Pentecost Sunday/Memorial Service
One of my vivid memories of childhood is a spring afternoon when I was in the fourth or fifth grade and thought that my parents had forgotten to pick me up after baseball practice. To this day, I can remember sitting on the curb, all alone beside that empty baseball field. No one was around, all was quite and all I could do was watch the deserted road while hoping for a sign or the sound of my father in his diesel silver VW Rabbit. In the end, dad was only running a few minutes behind and all was redeemed. Yet, burned in my memory remains that feeling of sitting all by myself and at least for a few moments, which honestly felt like hours, wondering if anyone was going to come around the bend for me.
I have a sneaking suspicion that almost all of us here today know the feeling. For many of us, we had a similar moment or experience in childhood.
For many of us we have also lived through difficult adult experiences where grief and loss have overwhelmed us and our sense in the moment has also very clearly been that we are in this all by ourselves – that we are alone.
That feeling is very acute when we experience the death of a loved one. We can feel abandoned in the midst of their suffering and we often feel very alone when they pass away both in terms of their absence from our lives and in the sense that at times we become unsure if anyone out there can or will help us to should this heavy burden that we suddenly feel.
At the same, death is but one of the life experiences where a sense of aloneness comes into our lives. It also happens in the midst of profound and ongoing illness, the loss of a job, when we have committed a significant sin or are going through a difficult failure in life or when divorce, difficulties with our children or other family issues weigh us down.
Unfortunately, feelings of aloneness don’t leave us as we move from childhood into adulthood – rather, the fear of abandonment, I am afraid, stays with us for all of our lives.
That is why I think that is is very helpful and very forming for there to be a unique convergence happening here today. For you see, on the one hand, this weekend for us as Americans is Memorial Day weekend. It is a time when we remember those we have lost in service to our country. For us at First Baptist, it is also the annual Sunday when we remember those that we have lost in the life of our church over the last year as we celebrate their lives, their influence and the difference they made in our lives.
But this year, this same Sunday, in the Christian church is also Pentecost Sunday which is the day that we celebrate the Holy Spirit as the primary presence of God in the world today. As we do so, we are reminded of many things that come our way through the Holy Spirit – power, guidance and courage to name a few. But also, at the very top of the list alongside these other aspects of the Spirit is the fact that the Holy Spirit provides us with the gift of God’s presence. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, through God’s desire and willingness to abide with us – we are never alone, we are never abandoned.
Let me simply remind us this morning that this happens in both a direct and in an indirect way. First it happens in a very direct way in that when we profess faith and become children of God, the Lord, through the Holy Spirit promises to take up residence in our lives. This image in fact, is at the heart of every single member of the Trinity. In the Old Testament, God dwelled with the Israelites as a cloud by day and as a cloud or pillar of fire at night. The point was the God was always with them to guide them. In the gospels, as John speaks of Jesus’ coming, he says that Jesus was God becoming flesh and choosing to “dwell among us” or literally in English, Jesus was “pitching his tent in our midst”.
And then this beautiful passage, which is our text for today from John 14 about the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ life was coming to an end and he wanted his followers to know that when he left earth that he was not leaving them to fend for themselves. “I won’t abandon you” Jesus said. “I want orphan you – I am sending someone to be with you.” This is what we find in the Holy Spirit, the ongoing presence of God.
This I think is the gift of God in the midst of tragedy that we so often overlook. Unfortunately even as people of faith, we don’t always dodge life’s tragedies. As people of faith, death and unexpected loss visits our homes just as it does those of everything else. No, our greatest gift from God is not some supernatural ability to avoid pain or trouble but to know that no matter what we face, God will be there with us to walk with us every step of the way. We will not be alone.
I read recently about a man by the name of Stanley Holmes. In November of 1969, Stanley was serving our country as a solider in Vietnam. One day he happened upon a paperback Western donated by a school girl from Wyoming named Marilyn who was 11 years old at the time. Marilyn had included her address on the book and a note that asked that any soldier who picked up her donated book would take a moment and send her a note. Stanley did just that and what developed was a pen pal relationship between Stanley, a soldier in Vietnam and Marilynn, a school girl in Wyoming. The story I read about Stanley Holmes was from 2011 and his attempt as a man now in the latter years of his life, to find Marilynn so that he could thank her for being his friend during those years. What had she done? She had simply been a presence, albeit far away and albeit in the form of a child, but nonetheless a presence who reminded Stanley that someone back home cared about him, was interested in him and loved him. Stanley Holmes said that he could in no way express how important her friendship had been. (The Powell Tribune (Montana), “Vietnam Pen Pals Meet”, May 20, 2015.)
God, through the Holy Spirit, offers the same to us in a direct way. A friend, this day and every day. In the good times and in the bad.
But, there is an indirect way that God does this too. What I mean is that as people with the Holy Spirit in our lives, we too join God in being his presence too. When life is difficult and when things spiral out of control there is very little that any of us can do to erase the hurt or the loss that others feel. And, yet, our best gift, just like God’s best gift is to be with them. To do whatever we can, to help in any way that we can but more than anything just to be there as reminders of our love and as bearers of God’s spirit.
I love the story of a man by the name of John Marks, a producer for the news program 60 Minutes on CBS. Marks grew up in the church but drifted away from the church as an adult. During the days of Hurricane Katrina, he found himself exploring the response of countless individuals to the needs in Louisiana and Mississippi. What caught him off guard was how many people of faith had come to help. They were there to do whatever they could from helping to rebuild, providing meals, working in supply closets or housing those who had lost everything. In short, they had come to bare the presence of Christ to those who felt alone. This experience became one of the crucial things that led Marks to return to faith and to write a book called Reasons to Believe. (As told in Philip Yancey’s book The Question that Never Goes Away, pg. 65-66.)
Of course his reason was simple. When all was lost and when no one else could be found, God remained present and so did the people of God. No, all was not made better, life was still out of control, all did not necessarily end happily ever after as they say. But God through the Spirit and God’s people as bearers of the spirit were there – no one had been left alone.
Thanks be to God – we never have to be alone or to feel abandoned either. And that, that is enough. Amen.