Sermon for Pentecost 2012
In the final book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the character Aragorn—the one true King of the mortal world—recognizes how out-manned he is in the battle against the evil forces of Mordor, and risks going to the Paths of the Dead where there is an army of ghostly skeletons waiting to be called back into life and into battle by the heir of a long-ago king so that they can redeem themselves from an oath broken centuries before and rest in peace for eternity. It’s one of the many Christological aspects of Tolkien’s work (the Messiah comes and raises the dead)… but it always reminds me of today’s reading from Ezekiel, the wonderful resurrection narrative of the dry bones, especially in the context of this being Memorial Day Weekend. The bones in the Valley are literally re-member-ed, connecting toe-bones to leg-bones to knee-bones and on and on up to the head-bone in the Gospel song, “Dry Bones”. Memory, remembering, today on Pentecost, is part of the work of the Spirit.
Aragorn remembers the story of the Paths of the Dead and dares to have faith in it, when hope would otherwise be lost for the world of mortal men. And since the story is generations old, the idea of memory is something that spans generations; Aragorn himself doesn’t remember how these soldiers broke their oath to the King Isuldur, but as the inheritor of generation upon generation of stories, he is the inheritor of the collective memory as well. Other characters remember it and because they believe in it, want to stay away; others scoff and don’t believe such a cohort could really exist. But out of the depths of Aragorn’s memory and faithfulness, and the memories of the ghostly soldiers who follow him, the future is opened up for good, and the soldiers, after vanquishing the forces of evil, are able to rest in peace.
Memorial Day is obviously not about BBQs or vacations or sales, of course, it’s about remembering, remembering our shared history, remembering to give thanks, and using those memories to inspire (in-Spirit) us to action in our lives today.
The Spirit—ruach in Hebrew--brings Ezekiel to that valley of bones while the people of Israel are destroyed and in exile. Hope has been lost. But even then, in that darkest of times, the word of the Lord comes to Ezekiel, saying, “Prophesy to the bones.” When no one left is living, prophesy even to these bones, and they will live, and rise up, and be the new people of Israel. And those bones then need their own ruach—breath, this time, the word for breath and spirit is the same in Hebrew, as it is in Greek—the bones need ruach in order to truly be alive. "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." Ezekiel breathes the Spirit out into the world on behalf of those who had gone before him, giving them new life through his faith and his action.
The gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts is given so that we all may prophesy, whether a man or a woman, young or old, slave or free. I suspect most of you do not think of yourselves as prophets. Today, prophecy implies a gift for fore-knowing the future; a prophet is someone who can make accurate predictions. In the Hebrew Bible the role of the prophet was less about fore-knowing the future and more about listening to the Word of God and then sharing that Word with the people of Israel—it was God’s words that were (usually) threats about the future if the people didn’t shape up. The focus was on listening and re-articulating rather than having a magical ability to know what is going to happen next. But doesn’t foreknowing the future have something to do with remembering the past?
We’re speaking in tongues today in honor of Pentecost, so we can learn a Greek word that is new for some of you. The word is Anamnesis. It’s the Greek word in the stories of the last supper where Jesus says, “Do this in memory of me.” Anamnesis means memorial; but it also means a lot more than memorial. It’s recalling the past in a way that makes it affect the present; a way of recreating, refreshing, renewing the past. Our Eucharistic feast is not just a re-enactment of a dinner 2,000 years ago, but a way of bringing that 2,000 year old event into our lives today so that we—like the disciples—may be drawn closer to Jesus and participate in the saving graces of sharing the bread and the cup; the body and the blood. And those actions in the present affect the future—in the big picture, it is our salvation, but even at the day-to-day level, it is the meal which gives us strength (at our best) to go out into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit… to go in peace to love and serve the Lord… to make us do the things that we’ve just spent an hour talking about and praying about.
What do we do in memory of those who have died? Not just those in the military, though probably most of all, those who died in service of our nation. A true anamnesis would be to have their memory cause us to act today.
One obvious way we might have an anamnetic experience on Memorial Day is to consider our treatment of service members and veterans today; and it seems like there might be work to do there. Current service members commit suicide once every 36 minutes; veterans once every 80 minutes. 68,000 veterans are homeless on any given night—several times that number experience homelessness during the year. To truly memorialize those who have died, might we act to devote more attention, more money, more services to those who have served our nation more recently and sacrificed so much? And then that would alter the future—so the gift of prophecy becomes fulfilled: by remembering the past, we take action in the present, and change the future. Hopefully for the better.
Because that’s the other thing that prophecy and the Holy Spirit teach us. Progress is not impossible. Growth is not impossible. Redemption and renewal and resurrection are not impossible. Aragorn has cause to despair—but acts and redeems all of humanity. Ezekiel has cause to despair, but prophesies and calls the bones of Israel back to life after the exile. 10 days after the resurrected Jesus ascends into heaven and leave Peter and the other apostles effectively in charge of his message, the Spirit descends upon them, they speak in tongues, and the Gospel begins to spread not just in their city but around the globe. At the beginning of today’s Acts lesson, the apostles are all together in one place, as if they needed each other in order to hold on to their faith. At the end of the story they are liberated to go out to the far corners of the world because they now each have Spirit with them, wherever they go. Similarly in the Gospel today, Jesus is similarly saying farewell to his disciples—recognizing that they are about to be set adrift, without his constant guidance. But Jesus promises that God will send an advocate, the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us.
Again and again, today’s message is that we’re not alone—we have the Holy Spirit with us, we breathe ruach in and out over and over again each day. In a few weeks, when many members of our congregation will be confirmed or received, we’ll all be renewing our Baptismal Covenant, and we’ll say again and again in answer to the questions about our faith, “I will, with God’s help.” The Holy Spirit is God’s help; and we all have it. At each breath. When we can remember.