This morning I had you all turn to face the center aisle as I read the gospel so that we could be centered and connected to each other and the word. We’ll come back to that in a bit but first, as you know, tomorrow is an important day in our country. We call it Memorial Day, but it was first known as Decoration Day, and there are a variety of stories about how the day began to be observed. One story is that in 1865, Henry C Wells, a local druggist in Waterloo, NY mentioned to some friends at a social gathering that while it was important to praise the living veterans of the Civil War, he was concerned that people were losing sight of remembering those who had died. And thus began a year long process of forming a group to plan the decorating of graves of their dead and conduct the appropriately proper event. The first such event took place one year later in 1866.
Also in 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, the flashpoint of secession that began that same Civil War, African American clergy were concerned that a burial ground of war dead was untended. And they began meeting. It was the burial ground of 257 Union soldiers who had been Confederate prisoners of war. The now freed men, women and children spent 10 days building a fence and whitewashing it, landscaping the graves into neat rows and erecting an archway over the gate to the cemetery. Then they held a procession, carrying armloads of flowers, and wreaths and crosses which were so numerous that after they were all placed, “not a speck of earth beneath them” could be seen. And then, they prayed, heard Scripture and speeches, and sang “America” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” The perfume of the flowers and the notes of their voices filled the air as they connected themselves to people they did not know but for whom they felt moved by the Spirit to love. And it was courageous- for a group of freed slaves, in the Deep South, in a place still torn apart by the war, to honor those men.
Both of these events claim to be the first observance, but I’m not sure that who’s first matters, but that the Spirit of truth moved.
As I read these two accounts, I thought about three things:
First, how easy it is to forget why we do what we do- after all, what are your plans for tomorrow?
Second, how our culture has oddly shifted so that we are far more elaborate in remembering the dead sometimes than in lifting up the living
That walking alongside each other is how we are wired.
And these are things Jesus is lifting up to his disciples as he is saying farewell. He knows he will go on to die on the cross, and return to the Father and he is preparing them. They are telling him they love him and are in disbelief that he is leaving. And we hear Jesus say, “remember. If you love me ( and I know you do), keep my commandments. Do as I have done and now command you to do. Love.”
“I am leaving but God the Father is sending you another-the Spirit.” And then Jesus describes the Spirit in a word we hear translated as “Advocate.” In it’s original form, the word is “paracletos.” You can dazzle your friends with that word. It is often translated as “Advocate” or “Counselor” or even “Supporter.” And each of those ideas helps us envision the role of the Spirit. Each helps us remember why we do what we do, and what to do, and empowers us to then do it.
The Advocate in court takes a stand, reminds others of what is important or necessary or right. A Counselor guides people in how decisions ought to made or completed. A supporter lifts others up in their work. All useful. But today I want to focus on another definition of that word “Paracletos,” one lifted up by David Lose, now the incoming President of the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia. That “paracletos” is “one who walks alongside another.”
Jesus describes the Spirit this way as we hear him say “ I will not leave you orphaned.” Promising not to leave us alone-you will not be abandoned. As I look around I see almost all of you are not alone- but Jessica, I see you and Cal are each sitting by yourselves. Can you go and join him in his pew? Now- not alone. Not only walking alongside, but sitting alongside.
Jesus also tell us that the Spirit is not the first God has sent to fulfill this role. That is Spirit is “another.” Jesus was the first. Born into the world to come alongside us to help humanity see and know an otherwise invisible God. To make that connection I spoke of as I began this sermon. And if you think about it, all of the stories of Christ’s ministry show this- from walking up to random fishermen and saying, “follow me” to all that follows of healing and forgiveness and love. Even reaching out from the cross to a dying thief, promising “today you will be with me” and to those not even looking, gasping, “Father, forgive them.” Advocating to the last.
This same connection is promised to us in the Spirit.
That the Spirit will continue to come alongside us so we can remember why we do what we do and to endeavor to do it. And we are told this same Spirit dwells in us- each of us and all of us as a community in the Spirit. You are each little “paracletos!” The ones who walk alongside others doing as Jesus did-sharing with others in comfort, in faith, in courage and loss. Because “loving Jesus most fully is seen in doing what he said to do-Love.”
This love is the work of the living. Which brings me to the part about our focus as a culture. As the daughter of a living veteran, I am appalled that we as a nation spend ungodly sums of money making war, and making elaborate displays of the caskets of those who have died, but cannot spend what it takes to care for the living wounded, who sacrifices seemingly go unnoticed.
Not only am I the daughter of a veteran, I am the great granddaughter of a man who emigrated from Germany as a leather worker, who a generation after the Civil War found work- wrapping the leather around the artificial limbs of those Civil War veterans who were shattered.
The Spirit of truth calls us to lift up those who have served and survived so they don’t die awaiting care on a hidden list, or end up homeless, or tortured by post-combat stresses they fight alone. We must walk alongside them also-in real life and accept the cost as part of being that community in the Spirit. Those who serve as they are commanded and their families should not feel abandoned.
This is just one way we remember that love is the work of the living and it is for the living not just the dead. And it’s for all whether we know them or not.
And the Spirit reminds that this is not just work of a day. Many days ago now we celebrated with processions, and singing, flowers, prayers and crosses another day- That Easter day where we proclaimed Christ is risen- He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Praise God!
It’s still Easter! And Christ is risen and the Spirit is present-in all the other places of our living too. This is the good news! Sometimes our culture suggests that we shouldn’t talk about losses in our lives. So we don’t. But then we miss out on the comfort, care and solidarity of community God intends. The Spirit comes to help us combat- yes, combat against another enemy- ISOLATION.
Where are those places of pain, in need of healing, of loneliness where you need to see Jesus and us walking alongside?
Today again we will be offering anointing for healing and wholeness. Not isolation. Wholeness. Today again we will experience and share communion- Christ with us in the bread and wine for us all. Wholeness, healing, communion. Love.
This is how God is wired, and how we are.
It’s like Memorial Day- we are here to remember. The difference is that through Christ and in the Spirit, it’s everyday.
Thanks be to God!