This weekend marks an anniversary that may slip by; so let’s not let that happen. Let’s remember, beginning with recalling: This town that was being settled in the mid-nineteenth century, had this church and two schools that were impacted when Fort Sumner was attacked by Southern forces and the war between the Blue and the Gray, Union and Confederate, began on April 12, 1861.
Now, 150 years later we remember that May 23-24, 1865, was the Grand Review of the Union troops that marched down Pennsylvania Ave, with the Capitol in Washington DC in the background.
The fires in Southern cities were still smoldering from well-aimed shells that blew up storehouses of ammunitions; and there was the fresh tragedy 12 days after the assassination of President Lincoln when on April 27th the boilers exploded on steamboat SS Sultana plying its way up the Mississippi, carrying freed POWs, a crew, and women and children. The boat built to carry 376 had as many as 2,600 because the captain was paid per head count. 1,700 died from drowning or later from their injuries, making it the worst disaster in US naval history.
150 years ago this weekend, as the Union troops marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, lines from Julia Ward Howe’s hymn written one month after the Civil War began were still being sung:
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
Memories of the campfire gave shape to those charred ruins of cities and victims lying dead on battlefields or hospitals or lost in the sinking of the Sultana, which, as Julia Ward Howe wrote, were but the sparks to ignite
the end-time fires of Hell, to which God would condemn the wicked…for His day is marching on.
The flames of our nation’s Civil War had, by Julia’s hymn, lighted the way for the Union troops in blue to be on a holy cause to abolish slavery, and indict those who wore the gray of the Confederacy.
At the same time the thought of a Day of God’s Judgment had awakened a religious revival in both armies;
the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps were like lanterns giving the light to read the Bible verses and sing the hymns and pray the prayers in the small books given to each soldier, who, in the evening dews and damps …built an altar to give themselves to God as sinners in need of salvation.
Troops had felt the heat of a fire of God’s righteous sentence; burning in the campfires’ indicting flames;
the flames carried in the hymn sung by Union troops marching in review in Washington, DC, 150 years ago the weekend, a significant anniversary on our nation’s calendar.
But note what day this is on the calendar of the church? It’s Pentecost, the day when we read:
Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages,
as the Spirit gave them ability.
It had been anticipated ever since the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel gave hope to the Hebrews living in exile when he told them what God intended to do:
Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
The African-American author and songwriter, James Weldon Johnson, along with his brother. J. Rosmond, turned Ezekiel’s words into a spiritual which the Jubilee Singers first sang in 1928 and we have been singing ever since: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dem_Bones)
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones. Now hear the word of the Lord.
Yes, the word of the Lord that echoes through to us in the Gospel promise of Jesus read on this Pentecost Sunday: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father,
the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.”
Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’ tomb was discovered to be empty, and in the weeks that followed, the Easter Jesus continually appeared and with each appearance, spoke His blessing of peace, and gave His charge,
“As the Father had sent me, so I send you.” which they could do, because He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” – the empowering, breathed in presence of Christ!
On this Day – fifty days after Jesus made His first back-from-the-dead appearance to those who had seen Him die and buried Him, …a tongue like fire, appeared among them… and rested on each of them.
Fire like the bush that was ablaze but not consumed, used by God to get Moses’ attention and give him a new assignment, now got their attention to be fired up with God’s calling to be God’s forgiven and a forgiving people, able to speak to one another in their own language, as the Spirit gave them ability.
The call now given to us, to be received by us.
The Spirit of God, like fire, meant to counter the consuming and indicting flames of war and of hate with the healing flames that warm our hearts and fire up our commitment to be Christ’s servant church that was ignited with His Spirit fifty days after Easter, in the upper room in Jerusalem.
One month each summer a wealthy Massachusetts family vacationed along the coast of Maine and took their maid with them. Her beach ritual was to put on an old-fashioned bathing suit, a little white hat, and carry a suitcase filled with paraphernalia. She would put a toe in the water, then retreat to her chair under her large umbrella and spend the remainder of the vacation reading a book. (Adapted from Randy L. Hyde, Time to Deliver)
Pentecost is a call to get up and come out from our isolated umbrella –life and let ourselves be immersed in God’s Spirit; it’s on today’s calendar to remind us, in a world burning with indicting flames, we are meant to receive God’s ongoing gift of healing flames and share it; that’s what Jesus’ church is meant to be and do. Amen.