The Festival of Pentecost, Year B
May 31, 2009
In the name of the blessed Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.
Last Sunday my family worshiped at my wife’s childhood church,
St Michael’s Lutheran Church in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
St Michael’s is a church that was already a few generations old
when the American Revolution started,
and its graveyard tells the story of the people who have gathered in that place.
There are pastors and lay leaders buried there,
children and adults,
civilians and veterans …
including the remains of Revolutionary soldiers who died down the street,
in the nearby Battle of Germantown.
It’s an old graveyard … most of the headstones date from the early and mid 1800s,
though some are older and a few are more recent.
Many of those gravemarkers are broken down and crumbling.
Some have fallen into the ground,
becoming buried themselves with the dead they commemorate.
Others are so worn by 175 years of rain, snow, sun, and wind,
that all that stands is a nearly perfectly smooth marble tablet,
the inscription all but worn away.
Scattered among these weary stones is the debris of urban life …
food wrappers, the lid to a Styrofoam carton, and ubiquitous plastic bags.
A fence broken in several parts opens this memorial field to the neighborhood,
itself crumbling and dying in parts under the weight of societal neglect.
And so, during worship I walked through this graveyard with our children –
our two youngest couldn’t stay put in an unfamiliar church, especially on a gorgeous day,
and their antsiness infected our oldest –
as faint songs of praise strained through the church’s stained glass windows.
And as we walked through that graveyard I couldn’t help but think,
of the dry bones on which we walked.
There were more people buried in that graveyard than were worshipping
in that small urban church last Sunday.
A few acres filled with dry bones at rest,
bones which surrounded the church where they once heard a Living Word
and where they once feasted on the Bread of Life,
bones which were once animated by God’s life-giving Spirit.
I used to be creeped out by cemeteries …
As a kid I was never quite comfortable walking with friends
through the St Dennis Catholic Church cemetery in my neighborhood …
couldn’t we just walk around it and avoid it?
But I’ve come to really appreciate cemeteries as places not of death, but of life,
places of the promise of the resurrection.
One of the graves I saw last Sunday struck me …
dating from the 1870s,
in bold capital letters across the top of the headstone was written the word, “SLEEPING.”
A child was laid to rest there,
and the marblework set in the ground provoked an image of a baby’s bassinet.
Those bold letters preached to me that day,
even as the sermon was going on inside the church without me,
spelling out for me and for that child’s loved ones a promise that one day
that child would rise from her sleep,
that like Christ she would rise from the dead,
that like the dry bones described in today’s first reading from Ezekiel,
her bones would be drawn together,
flesh and sinews would come upon her frame,
and that the Spirit of God would animate her once again.
Sleeping, in anticipation of waking. The promise of New Life.
I don’t want to accuse the church of being a broken collection of dry bones
(though if I did I would hardly be the first).
Yet by placing this reading from Ezekiel in the lectionary today
the church itself is making that analogy,
or at least flirting with the possibility that we are dry bones in need of a life-giving Spirit.
In fact, these words from Ezekiel are declared to God’s own people in a spiritual drought,
to God’s chosen people in a time when they were held captive in a foreign land
and kept from returning to their promised land.
That is, these are words of hope given to a people who were in despair,
a people who wondered if they would ever return to who and what they were …
These are words of promise that God's people would be renewed, restored, and returned.
Perhaps too for those earliest of Christians in our reading from Acts,
followers of Christ who gathered days after Christ’s ascension into heaven
for the Jewish festival of Pentecost.
The passage from Acts doesn’t tell us this, though Jesus says as much in our Gospel reading today -
I can imagine that those disciples were a bit sorrowful, a bit anxious
about what was to come next, now that Jesus,
their mentor, teacher, messiah, had returned to his father in heaven.
And so how appropriate then, that it was on the festival of the Pentecost,
a Jewish holiday to celebrate God’s gifts fifty days following the Passover,
when the first fruits of the harvest were brought to the Temple,
and when the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was recalled …
How appropriate, then, that it was on this ancient Jewish festival celebrating
harvest and gifts of God’s Word,
harvest and gifts of God’s Word,
that the followers of Jesus were given the gift of the Holy Spirit,
a gift which empowered and continues to empower the church
in that period between Christ’s ascension and his promised return.
Today we celebrate the gift of the Spirit, a life-giving, invigorating, leading spirit
that guides the church and its people into life and mission.
Indeed, how appropriate for us to mark this day with the public affirmation of baptism
of nine young people,
and with the reception of new members into our community,
living signs of God’s promise of new life …
new life, new perspectives, new witnesses to Christ in our midst.
Just as the Spirit moved through the valley of dry bones
to assemble and renew the people of God,
and just as the Spirit moved through the disciples and gave them new abilities for proclamation,
so too is the Spirit moving here today, in this community,
bringing to us newness in our community and commitment of faith,
new flesh, new sinews, new breath,
renewing us for our calling in here, and our mission out there in the world.
But what is our calling in here, and our mission out there?
In a few minutes several young people
will make public Affirmation of their Baptism by
renouncing evil, confessing faith in the triune God,
and committing to continue in the covenant God made with them in holy baptism.
It is in these words of commitment from the rite of Affirmation of Baptism
that we are reminded of our calling in here:
– to live among God’s faithful people
– to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper
and we are also reminded of our mission in the world:
– to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed
– to serve all people, following the example of Jesus
– to strive for justice and peace in all the earth
A calling in here and a mission to the world.
These are bold commitments that our young people will make,
and that we, the congregation, will promise to support them in.
Yana, Alex, Alec, Alex, Helena, Julian, Zoe, Sandy, Alycia:
You are making promises today and confessing faith today …
and you can’t possibly live up to a single word of it … not alone, anyway.
You are doing this only by the power of the Spirit who has led you and your families here.
You are doing this surrounded by the prayers, love, and support of this church,
itself led by the Holy Spirit.
Look around at the people sitting in the pews alongside you,
their life, their faith, their witness has brought you here, too.
You are doing this with each other, in the church … not alone.
Our faith isn't a me-and-Jesus thing, but a shared thing.
In his Small Catechism, which you have studied over the past few months and years,
Martin Luther wrote about the relationship of faith, the Spirit, and the church.
Go ahead, take a minute, and pick up your new red hymnal.
Near the back of the hymnal you’ll find Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.
On page 1162 you’ll see his explanation of the Creed –
the creed that we’ll use later to confess our faith.
At the bottom of that page in his reflection on the Third Article of the creed
you’ll read one of his most-quoted writings:
I believe that by my own understanding or strength
I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him,
but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel,
enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith,
just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth.
We cannot do this faith-thing on our own, by our own understanding or strength.
We do this only through the Holy Spirit who leads us here, to this church,
where we grow in faith by gathering with God’s faithful people
around Word and Sacrament,
by sharing in fellowship and laughter,
learning and serving,
joys and sorrows.
That’s what we do here … and it is by the Spirit that we do it.
Your faith, your experience with God, is not a solitary experience,
but is something you share with each of the youth with whom
you’ve learned and laughed over the past year.
Whether you like it or not, you are not alone in this life of faith.
Indeed, in the commitments that you make today
the commitment of faith of our whole congregation is renewed,
our community of faith is refreshed,
and the church’s witness to the world is strengthened …
because of you and the Spirit that moves through you.
In the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God’s kingdom come,
and in the Creed we profess belief in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
I look forward to the coming of Christ’s Kingdom,
when all the dead in Christ will be raised and his reign of peace will be fully realized,
when that graveyard at St Michael’s Lutheran Church in Philadelphia
will again be filled with life.
In the meantime,
I give thanks for the gift of the Spirit to bring us to life again
through the witness, faith, and joy of our young people,
who today by the power of this Spirit confess their faith
and become full members of this congregation,
adding new flesh and sinews and breath to our body.
This is not our work, dear friends. It is not your work, dear young people.
It is the work of the Spirit,
which is given to us anew this day.
For the work of the Spirit, for these youth,
for this community of faith which today is a witness to the gifts of the Spirit,
let us give thanks to God.