< back to Sermon archive

Sermon for Sunday 17 May 2020

First Reading                                                             Acts 17:16-31

16Now while Paul was waiting for {Silas and Timothy} at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” — because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. 22So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ 29Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Psalm                                                          Psalm 66:7-18

7Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard; 8Who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip. 9For you, O God, have proved us; you have tried us just as silver is tried. 10You brought us into the snare; you laid heavy burdens upon our backs. 11You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water; but you brought us out into a place of refreshment. 12I will enter your house with burnt offerings and will pay you my vows, which I promised with my lips and spoke with my mouth when I was in trouble. 13I will offer you sacrifices of fat beasts with the smoke of rams; I will give you oxen and goats. 14Come and listen, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me. 15I called out to him with my mouth, and his praise was on my tongue. 16If I had found evil in my heart, the Lord would not have heard me; 17But in truth God has heard me; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. 18Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, nor withheld his love from me.

Second Reading                                              1 Peter 3:13-22

13Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. 18For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Gospel                                                        John 14:15-21

15{Jesus said,} “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. 18I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

The Holy Spirit Whispers

Grace, mercy and peace to you on this 6th Sunday of Easter from God our heavenly Father and from Jesus Christ, our risen Lord and Savior. 

One of the posts that people place on Facebook is pictures of things from our past.  Many of these things no longer have any use in our daily lives, but it’s fun to reminisce and see the object that once held meaning for us.  An example of this is something I hold in my hand here; I hope you can see this in the camera.  For those of the Baby Boomer generation and prior, you immediately recognize this as a 45-record adapter. 

Now I bring this to your attention because I also have two other items you may recognize.  For those of you born during the digital age, these are vinyl recordings.  The smaller one is a 45; it has two single hits and the other is a full-length album.  My wife, Terry, collected the 45s in her youth and the albums we collected early in our marriage.  If you were to look at these closely, you’d find that a number of these records are worn and scratchy, from being played and replayed.  This form of music recording has of course been long replaced by the flashy digital technology of compact discs, or instant digital downloads.  But to many, these seemingly primitive vinyl recordings still remain the jewels of a great treasure trove.  

Among these treasures are recordings of Elvis grinding out “Hound Dog,” the Bee Gee’s hit “Stayin Alive”, Waylon Jennings’ “Mamma Don’t Let your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys” and many others.  And I’d be willing to bet that some watching today have some of these old 45s: hits that include Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ “Peggy Sue,” Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline,” the Coasters’ “Charlie Brown,” or the angelic sound of Karen Carpenter singing “Close to You”.  These are but a small sample of the many hits that have been popular over the decades.

If we were to look long enough through these collections, you might even find a recording by the great blues master Jimmy Reed.  Born a share-cropper’s son, Reed brought the throbbing harmonica-and-guitar-driven black rhythm-and-blues of the Mississippi Delta into the popular rock-and-roll mainstream.  Having grown up with American bandstand, I can remember highlights and previously recorded episodes that included many of the greats including the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Jimmy Reed.  Then came along programs like MTV and Country Music Television which exposed the next generation to rock, pop and country music videos. 

The effect of these new Music Video programs was that many, during their High school years, fancied themselves as budding band members playing and replaying the music trying to imitate the artist’s sound and their movements.  However, almost all these wishful singers missed something very subtle going on in the background of Jimmy Reed’s soundtracks.  Buried beneath the sound and voice tracts of Reed’s recordings, was an almost indistinguishable voice.

By playing and replaying Reed’s records, you might notice something curious.  If you listened very carefully, there could sometimes faintly be heard, a woman’s voice, softly murmuring in advance the next verse of the song.  The story that grew up around this — and perhaps it’s true — was that Jimmy Reed was so absorbed in the beat and the riffs of his music, that he simply couldn’t remember the words of his own songs.  He needed help with the lyrics, and the woman’s voice was none other than that of his wife Priscilla, who would devotedly coach her husband through the recording session by whispering the upcoming stanzas into his ear as he sang.

Whether this story is accurate or not, we as Christians, we can surely recognize a parallel experience here.  Jesus, in our gospel lesson for this morning, is but a few hours from being betrayed and handed over to the authorities to be crucified on the Cross.  Knowing the events to come, Jesus wants to assure His disciples that even though He must go away, they will not be orphaned.  He wants to assure them that they will not be left to their own devices, so He tells His followers that He will ask the Father to send them a helper, an advocate, that will be with them forever.  He also tells them that one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to whisper God’s commands and statutes, God’s truth, in the ears of the faithful.  When Jesus was physically present with His disciples, He was the one who instilled this message in His followers. 

Jesus provided the right words, the words of the Father, and coached the disciples through the proper verses, taught them God’s will and commandments.  But now that Jesus approaches His death, now that He draws near to His time of departure, now that the disciples will be on their own without Him, that task is to be handed over to the Holy Spirit:  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, [a Helper] to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth …” (John 14:15-17).

            A principal task of the Holy Spirit is to remind the faithful of God’s will for our lives, jogging our memories of all Jesus said in order for us to keep His commands in love.  The Holy Spirit whispers the lyrics of the never-ending hymn of faithful obedience in our ears.  It may surprise us to think of the Holy Spirit in this way, as a quiet, whispering teacher of the commandments of Jesus.  Often the Spirit is advertised in flashier terms:  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).  And indeed this is true, the Holy Spirit does help us produce such fruit, but these are a product of the primary activity of the Spirit — reminding God’s children about everything that Jesus taught and commanded them (John 14:26), whispering the gospel lyrics into the ears of the forgetful faithful.

            Decades ago, back in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was running for President, one of the more vivid moments in the campaign passed by, almost unnoticed.  One Sunday morning, candidate Carter had been worshipping at the Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia.  When the service was over, he exited the church into the swarm of press encamped on the church’s front lawn.  Cameras whirring, video lights glaring, microphones thrust forward, the media experts moved in for interviews, pushing themselves to think of clever questions to ask a presidential candidate on the way out of a Southern Baptist Church — “Did you like the sermon?”  “Did you enjoy the choir this morning?”  “Do you plan to remain a Baptist in Washington?” — on and on the commonplace questions spewed.  However, all that changed in an instant.

            Suddenly, a reporter, probably in a stroke of luck, shouted out a question that genuinely mattered:  “Mr. Carter, he said, suppose when you are President, you get into a situation where the laws of the United States are in conflict with what you understand to be the will of God.  Which will you follow, the laws of the state or the commandments of God?”  Carter stopped, looked up, and blinked into the bright Georgia sun, obviously turning this question over in his mind.  Then, perhaps still “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day,” perhaps with the Holy Spirit gently whispering the lyrics of the gospel into his ears, he turned toward the reporter and replied, “I would obey the commandments of God.”

Alert aides, alarmed by this candor, unnerved by their candidate’s near-treasonous remark, hurriedly whisked him away from the press and into a waiting car.  You see, Carter the politician should have avoided the question, or hewed closely to the law of the land, but Carter the Christian had the Holy Spirit sent by God whispering Jesus’ words in his ear, “Do you love me?  The world cannot see Me or know Me, but “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”

            The reason we need the Holy Spirit whispering God’s truth in our ears, of course, is that we are, as human beings, notoriously forgetful.  We get distracted by the beat of everyday life: we get caught up in the rifts of the things we see as important.  As one commentator has pointed out, “an early Christian definition for being lost … was ‘to have amnesia.'”  Because of original sin, we are amnesiacs who cannot keep our calling clearly in mind.   Like the great Jimmy Reed, we get caught up in the rhythms, but we forget the lyrics.  We know that we were created to serve and love God and one another, but the pressure builds and the temptation to seek our own way is strong and we simply forget who we are, who we belong to, and what we’re supposed to do and be in this life.

            The doctrine of sin discloses that our loss of memory is not a momentary lapse.  Having lost our memory, we now choose forgetfulness again and again, preferring the oblivion of amnesia to the sharp accountability of remembering the commandments.  In his book, Lost In The Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Walker Percy describes a frequent device of soap operas, movies and novels.  A principal character will develop amnesia.  He or she is in a new place, with a new job, a new set of friends.  This plot device, says Percy, is endlessly fascinating since it feeds our fantasies about a risk-free forgetting of the old self and the embarking on a new identity.

            Percy decides to push the question of amnesia even further.  “Imagine,” he writes, “a soap opera in which a character awakens every morning with amnesia ….” Every day, the character is in a strange house with a strange and attractive man or woman.  Everything is new and fresh — the view from the window, the partner, the sense of the self.  “Does this prospect intrigue you?” asks Percy.  “If it does, what does this say about your non-amnesiac self?”  Percy’s point, of course, is the alure of forgetfulness.  One way to describe sin is willful forgetfulness.  Too often we choose amnesia; we decide, as an act of the will, not to remember that we are not our own, that we are in fact God’s very own children.

            God’s mercy is, in part, the grace of memory.  God’s Spirit whispers in our ear, telling us what we cannot — or will not — remember, refreshing our memory about who we are and to whom we belong.  When, in situations of challenge and stress, we remember the comfort and demands of the gospel, it’s because the voice of the Holy Spirit whispers the lyrics of God’s loving words in our ear.

            On occasion, I take communion to members either at home or in assisted living facilities who are suffering from Dementia or who have Alzheimer’s disease.  Many times, I’ll enter the room and begin a conversation with them about what’s going on at the church and with the other members.  Even though they may have been a long-time member, meaningful communication in many cases is nearly impossible.  Oftentimes the suffering member will be confused and disoriented.  And unless they knew me before the loss of their short-term memory, they may not even remember who I am.  Oftentimes, they simply can’t remember anything from the recent past, and in severe cases, they may not even remember who they are.  However, this is not always the case with long term memory.

            At some point during the visit, I will offer the suffering member the Eucharist.  At first, their confusion may increase and upon seeing the bread and wine they may become agitated and repeatedly ask, “What’s this?  However, once I begin the familiar words of Confession and Absolution, the person will begin to calm down.  Through the fog of memory loss, the familiar begins to be recognized.  The Holy Spirit irrigates furrows deep down in their memory, deeper than any disease, more profound than any confusion.  Many times, when I come to the words of institution, “On the night that our Lord was betrayed …,” these life-long disciples will begin to repeat the words silently with their lips.  “This is my body, given for you,” the member will begin quietly speaking the words along with me, the Spirit whispering those words of promise in their ear.  Then when the bread and the wine is offered, the person will eagerly, hungrily, take them in their hands — the gifts of God for this child of God.  The Spirit of God whispered words ignites the spark that burns through the fog of disease and reminds them of the promises we have in the life, death and resurrection of our risen Lord.  One lady I remember fondly, was unaccustomed to receiving wine during Communion.  As she tasted the wine, she remarked, “now that’s the real thing!”  Amen sister, Amen!

Oliver Sacks in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, tells the story of Jimmie, a former sailor, now a patient in a nursing home, whose severe neurological disorder had left him with a profound and permanent amnesia.   He simply had no memory of anything from 1945 on.   Having no ability to retrieve the past and no capacity to construct a meaningful present, Jimmie lacked the continuity that makes for a sense of the self.   He was, wrote Sacks, a person who “wore a look of infinite sadness and resignation.”  However, when Sacks asked the Sisters who ran the nursing home whether Jimmie had lost his soul, the Sisters were outraged by the question.  “Watch Jimmie in chapel,” they said, “and judge for yourself.”

            So Sacks went to the chapel to watch Jimmie, and there he observed an astounding transformation.  He saw an intensity and steadiness in Jimmie that he hadn’t observed before.  As he received the sacrament, there was “perfect alignment of his spirit with the spirit of the Mass.”  There in worship, Jimmie was no longer at the mercy of a faulty and fallible memory.  “He was wholly held, absorbed ….” He whose mind was broken, was given in worship, “a continuity and unity so seamless, it could not permit any break.”  Jimmie, in his own way, is like all of us.  In the final analysis, none of us are able to construct a self.  We must all be given a story and a continuity not of our own making. Where we have no faithful memory, God remembers, and by the grace of God, the Spirit whispers the lyrics of the saving gospel in our ears.

            In our Epistle reading for today we are reminded to, “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.  Our hope is in the saving works of Jesus whom we love.  And to show that we love Him, we honor Him by being obedient children of our heavenly Father.  God shows His love to us not only in Jesus, but also in the fact that He has given us a Helper that dwells in us and who is constantly reminding us of all God has done and is doing for us each and every day.


Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.

< back to Sermon archive