Rev. George Miller
May 15, 2016
25 years ago, while attending college in Minnesota, I had one of the most transformative experiences of my life.
For a class project, we visited a Pentecostal congregation named Grace Temple Deliverance Church. It was housed in an old movie theater, located in a part of Minneapolis in which a highway had been built right through the center of the city.
The narthex had a distinct smell to it, one of age and welcome. The seats were a vibrant red, like ours.
The moment I walked in, I knew I had found what I’d been looking for all my life.
Worship started at 11:30 and was 3 hours long, but I didn’t care. The music was lively; the message timely. Folk were dressed in their Sunday finest and they were friendly as can be.
A few weeks later I went back. I borrowed a friend’s car, drove the 75 minutes into the city, and attended worship.
My spirit soared, we sang, we clapped, we laughed, folk spoke back with “amens” and “uh-huhs” and “preach!”
But half-way through the service I began to get a little drowsy, closing my eyes so I could rest, trying to pay attention but fading away.
I was startled awake when I heard the Minister of Music begin speaking, and she said “That young man over there, I want you to come up and talk to me after worship.”
That kept me awake during the rest of service, and I was nervous, thinking I had been busted for falling asleep in church.
About an hour later, worship ended, and I made my way up to the Minister of Music, named Doris Akers.
Ms. Akers was a much older woman with red hair and bright ruby lipstick. She was extremely light-skinned, so much so that I couldn’t figure out if she was white or black.
I had no idea why she wanted to talk with me.
“I’ve been watching you,” she said. “There’s something here that’s speaking to you, isn’t there?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I had the same experience the first time I came here. I want you to do me a favor, and come back.”
I made my excuses- I lived too far away, I didn’t have a car.
For every reason I gave as to “why not”, Ms. Akers gave me a “how”- I can take the bus, someone can pick me up at the station etc.
I left worship that day, and it was almost three years before I returned and became a regular worshipper at Grace Temple, and there she was, our Minister of Music, Ms. Doris Akers.
I didn’t know it then, but I was speaking to a very important person.
Doris Akers is the composer of the song we sung today, “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit.” Not only that, she’s listed in the Smithsonian as the most prolific black gospel composer of all time.
Sadly, I was too young, and too naïve to realize what that meant. I didn’t know that I was worshipping with a national, spiritual treasure each and every week.
Because I wasn’t raised in a Pentecostal Church I didn’t understand nor appreciate that what Ms. Akers did was a time-honored tradition of acknowledging and calling forth my gifts.
Sadly, Ms. Akers’ health was not well. A year after I began attending Grace Temple, she died.
She left all of her music royalty rights to a mission in Haiti started by the church. The money from those rights was used to build a school, and a hospital, and to continue caring for the people who live there.
Decades later I still carry with me the regrets of not fully knowing or appreciating the fact that Doris Akers was the Minister of Music at the church I attended.
If I fully knew then what I know now, I would have spent much more time with her.
I would have sat by her feet so she could have taught me what she knew, and to tell me her stories.
To this day, I grieve the lost possibilities of what could have been, wishing I could go back in time to better get to know, and to value, her.
So whenever I hear “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit” there is a sense of comfort; that Doris Akers is back; that she is here.
There is comfort in knowing anytime we sing one of her songs, the royalties are going to feed, heal, and teach those living in Haiti.
There is comfort in knowing that in some way, I am still in relationship with her…
Earlier this week, our Living After Loss group met and we discussed the needs people have after they’ve experienced a loss.
One of those needs is to somehow maintain a relationship with the person who is deceased.
There is the reality that physically we will never see our loved one again. We will never be able to touch them, smell their scent, or hear their voice.
But that we can still have a relationship with them, if we navigate and figure out what that means. How a photograph reminds us of them. How a personal belonging, a song, or a story stirs up memories.
And if even just for a moment, we feel reconnected to the one we lost.
Sometimes that reconnection becomes the difference between hope and hopelessness.
Taking this all in, I can’t help but to appreciate what Jesus is doing in today’s reading.
Here we have part of what is considered his “Farewell Discourse” to the disciples. After 1-3 years together, Jesus knows his time has come to an end.
So he takes time to prepare them for the fact that soon he will be leaving them.
He washed their feet. He shares a last meal. He reminds them of all the ministry they have done together. He assures them that even after he leaves they will continue to do great things; perhaps even greater things.
This is Succession Planning at its best. This is Jesus, as a true, healthy leader, assuring his followers that the sky is not falling and that they will carry on just fine without him.
But more than that, I sense that Jesus is doing grief ministry with his disciples. He knows they love him; he knows they will feel lost and orphaned without him.
So instead of ignoring the reality of what is to come, Jesus addresses it head on. He does it in an empowering way.
In today’s passage, here he is saying “You have seen who God is through the things we have done. The Father is in me, and I am in the Father. If you believe in me, continue to do the things I’ve done- feed, heal, teach, love.”
Jesus continues “Although physically I will be gone, I will be with you in Spirit. God will send you a Heavenly Advocate, a Spirit who will encourage you and cheer you on.”
“A Spirit that will help you in times of trouble; who will comfort you in times of distress; who will give you wisdom so you can figure things out.”
“This Spirit represents all that is true, and truly felt, and will live within you, and you will be in the Spirit.”
Jesus continues “And because of this you will not be like orphans; because of this you will never be truly alone. I will be with you always.”
I sense that this is Jesus’ wonderful way of doing pro-active grief ministry, in which he is assuring his beloved followers that even though he will no longer be with them physically, he will still be in relationship with them.
And because of the Spirit, the disciples can continue to be in relationship with one another.
And, because of the Spirit, they can continue their relationship with the community in which they have been called to care for.
Deeper still, what I sense here in today’s reading is that Jesus is saying to the disciples that he has no regrets.
I think this is Jesus saying to them that he is not sorry for how things have turned out.
I think this is Jesus, knowing he is about to face the cross, saying “If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the exact same way.”
I think this is Jesus looking back over his life, and saying it is well with his soul, and that everything has happened as it should.
With this understanding, we can have a new appreciation and perception for what Pentecost is all about.
Today is the day we call the birthday of the Christian Church.
It is the day in which, according to the Book of Acts, that the Holy Spirit fell upon the people like tongues of fire, causing them to speak with great passion and to hear and to be heard in new ways.
Pentecost is a day in which something new entered into the lives of the believers, and though they were amazed and perplexed, they were filled with a new energy to get things done and to share the Good News.
And this is all well and good, and exciting.
But this week I came to a realization that perhaps Pentecost is also the day in which the disciples realized that Jesus was not lying.
Pentecost is the day in which the grieving disciples realized that Jesus did indeed care about them; that Jesus was still present to them, in a new and very different way.
That Pentecost is the day in which the promised Spirit fell upon the people, and in this Spirit the people did indeed find that the memory of Jesus still lived on.
That Pentecost is the day in which the people experienced the gifts of wisdom, the gifts of help, the gifts of cheerleading, the gifts of empowerment.
These weren’t gifts that were to be used for selfish and self-serving purposes, but gifts so that they could continue to do the work that Jesus had taught them.
Works, that as long as they did them, it was as if Jesus was still right beside them.
Works that made such a difference in their part of the world, that there was no need for regrets, or worry, or bitterness.
Maybe Pentecost can be seen as the day in which we were reminded that in Christ we are all beautiful, loved and blessed, so therefore we can continue to make glad the city of God.
Maybe Pentecost is that moment we get to relive again and again and again in which the works begun in Christ get to continue in us, so therefore neither Jesus, nor the disciples, nor any of us are ever truly gone.
But we live on whenever justice, kindness, and humility prevail.
Maybe Pentecost is saying there is a sweet, sweet Spirit, and we all get to play a part in sharing that sweetness with everyone we meet.
And the regrets we have will be far outweighed by the manner in which we have lived.
For in Christ we are not orphaned; in Christ we are not beyond help.
In Christ, we are all beautiful, loved, and blessed.
Amen and amen.