Sermon for Sunday, May 24, 2015 || Pentecost B || Romans 8:22-27
Today, on this day of Pentecost, I’d like to tell you a story about the Holy Spirit. It’s going to sound like a story about me, but if I tell it right, you’ll see that the Holy Spirit is the main protagonist of this little tale. The story takes place a stretch down River Road about three miles from the Middle of Nowhere, West Virginia.
The summer before my senior year of college saw me driving down this stretch of River Road toward Peterkin Camp and Conference Center, and my job as counselor. The first day of camp, about a hundred high schoolers descended on the camp, and strangely enough, their enthusiasm and laughter and hugs of reunion were unhindered by the lack of a cell phone tower within 50 miles. Right away I could see their love for the place in their wide expectant eyes as they queued up to turn in medications and decorate nametags. They loved Peterkin because they got to be themselves around other kids who also got to be themselves. Places where teenagers are unafraid of coming out of their shells are few and sacred. Peterkin was one of them.
We shared Eucharist every day of camp, and with each day the volume of our singing increased as the more reticent campers started joining in. By Friday, the passing of the Peace had reached epic proportions because everyone tried to hug everyone else. The service that day included special prayers for healing, and I volunteered to assist with the laying on of hands because I’d never done it before. After communion, I walked to the back of the chapel with the priest Zach and a pair of sisters, Kenan and Leigh. We circled a metal folding chair, and Zach beckoned the first camper towards us. I remember looking down at my hands, seeing the dirty fingernails and calluses cut by guitar strings, and wondering: “What are these supposed to do?”
The boy sat down, and Zach leaned in close. “My parents are divorced and I keep thinking it’s all my fault and I feel sad all the time.” The truth of the boy’s words startled me out of my self-centered musings about my hands. Here was someone hurting profoundly, with his whole world crumbling around him and misplaced shame eating him away. And yet he trusted the four of us to place our hands on him, to whisper words of healing, which would never make everything all better again, but maybe just maybe might allow him to breath with a bit more space and by God’s grace start letting himself off the hook.
As Zach dabbed oil on the boy’s head, I touched his shoulder, lightly, like I was testing a bruise. Doubt gnawed at the back of my mind: how am I qualified even to be standing here, let alone be expected to participate in healing? The self-centered feeling of inadequacy threatened to wash over me again, but then a prayer blossomed in my mind and in my heart, a prayer that I had no hand in writing. I exhaled slowly, and the Holy Spirit carried her words on my breath: “Lord, make him whole, make him holy, make him wholly new.”
This became my breath prayer. As the campers kept coming and coming, the Holy Spirit kept speaking these words through me and I prayed with a fervor I didn’t know I possessed: “Holy Spirit, fill me and flow out of me, down my arms, into my hands, and into these broken, beautiful boys and girls. Make me your conduit. Make me your vessel.”
Their need for healing was so great, these young people in so much pain: depression, suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, eating disorders, the urge to cut themselves, feelings of abandonment, grief, loss… Lord, make her whole, make her holy, make her wholly new.
I kept asking the Holy Spirit to fill me to overflowing so she could spill out my fingertips and the campers could know the healing presence of God. When the service was over, the campers filed toward the dining hall, but we who had manned the three healing stations gathered around the altar and said a final prayer. As I backed away from the altar, I felt a tear moisten my cheek, then another and another. Suddenly, I was crying. I sat down in the second pew and just as suddenly, I was no longer crying. I was weeping. For twenty minutes, my chest heaved and fell, and I knew nothing but my ragged breaths and fat tears…and the truth.
God granted me exactly what the Holy Spirit had prompted me to I asked for – an abundance of that same Spirit, an excess, a proportion so much bigger than was meant for me alone. The tears puddling at my feet were the Holy Spirit spilling out of me. When the tears stopped, I noticed a hand on my back. Leigh, one of the sisters I had partnered with, had stayed behind and sat with me in silence. She had said nothing. She had not tried to hand me a tissue. She had let me weep, alone and yet not alone, laying her hand on me as we had done for the campers. Remembering that act of kindness still brings tears to my eyes.
I tell you this story because it taught me about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does not come at our beck and call. We come at hers. We would be unable to ask for the Spirit’s help if she were not already helping us in the asking. Paul speaks this truth to the church in Rome: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
At Peterkin, the Holy Spirit made her presence known in my life, and I fervently hope in the lives of the campers as well. That experience was so overwhelming, I expect, because the Spirit knows me well enough to appreciate that I need to be whacked upside the head in order not to misunderstand my role in all of this. But even when the experience doesn’t leave us pooling tears on the chapel floor, the Spirit is still ever present, interceding for us, helping us in our weakness.
Remember when you stood on the beach at dawn, and the first rays of sun turned the ocean to liquid gold, and gratitude unbidden caused you to raise your arms to the heavens? Your prayer of thanks rose from the Holy Spirit prompting you to notice – to see with more than your eyes – God’s glory in creation.
Remember when you had to take your daughter to the emergency room because her stomach flu just wasn’t getting any better? The unimagined patience you showed in the hours of waiting rose from the Holy Spirit speaking peace into your panicked heart.
Remember when your mother died and you never thought you’d take another breath? And then you did. The breath that came when tragedy squeezed all the air from your lungs rose from the Holy Spirit leavening your agonized grief with a dash of hope.
Remember when the Holy Spirit showed you the person in need? Remember when the Holy Spirit stirred you to help? Remember? If you don’t remember something like this in your own life, I challenge you to look again. Ask the Spirit for help in the looking. The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to a lucky few or just to the people who ask for her intercession by name. The Holy Spirit has always been moving through your life like the wind through the trees. And she still is. I wonder what your next memory of the Holy Spirit will be.