The Rev. Martha Jacobs
The Amazing Spirit Within Us
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Acts 2: 1-6
Sunday, May 20, 2018
One of God’s greatest gifts to the world is our human diversity. At Pentecost, through the Spirit, God does not erase our differences but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different. So, as you may have heard me say many times, different is not bad, it is just different.
God meets us in the messiness of different languages and does not ask us to speak God’s language. Instead, God chooses to speak our many languages. At Pentecost, God speaks in Aramaic and Greek and other ancient languages. Today, God speaks our languages – and, as the UCC reminds us, God is still speaking – and so, God speaks whatever language and in whatever way we need, in order for us to hear God.
How does God’s Spirit speak to you? Is it in a whisper? A still small voice? Or is it through other people? Maybe it is through reading the Bible, or when you pray. Or perhaps it is when you sleep. Over the years, as I have confessed before, I have come to realize that God speaks to me in several different ways. Sometimes it is through thoughts that come into my head. Sometimes it is when I feel a burning in my heart. And, sometimes it is through someone else or several people saying the same thing to me; when I don’t or can’t hear it the first time, God finds another way.
For example, my call to ministry came through two different voices. The first was a close friend, Winston, who was dying from an AIDS-related illness. When I went to visit him in the hospital, he told me that he had just kicked a young man who said he was a chaplain, out of his room. I asked why and he told me that this young man would not talk with him about what he wanted to talk about. So, I asked what he had wanted to talk about, and he said, “The fact that I am dying.” So, I asked him how he felt knowing that he was going to die sooner rather than later, and a deep conversation ensued.
At one point, Winston paused, looked me in the eyes and said, “You should be a chaplain. You aren’t afraid to talk with me about whatever I want to talk about. You should be a chaplain.” I said, “Absolutely not. I hate hospitals. No way.” We argued about it for the next 20 minutes or so. When I left, I emphasized that I was NOT called to chaplaincy.
The next evening I was having dinner with my clergy mentor, Rev. Sally Norris, and mentioned what Winston had said, thinking she would agree with me. Instead, she said, “He’s right.” Inside my heart sank. I fought her too, but by the end of the night, I heard what they both said and knew deep in my heart that God was letting me know that I indeed was going to serve in a place that I didn’t like and was uncomfortable in – a hospital. And, as most of you know, I loved being a chaplain and received more grace and blessings that I could have ever imagined.
At my ordination exam, all of examiners around that table were parish clergy. I was only the second person to come before them seeking ordination to chaplaincy and not to congregational ministry. One of the ministers asked if I would ever be open to serving in a congregation. I thought about it for a moment and flippantly said, “Well, I guess if God has that great a sense of humor to call me to a church, I guess so.” Well, as we know, God does have a great sense of humor, because I stand before you here today. So, be careful about what you put God up to!
But seriously, I remember thinking at the time how difficult it would be to do congregational ministry. It felt scary to me. In some ways, I could image it being similar to responding to what God was asking Ezekiel to do with the dry bones. To enable them to become breathing, loving, hope-filled people. Looking back, my humor was a cover for not being sure that I would have had the faith that Ezekiel had to listen to what God was telling him to do.
You see, Ezekiel had visions – God had given Ezekiel the ability to see beyond what was right in front of him. God gave Ezekiel the blessing of being able to prophesy about the vision that God put before him. And, what is it that Ezekiel sees when he looks into the valley of dry bones? Lack of life? lack of breath? lack of hope? lack of God’s presence? lack of God’s Spirit? Perhaps that is what the people were feeling at the time of Ezekiel – But, what Ezekiel saw, as God told him what to do, was hope rising out of that despair.
One of the things that the Holy Spirit brings to each one of us, is hope. And, the Spirit does that in many ways. Two experiences came to mind as I was working on this sermon that I want to share with you today. My hope is that they will bring clarity to a concept that is not always easy to describe or understand.
Early one evening in October of 2001, I was standing outside of one of the Red Cross Respite Centers at Ground Zero. It was the middle of my shift as a chaplain volunteer. I was drawn outside. I did not know why. As I was standing there, a rather large, burly man with kind, tired eyes, approached me. His name was Frank Silecchia. He was a construction worker. He asked me if I was a chaplain, which I affirmed. Then, Frank went on to tell me the most amazing story.
A few days into the rescue effort, Frank looked into one of the burned out shells of one of the buildings next to the towers. All that remained of the building were the four walls, or so he thought. But, as he looked through the smoldering wreckage, he saw four crosses standing about twelve to sixteen feet high amidst the rubble. These steel crosses had been support beams that broke off and went flying when the buildings collapsed. They had amazingly all landed together in this building and had somehow withstood the fire and destruction around them. One of the crosses had what appeared to be a shroud on it. The sight reminded Frank of Calvary, and he said that an immediate peace had come over him.
At this point in his story, Frank looked me in the eye and said, “Now I’m not some born again crazy guy. I mean, I believe in God and all, but I didn’t imagine this. I could not believe that God had shown me these crosses. It blew my mind and yet I felt peaceful.” He went on to tell me that he scrawled “God’s House” on the outside of the building and started bringing workers to the site. Frank said that he watched people’s faces as they saw the crosses. He could not believe the healing and hope that seeing these crosses had given to so many.
He then set out to have the city preserve at least one of the crosses. With the help of several clergy, the cross with the shroud was eventually moved onto a concrete structure that used to be the support for an overhead crosswalk. Today, it is a part of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Amidst the destruction of what had been the World Trade Center Towers stood an indestructible symbol of hope.
The second experience that I want to share with you this morning happened when I was the chaplain at United Hospital many years ago. It was this experience that helped me to learn that we can hold hope for others. One morning, I was spending time with a family in the Intensive Care Unit. This family, a husband and wife, were keeping watch over their daughter who was very ill. In the waiting room, they had met two young women who were awaiting the outcome of their mother’s serious condition. They also met a wife and son who were watching over their loved one, who had not done well following major surgery. These three families, meeting in another place and time, might never have found their way to becoming signs of hope for each other. But because of the circumstances they were in they were able to give each other the support, the hope and the comfort they needed. They laughed together, they cheered good news and cried over bad news together. These six people showed the power of strength in community, even a thrown-together community. These strangers demonstrated how we can help each other to hope, when we come together as a community.
The Spirit comes to us in many ways. What I saw here during our Barn Sale, was a symbol of hope. What I have heard from members of our congregation who have faced health and other issues, is a feeling of hope because they know they are being prayed for and others are holding hope for them. What Bob Buzak talked about 3 weeks ago, during our dialogue, where he talked about joy moving beyond our sanctuary to the outside world, is hope.
What Ezekiel saw was a symbol of hope. What the Apostles experienced was a symbol of hope. Hope that even though Jesus had been crucified, and had risen and had now ascended to be with God, the Apostles and other believers were not being abandoned. God’s Spirit was now resting within them, just as it has rested within Jesus after his baptism and just as God’s Spirit rests within each one of us today.
Sometimes, we are that symbol of hope, even when we don’t try to be, or think we are. Those who went on our Mission Trip to Florida to help repair the roof damaged by one of the many hurricanes, were a symbol of hope for the family they helped. When we reach out to others, it reminds us that we are not alone in our struggles. We can give others hope – or, perhaps, hold onto hope for them.
This congregation is filled with people who have hope. It is also filled with people who sometimes need help remembering that hope is available to them, even if they can’t grasp it at the moment, and that is what this community is about. That is what First Congregational Church is all about. We help each other hear and show, through God’s amazing Spirit, love, hope, acceptance and support for all of God’s children. God’s Spirit can breathe new life into our body, whether we are young or old, healthy or not. Knowing that God’s Spirit resides within each one of us, we can confidently extinguish the Christ Candle until it is lit again on Christmas Eve when we celebrate again the birth of the one who shows us how to love each other and brings hope to all of us.