Sunday, May 27, 2012

Spirit and Memorial

Spirit and Memorial
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 27, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Acts 2: 1-12

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  

Any time Easter is in the beginning of April this strange phenomenon happens. You get the combining of two important holy days. This weekend is of course in this country Memorial Day weekend, a weekend of observance and celebration where we remember those, who have fought, and many who have given their lives fighting for this country. We sing the stirring songs, like America the Beautiful, and my favorite hymn, our national hymn, God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty hand, which the choir sang this morning for the anthem. The ba, babababa ba ba ba, intro to that gets me every time, and the part where the unison goes to harmony, so symbolic of the way Americans throughout our history have been able to master the double edged identity of the individual spirit and the sense of the community spirit that somehow works in harmony when called upon to do so. We have cook outs, and barbecues because Memorial Day marks the start of the summer. Swimming pools across the state are opening this weekend. War movies are on television, helping us to remember the stories of so many brave men and women who have served and paid the ultimate price. Our prayers and our thoughts go out to them always, but having this day set aside to reflect is so important.
On the other hand, this day is also a special day in the life of the church. You will notice that the paraments are red, and my stoll is red. This is the only day in the year where Red is used. Today is also Pentecost Sunday. It is the day we celebrate the birthday of the church. This day marks the day when the Holy Spirit descended, filling the disciples with a new fire, and the church was born. So this morning we also celebrate the wonders of the Holy Spirit, and how the church through the blessing of the Holy Spirit has served the Gospel in this world for the last 2000 years.
I have been struggling this week trying to figure out what the balance should be between these two important observances. On one hand, the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform is very much a crucial church message. Only a foolish man would not realize how the sacrifice of so many have made it possible for us to be gathered here in church on these Sunday mornings, in the security of our protected safety here in America. But at the same time Pentecost is possibly one of the most holy days in the church calendar, one of the most holy, but also one of the least understood by many people. We all celebrate and know the story of Christmas, we tell it over and over again in song, and story, and nativity scene. If I asked anyone of  you to tell me the Christmas story, you'd easily do so, but how many of you could tell me the Pentecost story if I asked you to, putting you on the spot? I even would need notes to give the story sufficient details.
Finally I decided to work to combine the celebrations together, weaving patriotic hymns and anthems with Pentecost hymns and prayers, trying to create a web of connected balance, but what to do with the sermon. Which do I preach? Is it possible to preach both? Is there a logical stretchless connection between Pentecost and Memorial Day? A connection that is not forced or strained. I thought about it and thought about it all week, and then I came across a quotation in my research from Ghandi that reads, "Freedom is never dear at any price. It is the breath of life." I saw that quote and I was like, Yes! Freedom is the breath of life. Freedom is the Holy Spirit, and our soldiers, our fighting men and women here in America fight so we can be free.
One of the hardest things, I think, for a Christian to do, and it is typically significantly hard for Presbyterians, who desire above all to do things "decently and in order" to be led by the spirit, but imagine how much harder it would be without freedom. Freedom gives the space for the spirit to function through us, and us the flexibility to follow it. I've always thought that the requirements of law and the ways that governments, who restrict freedoms try to force and foster responsible behavior, but do not go as far as the Holy Spirit. There is a sense that laws create a baseline of where good actions end and bad actions begin, whereas the spirit directs us into the difficulties of the moment, pushing us not in a one size fits all black and white, good and bad, existence, but a more messy and fluid, higher standard, where things are not so simple and real virtue is possible. I gave my exam this week to my Junior World Literature students, and one of the questions was "What is freedom? Is it important for humans to be free? Why?" I got some incredible answers. One of the best was:
Human beings must be free. Humans were created free. With mistakes there are successes, with losses come wins. If you cannot make bad choices, good choices mean nothing.  

That really seems to get at it. Freedom allows people to make good  choices, only because we have the ability to also make bad ones. In not so simple black and white terms, freedom allows us to act as the spirit leads, not as government, or kings, or dictators mandate. Let us not forget that this idea, this idea of freedom is not a universal phenomenon, not found in most countries, and most areas, throughout this world, but rather a rare commodity that we enjoy, and sometimes take for granted as Americans.
I came across a poem this week called Freedom is Not Free. I'd like to share it.

Freedom Is Not Free
I watched the flag pass by one day.
It fluttered in the breeze.
A young Marine saluted it,
and then he stood at ease.
I looked at him in uniform
So young, so tall, so proud,
He'd stand out in any crowd.
I thought how many men like him
Had fallen through the years.
How many died on foreign soil?
How many mothers' tears?
How many pilots' planes shot down?
How many died at sea?
How many foxholes were soldiers' graves?
No, freedom isn't free.

I heard the sound of TAPS one night,
When everything was still
I listened to the bugler play
And felt a sudden chill.
I wondered just how many times
That TAPS had meant "Amen,"
When a flag had draped a coffin
Of a brother or a friend.
I thought of all the children,
Of the mothers and the wives,
Of fathers, sons and husbands
With interrupted lives.
I thought about a graveyard
At the bottom of the sea
Of unmarked graves in Arlington.
No, freedom isn't free.

No she's right, freedom is not free. But oh so important for the actualization of a true Christian Spirit led life. I think we often take for granted what freedom truly means. I talked last week about the Hanover Presbyterians, who despite it being illegal for them to do so, decided to dissent from the state religion, in order to be led by the spirit to practice their own. And here we are enjoying the rewards of their sacrifice, and we cannot even imagine a world, an existence where we did not have the right to worship as we please.
Another of my students wrote this about freedom:

Freedom is being able to control what you do while not knowing the effects of your decisions. It is very important that humans be free because freedom teaches life lessons and creates a natural consequence for decisions and actions, making the person learn and either change positively or negatively, ultimately helping people if it doesn't destroy them. 

There is brilliance in that statement. Freedom "Being able to control what you do, while not knowing the effects of your decisions." When you are led by the spirit, and hence completely free, it is impossible to know where the spirit will lead, so you do know what the effects will be. . . then he said that this freedom can "ultimately help people. . . if it doesn't destroy them." Wow how profound! Freedom gives us the chance to destroy ourselves, if we were left alone, but gloriously we are not. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit who sustains us, and so today on this Memorial Day we celebrate the freedoms that we have been given, thanking the soldiers who have procured them for us with their service and their lives, and on this Pentecost Sunday we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit that fills us, that empowers us, that makes real life possible, and especially that sustains us, making sure that we do not destroy ourselves, as glorious freedom gives us the chance to do.

Let us pray,

Father God, thank you for the gift of your spirit, the dove, the wind, the breath of life, the fire, the invisible force that fills us with the possibilities of goodness, goodness formed by and directed toward You. These possibilities of goodness make freedom possible, sustaining us despite ourselves, making life much more deep, full, and dear. And we also thank you for the lives of so many brave men and women who have served this country. We thank you for their sacrifices, for the time spent away from loved ones and family, for the fear and bravery they must fear to put their lives in harm's way. Protect those who are serving now. Be with them and guide them, so that they may come safely home to their family and country, who love them.  Thank you too for all who have paid the ultimate price and now rest with you. Their gifts, and the holy sacrifice of their lives make possible the freedom we have, the freedom that we have to follow our conscience, the freedom that we have to follow you. We humble pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who also paid the ultimate price to make us free, Amen.