This sermon was preached at Danville Congregational Church United Church of Christ on May 31, 2020
My friends—what a heart-breaking week this has been.
What started on Tuesday morning with a horrifying video of a man pleading for breath has only become more devastating with every passing hour. Over 100,000 people have lost their fight for breath due to Covid19. And this morning we wake to a nation smoldering from the fires stoked by the unchecked sin of racism that runs rampant in this country. Black people “are being disproportionately killed by systemic and overt racism at the same time.” [Blavity team, May 29, 2020]
Sin [the sin of RACISM] disrupts our relationship with God, and sin also harms others. I picture the impact of sin as it moves outward in concentric circles. Some sin causes injury in the small circle of people we know well or encounter face to face, while other sin causes injury in the wider community—whether to a particular class of people or to the population at large. Some sin creates hurt so widespread that it damages all of humankind.Naming racism as the sin is my adaptation.
And so it is in this context that we have gathered this morning on Pentecost Sunday—the day viewed as the birthday of the church as we know it. The day when God celebrates diversity! Most of us are grieving, questioning, hearts aching for our friends and loved ones who are African American, confused as to how things could be this bad, unsure what to say, how to offer support, how to move forward in a meaningful way.
My friends, I want to be honest with you: as one of the pastors invited to accompany you:
I am devastated. Heart-broken. And I am angry.
This is not the Pentecost I imagined.
Not the sermon I expected to give.
Not the 2020 I imagined.
This is not the world I want my grandchildren and nieces and nephews to grow up in.
Not the experience I want for God’s diverse and beautiful creation that is humankind.
But if I may, in our time together, I want to share with you where I am finding hope this morning.
It’s been 7 weeks. The disciples and a group of folks who were part of the Jesus Movement numbering, the text says, 120 people including women, have been effectively hunkered down for 7 weeks. In the wake of the execution of their Messiah, they are unsure of what their future holds. Jesus has been executed by the state and though risen and appeared to them, he has left them for good. Destabilized by the violence they have witnessed, they cling together and wonder. Perhaps law enforcement is looking for them too? Perhaps, they fear, the same fate awaits them. Many of them may be haunted, still, by their betrayal and abandonment. And so they are—as Pastor Eric shared last week—they are waiting.
But they are not idle, the text says. Rather, they are devoting themselves to a process of discernment through prayer. They know something is coming—Jesus told them as much—so they cling to this sliver of hope. They pray. And they Hope. And they prepare themselves for what is to come—even though they have no idea what it is that’s coming.
Now, if you were paying attention to the reading or you’ve heard this story before, you know what’s next.
I want to pause here and make an observation.
Something I had never thought of until this week:
The Spirit didn’t just show up willy-nilly; rather, she visited folks who had prepared their spirits—who had made space—for her.
She blew into town because the people were prepared to receive her breath.
Let’s think about that for a second and come back to it later on.
And so it is on the 50th day, where Jewish pilgrims are gathered to celebrate Shavuot, that the Holy Spirit shows up in Jerusalem—making a LOT of noise, and inspiring even more. So much noise in fact that everyone in the area can hear it and comes running to see what all the ruckus is about. These over whom these tongues of fire appeared had been instantaneously activated by the very breath of God! They began speaking about God’s power in the languages or the dialects of the surrounding cultures.
Not one of those disciples was from Phyrgia or Libya … but the Spirit as Interpreter facilitated translation between people from differing cultures. As a result, people who spoke diverse languages—believers and non-believers of Jesus—heard about God’s powerful works in their native tongues and felt God’s holy presence.
And just like that:
Gone is their fear, their uncertainty, their doubt.
In this moment, the Spirit as Inspiration has taken root within them, filling them with boldness and God’s own breath—igniting a revolution that we gathered here continue to this very day.
And so here we are.
Day 76 or 176—I’ve lost track.
Sheltered in place and waiting.
Waiting for something that will transform the ugliness of the world into the kingdom we pray come!
Waiting for an end to the violence of racism.
Waiting for an end to this pandemic—a pandemic that’s disproportionately infecting and killing people of color.
Waiting for an end to the killing of Black people, and end to the bullying and scapegoating of Asian-Americans, an end to the killing of Black transgender people.
But, to return to the refrain of our email this past week:
Do you hear that?
Do you, with the ears of your heart, do you hear that sound?
You see, although the Pentecost as we know it happened at a fixed point in time, that does not mean that the Spirit of God is not still rustling among us, rousing those of us gathered here, waiting to serve as both Interpreter and Inspiration to those who have prepared themselves to receive the breath of God.
She is waiting for prepared hearts and minds to inspire us to speak languages we have never yet spoken. I am not speaking of literal languages but rather metaphorical—the language of JUSTICE, the dialects of LOVE and of TRUTH TO POWER.
I was having a chat with one of my sons a few weeks ago and he said, “Dad, I’m really trying to use this time to come out of it a better person than I was before.” Craig Seiler, speaking to his 8th grade classmates graduating from Charlotte Wood Middle School last Thursday, echoed this ideal. During this time of quarantine, he said, “we should all be…building skills that we always wanted to build but thought we never had the time do.” When our lives go back to semi-normal, Craig told his classmates, “To make sure that you change for the better, try to learn something or some things every single day…”
I think Craig’s onto something. And so I ask us, friends, as I ask myself:
What are we learning? How are we cultivating our hearts to be prepared for the in-dwelling of the breath of God that remains positioned always to blow into our lives?
Back in February, we spent four Sundays focusing our spiritual energy around the lived experience of people of color—Black History, Black Futures, and our siblings in Guatemala.
Have we engaged with that list of books by Black authors or films that feature the Black experience? Have we taken time to understand the lived experiences of Black mothers who fear for the lives of their Black sons every time they walk out of that door? Have we spent time discussing issues of race with our children and loved ones? After watching videos of the murders of Ahmed Arbury and George Floyd and the malice of the woman in Central Park toward a Black man named Christian Cooper, have we been devoting ourselves to prayer?
Because I’m confident, friends, I am confident that the Holy Spirit is here with us just like she was with those early disciples, hovering right over us through the technology of this space, in churches around the world, just waiting to ignite a reformation a revolution a riot of transformative love that will topple the racism that destroys body and soul and separates the body of Christ with every life taken.
And it makes me wonder…if that kind of preparation, that kind of openness to our dear ones who are Black, would collide with the breath of God so that suddenly we are activated! Activated and able to understand in a new way the language of a person with a different lived experience, or from a different social location from our own, to hear in a devastating new way, “Please, I can’t breath.”
And in that instant—understand exactly what it is that we have to do.
Because if we do
Because when we do,
then, The Pentecost will be experienced anew and the people of God will rise up and say
THIS IS NOT OF GOD
And the kingdom of God will indeed be at hand.
Covid has rendered tens of thousands of people unable to breathe.
The officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck rendered him unable to breathe.
Restrictions on assembling in large groups has many thinking the church will run out of air and die too.
People of God: I ask us in the presence of the Holy Spirit, in the presence of one another, and in the presence of the great cloud of witness surrounding us:
- What noise, I wonder, is the Holy Spirit waiting to inspire God’s people to make?
- Who among us is being prepared to be activated?
- What language are the people of God’s church here in Danville (or wherever it is you are) being prepared to speak?
- And perhaps more importantly, what language are you, am I, being prepared to hear?
Trish texted me yesterday morning and said I could share her comments with you.
“I have been thinking about how individually and collectively our DCC community has stepped up to lead and make financial commitments as our own survival has been challenged these past months. It’s the connection we feel,” she says, “that gives us the sense of urgency to act. And the confidence to do what needs to be done.”
I think what Trish is sensing is the Holy Spirit.
“The Holy Spirit enables our capacity to do and be a part of holy things that we may otherwise count ourselves unworthy or uncapable of. The Spirit pays no regard to social hierarchies of value. Wherever hearts are open, wherever there is crying out, wherever courage is brewing,
She is there.
Impatient with [sin], she comes with urgency and breaks open new pathways and possibilities, wild with [breath].”From Liturgy that Matters created by enfleshed.com
And so I ask us, What’s that sound?
My dear friends, may we, on the Day of Pentecost in the year of our Lord two-thousand twenty, be activated by the breath of God, the Interpreter, the Inspiration…and in so doing, “May the world tell that we have come close to God and that God has come close to us.”
May it be so.