It was a perfect California day. The wind blowing off the Pacific was light and crisp. The air around me was tainted with the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine. And the sun and clouds frolicked together in the bright blue sky. As I walked across campus in my robe, the blue and orange tassel hanging from my mortarboard hat tickled my cheek. It too seemed to be in a playful and giddy mood. There was great joy all around me. At least, that’s how I remember it.
This was my last day at California State University. I was about to march towards the promise of wealth and success. By the time they got around to announcing the School of Communications the sun had set, the wind kicked up, and a wicked chill filled the air. There was something in me growing colder too. Having spent the better half of the afternoon sitting in a hard metal chair, I began looking at all my classmates with a searing eye. I kept wondering to myself, “Who will I stab in the back to get ahead in my career?”
Yes, this was not my most Christ-like moment. But it was 1991. We were still in a recession. It was a dog-eat-dog world. And they were wearing Milk Bone underwear. I am sure I was not alone in my thoughts. Eventually I would move on to spend the next two decades tasting life as both the predator and the prey.
As June is upon us, and kids are graduating from preschool, high school, and college, I look back on those moments of accomplishment. I am also reminded of the vow I used to make to myself after each degree I earned. “May I never step foot on a school campus ever again.” But God eventually sent my life in a different direction.
Twenty years later. The morning’s marine layer was clearing away, revealing the beautiful blue sky. The warm Santa Ana winds were blowing in every direction. And there was a particular nervous excitement in the air. At least that is how I remember my first day back in school.
Along with men and women from around the world, I entered the First Congregational Church of Pasadena, located next door to the seminary. We had gathered for a special orientation worship service. Once again, I found myself sitting among my peers and professors. We sat there, together as one body, listening intently to the words that were being spoken to us. There was one word in particular that kept calling out to me: ‘deconstructed.’ Apparently everything I had brought with me would be put through a process of reconstruction. Especially the way I would come to see the world and those around me.
Sitting there, singing hymns and praying together, I realized I no longer saw competitors, but instead brothers and sisters. Equals, all gathered for one purpose and one purpose only. To help the world come to know the love of God. No longer was I a predator or the prey. Instead I was broken and blessed like everyone else. God’s grace, forgiveness and mercy sees us as equals, because God cares for us all equally. Therefore we are all called to love one another equally.
Paul writes, “Accept one another just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7). Whatever stage of life we are graduating from or towards, let us never lose sight of such unity.
This is a sermon given at the Amble Memorial Sanctuary in So. Sidney, MI where I was invited to preside over the 47th Annual Service in this historic Danish church.
Reading: Ps. 27:1-5; John 11:17-44
First of all, I would like to thank you all for allowing me to be a part of this memorial celebration. Memorial Day is a day to remember the lives of those who died in active military service. But just recently in the graveyard outside this church, I officiated the burial of the remains of Sgt. Mae Johnson, a WAC in WW2 and a longstanding member of my congregation. And so we must also remember those whose service continued long after the bombs ceased. I myself have never served in the armed forces, but I do believe we cannot make any sense out of our own life, without having some understanding of the end of life. Memorial Day helps us to do just this.
As young children, my cousin and I would wonder how our time would come to an end. Through illness, accident, war, or a natural disaster? Will it happen suddenly or gradually? Eventually, we grew up. He became part of the elite Special Forces, and I became a minister. We would both discover on our own terms that there are no answers for such questions, so why bother spending any more time worrying about them?
I believe it is blessed ignorance that none of us know how our lives will end. But what we do know is this: Right now, at this very moment, someone, somewhere, will take their last breath. It might happen because of the horrific wars we continue to wage on humanity. Or it might happen because of a poor diet, a bad decision, or maybe it’s time for the sun to set on a long and prosperous life. Yet still, human beings find it fascinating to ask questions about death and dying. Most of my non-religious friends wonder how a God of love, a God whom I worship, can allow bad things to happen…especially to good people.
When something bad happens to someone good, faithful Christians hold to the hope that God has a plan. And maybe God does. We don’t know for sure, and that too is blessed ignorance. We don’t know why God allows bad things to happen to good people. But what we do know is that God could ask us the same question. Why do we allow it?
In the long history of this church building, we have witnessed two destructive World Wars and countless violent conflicts that have claimed millions of lives. We have watched the Armenian and Jewish Holocausts unfold, and allowed the genocides in the Soviet Union, China and Rwanda. There is still the ethnic cleansing around the globe. We too have also witnessed AIDS killing our children, global hunger destroying our neighbors, and the rise of terrorism spreading fear among all nations. While we ask God why he allows such bad things to happen, we should be asking ourselves why we are not demanding justice and peace from our leaders.
These events are stark reminders that we cannot remember the lives of people we love, without being reminded of the grim reality of our human sin, and our own brokenness. Each one of us, in our own way, has been scared simply because we have lived. But what separates the faithful from the faithless is we hold to the hope filled words of Christ who said, "Don't let your heart be troubled. Trust in God and trust also in me” (Jn. 14:1). We may not be sure if God has a plan, but we do have the assurance that the love of God , which dwells in Jesus’ heart, comes to us, and offers us consolation and comfort.
We see this in John’s gospel account of Jesus raising Lazarus to life. Here Martha and Mary are mourning their dear brother’s death. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows the pain these sisters are feeling. We know the anger that is raging inside them. We know what it’s like to feel scared and alone. And we know what it feels like to want to scream out to God, “Why?”
It should be of no surprise that Martha questions Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” It is as if she needs to put blame on someone. And still to this day, God seems to be the perfect scapegoat. How quickly we are to forget the wisdom I once read on a bumper sticker, which said, “Birth is the leading cause of death.” Perhaps life is all God has planned for us. If that is the case, then how we preserve life should be our most important issue. Jesus is there for Martha. He gives her comfort in her time of grief, and the assurance that death is not the end. Her brother will live again Jesus declares. And then when Jesus sees Mary crying, he is so moved that he cries to. The King James Version sums it up simply as "Jesus wept."
Here we have the shortest sentence in the Bible, yet it packs the biggest punch. God isn’t just with us, but suffers with us. God feels our pain, and takes our pain as his own. The cross is a stark reminder of that sacrifice.
Jesus, the Blessed One, weeps. Jesus weeps over the death of his friend. But he also weeps when he overlooks the city of Jerusalem, knowing it will soon to be destroyed. Jesus weeps over all losses and devastations that fill the human heart with pain. He grieves with those who grieve and sheds tears with those who cry. The violence, greed, lust, and so many other evils that have distorted the face of the earth and its people causes the Beloved Son of God to weep. We too have to weep if we hope to experience God's consolation.
The world has seen no greater love than the love that Jesus gives us. St. Paul writes in Romans, “But God proved his love for us in that while we still ere sinners Christ died for us.” God’s ever flowing and all-giving love frees us from the sin that found its way into His perfect creation. In his life and at his death, Jesus exemplified God’s divine love; his compassion, empathy and sympathy that he shows towards others, God shows to us through him. Through Jesus’ sacrificial love, we come to be one with God. No war, famine, or natural disaster can take that away.
In our time of death, Henri Nouwen writes this, “Hope and faith will both come to an end when we die. But love will remain. Love is eternal. Love comes from God and returns to God. When we die, we will lose everything that life gave us except love. The love with which we lived our lives is the life of God within us. It is the divine, indestructible core of our being. This love not only will remain but will also bear fruit from generation to generation.”
Every American soldier who marches on to war, to protect and preserve our national interest, we remember them on this day for their sacrifice. But it is in the way we love and serve God that we will be remembered throughout eternity. When we share our compassion, empathy and sympathy with others, we are building more than a relationship between the wounded and the healer. We are living out a covenant between equals. As brothers and sisters, children of a living and loving God.
As members of God's family, we must never forget the grace given to us by God is the grace that we give to others. As we move closer to being reunited with those who have gone before us, may we never forget the promised hope of salvation in which such membership into God’s family offers freely to anyone who desires it. When we can leave this world with grateful hearts, grateful to God and our families and friends, then our deaths can become sources of life for others.
I can’t think of a better way to be remembered, in this life and in the one yet to come.
Readings: Acts 2:1-8; 12-21
I remember one Sunday morning at our last church we were already running a few minutes behind schedule when one of our members stopped me to ask a “quick question.” He asked me if I could explain the Holy Spirit to him? Now I’ll give him credit that his question was quick. But the choir had already begun to process and the acolytes were following close behind them. What could I do?
This was an important question for him. It was truly weighing on his heart. So I replied to his quick question with an even quicker response. I said, “Wind and breath.” Yes, I summed up one of God’s greatest qualities with two things that come out of my son on a daily basis. Thankfully our God is gracious.
It’s hard to answer questions about the Holy Spirit. It's one of those beloved mysteries. If we were to do a little word study, we'd see that both the Hebrew word ruâch and the Greek word pneuma translate the same: wind, breath and spirit. And so its not a stretch to say the Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the wind that whips around us, and the air we breathe in.
Wind is easy to explain. I can feel it as it tickles my face and tussles my hair. I can hear it rustle through the leaves, watch it kick up dust, and cause ripples in the water. Breath is also something I get. On cold days I can see it, nearly every morning I can smell it, and when I'm on the treadmill I can even hear it. Breath is a part of every human being. So much so, that we rarely even think about it until it is hard to breathe.
But Spirit is something unique. It has no scent, or shape or form. It’s invisible and hard to grasp. Like our own breath, we don’t think about it until we need it. When we are feeling down, lost and alone. Or when we are fidgety and need quiet. Or troubled by a thought or lacking creativity, we often pray for the spirit to come. But like our own breath, the Spirit is already there.
The spirit is there even though we can’t feel it. On days when there isn’t any wind, and at times when we are truly out of breath, the spirit encircles us. Because the Spirit is God, and God has never left us. Through the Spirit God breathed all creation to life. It was the first thing to BE and it has never ceased to be.
(blow up balloon)
*Barbara Brown Taylor offers us this illustration. Think about it as our earth’s atmosphere. This invisible layer of gases surrounds our planet. It keeps the air we breathe here on Earth from being sucked out into the cold and consuming vacuum of outer space. And inside this layer is all the air that ever was, is, and will ever be. The same air of the ancients keeps recirculating, passing from one generation to the next.
God’s first breath is still blowing through this world, filling our lungs with life. This is the same breath inhaled by dinosaurs, Pharaohs, and Greek philosophers. Mozart and Frank Sinatra both breathed the same air that the choir breathes while singing their anthems. Every time we breathe in we take a baby’s first breath or someone’s last. And when we breathe out, our breath rejoins the wind so it too can be shared with someone else.
When Jesus exhaled his last breath on the cross, it rejoined with Abraham’s, Jacob’s and all of our ancestors. But God took that breath, that last sacrifice, and strengthened it into a mighty wind that shook throughout creation. Like a holy hurricane, it blew through the upper room on the Day of Pentecost; igniting sparks that burst into flames above the disciples’ heads. Taylor describes this event so beautifully, saying it was as if “God wanted to make sure that Jesus’ friends were the inheritors of Jesus’ breath.”
Picture them...standing there in awe, all the disciples inhaling God’s breath, filling themselves to the gills with God’s Spirit. They begin to speak in tongues; in different languages. Like a room full of preschoolers vying for attention, they created such a racket that they attracted others who were just passing-by. By the end of the day the church had grown from one hundred and twenty to more than three thousand. To think what we could do in our community by sharing the breath and Spirit of God!
Now some have described the Holy Spirit as the ‘shy’ one in the Trinity, not because it’s quiet, but because it never seeks direct attention. Rather the Spirit always points back to Jesus. I believe the Spirit is just too busy to be in the spotlight.
After all, the Spirit is the heartbeat of the Church. It blows through us and around us, above us and below us, calling all people to faith and comfort. It calls us into community and challenges the Church and her people to proclaim the Good News to the ends of the earth. The Spirit’s presence among us, acts as the church’s guide so that we may live and act as faithful servants of God and as witnesses of Jesus Christ.
In the unity of the Holy Spirit we are one body, the Body of Christ. Young men, old ladies, each from different cultures, races, and economic levels, all dreaming the same dream together; each of us living and worshiping side-by-side for one common purpose.
On the Day of Pentecost, God’s Spirit filled the Earth in a new way: with peace and love and justice. When we breathe in, we breathe in God’s love, peace and justice. Therefore what we breath out should reflect the same. Just as God renewed the face of the ground with a single breath...in the same manor, God’s Spirit transforms and renews us.
In Romans Paul writes, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption, by which we cry, "Abba!"
The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Pentecost is not just a one-time event. The Spirit, like our own breath, is an on-going gift. Therefore, the church, and her people are like the wind...constantly moving and changing.
The Spirit of God is our life force. It is our peace and conscience. It is the part of God within us who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and joy. It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the very life that death cannot destroy.
The Holy Spirit, fills us with hope and purpose.
(blow up balloon)
It stretches us...and pushes us to uncomfortable places.
This is why so many of us still resist and push back. We don't want to change. We would rather hold on to the things that keep us from truly embracing the uncertainties of a life of faith. There are things we hold on to that...can deflate us, pollute us, distract us, and of course wear us down.
They may not change who we are, but they stop us from being what we are to become. Christ called us to a life of faith; which means trusting in God even when you can't see or feel God in your life.
It was Christ who emptied himself of his last breath, so we could be filled. As the Body of Christ, we too have to empty ourselves...in order to breathe in the breath of true life. God invites us to exhale all our pain and fear and anxieties...and to fill ourselves up on the peace and assurances of the Holy Spirit.
(blow up balloon)
We must let go of our own breath…
and allow God’s Spirit to move us wherever we are called to go.
(Let go of balloon)
* Based on the sermon The Gospel of the Holy Spirit by Barbara Brown Taylor. Home By Another Way. Cowley Publications. (Kindle Locations 1457-1460). Kindle Edition.
* Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3. Westminster John Knox Press. (Louisville, 2009). pp. 3-7.
"Jesus' Self-Portrait "- from Henri Nouwen's Bread for the Journey
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”