A message given May 27, 2007
Pentecost — Memorial Day
by Rev. Scott Summerville
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. ….. All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
There is an ancient Jewish Festival, the Festival of Weeks, when the first fruits of the wheat harvest were presented to God. God was honored as the source of rain and of the fruitfulness of the earth. The Festival of Weeks came to be known by a Greek name, Pentecost. It was a kind of Hebrew Earth Day. For Christians the day of Pentecost became associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church and with a strange event that occurred in Jerusalem:
The Christian Pentecost is about finding a universal language – a universal human connection. The Jewish festival of the wheat harvest became for Christians the festival of vision, a vision of humanity no longer bound by distinctions of nation and race and class and gender.
Wouldn’t it be great to bring these two traditions together – to put together the Jewish festival of the harvest and the Christian festival of the spirit – to hold together the love for the earth and the visible world and reverence for the spirit – for things invisible – and the celebration of the hope of human unity.
Ponder this: on Pentecost the Spirit came upon the church as a rush of wind.
People say the universal language now is English – or maybe Spanish – or some say it may one day be Chinese – in truth the universal language is the air we breathe. It is these precious molecules we suck into our bodies and exhale every moment of our lives.
We celebrate on Pentecost the beginnings of the church, but the church begins long before Pentecost – long before Jesus – even long before Moses or Sarah or Abraham. The fundamental basis of all religion is not what’s written in Bibles or sacred texts. The fundamental basis of all religion is not what’s written in theology books or what is said in sermons. The fundamental basis of all religion is the wonder and awe humans feel before the majesty and beauty of earth and sky.
Three weeks ago the lawn of the church was filled with plants, flowers of all kinds – row after row – pink, white, red, purple – on a canvass of lush green grass and blue sky. This display was a more perfect sermon than I or anyone else will ever deliver.
The great challenge of our time – the great ethical issue of our age – is how we will live in relation to earth. Take a deep breath. The future of earth – the future of all that we love and hold dear – depends upon how we treat this – this breath – these precious invisible gases that sustain life.
Pentecost Sunday we honor the invisible spirit that gave birth to the church – the spirit that came as a rush of wind – a movement of air. If we are faithful to the Lord of Creation, the God of Earth, we will honor the Spirit and live in the Spirit, and we will also honor the air itself.
Sometimes the most obvious things are the hardest things to remember. We are so accustomed to air – – this invisible blend of gases in which we are immersed and from which we draw life, that it is easy to forget that it is there, sustaining us, cycling every moment through every cell of our bodies . Air and earth, atmosphere and soil – out of the primal elements comes all things. The church was born on Pentecost by power of the Holy Spirit; but ultimately the church was born out of the earth – our bodies, our minds, our thoughts are made of earth.
Earth is also sacred to us – and especially so on Memorial Day – because it holds the bones of the dead. For most of us this involves personal memories: the classmates, friends, and relatives, the comrades who died in war. Some of these memories stretch back many decades. Some are as fresh as this morning’s news. It is that daily news that makes this Memorial Day so painful for us.
We are trapped in a labyrinth of war from which we seem unable to extricate ourselves, and while the debate and political maneuvering continues, there is the daily sacrifice of young men and young women. Their names are being added to the litany of names that will be read and remembered on Memorial Day next year and the year after and for all the years to come. The names of those gave their lives, most of them in their youth, in the springtime of life – their sacrifice puts into perspective the many minor things that we worry over and think are so important as we go about our daily lives.
In this time in our history what a painful lesson we are learning about how fear can cloud our reason and lead us to forget the true cost of war. What a painful lesson we are learning about what war looks like in theory and what war looks like in reality.
We need as a nation to resolve never to surrender reason and truth when fear is driving us toward violence and war. That would be one way to faithfully honor the dead of our wars and those who will die today.