To fly again.
I looked at the wings of the plane as the pilot announced we were beginning our descent over Cambodia. They move, you know, the wings of a plane: bending up or down, sometimes as much as 15 feet either way, as they surf the winds that swirl in the skies above our heads. I thought about the aerodynamics that lifted the wings and held us aloft like birds in the air.
Suddenly we dipped to the left, and a vast and beautiful panorama of lush green fields dotted with small villages came into view. Cambodia: a small, poor nation whose gentle people had endured a horrific genocide 40 years ago. I was there for a few days and found myself trying to understand how 2 million people could have been brutally starved, tortured and executed by a regime of their own people. I visited the killing fields where their bodies had been dumped in mass graves, and in a small Catholic church in their capital, I spoke with a woman who had lost her mother, father, and all her sisters and brothers. “How did you recover from that, how could anyone possibly recover from such a thing,” I asked her. A small smile crept across her face. She spoke to her interpreter, but I already knew the answer. “For a long time I didn’t know what I was doing, walking around like a dead person. But then the wind of the Spirit lifted me up”, her interpreter said.
A couple of days later I was in Singapore, and I had a little boy suspended in my outstretched arms, his parents beside me. “Fly me, Father Jim, like Peter Pan”, August begged, and I raised him up in the air, his arms prepared to navigate the swirling winds inside their house, up and down, whooshing and whirling between whoops of a child’s delighted laughter. It was my own fault. After reading him a book about Peter Pan, I told him I could teach him how to fly, like Peter teaches Wendy and Michael and John so that they can go with him to Never Never Land. The first thing he does is sprinkle fairy dust on them, and then he tells them that to fly, it is absolutely necessary to “think lovely thoughts, just think lovely thoughts…”. And then they think lovely thoughts like “fishing”, “hopscotch”, “picnics”, “candy”, but they are not enough. And then little Michael thinks “Christmas”, and uppppp they go, they’re flying: “look at me, way up high, suddenly here am I, I’m flying” doing loops and twirls and somersaults in the air. Just like I had to do for August, the boy whom I baptized when he was a little baby 3 years ago.
There is something about flying, isn’t there, some deep desire we have to fly up and away and off maybe to Never Never Land. Maybe it’s about being free. We all want to be free—everybody, every person on earth, no matter how old or young you are, what country you live in, what you look like or what you do—we want to be free from homework and housework and work work, from our problems, our illnesses, from brokenness of our families, the torments of our enemies. And when we look honestly and deeply into our souls, we also want to be free of our addictions, our prejudices, our hatreds, and our sinfulness, don’t we?
That was where the disciples were when Jesus found them, huddling in the darkness of a room, fleeing the horror of a dream that became a nightmare. Think of that image—these so-called followers of Jesus, dumbly self-confident, now crash-landed out of their high-flying skies, the fire having gone out of their hearts. Think of the doubt that had infected their souls, the guilt, the shame and the recognition that they had abandoned the one they called their brother and their savior.
It’s a fitting metaphor for the church today, isn’t it? As we celebrate our birthday again, this is not a time of pride for the church. It’s not a time to congratulate ourselves for a job well done. Haven’t we crashed out of the sky and retreated into rooms as humble as the upper room?
We’ve all experienced the darkness of scandal in the Church this past year. And it’s no secret that more and more people have written off the Church. Sometimes it feels as though the whole institution is in a slow motion death spiral, with fewer and fewer young faces, empty church pews, diminishing priests and sisters. The gentle message of Jesus is the greatest casualty, buried under an avalanche of cynicism, disappointment and disbelief. Most painfully, our children show no interest at all in the gift that the Church could be to them and to the world.
It’s probably our own fault, isn’t it? We have relied on a Christianity that is rigid, dependent on the letter of the law, and ignorant of the ongoing revelation of God. We chose to off-load our religious responsibility onto the clerical class so that we would not have to truly walk with Jesus. I believe that Jesus has sent us back into the upper room, to pray and to wait, to sort out our confusion, and to re-root ourselves in the basics, so that the wind of the Spirit can lift us up again and reignite a new fire in our hearts.
So what should we do on this our birthday? Well maybe we wait in faith in the upper room for someone to pick us up and teach us how to fly again. To remind us what we received at our own baptism.
He always comes, you know, that bird. The Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the one who was raised from the darkest, deepest death, he always comes, and he wants to come to us now.
That Spirit was given to our brothers on the 50th day after Easter, and it brought them a new birth together as a family of brothers and sisters---young, old, rich and poor, Greek, Jew, woman, man, black, brown, yellow and white----and they all understood one another. And from that day forward they knew when the Spirit was with them---whenever divisions ceased, whenever selfishness was overcome, whenever loneliness was dispelled, they felt the Spirit making them one body and one spirit in the Lord Jesus. They were lifted up on wings of love that stretched every which way to keep them aloft, even in the face of the fiercest winds.
And the same is true of us. You know, this church of ours was never meant to be a private affair, it was never meant to foster anonymity or separation. This church of ours is meant to be a real community, a true family, where we share the most important of things with one another. It was not meant to be an obligation, or a duty, or a chore, or a guilt trip. It was never supposed to be a place where people were strangers to one another, barely looked at one another, treated one another with only the minimal courtesy. That’s not what the church is supposed to be, and if the Spirit is alive in the church, that’s what it will never be. But you’ve got to want the Spirit, and you’ve got to be open to the Spirit, and when you are, well, that should be evident on our faces, for all to see. And no one—ever—is alone.
So, let’s pray for the Holy Spirit lift us up together, to carry us to Ever Ever Land, where God’s love transforms us and the whole world. Let’s pray for the Holy Spirit to truly come make us a family of love. Let’s pray….come Holy Spirit fill our hearts, our minds, our souls that we may love one another and in our love bring the love of Jesus to all we meet and serve, and we say this prayer as one body in Jesus, Amen.