Sermons That Work

The Family Arrived…, Day of Pentecost (A) – 2008

May 11, 2008

The family arrived on a warm June day: a mother, grandmother, and five children ranging in ages from 17 to 3. As they scrambled out of the van, it was apparent just how tired they were. Some time ago this family had traveled from a refugee camp in Cameroon to Darfur, Sudan. There they caught a plane that flew them to Paris, then to the United States. The littlest ones were teary-eyed and clingy, hanging on to the bone-thin hand of their grandmother. The mother and older children had that glazed look that comes from extreme fatigue. This family, refugees from war-torn Rwanda, was being placed by the local resettlement agency. A house had been acquired, but necessary renovations were still in progress. So for the next few days the family would live in the church.

The church had spare rooms not being used over the summer, rooms that had been hastily converted from Sunday school rooms into bedrooms and a living room. Downstairs was a full kitchen, and the bathrooms contained showers. The family would be comfortable and have a relative degree of privacy in their temporary home.

The afternoon of their arrival, members of the church greeted the family and gave them a tour of the church. The family spoke a native dialect of Rwanda and a little French, but no English. A translator, a former refugee from Rwanda and now an employee of the resettlement agency, followed the tour, interpreting for the family. “Here is the kitchen. This is a gas oven. You light it this way. Be careful. Here are the pots and pans and dishes. Watch the children outside, do not let them run off the property; cars will zoom by fast, they could be hurt. There is food in the fridge; don’t eat the rabbits in the yard or the birds.” It was clear that this family was in a whole new world. Before the tour was over, most of the family members had found and claimed a bed and fallen asleep.

Over the next week, the family fell into a rhythm with the life of the parish. During office hours the family was usually still sleeping, their biological clocks still set several time zones away, on the other side of the world. Later in the afternoon they would rise and begin their day. Slowly over the week their hours shifted. By Sunday they were able to worship with the Korean Methodist Church that shared the building with the Episcopal congregation. It was an amazing sight: a Methodist service spoken in Korean, held in an American Episcopal Church, attended by Rwandans in full African attire.

At the lunch that followed, a few members of both the Episcopal and Methodist congregations were able to speak with the family in sparse French. It seems French was a common language in the refugee camp and now a common language shared among this diverse group of Koreans, Americans, and Rwandans gathered for a meal.

Members of the church dropped by during the week to bring the kids some things to play with: soccer balls, used bikes, tennis rackets and balls, and sidewalk chalk. The kids were delighted, and ran gleefully off to play. Laughter filled the air, another common language that knows no boundaries.

Six days after their arrival, the house was ready, and the family prepared to move out of the church. A large van arrived to take their few belongings, three suitcases for seven people. Plus seven beds with bed linens, two scooters, two bikes, and a few balls donated by the church. The sum total of their possessions.

Members of the church helped them pack. As the family loaded the last of their things, the daughter turned and offered the priest a few gifts – a small wooden picture with strands of colored wheat, and two coasters with psalms inscribed – gifts a nun had helped them make in the refugee camp in Cameroon. A family with virtually nothing, and yet they came bearing gifts of gratitude. Thankfulness, another common language shared.

One parish member and his son drove the van and helped the family move into their house. With the family gone, the church seemed quieter than ever. Lingering aromas from the fragrant meals remained, but otherwise all was quiet. The church learned a profound lesson that week, a lesson about giving, sharing, and living in an abundant yet simple way.

Despite all the differences of language, and culture, and food, and customs, a bond was formed. Regardless of the inability to really speak to one another, the church members and the family members were able to communicate a shared compassion for one another and a common love of God. It was truly an experience of the Holy Spirit moving in and through them all.

Our reading today from Acts points us in this same direction. We hear that the disciples have all gathered in one place, people from all over the region, people all speaking different languages. And then a rush of wind, unlike ordinary wind, energized and fiery as only the Holy Spirit can be, comes and fills them with a sensation that changes them forever. Suddenly they have the ability to hear and understand one another. The room is electric. They stand confused, astonished, and conscious of what has happened, God was in that wind. What an awesome experience it must have been.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit. In his departure Jesus has let loose the Holy Spirit. The disciples describe this experience as a wind, as tongues of fire. Hildegard of Bingen has a slightly different way of describing the presence of the Holy Spirit. In this translation from Stephen Mitchell’s anthology of poetry, The Enlightened Heart, we hear her description:

Holy Spirit,
Giving life to all life,
Moving all creatures,
Root of all things,
Washing them clean,
Wiping out their mistakes,
Healing their wounds,
You are our true life,
Luminous, wonderful,
Awakening the heart
From its ancient sleep.

The presence of the Holy Spirit is given to us as a constant reminder that God is with us. The Holy Spirit comes not just to comfort us, but also to change us; for the love of God will do that – change us from the inside out, and awaken us in new ways, even when we do not understand how or why. Through the incarnation, in the person of Jesus, we are taught that God intends to be active in the lives of human beings. In giving us the Holy Spirit, Christ conveys the idea that God intends to work in and through us to bring forth the hopes and dreams of a living God. This God of ours continues to create in ways beyond our understanding.

So, whether you know the Holy Spirit as a fiery breath of wind, or a presence that awakens your heart, or in becoming familiar with a strange new land, Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit is Christ’s gift to us.

Given to us in baptism and honed by a life of faith, the Holy Spirit imbues us with gifts that are intended to be shared – gifts of generosity and hospitality offered with God’s help. Our baptismal covenant reminds us that the acts of caring and sharing enable us to participate in God’s creative worldwide energy.

With gratitude for the God who has given us life, the Holy Spirit beckons us to open our hearts to the world around us, offering hospitality to those we meet, friend and stranger alike.

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Christopher Sikkema