Pentecost Sunday: Memorial Day and Celebrating the Secular

It’s Pentecost Sunday. In the Church there is a big to-do about the Holy Spirit raining down fire and God exhaling flames like some kind of dragon protecting its treasure. Certainly, God sent the Advocate for that reason – to protect his treasure, that is, his disciples. Us. You. Me.

The timing is such that it falls on Memorial Day weekend. It’s a strange juxtaposition. On the one hand, there’s the feeling of celebration and fanfare, the vestments are even red – the one time in the liturgical year. We are often reminded that it is the Church’s birthday with the Holy Spirit descending with tongues of flame above the disciples like birthday candles on a cake. An intense and wonderful anointing. There were gifts…of language, boldness, and connection. And people of all walks of life were invited to join the party.

On the other hand, pressing in from outside the church walls is the undeniable reality of remembering tragedy and loss, those fallen war heroes who fought in conflicts abroad.

While listening to Andy read his sermon on John – which inspired much of this post – I was reminded of that tension to tread carefully and not simply take the secular route and talk about memories of war and loss but to not completely ignore that shared history despite the tone of the church season being very different. This is a difficult line to walk for many preachers, I believe – that is, trying to resist the surrounding culture’s tendency to focus too much on what’s nationalistic, individualistic, or political. It takes away from the purpose of worship, and what it does in our lives, which is at least to remind us to keep our eyes fixed on Emmanuel-God (Hebrews 12:2) as we travel this road together no matter what the season.

But.

I was thinking about all this as we approached Pentecost – perhaps my favorite Sunday of the lectionary year. And I was scrolling through my Facebook wall and came across a photograph about Memorial Day. It was a woman laying face down presumably on the grave of a husband or some loved one in a cemetery. It was a bright day, perhaps perfect enough for outdoor picnics and BBQs, which is often the tradition on Memorial Day. The caption read something about not forgetting the real meaning of the day. (I tried to find it but gave up.)

There’s something about the posture of the woman – a picture of grief – it hit me hard. And I realized that in so many ways we are the culture around us. We are the stories of those losses. Those cookouts and BBQs. But, we are also the stories of those dayworkers standing outside in the heat looking to earn any amount to send back to family in another country. We are the stories of those living on the streets. We are the stories of those who are protesting Wall Street. And we are the stories of those who kept slaves. Those who are the 1%. Those who wrongfully interned Asian Americans during WWII.

What I mean, for good and bad, for better or worse, these are our stories. They are a huge part of who we are, and no matter how hard we try, it’s difficult to truly leave them behind. To leave behind the darkness that we carry with us. The unbearable isolation. The painful estrangement. The engulfing emptiness. And so, for us to worship without acknowledging or incorporating it into our experience of worship, I feel like is dishonest and means we are not truly being who we are before God, as individuals and as a community.

β€œIt is imperative that the past of the pilgrims’ progress be intentionally carried forward into the present as we work into our future. Without it we cannot know who we are, why we are here, or where we can go. Without a common past to live out of we become aimless and wandering individuals instead of a pilgrim people.”
― H. Richard Niebuhr

I’m not saying that we should sing patriotic songs in worship. But I am wondering if we are missing something when we don’t allow God’s proclamation to truly speak to us in all of it? Because if we have any sense of the Advocate genuinely being with us as an expression of God’s presence in it all, then what does that mean when we worship and celebrate in all of our humanity, sacred and secular, those stories outside and inside the church? Are those boundaries and lines even real if we believe in the work of the Holy Spirit to move, break down, transform, and connect us in ways that are beyond our imagination?

Could we take these weekends/days as a chance to give people space to feel it all? Not only the anger about any tragedy or loss perhaps for some meaningless cause, or the mixed feelings of gratitude and grief at the sacrifice of loved ones, but to confront this world’s broken, and our all-too-often silent complicity towards those daily crucified, and protest with our voices and presence the reality that peace is complicated, but longed for by everyone? And a fruit of the Spirit that can only be born in authentic connection? Could we engage our culture in meaningful ways even in our worship of God? Isn’t that part of what Pentecost reminds us? That again the Holy Spirit calls us to be the church and connect in ways beyond what’s traditional or orthodox?

Ultimately, the message whether from Acts or John (Andy is preaching from the Gospel) is remembering that God has been and will always be with us in everything, every birthday, every bitter holiday, every dark season, and it is the the Holy Spirit helps us to see and know that presence. As the church do we live that out fully – grace-fully and hope-fully?

[Click on picture – From Chip Hardwick on FB]

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