Today is our day to remember
how God the Holy Spirit fell like fire on the disciples of Jesus–
these divided tongues of fire rested on them
and, suddenly, they were able to speak good news in the languages
of people gathered in Jerusalem from across the empire.
We mark this day, with all its symbolism of red, of fire,
as Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Richmond, Los Angeles are smoldering and ablaze.
As citizens protest the murder of George Floyd,
a black man made in God’s image and our brother in Christ,
and the systems; the windowless, doorless corridor of structures;
the history that led to that asphalt and that knee.
The Pentecost story is about communion.
God chooses that the Spirit touches the disciples, rests on them,
and there is union between God and human creatures.
And, moving around and in them, what happens in them by the Spirit
is the possibility of connection with people they do not know,
and do not understand. It’s a miracle of communion,
a miracle of community; it is the whole story of God with us.
When we tell the Pentecost story, on the day of Pentecost especially,
we tend to celebrate with these suddenly aflame,
suddenly multi-lingual apostles overflowing with words and testimony,
and who are about to begin wondrous, and adventurous lives.
But sometimes we’re the Phrygians in the story.
We’re the Parthians. We’re the ones perplexed.
We’re the unnerved ones saying, ‘What does this mean?’
Sometimes we’re the ones sneering.
We who are white,
who are followers of Jesus,
and who’s identity as Christians
is shaped by a denomination that is largely white,
do not, and can not, speak with authority about American racism,
or about dismantling the white supremacy that poisons us.
The Spirit that inspires that truth,
the Spirit that can liberate us from that,
is, and has always been, in the voices
of those who are under the knee,
and who live in fear of it,
and always have. Who cannot breathe.
Some of the crowd on the day of Pentecost
heard the words with perfect clarity, but without meaning,
and still decided the messengers were drunk.
If the man who killed George Floyd had believed him,
he would be alive. But he didn’t. You’re talking fine,
says one of the officers in the video.
He didn’t even believe the testimony of his unconscious body.
It is heard by God.
What language will we understand it in?
Come, Holy Spirit, and make us hear
in a way that changes us.
Undo our instinct to step to the front and to explain,
and help us to surrender more and more deeply,
our confidence that white experiences of life in this country define reality.
Weaken us to listen, and not speak or correct or calm or smooth or justify ourselves,
until we have learned what to do with our power
for love’s sake.
** Note: There are many places to begin the work of learning about systemic racism that leads to concrete individual and collective action, which is the only learning that matters. One place is Responding to Racist Violence, a collection of resources to support prayer, understanding, and action compiled by the Episcopal Church.
Just after I graduated from college, I spent over a year working with my Great Uncle doing carpentry and cabinetmaking work to restore the chapel of a Lutheran church in North Carolina. We did everything from casting plaster moldings to hewing timbers to delicate carving. It was a blast.
One little job among all the others was building a little wall-niche bookcase. The chapel was vaguely gothic and, looking around for design ideas, I landed on a medieval example with a verse of Scripture lettered across its top. Lovely. Settled, I built it, which left only the problem I didn’t actually know much Scripture to quote from in those days. So, I borrowed a bible. For possibly the first time in my life, sat by myself paging through the New Testament as I looked for some appropriate line. In the fourteenth chapter of John, I came across the words,
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you,”
and stopped. And that is what I painted, and that’s what is probably still there today.
I was 23 and my Dad had just died.
As I worked I didn’t know that, soon after the job was finished, I’d get married in that chapel. And in that church, my whole family—aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents—would spend a week preparing and throwing this tremendous wedding for us. They did it because they loved us, and because my Mom had gotten sick too and was dying, and they were making a circle around these kids. They were weaving it strong, to hold.
And they were, for me, a vision of the unknown God Paul preached about to the Athenians in the Areopagus. It’s striking how everything Paul has to say about this unknown God has to do with God’s identity as the one who created and who remains present and involved in all life from breath to breath to breath—a God who is not far, but who has arranged life in a way that nearness might bloom into relationship. This is a God who leaves nothing orphaned.
And so it isn’t surprising to me that, from the beginning, followers of Jesus recognized that the God who had created them and made family of them had also called them them to work like that on the ground. It isn’t surprising that an extraordinary and distinguishing feature of the early Church was the care and adoption of orphans—gathering them in, imagining wider and wider circles of family to hold them.
Every kindness, every small mercy, matters in the world in which God raised Jesus from the dead.
This passage holds what are, for me, some of the sweetest words in the Gospels, when Jesus reckons with the limits of what the disciples can grasp and simply turns them to their trust in him:.“If it were not so, I would have told you,” he says. That is the kind of word we build our whole lives on. And, for many of us, our faith unfolds from moments when someone we trusted to tell us the truth spoke or somehow embodied words like these for us.
The last saying we heard this week—“I will do whatever you ask in my name” — is a word about prayer that may be jarring in place like the place we find ourselves in now. We are asking for treatments, support, progress, relief. We know that much was asked on behalf of the many thousands already lost to the coronavirus.
It may be helpful to consider what comes before. This is the last night—the night in which Jesus is arrested. They all know what has to be coming, hearts in throats. And Jesus is trying fill them with confidence that they are not being torn apart despite the hard fact that they cannot yet follow him where he is going. They are confused and frightened and so they are saying things like “why can we not?” “How can we know the way?” “Show us.”
Jesus comes to speak about prayer because his disciples are afraid of loosing him, or of him loosing them. They are afraid of being alone. And this may be why Jesus tells them about the intimacy, the perfect one-ness of he and God, who he calls Father.
The Father has been at work through him all along. That close to him, and that close to them. That connection is what they had seen everywhere they had gone with him. And now, Jesus tells them, those who follow him will do the works that he does, which is another way of saying that they are part of the communion between he and the Father.
It goes on, whatever happens. They will see in each other and in themselves signs of God’s love. They will see the movement of God creating community, creating family around them and through them. And their asking, the longings of their hearts, will have a part in it. These words are about their place and their voice in the unfinished healing of the world.