Well, You Didn’t Get it Here!
George Regas is fond of telling the story of a man who, one Sunday, wanders into a large, cavernous Episcopal sanctuary. Think of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. You’ve seen it. It is where many state funerals are held. You saw all of the living presidents assembled on the front pew at the service for President George H. W. Bush. The music was solemn, the liturgy stately. Iridescent light filtered from the majestic stained-glass windows played over the assembled congregation. The guys are all wearing ties and many women have hats on. Its business formal attire for both men and women.
The scene is set. You’ve got the picture of our High-Church Episcopal tribe. A visitor who has ambled in, takes a seat on the center aisle. He’s not well dressed, but acceptable. This is Southern California, remember. He seems not very versed with the prayer book and is unfamiliar with any of the hymns. Remember this is an Episcopal service. We have aerobics at worship. Stand. Sit. Kneel – but no push-ups necessary.
As the preacher moves into his sermon, the fellow perks up. This preacher knows how to hold a congregation. A few minutes into the sermon the visitor is responding, “Amen, brother. Preach it.” Heads are beginning to turn as people wonder who this unseemly fellow is, who it is that’s carrying on so. Soon, an usher discretely taps him on the shoulder and quietly whispers, “Sir, you need to be quiet.” The visitor says he’ll try to restrain himself. “Sorry,” he mutters.
The preacher hasn’t gotten much further before the visitor again, is unable to sit quietly and blurts out, “Amen. Lord have mercy. Sweet Jesus have mercy.” He’s half way out of his seat. Again, heads are turning and some nearby are shushing him. This time the usher is a bit more forceful in his admonishment to maintain decorum. And again, the visitor assures him that he’ll try to restrain himself.
A third time into the sermon, the visitor is completely overcome and jumps up, shouting, “Praise Jesus. Praise his name. You preach it brother. You’re on the glory road.” This time a very stern usher tells him in no uncertain terms that he will have to be still or leave. To which the visitor responds, “Sir, I just can’t help it. I’ve got the Spirit.” “Well,” the usher huffs, “You certainly didn’t get it here.”
Episcopalians, you know, the Frozen Chosen, have always been a bit skittish about emotion in our services. If any is to have a divine revelation, they best do it quietly. Especially in the National Cathedral.
Some of us used to get a bit edgy as the church moved into Pentecost Sunday. Please, no carrying on for us. With this Sunday’s appointed gospel reading from John, we move ever closer to the Day of Pentecost as Jesus promises to send a Guide, an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth. Remember, these are Jesus’ farewell instructions to his followers.
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees or knows him…I will not leave your orphaned…”
It is said that Truth is the first casualty of war. It seems to also have been a casualty of this pandemic. Truth certainly seems in short supply as we move through this national coronavirus debacle – every state for itself.
For those of us in “shelter-in-place” orders, or “lockdown” as we call it, the reality of this virus has been a very “Inconvenient Truth.” I’m reminded of an Ed Bacon quote, “Yes, the Truth will set you free, but first it’s going to hurt like hell.”
We Americans have great difficulty with such stubborn realities. We are not an overly patient people. After the Civil War the North quickly tired of Reconstruction. The many signs of progress for both whites and African-Americans were soon short lived. The KKK which had its origin shortly after the surrender at Appomattox, had spread through the Old South by 1870. By the 1920s and ‘30s it was active in many northern and some western states.
The KKK had virtually taken over the Democratic Party. Jim Crow laws stripped rights from not only African Americans but others. The KKK didn’t like Jews or Catholics all that much either. FDR was unable to get a national anti-lynching law through the Democratically controlled congress. This last May 14, America acknowledged the stain on Old Glory of voter suppression — on that day in 1955 NAACP member, the Rev. George Lee, was fatally shot by a member of an angry white mob for attempting to register to vote in Mississippi. On May 15, 1916 a mob of whites burned alive African American teenager Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. The History of Racial Injustice Calendar reminds us on virtuallly a daily basis just how far we have to yet come for many Americans to redeem the promise of citizenship — a promissory note, as M.L. King said, that has been returned marked, “insufficient funds.” These are the most egregious inconvenient Truths. They hurt like hell. For too many attempting to exercise the promises of democracy, they are turned away with the rebuttal, “Well, you didn’t get it here.” And this is not just a blot on the Old South. A few years ago at All Saints, that congregation was besieged by a howling mob of so-called Christians hurling insults and profanities at those attending a day long conference sponsored by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. If Jesus had behaved like these people, nobody would have been saved.
This Spirit of Truth was sent to bolster up those of the Jesus Movement to keep his teachings. And the core of those teachings? Love of God and Love of Neighbor – NO EXCEPTIONS. One and the same. Remember, “God is Love and those who abide in Love abide in God and God in them.”
The work of this Spirit of Truth is the power to acknowledge and heed the challenges of our time. It is to come to grips with the difficulties of living together and to claim the blessing that comes through active love. This Spirit of Truth moves us through the trials and difficulties. It has nothing to do with magical avoidance of inconvenient realities. No, this virus will not just “magically go away.”
The Spirit of Truth leads in this time of COVID-19 beyond the bunkum conspiracies swirling around our current health crisis. No, COVID-19 was not a made-up story to hurt Trump. No, it’s not some Chinese bioweapon. No, COVID-19 deaths are not FAKE News. Some internet personalities have gone so far as to urge their followers to take cameras into hospitals to film the empty rooms. To show that there are no real patients. Nobody’s dying.
The Spirit of Truth will guide us out of this conspiratorial fog into the sunlight of reality. Unfortunately, it takes a while. And for some folks, it will hurt like hell. As the adage goes, “A lie will have gone halfway around the world before truth has its pants on.” These theories are stubborn, like devil grass.
But, eventually, truth will out. No, the moon landing was not a hoax filmed in somebody’s garage. The Spirit of Truth upholds competent social scientists like Professor Joseph Uscinski, the epidemiologists, and medical experts like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx.
Aw, you mean nothing really happened at Roswell? There’s no spaceship? But I have my top secret parking permit for Area 54. I like my space alien friends, my space chums. Next, you’re going to tell me that Bigfoot is also a made-up story. But there are sightings! I saw it on the internet. Agent Scully and Mulder were on the trail. Don’t forget Obamagate – “a slogan in search of a scandal,” as one commentator quipped.
Enough, okay. It’s time to hear it for the Spirit of Truth and Politifact. Yeah, I guess — the “X-Files” is only a TV show. So, please, debunk with sympathy and kindness.
The Spirit of Truth leads us into “engaged compassion” and to healing justice. It allows people of faith to confess the reality of sin and repent. Old fashioned words for some, yes… Sin is our separation from God, from one another, and within ourselves. The acts we call “sins” are what flow from that tragic separation, from our insecurities. This separation is part of the burden of being human. It is our existential condition. As certain as “the sparks fly upward.”
This was the great enlightenment of theologian Paul Tillich.
But Tillich didn’t stop there. He went on to elucidate another, stronger reality, Grace. As St. Paul proclaims in Romans: “Where sin did abound, Grace did much more abound.” Dr King put it this way, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Jesus, to those hapless disciples who all ran away in the end – the men, that is – to them he sends an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth to lead and to guide. Grace always trumps fear.
These past weeks we have been overwhelmed by the tokens of Grace breaking through the fear and hate engendered by this pandemic. We can’t go through a day without a newsflash of sacrificial love, neighbor caring for neighbor. This is the work of the Spirit. Just turn on the TV. Open the paper. Look at the pictures of those staffing testing stations and stocking shelves at food banks. And out in the streets, this Spirit is most contagious. These days it may wear a face mask, which is to say, I care enough about you that I’ll risk looking maybe a bit silly, I’m willing to endure some inconvenience, so I don’t make you sick. Such compassion is a highly contagious truth that saves lives. I hope you did get that Spirit here.
In most any church you can catch that Spirit. It may lead to spontaneous outbursts of affirmation. Now even acceptable and encouraged in some Episcopal Churches. But more than that, this Spirit of Truth will grab you up by the hand and lead you into gospel service. Some of us it may need to grab the scruff of the collar – but by whatever means, this Spirit moves to get us into gospel action. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, it’s to “turn the Jesus Club into the Jesus Movement.”
Another reality of the Spirit of Truth is that we are not left comfortless. Through neighbor, spouse, child, grace – Love – does abound. Where factions abound, the Spirit of Democracy has the power to bind together.
As bad as racial hatred and strife became after the Civil War – a war still being waged in many hearts – it was both black and white together who waged the Second Reconstruction to mend the rent in our national fabric. Both black and white were set upon by angry mobs at lunch counters in both North and South. It was blacks and whites who joined in chorus on long bus rides and in Montgomery jails singing “We Shall Overcome.” It was both blacks and whites whose tortured, mutilated bodies were found in shallow graves throughout backwoods fetid swamps. Black and white together, they died. Now joined by Mexican immigrants and Native Americans == the incarcerated, the aged, veterans, the homeless, all disproportionately killed by COVID-19 — all victims of a failing health system, evidence that our racial and income disparities remain deadly. First, the Truth will hurt like hell before it sets free. America, it’s “mend-thine-every-flaw” time. Overdue!
Let our prayer be that this mighty Spirit of Truth blow through our ravaged land to make new, to make us a more generous people, a more unified people.
This Spirt of Truth is a mighty friend, not a false friend that flatters. Not a fickle friend that sugar-coats reality. This friend does not abet conspiracy theories and lame excuses. It is a genuine friend that fortifies. Yes, with facts and sound reason.
The Spirit of Truth is the sort of friend that sends companions to guide us on the way through this perilous infection. It is a comfort to the bereaved. It has the power to bring out our best. This friend has the power to restore. It has the power to inspire repentance and amendment of ways. It has the power to cause us to see the stranger as our neighbor, as a friend. It’s motto? “Get over yourself – life is at hand.” In its most Inconvenient truth, you’ve got a friend.
Randy Newman, got it right in that great gospel hymn that could be sung of the Spirit of Truth, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me:”
You’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me
When the road looks rough ahead
And you’re miles and miles
From your nice warm bed
Just remember what your old pal said
Boy, you’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got troubles, well I’ve got ’em too
There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you
We stick together and we see it through
You’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me…
If it’s not in your hymnal, it ought to be. It’s about the kind of friend this Spirit is. You can get it most anyplace. Seek and it will find you.
It is said of this one and same Spirit, it’s like the wind. You hear the sound of it but it blows where it blows. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. Yeah, you might even catch it in a stogey Episcopal Church or in a church of some other flavor. But God’s too savvy to place all the money on the church. It’s let loose, out there. This Spirit of Truth often is highly inconvenient. Can hurt like hell and then some. AND, regardless the pain, this Spirit of Truth is Life and Blessing. It is Restoration. It’s for our guidance and edification. It’s what will make us suitable for human consumption. It frees from the penalty box. It bridges the tragic separation of the races and the sexes. It’s Baby Baluga in the deep blue sea, counting on you and me – our vital connection to the natural world. It makes of us “repairers of the breech.”
In this time of COVID-19 may the Spirit of all Truth bend the national arc of these challenging times towards justice. This Spirit of Truth — I pray to God we all get it in the days ahead. We need it. America needs it. We’ve got a friend,
 Joseph Uscinski, Conspiracy Theories: A Primer (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, 2020).
 Randy Newman, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” from Toy Story 4, Walt Disney, Pixar Films, April 12, 1996
May 17, 2020
The Rev. John C. Forney