatch, a centuries-old indigenous legend) in a thick forest, disappearing among the trees. He followed where he thought the creature had gone but didn’t catch it. He did see, however, a patch of dark fur and a bit of skin caught on some bark about 5 feet up, in a narrow passage between two trees. So Byrne bagged the hair and skin sample and sent it off to the FBI, asking them to analyze it. A letter to Byrne from an agent who was pursuing the inquiry got lost in the mail; he heard nothing but crickets from the FBI for forty years, and concluded they had ignored his request. But this week the FBI released their Bigfoot files and the result of the long-ago analysis was made public.

Are you curious? Well, what they found was that the hair and skin that Byrne hoped was Bigfoot proof was… “of a deer family origin.” Deer family. Byrne, now 93 years old, admits this news is “disappointing.” I should say so. You’re hoping for evidence of the powerful, enigmatic Sasquatch leaving its mark where you can finally touch it and proclaim the truth about the elusive creature, and all you get is evidence of ordinary, meek, skittish deer or their taller cousin, elk. Disappointing.

I made a couple of emotional points of connection with this quirky little story. I had to read the story, because some part of me was hoping the hair would be from some extraordinary wild thing such as Sasquatch, or that the FBI would have to conclude that it was a mystery. A woman who is doing podcasts on Bigfoot quests notes that there are not many people immune to the idea of Bigfoot. The people she meets who are questing after Bigfoot have all had experiences in nature they can’t explain; the mystery is a part of the appeal of such a quest. I also connected with the disappointment of the ordinariness of the finding—just a flea-bitten, nervous deer amongst the trees, leaving its hair mark on the bark while it runs away to hide.

Pentecost, a day we celebrate the birthday of the church, is for me an occasion to consider what kind of mark the worldwide Church is leaving on its environment. The Christian Church carries within it a marvelous promise to be the Body of Christ in the world, doing the works Jesus Christ did and even greater works than those recalled in the gospel. It contains a promise to be a community that embodies grace, overcomes division, speaks truth, overflows with love; God’s new temple, where earth and heaven meet. Such promises as Jesus made to the disciples on the verge of his death and resurrection are marvelous, mysterious—that those who love Jesus could love, heal, and teach as he did. A promise that God will continue to be present on earth—incarnate, indwelling—is sensational in every sense of the word. Millions of humans live in hope that God is powerfully present in the here and now, at hand in the Church.

Unfortunately, these Bigfoot-sized hopes and dreams, these longings for signs of God’s presence and power in the Church are often met with… disappointment. Folks are looking for something powerful, holy, unfathomable—and the mark we’ve left collectively is, perhaps, more akin to a tuft of fur from something in the deer family. Something in the deer family: Skittish, camouflaged, quiet; wanting nothing more than safety, survival, a few fawns and maybe a feast of roses. And then when church folk do actual harm—abusing power, rejecting the vulnerable, taking advantage of gullible poor people—oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!

I’m speaking in very general terms, beloved, not specifically or especially about Eagle Harbor Church. I only bring it up because hearing Jesus’s words, Jesus’s pledge to the first generation of disciples again awakens in me a yearning, a longing to live up to Christ’s promise—that astounding promise to be powerfully, world-changingly present in the body of disciples who would remain after Jesus went on ahead. I believe the world at large yearns and hopes for the expansive love of God to be made flesh—very few people are immune to hope. And as a part of the living Church I earnestly desire that we would embody gracious love, fierce justice, limitless possibility, indomitable hope in a way that would not disappoint either our Lord or our neighbors.

We must confess that as a group, we humans are more like the humble, nervous deer than the monumental, enigmatic Sasquatch. But we have this not-so-secret power on our side called the Holy Spirit. I love the quote from Amba Keeble I put into the “Consider This” slot today: “The Holy Spirit puts the ‘super’ into our ‘natural.’” With the Spirit’s help, Christians individually and the Church collectively can leave such a mark on the world that observers would wonder if a life force more powerful than ordinary, cautious humanity was at work.

Let’s zoom in on what Jesus is promising and Acts is delivering. The Greek word in the gospel for the Spirit Jesus is promising to send is paraclete. It may be translated a variety of ways. “While the literal meaning of the related verb (parakaleo) means “to call to one’s side” — usually asking the other for help, the noun took on a legal meaning as “helper in court”. Thus we have translations like “counselor,” “advocate,” or “one who speaks for another” as well as the (too) general translation of “helper.”[2] It is rendered as “Comforter” in some translations; though other scholars object to that being a bit too much like a snuggly blanket. One scholar I read says he prefers not to translate Paraclete at all because of the variety of options, and because he likes to make bad puns like comparing the Spirit to a pair of cleats you put on your feet to increase your stability and speed. (Get it?) A few verses on, the Paraclete is described as the Spirit of truth, who will remind the Christian community of what Jesus taught and teach new things—indeed, teach you “everything.”

The most important thing to understand is that the Spirit will come and dwell with and within the faithful community forever. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says. The Spirit is coming. One of the commentators writing about this promise of accompaniment by the Holy Spirit recalled what it was like telling their children they were going out for the evening. “When my wife puts her hand on the doorknob, her coat over her arm, my children look up from what they are doing to ask: “Who will take care of us?” and she gives them the name of one of their regular babysitters. All of them are capable, and my children enjoy the attention, but if my wife gives them one name — “Brittain” — my children leap up from what they are doing and rejoice. Brittain reads to them, romps with them, acts out plays and makes chocolate chip cookies; she nurtures their young lives like a loving parent, and as long as she is with them they are not afraid. I don’t know that the Holy Spirit has ever been compared to a babysitter. But if you can imagine Jesus as a mother, then it may not be so hard to imagine the Spirit in this other role, as one who cares for the church in the interim between Jesus’ departure and return, as one who comforts, teaches, reminds and, yes, sometimes even romps with the sons and daughters of God.”[3]

It’s more than romping with the daughters and sons of God—it’s romping in and through us. The Spirit is a force that encourages and empowers us. Spirit’s a partner in our living. There’s a phrase that popped up in a talk I heard by Father Gregory Boyle a few weeks ago, who was sharing some of the malapropisms[4] he has heard over the years working with Los Angeles gang members who come into his Homeboy Industries program. For instance, one got up to the podium and announced, “I need your divided attention.” Another spoke of his girlfriend being in a rotten mood because “she’s in her administration period.” Here’s the one that really tickled me: One of the homeys introducing his fiancé said, “This is my Sufficient Other.” Of course, he meant Significant Other; but the more I have mused on it, the more I have thought that we might think of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us as our Sufficient Other.

St. Paul used the word “sufficient” when he was writing about the weakness of his body and his pleading with God to cure what he calls “a thorn in the flesh”:

“8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” [2 Corinthians 12:8-9] We know, Beloved, that we have faults, flaws and weaknesses. But we also have God’s grace, and God’s Holy Spirit, our Sufficient Other.

Just look what the Spirit made possible on the day of Pentecost as it is recalled in the book of Acts. The city of Jerusalem was jam-packed with pilgrims from all over the Western world, because Pentecost was a Jewish festival celebrating the harvest and the gift of God’s Law; it was one of several major Jewish festivals that the faithful traveled to the Holy City to celebrate. When the Spirit set the gathered disciples on fire with enthusiasm and sent them out to proclaim their joy, all the listeners were able to hear and understand in their own language. One of the central works of the Holy Spirit is to overcome all kinds of barriers to human unity. Peter re-purposes an end days prophecy from Joel in his sermon interpreting the experience, using it to proclaim signs of the new age they were entering. The Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, male and female, old and young, bringing dreams, visions, and truth telling to life through those on whom the Spirit is poured out. The Holy Spirit was demonstrating Her power, her sufficiency, in that dramatic moment—erasing the barriers between people that keep us divided and in a state of misunderstanding among our fellow humans. Bridges were built, Kate Huey says: “Bridges were built over the barriers that divided the people, and they were crossed in a moment: the differences among the crowd, instead of dividing, provided a startling illustration of just how great the power of God is. Underneath the differences of nationality and language, there was a fundamental unity that was not only touched but enlivened and experienced, profoundly, by many who were there.”

We need the paraclete more than ever to help us enliven and experience and rebuild our fundamental unity as humans. We are weak—divided, polarized, constantly outraged by our outrageous neighbors and their outrageous ideologies. We need the Spirit to help us mend fences and build bridges, help us reconcile where we are divided, without just clamming up and conceding everything to the loudest and most powerful interests. We need the Holy Spirit to be the Sufficient Other breathing in us and speaking through us on human stages both large and small. Sam Hamilton-Poore responded to an invitation to write about his understanding of how the Holy Spirit is moving today in 100 words or less with these words: “Closer to us than our own breath and breathing, the Risen Christ fills us with his own Spirit — quietly, intimately. With this breath, this power, we then go about the everyday, unspectacular, grubby work of forgiveness. Breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive. Although we often long for the dazzling or spectacular, we live in a time, a world, in need of people who breathe in, regularly, the quiet power and grace of Christ’s Spirit — and people who, likewise, breathe out, regularly, the power and grace of forgiveness. Our world — so spectacularly broken and burning — needs people for whom reconciliation is as normal and natural as breathing.”[5]

Reconciliation. This may not be the only work in which the Holy Spirit is engaged in our present moment. But it is a powerful and desperately needed work. We need reconciliation between people of different races, political persuasions, gender expressions, economic classes, religions, national identities. We need reconciliation between species as well, a greater understanding among us of how intimately connected we are in the web of life. Some leaders are calling on all of us to become “Earthists”—defenders of the whole earth. Perhaps this is the best way we can follow Christ in this day and age, to seek the kind of reconciliation between people and between humans and our more-than-human neighbors that will save us from the destructive path we seem to be on.

Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the mark the Christian Church left on Earth in this generation was to bring about works of reconciliation? What if the Church became agents of reconciliation, finding every way possible to build on our fundamental unity? It seems impossible that our broken world might be mended, but it’s not. I always think of this story I heard long ago about Corrie ten Boom, a woman who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp for assisting Jewish neighbors. Her sister died in the camp. This is the story she told in a 1972 issue of Guideposts:

“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavy-set man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. …

And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were! Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent. …“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.

“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, …” his hand came out, … “will you forgive me?”

And I stood there — I whose sins had every day to be forgiven — and could not. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us…And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment, we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard, and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”[6]

I am sure that when Corrie ten Boom first glimpsed this former guard in the group to which she had spoken, she would have liked nothing better than to run like a deer and hide, quivering, in a safe place. Humans are often skittish, frail, nervous creatures just going along to get along, leaving a rather non-descript mark on the world. Yet we have a power outside ourselves, a helper who has been called to our side by Christ—the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, our Sufficient Other. Channeling the Spirit, all things are possible; God’s grace is sufficient to mend what seems irreparably broken. Let’s leave our mark, friends, large, outsized, powerful and mysterious. Let future generations wonder what got into us.

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[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/06/06/he-asked-fbi-analyze-bigfoot-hair-years-ago-never-heard-back-until-now/?utm_term=.0736cf59805e

[2]

[3] Somerville, James G. Christian Century article quoted in http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john14x8.htm

[4] Malapropism definition: the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with unintentionally amusing effect, as in, for example, “dance a flamingo” (instead of flamenco).

[5]

[6] https://mygoodtimestories.com/2018/06/06/a-holocaust-survivors-story-of-forgiveness-2/

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