While a student in seminary, I had the opportunity and privilege to take Clinical Pastoral Education through the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I was thrown into the lions den, as it were, and was invited to put my very limited skills to use caring for patients and their families in some of the most trying times of their lives. To say I was unprepared is an understatement. I had no idea what would be expected of me. As borderline introvert, I was terrified of knocking on strangers doors. I had no clue what to say to someone who was going through the horrors of chemotherapy or losing a loved one.
I remember one of my very first patients. I had been assigned to the Immuno-suppression wing of the hospital. All of the patients there were battling diseases like leukemia that left their immune systems compromised either because of the illness or the treatment. Gowns and masks were required in over half of the rooms. I didn’t know how I would relate to someone with all of those barriers in the way. I was unsure of myself and of what this person would be like and I wanted to run and hide. But as I rode the elevator up to the 9th floor… I took deep breaths and prayed. O Lord… I have no idea what I’m doing… please help.
When I walked into Amanda’s room, she cracked a joke about how all of us should have called ahead and planned better because in our gowns and masks we were all dressed alike. My muscles relaxed, my spirits lightened, and I laughed right along with her.
Over the next few days and weeks we talked about the absurdity of a thing like leukemia. We talked about how she was feeling as they prepared for a bone marrow transplant. We talked about gratitude for her friends and family who were pulling behind her in her hometown. She showed me pictures of the coffee cans at the gas station where folks were contributing money to help pay for treatments. And she asked me to pray with her and for her. We prayed for faith in the tough times. We prayed that she might find ways to reconnect with the God she had long forgotten about. We poured ourselves over devotional books and I answered her never ceasing stream of questions about the faith… sometimes by simply giving her more questions to think about.
Amanda was my first patient during CPE and she was also one of my last. Her course of treatment kept her there in the hospital almost the entire summer of my clinical and so we regularly kept in touch. I missed the few weeks when she wasn’t there because she was finally able to go home and be with family and friends again. On one of my last days, she was there once again, for her final treatment. Things were looking good. We praised God with laughter and singing and ate cake together.
I did not have the resources to minister to Amanda. I had never done this kind of work before. I didn’t know what to say or what to do or where to sit or how to act. But God did. God knew what both Amanda and I needed in that moment, and through the amazing work of the Holy Spirit, both of our lives were ministered to that summer.
There are so many times in our lives when we come to a crossroads. When our lives intersect with the lives of other people and we have the unique and awesome opportunity to share the love of God with them. In those moments, it is not always what we have done or said, but it is how the Holy Spirit has moved in the midst of that intersection that has given the moment and the relationship power.
Sometimes it is a homeless man on a street corner who asks for some money.
Sometimes it is a new neighbor who moved in because she and her husband just divorced.
Sometimes it is a person at a gas station whose car has run out of gas.
Sometimes it is sitting down at the dinner table with extended family and reconnecting with an aunt or a cousin on a new level.
In these intersections… where our lives cross the paths of the lives of other people, it is extraordinarily common for us to feel out of our element. We might be anxious We might feel ill-equipped to truly meet their needs. We might fear rejection or for our own safety. We might simply be comfortable with remaining strangers and don’t want our lives to really change.
But through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, sometimes we find the strength to act… like I did with Amanda in that hospital room.
More often than not, however, we come to these intersections and we brush up against the life of someone else and we move on. We fail to act. We fail to speak. We fail to truly touch that person.
What we fail to do, is to draw upon the power of the Holy Spirit that can transform all of our lives.
If we doubt that power of the Holy Spirit, then maybe we need to be reminded of what happened on this festival day we call Pentecost.
Let’s set the scene and take ourselves back 2000 years…
10 days ago, Jesus rose up… was carried off into heaven. And the disciples returned to Jerusalem and spent the next few days praying and worshipping God in the temple and fellowshipping with the other believers. For the next ten days, they remained a small group of faithful men and women – content to love God and love one another. There are just over 100 of them… the size of a nice little church today. We don’t hear any stories of miracles. Nobody is saved during this time. They don’t go out into the streets proclaiming the word of God. No… they remain with their own little community, they take care of some business and elect a new apostle to replace Judas, and that is pretty much it.
Did their lives intersect with other people in those 10 days? Probably. They probably were out in the marketplace to buy food. They rubbed shoulders with folks in the temple. They would have met all sorts of folks coming into town for the Jewish celebration of Shavout… or the Festival of Weeks. But nowhere does the book of Acts tell us that they did anything about it.
They let those countless intersections and moments of crossed paths pass them by. They kept their heads low. They stayed with their friends. They took no chances.
They sound like a rather boring, small-town church, that gathers together for worship and food and fellowship and has some really deep connections with one another, but who aren’t doing anything out in their community. They sound like a lot of the churches we have in the United Methodist tradition. Churches that just plod along, doing what they have to in order to get by.
This was the church for 10 days. A lifeless, boring, safe little group.
In fact, on the day we call Pentecost – 50 days after the resurrection of Christ, 50 days after the Passover, they weren’t out in the community celebrating with others. The people who had come from all corners of the world would have been celebrating the gift of the Torah and reading together from the Book of Ruth and sharing in festive meals… but no, that group of 120 were all gathered together in a house, doing their own thing.
God had something else in mind that morning…
They might have been safely tucked away in a house, but the Holy Spirit rushed into that place and stirred them up. A holy fire was lit in their hearts and they began to shout and speak and sing and the voices of those 120 people carried beyond the walls of the house out to the streets where people had been passing by.
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine our joyful noise here in the walls of the church being so loud and exciting and exuberant and that people who are walking by stop and stare and maybe even come in? There might not be that many folks outside our doors this morning, but on Pentecost in Jerusalem, the streets were full.
And out there in the streets, people stopped and stared. They stared at this house where the commotion was so great. They came closer and peeked in the windows. A crowd started to gather out there in the middle of the road as people were intrigued by what they were hearing. As they looked around, they saw folks who looked nothing like them, but each began to realize they could hear in their own native language.
I sometimes wonder how long it took for Peter and James and Mary and Salome and others inside that house to realize that they were attracting attention. How long did it take for them to open their eyes and see all of the faces staring back at them through the windows? How long did it take for them to work up the courage to open the door and walk out into the street and to speak?
They were ill-equipped and scared. They were anxious and hesitant. They weren’t quite sure they were ready for their lives to be changed.
But there at the intersection of their lives and the lives of those gathered, the Holy Spirit was present. For the first time in 10 days, probably even longer… since much of the time after Jesus rose from the dead they were huddled together afraid also… they found the power and the courage and the words to speak the good news of God.
Within hours… that intersection of lives turned a small group of 120 believers into a church of 3000 persons.
In the book of Romans this morning, we were reminded that there are times in our lives when we cannot see God’s future. We don’t know who is waiting just around the corner. We don’t know what we might be asked to do next. Just like this whole creation, our lives are pregnant with hope and anticipation and yes, sometimes fear and trembling and trepidation…
As I rode up the elevator on that day six years ago to the ninth floor of the hospital, I was full of that kind of expectation. I didn’t know what to do or what to say or how to act… but God was already there, in that moment, ready and waiting for me.
Romans 8:26-28 tell us: the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.
The Holy Spirit intercedes at those intersections in our lives. The Holy Spirit can and does give us the power we need to reach out with the right words at the right time.
She reached out as I stepped off that elevator and created laughter and conversation out of my wordless heart. She has moved us to stop and talk with the homeless guy on the street corner and to buy him a sandwich. She has interceded with you as you carried a plate of cookies to the new neighbor and listened to her heartache. The Holy Spirit has been present at the intersection when you give the guy with his gas can a ride back to the car. And she has been by our sides as we have hard conversations with family members about the skeletons in our closets and the reconciliation we need.
The Holy Spirit was there as Peter stepped out of the comfort zone of familiar community and safety and spoke to the crowds gathered outside the house. The Holy Spirit gave him words and power and purpose… none of which had been there before. At that intersection of a new and an old faith, a church was born. Lives were transformed.
We are going to leave this place today and each go our separate ways. Whether it is off to the campground or lunch with friends or back home… pay attention to the intersections in your lives. Pay attention to the paths you cross. Pay attention to the other people you encounter. And although you might not know what to say or how to say it… and even if you don’t WANT to… take a deep breath and pray…. “O Lord… I have no idea what I’m doing… please help.”
May the Holy Spirit intercede in every intersection of your life… Amen.