by Susan V. Mills
When I was a little girl…we moved around the country a lot. During WWII my dad joined the Navy. When he was discharged he quite naturally began to work in the nuclear industry. He started out as a steamfitter welder on various missile bases around the country, and eventually worked on nuclear plants. He ended up in construction management of nuclear plants. And so…each of the children in our family was born on a different nuclear project: My brother was born during the construction of the N-Reactor. I was born in South Carolina when Dad worked on the Savannah River Project, and my sisters were born during construction of the Hanford Reservation and the five nuclear plants known as Washing Public Power Supply System or WPPSS. We gave the phrase “nuclear family” new meaning! By the time I left elementary school…I had gone to 14 different schools in as many states. But…miraculously, Dad always planned the moves around the country to match the school calendar. His planning was so good, my older brother was actually able to graduate from High School with 12 years of perfect attendance. Nothing short of amazing!
Now…very often…the news that we would be moving again…would come as we gathered around the dinner table in the evening. We would all sit down…food would be passed around the table, jokes would be shared…and suddenly, Dad would announce that he was going to be moving to a new job site. The first reaction would be groans from all around the table…but gradually we would become filled with excitement, too. We would all want to know where we would be going next. And Dad would get out the map…and we would all gather around the map…and we would start learning about and talking about all the positive aspects of the next place we would be living.
Now…Dad would very often be the first one to depart…and then we would follow. Because most of the time we had to wait for him to find us a place to live, or wait for a break in the school calendar, there was always the packing up, and Mom would have to gather all the records from the schools and pediatricians and drive us to the next location. Now…I really do believe my mom deserves a medal for surviving all those moves!
But…the important thing was…we always knew that Dad would be there at the next location…and that he was waiting for us with a smile and open arms…but in the meantime, we were supposed to remember all the things that he had taught us…like minding our mother and our teachers, watching out for each other, loving one another, being good neighbors and good friends in school, studying hard…and when we would finally get to the new location…there would always be a great reunion.
Now…I think it was important that the news of a move always took place at the dinner table. Because as a family physician once said, “Food is very normalizing.” Somehow, having those conversations about an impending change, about Dad leaving, about being uprooted, the family being separated, and all of us moving into an unknown future…somehow it didn’t seem so scary over a hot meal of mashed potatoes, meatloaf, green beans, salad and rolls. Somehow…it all seemed to be…well…normal…if not an introduction to a “new normal”.
And so…I don’t think it’s a mistake that this is where we find Jesus and the disciples in our Gospel Lesson today. Jesus has gathered His disciples around a table….and has shared a meal with them…and then…He lets them know that big change is about to take place. He will soon be departing…but…they are to remember all that He has told them…and they are to do what He taught them…and love one another. But…the good news was… He let them know that He would not be leaving them without a caregiver. He uses the word “paracletos”, which is difficult to translate into English…because the Greek language is so much richer in meaning that any one English word we could translate it into. …Our gospel lesson today translates it as “Advocate”.
In other translations, we see “Comforter” or “Helper”… which is to say…the Holy Spirit.
Poet and preacher Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of the Holy Spirit by saying:
A Paraclete is one who comforts, who cheers, who encourages, who persuades, who exhorts, who stirs up, who urges forward, who calls us on; …what a spur and word of command is to a horse…, what clapping of hands is to a speaker…, what a trumpet is to a soldier…, that a Paraclete is to the soul: …one who calls us on…, that is what it means…, a Paraclete is one who calls us on… to good (from a sermon preached at St. Francis Xavier’s, Liverpool, on Sunday, April 25th, 1880).
So… once again, I believe the Lectionary for this day is written for this unsettling time we are living through: when we are self-isolating in our homes, when we cannot gather together in the sanctuary, and when we still have no idea about when we may be able to gather once more around the Communion table; the Table where we joined our hearts together to share the bread and cup, a place where we paused to remember the One who promised He would not leave us as orphans…but He was going ahead of us…and was preparing a place for us. So today we pause in our individual sacred places called “home” and try to remember all Jesus taught us……to love one another…to do good…to be the heart and hands and feet of Christ…here in this beautiful…but very broken and bruised world.
No, things aren’t normal…and they may not be “normal” again for a very long time. In fact, I think as followers of Christ, we have this time of “retreat” from the “normal” world to begin to listen and question whether “the old normal” is something we should return to. For the gift of this pandemic has been that we can now clearly see the divisions, the disparities, and the systemic bias against many people in our country today (the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, people who are “other”, the disabled”). Exposed for all to see are a host of people who have no health insurance, who are denied access to healthy food, who have lack of medical care, and who are living in economic insecurity even though they are considered “essential” workers in our economy. There are young men who cannot jog without risking the possibility of being killed. Do we really think we are being called to make these kinds of divisions and disparities “normal” once again?
Or will we hear the voice of the Spirit calling us to a new normal?
This pandemic has shown that just as undifferentiated cell growth is medically toxic, so unrestricted economic growth is ethically toxic. Placing that which “sells” as more important than things which create a strong and healthy citizenry, educated and compassionate leadership that ensures justice for all, a collective sense that serving our neighbor is our highest civic good, preservation of beauty is myopic. The very things that require time and care…have until now been less valued (teaching, first responders, health care providers, nurses, emergency medical technicians, elder care providers, farmers, meat packing plant operators, janitors, grocery clerks, transportation drivers, social services workers). All these “essential workers” were compensated much less in our old economy and yet we discovered they were far more essential in keeping our country running than the professional athletes, entertainers, actors, technology giants, and even politicians were valued too highly under the “old normal”. Industries that produced consumable products in the old economy like military spending, manufacturing, energy extraction were deemed far more important than clean air, clean water, recreational lands and parks. Do we really want to go back to that skewed perspective once again? Yes, we need to preserve the economy, but I hope we begin to ask ourselves how do we live in a way that brings forth the Kingdom of God. What value will we place on our lives and the health of the planet going forward. Have we made false “gods” out of information, entertainment, manufacturing, and military might? And at what cost?
In our first Scripture lesson today…we find the story of the Apostle Paul…in Athens…waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him so they can all begin their next missionary journey. But…it was in a time when there were no cell phones, no telephone, no text, no fax, computer…no instant messaging. If you wanted to see if someone had arrived…well…you walked down to the docks and waited for the ship to come in. Ships would arrive…and you would be on the lookout. However, if your passenger was not on board…then you would just come back to the dock the next day and start the whole process all over again. Now…if you didn’t believe that God was the Blessed Controller of all things…it would all seem like an exercise in futility. But to Paul…whose life had been radically transformed…and who had been filled with the Spirit…he knew that it was not pointless…he knew that God was always at work around him…that everything had meaning…and so it was up to Paul to look around … to open his heart and mind and eyes…and see where the Spirit was at work…and then …join in God’s work.
So…after visiting the docks each day…seeing that Silas and Timothy had not yet arrived…he would walk around town… And as he walked along…he couldn’t help but notice that he couldn’t walk far without stubbing his toe on one of the many shrines and idols all over town. They were everywhere! Eventually…he even ran into one that had been inscribed: “To the Unknown God”…and he knew…this was why God…why the Holy Spirit…had placed him in Athens. God was at work…reaching out to the people of Athens…to let them know… God loved them.
Listen to Paul’s words again: “He (God) allotted the times of their existence… and the boundaries of the places where they would live, …so that they would search for God …and perhaps grope for God… and find Him—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For ‘in Him we live and move and have our being’…
Paul knew deep within… God was at work…amidst this people who had set up all kinds of “gods” to fill the emptiness inside them. These were people who were hungry for a relationship with God! And just in case they may have missed one, there was even one labeled to “the unknown God”. They were people who needed to hear the Good News of God’s love…and so he set out to find out who was hungry for God…He began to meet with people right where they were…and tell them of God’s love with great reverence and respect.
Now…I think it is no mistake that you are living in Bandon today. For we read that it is God who allots our times and boundaries…here in this place…so that the folks of Bandon might see the very love of God in action. May we, like Paul, look around and see and hear the hunger folks are experiencing in their lives now that so much has slowed down and been stripped from our lives…God has brought people from all different places…to build a beloved community here in Bandon, to become a part of Bandon FPC at this moment in time. We will eventually gather once again around His table…
Until that day comes, may we in these uncertain days remember all that Jesus taught us…may we be reminded to love one another…and to tell the Good News…to those in our homes, to those we run into when we go to the grocery store, or as we see, talk and listen to our neighbors. Your being here in this place, at this point in time is no accident…we are not just biding our time.
Listen! The same Holy Spirit who was there for those saints who have gone before us is still here working on our behalf today. The same Spirit dwells in us and fills our hearts with hope…especially when we feel abandoned, hopeless, all alone, uncertain of the future, or the “finish line” seems out of reach.
But…thankfully, we have an Advocate, a Comforter, a Helper… through it all, wherever we find ourselves, whatever choices we face, whatever weariness we feel, whatever doubts we have, who gives us strength and courage, and calls us on… to that which is good. Amen and Amen!