The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 7, 2018
Americans are becoming more polarized and alienated, and the bonds that once held us together are fraying.
This is particularly evident in the political life of this democracy. According to a Pew Research Center report published last September, 65% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans have just a few or zero friends of the opposite party. And that trend is accelerating as each side demonizes the other. CNN noted that the number of Democrats and Republicans who view the opposing party as ‘very unfavorable’ has more than doubled from 16% and 17%, respectively, in 1994, to 44% and 45% today.
Fault lines of divisions are opening up in many other areas of our culture. Is there any hope of our holding together as a community of mutual respect, concern and devotion to a shared cause?
The book that most impacted my appreciation of the Holy Spirit was entitled The Go-Between God. Its author, John Taylor, a British Anglican bishop, calls the third Person of the Trinity the Go-Between God, because the Spirit creates communication and communion between persons. As the Beyond inside of us and amongst us, He connects us and holds us together. He causes our otherwise disparate lives to intermesh and intermingle, and in that unity of interaction to produce what can’t be explained as just the sum of the parts.
Some of us have gained some sense of what this phenomenon is when we played on a sports team whose teamwork put into it an inexplicable effectiveness, participated in a band or orchestra whose music carried the musicians past their limitations even as a whole, or enjoyed a marriage whose closeness and love brought about such a fulfillment of the ideal of “one flesh” that at least at times concerns and aspirations of either one become inextricably wrapped up in those of the other.
The forerunner of the Messiah, the great prophet John, delineated the superiority of the One whose way he was preparing by distinguishing between the baptisms the two of them offered. John admitted that he only offered a baptism with water, a ritual in which human beings make something happen: repentance, and by which they receive something: forgiveness. In contrast, John declared, the One who was to come, Jesus, offered a more powerful baptism: an immersion in God’s own life in which God makes something happen: indwelling, and by which people receive something: self-transcendence.
When at the River Jordan Jesus the Son of God committed Himself fully to the mission given Him by His heavenly Father, identifying with all the sinners awaiting baptism along its banks and being Himself submerged in its muddy waters as a foreshadowing of His drowning in the filth of all humanity’s sin at Calvary, the Spirit descended upon Him to empower Him to bring all people together in a community of loving redemption.
What happened for Jesus then, Jesus wishes would happen for all His followers. Thus, on the day He rose from the dead, when He reminded His disciples again that He was sending them out on the mission for which He had been sent, He breathed on them and told them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” He knew, He had told them just days before, that once they received the Spirit, the divine Spirit and their spirits would so intermingle that they would, after He left earth, live in Him and He would live in them, and they would be enabled to be one in love as He had been praying and bring more and more people into that unity, His cohesive and mutually supportive community of love.
I don’t know if he would describe it exactly as I would, but one Dr. Bill Thomas, about whom Atul Gawande, a M.D., writes in his book Being Mortal, experienced the Holy Spirit intermingling with human spirits and united those human spirits together.
Twenty years ago, Thomas started working as the medial director of Chase Memorial Nursing Home in New Berlin, New York. He was only thirty-one with little or no experience in eldercare. But he could clearly see there in New Berlin the “three plagues” of nursing home existence: boredom, loneliness and helplessness.
Thomas, however, was inspired to come up with a plan to make things better. He started bringing into the nursing home plants, gardens, children and pets – lots of pets! And he signed up the residents to take care of them as they were able, with the assistance of the nursing home staff.
In a place many of them had viewed as a place people go to in order to die, the residents came alive by the presence of new life and by their responsibilities in love to preserve it and nurture it.
As Thomas experimented with various arrangements, he once ordered a shipment of 100 live parakeets. They all arrived on the same day, several days before any birdcages arrived. For some inexplicable reason, the delivery man released all the birds in the nursing home’s beauty salon. The birds made quite a mess, but the residents were as tickled by it all as if the circus had come to town and moved into their home. They couldn’t stop giggling and chattering about the shenanigans of their new feathered friends.
As the program evolved, Thomas named it (with the Bible in mind) Eden Alternative. The results of the Eden Alternative have been spectacular. Rates of participation in social activities have increased dramatically, while the use of prediction drugs has been cut in half, with a particular reduction in the use of psychotropic drugs. The mortality rate has fallen 15%.
Why has the Eden Alternative been so successful? Gawande believes because it has created community by uniting the residents in a cause bigger than themselves, in the care and nurturing of other creatures of God. Their interactions with the animals as they played with them, fed them and even cleaned up after them connected them to life and, in that shared responsibility, to each other. By those connections they have thrived.
Thanks to the God-Between God, they have found a sense of belonging, meaning and peace.
What happened at the New Berlin Nursing Home is typical of what happens whenever people allow the Spirit, the Go-Between God, to work His wonders. The Spirit may create a mess, and upset the status quo; but, when people are open to Him and His initiatives, they come together in mutual commitment, shared purpose and subsequent loyalty to each other. People open their hearts to life, to each other, and to the God behind them all. People connect to others they never before paid any mind to, and to Someone they never were sure was there at all. The human spirit and the divine intermingle
Let us seek Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit!