Grace in the Time of Pentecost

LK 8:26-39
6/23/13

This fifth Sunday in Pentecost I want to do four things: make a few comments about the Lucan passage for today, tell you two stories, and conclude with some comments about spiritual health and wholeness.

Luke tells us that when Jesus arrived in the country of the Gerasenes, a man who was possessed by demons approached Him. He recognized that Jesus was a holy individual and he feared Him. Whereupon Jesus summoned the unclean spirits to leave the man and sent the spirits into a heard of swine, who stampeded off a cliff. The man sought to become an apostle, but Jesus told him to stay home and witness to the spiritual power of Jesus.

My first thought was that the owner of the pigs must have really been ticked off at Jesus for destroying his herd. But this is a story about spiritual healing. It is a story, which shows that the power of God, the Holy Spirit present in Christ Jesus, is stronger than the demonic spirits in the world. The fact that Jesus sent the evil spirits into the herd of swine indicates that they were not allowed to hang around causing mischief.

The period of Pentecost reminds us of the presence of the Holy Spirit and its work among us as it seeks to deal with our weaknesses, sinfulness and our psychological and spiritual sickness. I would suggest that the Pentecost season is a time for you and me to allow the Holy Spirit to help us consider our need for forgiveness, spiritual healing, and our need to bless the Lord.

It is easy to slough off Luke’s story and say it is an ancient tale. But are there not times in your life when you have a case of “the mean reds?” Do you not come to church in order to deal with the tensions and pressures of your life, the disappointments, confusion, frustrations and fears that beseech you? Do you not have times when you lie awake at night and see those little red eyes glowing in the dark at the foot of your bed? Do you not ever feel, like Hamlet, that the world is “out of joint”?

Yes, there is mental illness, and we often need to be treated by a psychiatrist, psychologist and medication. I believe that the Holy Spirit works through the healing professions. But there is also a spiritual dimension in which we seek “spiritual healing,” even when a psychological “cure” may be far off or not possible. Even when we cannot be “cured”, when the illness or problems cannot be made to disappear, there is always the possibility of “healing” in which the Holy Spirit brings some resolution and grace to an individual or to a situation. 

Now for my story, which took place on the eve of Pentecost. Several years ago, I was in Baltimore attending a conference. The conference was boring, so I decided to leave early on Saturday.

A little after noon I was sitting in Penn Station in Baltimore. The New York Times was spread out before me on the lunch table. I had a two-hour wait for my train.

I looked up and there was a young man standing behind the chair opposite me. He was dressed in a light jacket, work shirt, khaki pants and clean work boots. A backpack was slung over his shoulders. He was clean-shaven but his eyes were blurry.

“You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” he asked.

I thought, “Oh, boy here is another panhandler who has spotted my dog collar and is looking for a handout.”

“Yes, I am.” I replied.

“My parents were Christian,” he said. “They were killed in an automobile crash when I was fifteen. It sort of messed up my life.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. It must be hard.”

“Yeah. I’ve really been in and out since. I’ve used alcohol and drugs, been in and out of jail. I served three years twice.”

“You’re about twenty-eight, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. I don’t know if there is a God. I don’t know if the Buddhists or Muslims or Christians are right. I just don’t know what to think.”

“Have you been to AA? They talk of a ‘Higher Being.’”

“Yeah,” he smirked. “I’ve tried it a few times but it don’t help. I mean, should I be a Christian?”

“I don’t know. Smarter men than you and I have struggled with the question of whether or not there is a God. If I were you I would settle on Christianity, since your parents were Christian and you probably were baptized as well. I’d leave it at that and go from there.”

“What are you? A priest or something?”

“Yes, I’m an Episcopal priest.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s one of the denominations, sort of between Roman Catholic and Protestants like Baptists, and Methodists and Congregationalists.”

“I don’t know any of those.”

“No, you probably don’t.”

“I’ve had a really hard time, done some stuff.”

“You are on something now, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you take?”

“Coke, heroin, marijuana, booze.”

“That doesn’t leave much out.”

“No. I guess it doesn’t.”

“I’m going to tell you a story,” I said. “And it is a true one. My friend at age eighteen got into a fight and ended up in downstate Illinois prison. When he came out six years later he could barely talk. He got a job as an automotive mechanic and was in and out of drugs for the next twenty years. He got by on factory jobs and bummed around. He died at age fifty from rectal cancer. It was long, slow and painful. He was tended to by his sister. But what was remarkable was that about five years before he died he met a Roman Catholic priest who befriended him. My friend became a Roman Catholic and he found meaning, direction and healing in his life. When he died he had people who cared about him and he was at peace with much of his life. He died a good death.

“I suggest that you find a Roman Catholic Church (since he didn’t know one Protestant denomination from another and it is easier to find a Catholic Church) and see if you can find a priest who will listen to you and try to help you. You cannot take care of yourself alone nor deal with your problems and questions alone. You need the support and help of others. You have been trying to do it alone and haven’t gotten very far.

“Do you have a job?” I asked.

“Yes, I work in a restaurant.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I am on my way to see someone. I have some vacation time.”

“Good. You know, you are a good person. Don’t forget that.”

“Yeah.” And then he said, “You know, I think the Holy Spirit is here with us.”

Surprised, I looked at him and said, “Well, the Holy Spirit has a sense of humor and sometimes appears when we least expect it, pushing and prodding and moving us along. Do you mind if I say a prayer?”

I prayed, “Oh God, be with this young man as he continues on his way. Keep him safe and well and free from harm. Guide, guard and protect him. Help him in his questions and in his desire to find meaning and purpose in his life. Be with him as he continues on his journey. This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our savior. Amen.”

“Thank you,” he said and left.

I sat there a while; it felt as though I had been in a wrinkle of time, a box of a moment. I had heard confession. I had given absolution. I had not considered what I should say; I just spoke. He, in turn, responded to my being there.
I thought of how the coming of the Holy Spirit is often announced with great bombast by Pentecostal preachers, or oozed by the self-consciously pietistic. The young man could very well be right. The Holy Spirit does come in the midst of train stations and conversations. It does not immediately cure addiction or despair. But often it brings some resolution and grace to an individual or to a situation. For that I gave thanks, and I prayed for new life for my new friend.

Now for a second story. I am not fluent with all the social media and electronic gadgets. I use my computer for writing and for email. My provider is Yahoo, so I check Yahoo news daily. Often there are items that the reader can comment on. I’ve gotten in the habit of contributing a comment now and then in order to bring some balance among the many comments that are hostile and crude.

Recently the question was asked, “What is the formula for a perfect marriage?” Many of the replies were either lame or sleazy, so I typed in the three items of advice that I routinely use in my wedding homilies. The first is, “Delight in your beloved. Don’t hold back. Don’t be shy or reserved. Allow your self to really enjoy your beloved.” Secondly, “Allow your beloved to delight in you. Let your guard down. If your husband likes a dress that you have on, don’t say, “Oh, this old thing!” Rather say, “Thank you. I like to look nice for you.” Learn to receive compliments graciously. Thirdly, delight in something more important than yourself. Live for something bigger than you. It may be your faith, your church or synagogue, or something that you really believe in: honesty, integrity, charity, etc. Stand for something more important than yourself, or even your family.

The replies to my three items of delight were mostly positive. However, one woman wrote that she agreed with the first two items but that I should drop the third (faith, church, God, integrity, etc.). I was stunned. It seemed to me that the woman was advocating narcissism, or total self-centeredness. Maybe she meant something else, but I thought, “How dreadful to live only for the devices and desires of your own heart.” This woman seemed to me to be as lost as my friend in Baltimore.

We all need moments of grace, Pentecost reminds us of those moments. Like my new friend in Baltimore and like the woman who protests my third item of delight, we all need moments of quietude and grace when we let the Holy Spirit hold us and bind us together in humility and love. For many of us it is in worship or meditation that Jesus blesses us with those moments of grace. Strange as it may seem, when we have those moments of grace, humility and acceptance you and I in turn bless the Lord our God. This season of Pentecost take advantage of our daily noonday services. Be open to the power of the Holy Spirit. Allow your love and your presence not only to bless your spouse, child or friend, but through that act, also to bless Christ Himself.

Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen. – Fr. Gage -