Pentecost is one of my favorite Sundays in the liturgical calendar. I love the vibrancy of the music, the liturgy and the colorful imagery of mighty wind, tongues of fire, and gentle dove. I love anticipating the new thing God might do with our faith community through the Holy Spirit. Last week, I preached on the spiritual practice of lament for the earth, and I fully planned on moving into the excitement of Pentecost. But this past week has been one of the most depressing weeks since COVID started, as we tipped the death toll in the US to over 100,000, with communities of color hit the hardest – almost 25% even though they represent only 13% of the population. And we witnessed, again, the tragic result of America’s racism on public display.
There is part of me that is thankful that we are not gathering in public on Pentecost because I would have a difficult time to summon the energy for a celebration in the midst of communal grief and rage that is swirling across the country. Our country burns from a lack of justice. Some of you may have read Diana Butler Bass’s Pentecost sermon that I put in the June newsletter.
She writes: I feel like we are being strangled, the life choked from us—disbelief, sorrow, fear, rage. Violence in the streets, jails, and cages at our border, targeting black and brown men, women, and children; a virus stalking us all, turning familiar comforts into threats. We are hunted and haunted by guns and germs, prejudice and plague. And the victims mount. Each with a name, some known only to God. From a single name to the many to myriads, a litany of grief. Pentecost is no party this year.
And this is precisely when we need to gather to be reminded that we are all part of one body in Christ.
Some symbols of Pentecost include the Holy Spirit descending with a mighty wind & tongues of flame! I wouldn’t use the word comforting to describe the rush of a violent wind, let alone tongues of fire resting on each person. Scripture uses the verbs “bewildered, amazed, astonished, & perplexed” to describe the event, with the crowd asking, “What does this mean?” We, too, are asking a similar question. What can we say about rushing wind and tongues of fire when Minneapolis is burning?
One invitation this Pentecost is to listen to the justified outrage and uprising of our African American brothers & sisters.
Dr. Shively Smith, who is black, speaks to the Paradox of Pentecost this week. She is the Asst Professor of NT at Boston University School of Theology. She writes: Today should be a Sunday that reflects back on us a fresh vision of hope, expectation, and power. This 2020 Pentecost, I am not in the Upper Room receiving an infusion of the Holy Spirit and power. Instead, I find myself at the foot of the cross as Jesus “breathed his last”. This past week, we have lived our own modern version of that ancient crucifixion story. We watched the story replay as racist actions touted white supremacy. On a day when I am supposed to feel most hopeful and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit as a person of faith, I instead feel powerless.
During a week where we witnessed the countless suffering of more COVID deaths, George Floyd’s death was one death too many, especially at the hands of those who pledged “to serve and protect.”
Rev. Stephen Garnaas Holmes wrote this week:
The destruction of stores and cop cars, the burning, looting and vandalism is awful. But it reveals the rage and despair of black people in America who consistently experience being abused, disadvantaged and even hunted down and killed for being black. The fires of destruction we see on the news are the flames of racism. When we care about property more than people, we continue the violence. The Holy Spirit enables us to see the violence and respond with something other than more violence, condemning and dismissing people as if their lives don’t matter. The Holy Spirit enables us to hear their pain and rage and respond to that, to care more about the destruction of their lives than the destruction of things.
The violence and destruction has come to Seattle as well. It’s worth noting that we’re seeing multiple accounts from folks who were downtown earlier: “So we shouldn’t always believe the way some news station are reporting out and framing the protests. Anarchist groups are also present, and using the mobilization of peaceful protesters people as a cover for their initiative to cause chaos, incite violence, and DISTRACT attention from the purpose & message for the purpose of marching in the first place. They are intentionally wreaking havoc and destruction to give a negative spin on the issue.
We just heard the Odens reading our scripture from the Book of Acts as Peter quotes from the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, your old men shall dream dreams. They shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. They shall be saved.’
Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and a host of others did not get the chance to become old men who could dream dreams. Usually I focus on the images of wind and flame on Pentecost, but it feels as if these verses are taking place right now. Blood and fire and smoke. The sun turned to darkness. Portents pointing to a sign or warning that something calamitous is likely to happen. It sounds apocalyptic. Krista Tippet, broadcaster for the Podcast “On Being” says:
The Greek word “apocalypse,” does not mean a catastrophic undoing. It means an uncovering — the lifting of a veil. The Covid-19 virus — a product of the natural world, spread by human contact — has uncovered all of the reckonings we must walk towards if we are to become wise and whole as individuals, communities, institutions. The question of “who we will be to each other” has been surfacing ever more insistently, and its implications have now been laid bare in our economies, our politics, and our cultures. Our hearts are broken by what has happened in recent days — the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and the protests and riots that followed here and across the country. This has all compounded the loss, danger, and grief of these months of pandemic. But it has erupted, more deeply, out of generation upon generation of racism. Race is a dehumanizing construct, an invention of white people in modernity. Its endless terrible consequences have distorted our bodies, souls, and societies. Perhaps it’s time for an uncovering, the lifting of the veil as this apocalypse descends.
One way of lifting the veil is recognizing that consciously and unconsciously, we participate in and benefit from white supremacy. Can we commit to the healing of racism and white supremacy?
Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber said this week:
We were born into a system of racism, and we have to acknowledge that system. I’m not an expert. I still make mistakes. I’m still learning. We need to have grace and everyone gets to start somewhere. It’s about our souls and freedom. Let’s be awkward beginners, awkward allies together. We have to do this work. We have to dig in. We have to call a thing what it is and trust that the Holy Spirit will be with us when we seek speak the truth. We will not be free from the powers and principalities of white supremacy if we’re not willing to look at the truth.
How will we create the world today’s children deserve to inhabit? This is the hard work before us.
In the Bible, the Spirit of God, has been compared to wind, to breath, to tongues of fire. Another symbol of the Holy Spirit is a dove descending from heaven. In the Celtic tradition the Holy Spirit is also depicted as a bird, but not a peaceful, serene dove landing on Jesus at his baptism. Instead it is the wild goose. A goose’s honk is challenging, strident, unnerving. Wild geese cannot be controlled. Perhaps the Spirit of God can also be demanding and unsettling, untamed, erratic.
Hilary Ann Golden writes: the Holy Spirit is like “a Wild Goose, always on the move, always doing unexpected things; it is loud, passionate, sometimes frightening, and certainly unsettling.”
Quoting Dr. Shively Smith once more:
As we watch in despair with little hope of recourse or justice, I return to the Paradox of Pentecost. Yet, I am animated by the random outbreaks of mixed emotion and the cacophony of sounds rising from within me and outside me. Today, I hear Jesus’ cry, “My God, My God why have you forgotten me.” I hear Floyd crying out, “I can’t breathe.” I stand enveloped by the sounds of protest from every color, creed, and class challenging censorship, erasure, dismissal, divestment, and slaughter. People cry out in many forms to be seen, heard, and counted as human beings with the right to justice, equity, and flourishing. I hear clearly. I see plainly. I feel deeply.
I also sense the lamenting vibrations of my ancestors running through my head, heart and hands. When they had no words, they sang a lament of truth and questions, facing death-dealers who wielded rhetoric of God and state for their own deceitful ends. Theirs is a song bubbling up from a grieving, yet defiantly resilient people. When I sing it, I remember that together, there is more than just watching we must do. Perhaps here is the Pentecost moment.
Danielle Buharo, a CPE Supervisor for chaplains in Chicago, wrote:
On this Pentecost Sunday, as our nation physically burns because of systemic oppression, may you resist the urge to extinguish the fire, instead sit and be still in the pain.
May you attempt to sit in and through the fire, listening to the voices of hopelessness, frustration and deep sadness around our country with a nonjudgmental, pastoral/chaplain ear. Resist victim-blaming and victim shaming, listen instead. Rioting is the language of the unheard, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed almost 60 years ago, listen instead.
The nation is burning, don’t extinguish the fire.
May you resist citing empty, surface and meaningless Christian bible scriptures and cliches that lack deep theological analysis, but remember and highlight the Jesus that overturned tables of capitalism and economic oppression of persons of color. May you remember and highlight the God that commanded Moses to hold Pharaoh accountable.
The nation is burning, don’t extinguish the fire.
On this Pentecost Sunday, may you resist taking a blind eye to injustice by remembering all the “good” people and institutions in the world, but with the Holy Spirit’s Fire, courageously and prophetically call out structural racism, sexism, classism and homophobia that exists not only in police departments, but healthcare institutions, schools, churches, Fortune 500 companies.
May you carry this same fire and energy in addressing police brutality to also address gun violence and gang violence, sexism and patriarchy, and transphobia because ALL Black Lives must matter.
May you carry that fire to the Voting Booth to impact long-term legislative changes in policies and laws so that after the physical protests have ended, after the media cameras have been turned off, true change will occur.
The nation is burning, don’t extinguish the fire.
Perhaps the uprising of black people in our country, along with other allies and advocates, is the Holy Spirit at work, agitating for justice – cacophonous, uncontrollable just like the wild goose,. It reminds us of the surprise, bewilderment, & astonishment the disciples felt when the Spirit of God descended upon them. The Spirit intervenes, interrupts & intercedes by giving voice to our deepest needs, inward desires & longings. This story is a reminder that Pentecost is an uncontainable, uncontrollable event.
“By creating a holy mess of confusion, the Spirit leaves us with two choices:
give up & remain confused, or work together to find meaning.”
As we enter this season of Pentecost we are reminded that the breath of God still blows where she wills, the fire of God’s righteousness still burns within those who believe, the power of God still emboldens us to tear down and dismantle every injustice.
In the strength of that power, we must be compelled to:Speak up.Stand up.Show up