Sermon – April 2, 2017

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyThe Spirit Bids Us

by Rev.  Joe Connolly

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“‘…I will put my Spirit within you, and you will live, you will return to life and I will settle you back on your own land; then you will know that I, Yahweh, have spoken and I will act, will make all this happen’ says the Sovereign, Yahweh, God.” — Ezekiel 37:14.

In my comments today I want to briefly, I hope, relate some personal history. I know in doing this I run a chance that what I am about to say may directly relate to me only.

I hope that’s not true. I hope you find places where this history, this story— or at least its consequences— might have some personal resonance with you. So please bear with me.

In the late Fall of 1967 I was working for Bloomingdale’s Department Store in computer operations. I was not yet twenty.

As happened to many of us in that era, I got a draft notice. I was to be inducted in the Army on December 5th, it said. That date was, ironically, my mother’s birthday.

I brought the draft letter into the office to show my boss and gave my obligatory two weeks notice. Now without telling me, the company contacted my draft board and had the notice rescinded and delayed for a month so I could train a replacement. Therefore within a week I got a letter saying my induction date was pushed back to January 6th.

And so, on January 6th, 1968 I became a member of the United States Army, spent eight weeks of Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, then was shipped off to Cooks School at Fort Lee, Virginia. Why Cooks School?

I’ve always said it’s typical Army logic. I was in computers. Computer— that starts with ‘C.’ Cook— that starts with ‘C.’ In the Army’s way of thinking, if they both start with ‘C’ it must be a match.

Next, I landed in Vietnam— and this is a another date filled with irony— I landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, on July 4th, 1968. Yes, I arrived in Vietnam on American Independence Day.

Now, I am not going to tell any war stories. What I want to talk about is post war. Back then, if you returned from Vietnam with less than five months to serve in your hitch, you were eligible to be discharged.

I arrived back in the States on September 8th, 1969— two days over. I was released in San Francisco, took a cab to the airport, grabbed a red eye back home. New York City, here I come. (Slight pause.)

The years 1968 and 1969— and I was either in training or overseas for most of that time— 1968 and 1969 may have been two of the most tumultuous years in American history. Here are a couple of highlights (or is it low lights?) from just 1968 in chronological order. (Slight pause.)

North Korea seized the Navy Vessel, the USS Pueblo. The Tet Offensive was launched. The My Lai Massacre happened. Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek re-election.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots ensued. Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated. The country was in shock.

Anti-war protesters clashed with police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Many were jailed. Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis. Richard Nixon won the race for President with 43.4% of the popular vote. (Slight pause.)

And that was just 1968. My point here is not what happened. My point here is I missed it. I missed all that and a good chunk of 1969 too. I was oblivious to it.

Why? I did basic training, where you barely have time to breathe. I moved on to advanced training, where you barely have time to think.

Next I was stationed first in downtown Saigon where there was incoming ordinance all the time and later stationed just off Tan Son Nhut Air Base, at that time the largest airport in the world. Which is to insist during this period you might say I had things on my mind other than current events. (Slight pause.)

Looking at it all in retrospect, I realize when I got back it took me some time to recover, to fit into polite society again, to get grounded, to adjust. I might even suggest part of me never did recover from an experience of trauma and that trauma is connected with three things.

I saw a war first hand. Next, I did not see what was happening here, back in the States, first hand. But most of the people I encountered— that group commonly called polite society— had seen it. Last, to be straightforward about it— and I speak for a lot of Vietnam veterans in saying this— Vietnam veterans, myself included, did not receive a particularly warm welcome from that group commonly called polite society.

That having been said, at first when I did return I went back to work in computer operations. But not long after that I decided I needed to be involved in what I loved. And I loved professional theater. So I took some classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

To be clear, theater is just like many other job situations. You need contacts, referrals. Slowly but surely, I stared making the links necessary to get work.

As I have said here probably hundreds of times before, I started writing and had more than a modicum of success at that with theatrically related projects. What I have probably never said here before is the exercise of writing was a welcome, psychic release for me. The more I wrote, the more I recovered from my experience. (Slight pause.)

This is what we hear in the Scroll of the Prophet Ezekiel: “‘…I will put my Spirit within you, and you will live, you will return to life and I will settle you back on your own land; then you will know that I, Yahweh, have spoken and will act, and will make all this happen’ says the Sovereign, Yahweh, God.” (Slight pause.)

Ezekiel lived and preached during what may have been the most tumultuous years in the history of the Jewish people. The armies of the Babylon had conquered Judea, besieged and destroyed Jerusalem, took prisoners captive.

And so in this atmosphere of captivity, enslavement, Ezekiel has a vision. The picture seen by the Prophet is one of an abandoned battlefield strewn with bones.

And no wonder. The homeland has been destroyed. Those who survive live in exile. Their world is not just tumultuous. Their world had come to an end.

However, in the vision experienced by the Prophet the outcome of the journey is clear. (Quote:) “…I will put my Spirit within you….” (Slight pause.) I need to explain something. What the Prophet addresses here should not be given the benefit of hindsight, should not be given a Christian reading. This passage is not about resurrection.

While resurrection is a Jewish concept, it is not a part of the Jewish tradition until about two hundred years before the time Christ lives. Ezekiel lives about six hundred years before Christ. Hence, this passage is not about resurrection.

Indeed and as I often say, resurrection is not reanimation nor is it resuscitation. Resurrection is what it says it is: resurrection. In fact, in this passage the bones are reanimated but still do not have life. They simply have animation.

And animation is not enough. Something is missing that gives real life. What is missing? The Spirit of God is missing. So let me state the promise God makes one more time. (Quote:) “…I will put my Spirit within you….” (Slight pause.)

What is this Spirit of God about? (Slight pause.) I want to suggest the Spirit of God is about trust, hope, faith, belief and most of all about a reliance on God. Therefore, the Spirit of God is about God who walks with us, God who walks at our side, God who is our companion no matter… what… happens. (Slight pause.)

I think this is a human truth. We never actually get over trauma. We cope with it. But I also believe that the best coping mechanism known to humanity is trust, especially trust in God. And God constantly invites us to trust.

Once we trust in God— hope, faith and belief follow. Once we see this path of hope, faith and belief we begin to know we can rely on God, know that the Spirit of God walks with us, is at our side, is our companion no matter what happens. (Slight pause.)

Let me say something else very personal. Given my experience, I am not someone who thinks good things will always happen. I am no Pollyanna. I know better than that.

Equally, given my experience, I know life can be hard and sometimes feel brutal. Equally, given my experience I know my life is not of my own doing.

Given my experience, I have come to realize the Spirit of God walks with me, daily. Given my experience, I have come to realize the Spirit of God walks with us, daily. God gives me, God gives us a promise. That promise is one of trust, hope, faithfulness.

Therefore, the Spirit of God bids us to trust God as we go on this journey called life. And yes, there is no promise that all will be rosy, no guarantee that everything is peaches and cream.

But there is a promise. God promises that the Spirit of God will walk with us, be at out side, this day and forever more. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
04/02/2017

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “It has often occurred to me that we all have our own individual God. And for some people God is threatening, frightening, even violent. I think a God who walks at our side is a Spirit of Gentleness. [1]

BENEDICTION: God sent Jesus unto the world that we may believe. God sends us into the world that we may share this good news: in Christ we are not condemned, for Christ came to offer abundant life. And may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of God, the love of Jesus, the Christ and the companionship of the Holy Spirit, this day and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Spirit of Gentleness (New Century Hymnal # 286) was the closing hymn of this service of worship.

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