From Death to Life

Sermons Proclaim
Homily: Pentecost
May 31, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Sermons Proclaim

Summary: Our Christian celebration of Pentecost - remembering the Holy Spirit and the infant church - turns a harvest of death, the old way of living, into a harvest of life, an alternative way to live and love.

There's no question that history was changed July 1-3, 1863, when two great armies met around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the American Civil War. The features of that battlefield have become legend: The Devil's Den, Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge, the Cupola and the Peach Order are among the place names that denote blood, death and deathless heroism.

It was an historical accident that this, the greatest battle of the Civil War, took place in that sleepy meeting of highways. And if history was changed for the country and to some extent the world, the personal lives of those who owned the property on which the armies battled were also changed.

A harvest of death

The farm belonging to Joseph and Mary Sherfy is located along the Emmitsburg Pike, the route one drives today in the self-guided tour of the battlefield. Theirs is a modest house, like many who shared their faith. The Sherfys were "Dunkers," a nickname assigned to them by outsiders because their practice of baptism required new members be fully immersed three times forward. (Civil War buffs will recall that a Dunker Meeting House was the signal landmark at the Antietam Battlefield.)

The Dunkers, though largely of German descent, were the only mixed-race congregation in the Gettysburg area. They'd stood squarely against slavery since their arrival in America during the Colonial period. They were also nonviolent, preferring that they themselves be harmed rather than harming others.

The Sherfys lived in a spot where some of the most desperate fighting of the battle took place. They fled when only when ordered out by a Union officer on the second day of the fighting. Their personal treasures were plundered, their crops destroyed and their barn, where several wounded soldiers had crawled for shelter, was set afire. Those trapped inside were burned to death.

Having lost everything, including the peaches growing in their orchard, the Sherfys could count on their fellow Dunkers to take care of them after this disaster, providing shelter, food and aid in rebuilding. Ultimately, the harvest of death became for them a harvest of life.1

A harvest of life

For many of us who have gardens, harvest is fun. Our gardens provide fresh flavors and variety for our meals, and if we can the vegetables, they'll grace our tables when temperatures get colder. However, that harvest is not a matter of life or death. After a summer in which the tomatoes disappoint us, we're still able to find tomatoes in the store.

As for our farmers, a bad harvest is a tough blow, but some have crop insurance. In any event, at least for farmers in the developed nations, it won't mean starvation for them.

But for many people in previous generations, harvesting was a matter of life or death. The Feast of Weeks, one of the three holy days that Moses commanded everyone to attend, signified that the barren earth had once more - through hard work and God's blessing - given life and hope.

The word "Pentecost" refers to the fifty days after Passover, which was the time when the first fruits of spring planting were harvested. Part of Pentecost was the confession of faith mandated by Moses, which began, "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…."2 This confession gave God the credit for making them a people and leading them to freedom.

Isn't this an important confession for us as Christians today as well? We all come from somewhere else, whether recently or hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

Hope and life

The Passover celebration includes the reading of the book of Ruth in its entirety. Why Ruth? Maybe because in this book, a harvest of death becomes a harvest of life. The desperate threat of starvation caused an Israelite couple, Elimelech and Naomi, to do the unthinkable - travel to the hated land of Moab, where their sons married women from among the people that the Israelites in general had learned to hate. Death eventually claimed Elimelech and his sons, forcing Naomi to travel home to Israel with her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, in tow. Though Naomi was filled with bitterness, the outsider Ruth learned that even an alien like herself was entitled by Israel's Mosaic law to glean the fields after the harvest. The steadfast love she showed her mother-in-law led to a marriage between Ruth and Boaz, and so this foreigner ultimately became part of the family tree that led to the birth of King David.

Though God is not overtly seen in Ruth's story, God's Spirit seems to have made it possible for life to spring out of death.

The book of Ruth is found between Judges and the books of Samuel and Kings. Judges ends with a horrifying spiral of violence that led to death and hopelessness. In the books that follow Ruth, the Israelites demanded to have a king, which led to even more violence, along with, eventually, the destruction of both the kingdom and the temple.

The book of Ruth, however, demonstrates that there's an alternative to violence. It is possible to live righteously through the leading of God's Holy Spirit and God's law.

Death to life

The Acts of the Apostles also provides an alternative to the violence of the Roman Empire and its emperors, demonstrating that through Christ Jesus, healing, peaceful intervention, the sharing of possessions and reconciliation between enemies is not only possible but vital. To quote the apostle Paul, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."3 And that same Spirit of Pentecost, seen and unseen, is still active among us today.

Every year the harvest is different. In the same way, the action of the Holy Spirit is different, too. Sometimes our tomatoes are more bountiful. Other years our spaghetti squash is most memorable. So too the harvest in our churches may be measured by the attendance, but the Spirit may also enrich the life force of a very small church to serve more richly and bountifully than they or their neighbors imagined.

Nor are the Holy Spirit's blessings something to be hoarded. At harvest time, bags of zucchini are left anonymously on doorsteps because the harvest is so bountiful. The fruits of God's Spirit should also be shared with joy.

When it comes to the harvest, let's remember that we don't control the Holy Spirit any more than we control things like the weather. We don't control the Holy Spirit despite the efforts of some to rigidly define what God can or cannot do.

Giving God the credit doesn't mean we should do nothing and simply wait for God to act. Farmers know that when rain prevents them from getting out in the field, there's still plenty to be done preparing for that harvest. In God's harvest we must do our part as well. We can pray. We can study the Bible. We can be faithful in attendance. We can be open to outsiders like Ruth who will demonstrate that the Bible really works! And we can find things to do.

Peaches from the Battlefield

Two years after the Battle of Gettysburg, ads in the Baltimore Sun proclaimed "Peaches from the Battlefield Orchard" for sale. These peaches came "Right from the trees on the Battle Ground of Gettysburg, Pa." Joseph and Mary Sherfy were delighted by the crops they harvested from an orchard that had once been a killing field. People who came to buy some of those peaches on the Sherfy farm described them as "large and juicy and sweet."

Joseph Sherfy died in 1882, and his obituary proclaimed him a pioneer when it came to drying and canning fruit. His wife, Mary, lived until the age of 87, dying in 1907. She was called "Mother Sherfy" by the many veterans who came to visit her farm when they returned to the battlefields, and she always allowed them to walk through the home that some of them had plundered, and welcomed as friends those who might have been previously considered enemies.

The Christian alternative story of peace and reconciliation won out against the story of death and destruction that had spilled over onto their property. A harvest of death gave way to a harvest of life.

We too should so live that our actions contribute to a harvest of life.