What We’ll Find in Heaven
Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 1010
St. Matthew’s Parish, Pacific Palisades CA
Thirty years ago when I was the rector of St. Luke’s Church in Minneapolis, we encouraged people to wear red on Pentecost, but we also renamed it Red Balloon Sunday. In those days, those old times, we didn’t know that helium filled balloons let loose to fly off carried by the winds could land in lakes, ponds, and streams and be eaten by ducks who could die from those red balloons. Our balloons, in that more innocent time, carried messages of love, hope, and peace, along with the name of the one who sent the message. Many times we heard back from people in Wisconsin, naturally, but once one of our balloons made it to Pennsylvania.
On those Sundays I would also wear a big ten-gallon cowboy hat, solid red, which I wore during the Fall when the Nebraska Cornhuskers were playing football. Those were championship years, by the way, for Big Red. I told my congregation on those Sundays that I wore that hat in the procession with the permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but none them believed me then, and you shouldn’t either.
I think my Pentecost Day sermons back then were often upbeat, positive and celebratory in nature. I didn’t go back and look at any of those sermons, however, this week. But I will make reference to a sermon I gave when my grandson Zack was baptized. I also plan to make reference to something that’s been in the news this week. And all this finds me somewhat worried because I’m not offering one of those cheerful happy Pentecost Day sermons like I used to give.
Where to begin? Let’s start with the Gospel. We heard a longer version of this same Gospel text from John on the Sunday after Easter, which is sometimes misnamed “Doubting Thomas Sunday,” because he missed the first resurrection appearance. There are two things relevant in this shorter reading we have on Pentecost Sunday. The most obvious is that John’s gospel places the gift of the Holy Spirit as coming on Easter Day, through the breath of the Risen Lord. The author of John’s Gospel framed the opening lines of his Gospel story as a second creation story—remember the way it opens?—In the memorable language of the King James version
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God
and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through Him,
and without Him nothing was made that was made.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.
And the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not comprehend it.
And at the end of that gospel, twenty chapters later, Jesus breathed on them, and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Ah! Clear echoes of the Genesis creation story;
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was[a] on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And the Hebrew word used for Spirit, as in Spirit of God, is Ruach. If you say “Ruach” and put the emphasis on the second syllable you catch the force of your breath. Try it. Say “Ru-Ack” and you’ll feel your breath.
The life of the world created by God is the breath, the spirit of God, hovering over the face of the waters. Hovering over the disciples. Catching the breath, the very Spirit of Jesus, which is the Breath a God, and the Breath of Creation!
But then Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
And on that short little phrase hang some dark chapters of church history, as this command has been so grievously been mis-intepreted—twisted cruelly into injunctions of ex-communication from the fellowship of Christian community, those banned from the communion table, and even exiled into ground not blessed, not holy, because someone took their own life, and thereby didn’t deserve to have their body placed in sacred ground.
So ten years ago I preached on this same text, at the baptism of my grandson Zack who has turned ten years old this very day! He was baptized on the Sunday after Easter just before his first birthday. I wrote a letter to him, but I made it the sermon I gave on the day of his baptism.
In that sermon I told him that his new last name was Christian. I said that if there was such a thing as a telephone book in heaven, it would be terribly hard to use, because everyone there has the same last name—Christian. He was baptized Zachary Martin Christian. (Please turn to someone, and say Hello, to those around you, but only use your full Christian name.)
I told nine-month old Zack on that Sunday that “as a result of this family connection you now have brothers and sisters everywhere. You’ve got Orthodox aunts and uncles who worship in incensed filled dome covered churches all over Russia, Greece, and Turkey, to name just a few countries. You’ve got some Baptist cousins who would tell us we’re doing your baptism wrong because we’re not waiting until your old enough. They’d also be upset because we’re not using enough water. Those Baptist cousins of yours think you’ve got to get dunked under the water in order to be properly baptized.” They may be right about that!
Indeed as we heard from the story in Acts the picture of those who received the gift of the Holy Spirit crossed every possible ethnic and language barrier imaginable. To be sure in the context of this taking place in Jerusalem, they are all Jews, but Jews dispersed as it were throughout the whole world, who cam to the city of Peace. And they were reminded of the vision of the prophet Joel about their sons and daughers being able to prophesy, their young men seeing visions, and even—the part I like—about old men who dream dreams.
But I had to be honest with Zack in that sermon that he would grow up in a broken world, and I mentioned that it was a world that had trouble—a world that had, still has, and probably always would have trouble with the concept of mercy. I was thinking about the kind of mercy, that doesn’t pity unfortunate or the unlucky, but where mercy was the act of forgiving one another. I had in mind mercy, after receiving some hurt, some injustice, but then resulting in tenderness and restraining from harsh judgment. I was thinking of mercy as what God was always extending to us, but which I knew we found hard to give to others unless we added certain conditions to the process.
In that sermon I told Zack that I knew he’d run into a few bullies along the way. And he has. We all do. I mentioned that most bullies think mercy is for sissies.
And I went on to tell him that bullies are found not just on play grounds, but in all aspects of life. And most of the time we don’t want to forgive a bully; we want revenge. I admitted that there is a place to stand up to a bully and demand justice. I told him, “We shouldn’t let anyone who bullies people get away with hurting someone.”
Didn’t Jesus know about bullies in his world? And if he knew them how could he give his disciples the gift of this spirit that calls for the forgiveness of sin? Or did he possibly know how hard it was to do this, and that the retention of sin, was what we did. He said there, “That the sins that we retain are retained.” Hmm? What did he mean by giving us the power to retain sins?
I told Zack about the Greek word used, the verb, for retaining something. It is Krateo. And from it we get our English word —“crate.”
What does it mean to hang onto to something that is sin, especially if it was a wrong done against us? Well, we box it up, we crate it up, and we carry it with us, until? Until? Maybe until never. But maybe, if we’ve breathe this Holy Spirit breath it’s until it’s forgiven. Which means we let it go. Until it is allowed just to be part of our past. If remembered, it is a memory, but if forgiven, it is memory that doesn’t sting anymore.
One woman told her pastor theologian friend she knew she’d finally forgiven her husband from whom she’d been divorced.
“How?” he asked, “How do you know you’ve really forgiven him.
She paused, a tear came to her eye, “And she said, I realized I wished him well. I wanted him to be happy or to find happiness.”
And that part of her crate was cracked open, and left behind.
Toward the end of that Zack baptism sermon I told him:
So Zach, my grandson and my brother in Christ, we’re to experience real freedom and joy in life. We’re not to be bent over carrying lots of baggage and memories—especially the un-forgiven ones we crated up. We’re to live in hope knowing that we’ve got this promised inheritance. And we’re to know that we’re already forgiven in Christ. We’re even forgiven for not forgiving, and for carrying our load of memories, and crating up all those sins, if that’s what we do.”
And then this week, at least on two occasions, I was asked what do you think about the story of the Talaban handing over Sergeant Bowie Berdahl in return for five prisoners we’ve kept? We’ve probably all heard suspicions in the media that Sergeant Berdahl may have wandered away, and perhaps even deserted his company. I know enough of judicial procedures to know that he’s probably going to have to deal with aspects of military justice if an inquiry concludes that he isn’t innocent. In the world we live in, those inquisitions and procedures are to be expected.
But then I had a nagging question, knowing that we had this saying of Jesus about forgiving sins and retaining sins before us today. What if Segeant Berdahl were to come to church this morning? What if he belonged to us? Would we presume to know the facts of the case supposedly against him, and would we retain that what we knew. Suspicious that something wasn’t right would we box it up for a while, judge and exclude him, or (?) would we forgive him, even if we knew what he did was wrong, but still accept him as a brother in Christ? I know I’m mixing politics and religion, and I’m not suppose to do that, but that’s what Jesus did. It happened in one gospel story after another. Jesus lived in an oppressive political system, one ruled by Caesar Augustus and it was that rule that authorized the final solution which was a cross.
And I got to thinking if we decided to send Sargeant Berdahl away from our midst, who would be next? Is this only a gathering of the righteous? Have some of us, perhaps been bullies in the past, and now regret the hurt we’ve caused? Aren’t some of us here with honesty about our failures, and with resolve to live differently? And some of us have found, perhaps only on occasion, but they’ve been markers along a way—indeed these are the signs which have reminded us when we’ve uncrated the hurts and resentments, that we’ve boxed up—those then have been signs of an intimation of heaven.
And that’s why, at the end of my baptismal letter I wrote to my grandson Zack I said that if he would keep coming to church he’d always be challenged to be one who forgives. And my final words in that sermon, and in this one, remain the same.
“…I pray that you will realize that forgiveness is what makes life worth living for and what we’ll find in heaven.” Amen.