“Overcome by the Spirit”
by the Reverend Dr. Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
January 27, 2019
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4:14-21
Imagine yourself in a church that feels very different from ours. The music is different. The message is different, but the people are just people — like you and I — searching for a connection with God and with community, looking for meaning and direction for life.
The music is loud and chaotic, exciting and moving. There is a woman who wails and waves her hands in the air. Many others are doing the same thing, but she is clearly meant to be the center of attention. She flops to the ground as others break her fall. She writhes. People stare, concerned looks on their faces, but no one intervenes. The raucous music, singing, swaying, and moaning rise to a fever pitch.
The minister comes down from the pulpit and kneels in front of the woman on the ground. She does not seem to be aware of her surroundings. The minister puts his hand on her forehead and prays dramatically. The woman rises, apparently back to her senses, and raises her hands in ecstatic prayer. The music quiets.
The minister explains to the congregation that the devil had ahold of the woman, but that she welcomed the Spirit of Jesus into her heart and Jesus drove the demon out of her.
The sermon that morning consisted of the preacher doing his best to convince the congregation that we were either morally corrupt or emotionally feeble, or both, and that we therefore needed Jesus to fix us.
The truth is that, sometimes, we are morally imperfect and we do reach emotional low points, and our connection with God can be so very helpful, comforting, and challenging in a positive way. The problem with the church experience that I described is that it all felt so incredibly manipulative to me. I don’t need to be broken down to be built up, as if I were in boot camp or something. I suppose some people do feel the need for that, and that is why there are churches out there that will give them what they desire.
I have a close friend who spent time in churches that were perhaps not as dramatic as the one I described, but that definitely used fear and emotional manipulation to draw people into the congregation and push them toward God.
I was on a retreat with this friend a number of years ago when the leader asked what we would do if we ever encountered Jesus in human form. She answered that she would crawl into Jesus’ lap and cry. When we spoke later about her response to the question, I told her that her answer had moved me greatly, but I was wondering why she thought she’d cry if she saw Jesus.
She explained that she no longer needed or wanted the kind of emotional manipulation that she experienced in previous churches, but that she still craved and appreciated an emotional experience of the Divine. She wanted God to touch her heart.
That conversation was an important turning point for me in my own personal spiritual journey in that it challenged me to appreciate the benefit of feeling God’s presence as much as thinking or talking about it.
The people of Jerusalem had returned from exile in Babylon relatively recently and they were rebuilding. They had tried to keep up as many of the traditions as possible while in Babylon, but their forced sojourn in an unfamiliar land had broken their physical and spiritual routines. It had eroded their spiritual identity, and made them question their relationship with God. It had caused them, to some degree, to forget what God offered to and expected from them.
When Ezra reads from the Bible, the people weep. The traditional interpretation of this passage is that the source of their tears is the deep regret they feel about their failure to live up to God’s expectations while in exile.
I think it must have been more than that. I believe there must have been tears of relief that day as well. Tears of grief at all of those lost years. Tears of joy at being restored to their home city. Tears of hope. And those unexplained tears that we shed when the shear power and beauty of life overcomes us.
In any case, Ezra encourages the crowd that day to look forward, to live their lives to the fullest, and to be generous with those in need. He says to them, Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
Fast forward more than five hundred years and a man named Jesus, the son of a carpenter, returns to his hometown of Nazareth after beginning his ministry. He reads from the scripture and, although there are no tears shed in the congregation that day, there is amazement. They can’t take their eyes off of him and they are truly impressed.
But when Jesus gets into a theological discussion with them and seems to undermine the authority of one of their favorite prophets — Elijah, their amazement turns to anger and they try to do him harm.
One of my early mentors said to me that if I never made anyone angry from the pulpit, I wouldn’t be doing my job. That was easy for him to say. He was retiring that year and I was twenty five.
Do you ever get emotional in church or when you’re reading scripture or praying on your own or with others? How about when you are singing or playing an instrument? I hope you do. If we are trying only to experience God in our minds, we are missing out on a really important part of our journey of faith.
If the gospel story — or other stories of faith — don’t touch our hearts, our journeys become sterile and may not really move us to live as God intends.
I remember a study that came out back in the 90’s that said people give from their emotions. Choir members tend to give a higher percentage of their income than the average church member, as do those who feel that the church has been there for them in difficult times.
The authors of the study thought that choir members, because they worshiped each week through music, we tapping into their emotions more often and more deeply than the rest of us.
I believe that when we allow the Spirit of God not only to convince our minds but also to fill our hearts, we are motivated not only to give financially, but to reach out in other ways as well to those who need us.
I tend to start from my head when talking about God, but I have learned, with the help of others — usually women, but not always — to open my heart to God and to pray from my heart.
I remember coming home from my first semester in college. I was so glad to be returning to my family, my home town, my old friends, my church. I had recently told my family that I had felt a clear calling to the ministry, that I would eventually be heading to seminary. It was Christmas Eve and we were singing, Angels, We Have Heard on High, and my emotions overflowed and I wept openly in church that night. I had never done that before, but it felt perfectly natural in that moment. Of course, my brothers and my father were greatly concerned, but my mother and sister understood perfectly.
Earlier in my career, I taught an adult confirmation class every year. If any of you are interested in participating in something like that, please let me know and we’ll do it.
Anyway, one year, we came to the end of the class and we were having a confirmation ceremony in church, and when I put my hands on the head of one of the women who were being confirmed she wept and wept and wept. She explained later that she was releasing years of pent up grief at the fact that her childhood and adolescent church experiences were so unsatisfying. She was also crying with joy at the closeness she was feeling with God, who had opened her heart to a fresh experience of the Sprit.
Last Sunday, as we stood here in the sanctuary in something like a circle, holding hands, and singing, We Shall Overcome, several of us had tears in our eyes and on our cheeks — tears of sadness at the experience of African Americans in our country (past and present); tears of appreciation for the leadership of Martin Luther King; tears of hope that God might lead us all toward a better time and that we might have the strength to do our part.
Emotions can be problematic, especially when others use them to control us or when we use them to get our way with others. But our emotions can also be portals, passageways into the heart of God that no amount of reasoning will ever open up. It’s OK, even encouraged, to cry in church. Do not resist your tears, your anger, your fears, your wonder, your laughter, your overwhelming joy. Let these feelings open you to a world where God lives and you live fully with God.