June 5, 2022 Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "The Holy Spirit: A Transforming Breath"

Jun 5th  |  The Reverend Wendy VanderZee |  John 14:8-27

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   Question:  Have you ever had the experience of feeling lonely or sad and at just the right moment, the perfect person phones? Or perhaps you opened your Bible or devotional to a page that held the absolute perfect words of comfort or challenge for what you were dealing with that day? Or maybe you are at a restaurant or out for a walk and you run into the person you had been thinking about? Coincidence? Maybe. Or perhaps something more: a “God-thing”? I find it odd that society seems to be more than willing to attribute circumstances to “coincidence” or “luck” while hesitating to credit the Holy Spirit. Now I’m not saying everything that occurs happens for a reason or that God moves the world around like chess pieces on a board. God is omnipotent, but we do have free will and autonomy. Many things that happen are the direct result of what we or someone else does or fails to do.  But today’s scripture lesson challenges us to see through a different lens.  Do we have eyes to see or are we like Jesus’ disciples who were blind to God’s presence in their midst?

   Today’s first Scripture Lesson is of course the traditional Pentecost text. But this second lectionary passage, the setting in John, takes us back, once again, to that last evening before Jesus died. Jesus ends up talking about peace with his disciples and telling them “Do not be afraid”, when obviously for the next 24-72 hours they had plenty of valid reasons to be very frightened and even confused. As they huddled in the upper room, feeling “at peace” would be the absolute last thing they would be experiencing.

   Jesus was surely feeling the pressure of his limited time left with his dear friends and companions who had been living with him most of the previous three years. With the clock ticking, I imagine Jesus’ voice was probably choked with emotion and even a little desperate as he uttered the words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” and “Do not be afraid…” as he tried to reassure and calm his friends. It’s the same tone of voice I imagine hearing from someone immediately following an accident when someone appears and says in a loud voice, “Now don’t panic. Everyone remain calm!” In my own life, and probably in yours as well, every time someone has told me not to be afraid or not to panic, those were the exact emotions I was experiencing!  

   The sky turns black and tornado sirens begin to blare.  You just ran to the basement or your “safe place” and your Dad says, “Now don’t be scared”. Yeah right.  Or, the doctor shuts the door, sits down with you, and with a grave look in her eyes says, “The good news is we have caught it early”.  Maybe in time you realize that was good news, but at that moment the news doesn’t feel all that good or positive.

   Jesus’ words may not transfer to a reassuring Hallmark card, but the fact is that in the world in which we live, there seem to be more days than not that “knock the holy stuffing out of us!” Life just doesn’t seem to have many tranquil moments of sipping chamomile tea while listening to soothing music.

   Admittedly, the first Pentecost with its “tongues of fire” and “rush of a violent wind” was quite literally a monumental and earth-shattering event. Can you imagine an international gathering and each person hearing the message in their own respective language without the help of translators?  But if we find ourselves looking for another comparable event, won’t we miss the day-to-day movements of the Holy Spirit?  Are we so busy looking for the majesty of a Grand Canyon that we fail to see the gift of the forsythia, dogwood, and azalea blossoms in our own neighborhood?

   Jesus seemed taken aback and even impatient with Philip’s request to have Jesus “Show us the Father.  Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus responded, What do you mean? “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?

   Shortly thereafter, Jesus begins to talk about the upcoming abiding presence of the Holy Spirit and how that Spirit will reveal truths and show the disciples things that the world neither sees nor knows but that they will see and know.

   This means we will sense the Spirit and won’t be alone in the most ordinary moments of life!  After all, the disciples didn’t see God in Jesus, most of the time. If they weren’t able to see God in Jesus during the momentous times when Jesus fed the 5,000, healed the sick, or broke bread and said, “This is my body…” then they probably didn’t see God in the more “everyday times” when Jesus was weeping at the grave of his friend, Lazarus, or when Jesus became tired and fell asleep in the back of the boat. The disciples didn’t have eyes to see or ears to hear God’s presence with Jesus. But Jesus is saying that after Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will surely be there in all the ordinary circumstances of their lives and our lives as well.

   When the doctor steps out of surgery with bad news….

   When we hear the word that our loved one died….

   When a relationship comes to an end….

   When we flunk a course or are fired from our job…

   When we hear about another shooting in the news and the world feels overwhelming…

   When we feel alone and are not sure where to turn…

    …in all these times and more, Our Loving God, via the Spirit of Pentecost, will surely be there. On all those other days of Jesus’ ministry even though the disciples had no awareness, one day they would sense the Spirit’s abiding presence.  The day would come when the Holy Spirit would reveal truths and show the disciples things that the world didn’t yet see or know, and the disciples would finally see and know. Jesus is really saying that when those bad, painful, or difficult things happen and life gets overwhelming, God, in the form of the Holy Spirit, will be there for us just as God was there all along with Jesus throughout his ministry, despite the disciples not having ears to hear or eyes to see.

   At these times when the world seems to constantly try to steal peace from us, and in times when our hearts really do become troubled for some very good reasons, we have reassurance from Jesus that God will be with us through the Holy Spirit: we will never be alone.  This reassurance is a peace that truly does pass all understanding and our troubled hearts really can become calm again. We can take a deep cleansing breath and trust in God’s presence with us.  It probably won’t come through tongues of fire and a violent wind, but it can happen. It does happen. It does come.

   Perhaps this is one of the most important messages from Pentecost: a message for more than just the 50th day after Easter but a message we can take home with us and hold on to for the rest of our lives: the Holy Spirit abides with us.

   In verses 16 and 24, the word for Spirit is “paraclete”, which translates “advocate, companion, counselor, adviser, one who strengthens, or one who comes alongside”. This is who God sends to be with Jesus’ disciples when he is no longer with them. Through Jesus, the world came to know God in a new way.  The Holy Spirit is with us to teach, to prod, to open our eyes, and to remind us what Jesus has said and taught about God and God’s love for each one of us.  With the Holy Spirit at our side, our lives are transformed in ways subtle as well as powerful. 

   Think for a moment where you were when you first heard about Pastor Kevin Fleming’s death.  For me, our daughter, Jenny, phoned to tell us and she was crying. At first, I had a difficult time understanding what she was saying. Like me, you may have first thought, “This can’t be true.” And then the tears may have come.  My thoughts turned to Wendy and the girls and wanting to know they were cared for.  Next, I thought of Jenny, her family, especially her girls who adored Pastor Kevin.  Then thoughts moved to the staff and to your congregation.  I imagine that in your grief at some point you wondered, “What’s next?  Who will preach on Sunday?  What will the church do without Kevin Fleming?”  I have no doubt there were feelings of being alone or lost, but you never were alone.  I firmly believe God heard your cries and prayers and the Spirit gave strength to your session and staff who sat down with Rabbi Gary and then with Susan McGhee to plan the next few days and weeks.  Others made phone calls, brought food in, met with staff, deacons, and session.  You were never alone. Wendy and the girls weren’t alone either. Even if you never felt it, or never saw it, the Holy Spirit was working with and among you and them to provide all that you needed at that time.

   Determining what resources were needed, the timing of those resources, and the willingness and strength to do what needed to be done were all ways in which the Holy Spirit was at work in the life of the church to move you forward. 

   The Holy Spirit can be the catalyst which inspires, strengthens, and empowers us to stand up and to speak out for justice, for change, for love.  Sometimes we need courage and the Holy Spirit to move us to take a stand, to act, to vote, and to be God’s voice of truth and love in the world. 

   Moving forward, the session is forming a search committee to be trained by Susan McGhee and Bill Henderson of the Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry. With these experienced resources, they will search for an Interim Pastor. Sandra Herron is assisting you with strategic planning. And meanwhile, the session is addressing COVID protocols, deacons and the pastors are addressing pastoral needs, a new education committee is envisioning an educational program encompassing childcare through adults, the mission committee is busy with plans for several community opportunities, and we are adding 4 new members today! I have no doubt the Holy Spirit is at work in someone’s life, preparing and leading them to ministry at this church.  I encourage you to pray for the staff, the session, and the search committee as we move forward together. Take a deep breath! Be transformed by God’s love. Trust in the Holy Spirit’s presence! Where is the Spirit leading us!  Thanks be to God! Amen.