St. Paul’s Congregational Church
May 31, 2020 – Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2: 1 – 21
Pentecost is a great festival - it’s a birthday party for the church, celebrated with banners, red balloons, and cake. We hear rushing wind, we see tongues of fire. We hear the story in multiple languages, reminding us that God sent all people a gift—the spirit with its promise of peace and the healing of the earth. I love the Pentecost service - the optimism of it– mostly because for 20 years that was Confirmation Day – remember last year what a great day it was for Becky, Valeria, their families and their sponsors, Lora and Ray.
But not so much a party this year.
No crowds – Jesus’ followers were all together in one place – we’re not - we’re together on Zoom – today, only close family members and essential workers are together in one place. The followers of Jesus had been crammed into a room together, somewhere in Jerusalem, waiting for they-weren’t-sure-what, because the risen Christ had told them to wait…so they waited. And then the day of Pentecost when Jews from every nation gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the coming of the Spirit: Alleluia! The long awaited day of the Lord is here!
This year Pentecost is different:
There are crowds gathering, not to shout Alleluia, but to shout in protest. Some are violent, some are not.
The Pentecost tongues of flames, of fire, rise above the crowd - hot and violent in Minneapolis.
Instead of hearing rushing wind, we hear names:
1,000 names on the front page of the New York Times take
our breath away.
103,000 have died; so much grief, so much wailing, crying. (Silence)
Not much of a celebration of Pentecost this year, is it.
Instead we have harsh reminders of old wounds of a pandemic of racism – and a new pandemic, this time of disease. Both are exposing the dark underbelly of our society that’s always been there as we read statistics of disproportionally large numbers of deaths from covid 19 in persons of color: tight housing conditions encouraging rapid spread of the virus, less access to health care, people performing essential services often at lower payscales – unable to be done from home, putting these workers at higher risk than those of us able to work remotely. A black CNN reporter and his crew arrested in Minneapolis while a white CNN reporter and his crew were simply told to move away from the area – both crews had the same IDs from CNN – yet one was arrested, the other not.
I confess, I just about reached my limit this week. Perhaps you did too. But, you know, maybe that’s a good thing – now what do I do with all those feelings.
We’ve been reflecting during Eastertide about a new normal – we recognize that COVID19 has brought a new normal for our life together – maybe we mourn the loss but it’s a reality.
Pentecost also brings a new normal. What might those disciples have been thinking about while they waited. I wonder if they too were hoping for a return to normal – they’d left their homes, followed Jesus, witnessed miracles, had been swept up in a vision. But then Jesus had been arrested, beaten, executed by the empire. The risen Christ had appeared to them, assured them that death was not the final word, and gave them a mandate to be his witnesses to the end of the earth. I wonder if the disciples assumed that they could do whatever it was the Holy Spirit was going to empower them to do, in-between fishing and mending their old nets. Might they have been asking, “When will this Holy Spirit show up, so we can get back to living our lives?”
Then the Holy Spirit did show up, and it became instantly clear that there was no going back. An entirely new way was laid out before them, a call to speak to people they’d never before addressed, in languages they didn’t know they could speak, about wonders they barely grasped themselves. So that was that. No going back, after all. Only forward into an uncertain future, a Holy Spirit flame to light the way. It must have been terrifying. But also exhilarating. And it may well have dawned on the disciples that embracing God’s world-mending project required a brand new script. Because ‘normal’ for them never had been normal, as far as God was concerned. Those ‘normal’ lives favored some bodies over other bodies, empowered some communities and disenfranchised others, and claimed that violence is redemptive. The disciples had been accustomed to living in a world distorted by sin and suffering.
And so have we. Along comes this devastating virus, disrupting every one of our routines. What if this is what we were waiting for? Not the virus itself of course, but the way it has exposed racial injustice. What if this is our Pentecost moment, an opportunity to be swept up by that Holy-Spirit-wind and let it lead us into a future that is radically different from our past? A future more just, more gentle, more fiercely loving and caring, more anti-racist, more interconnected… more whole?
I’ve become more aware over the years of how privileged my life has been – but I’ve never thought of myself as racist. On Friday when some of my UCCA colleagues gathered for our weekly zoom call, our conversation quickly moved to the events in Minnesota along with the covid19 pandemic. Our talk continued until one of the pastors asked the only black pastor there, “How can we help you?” Now the conversation deepened.
She said, “The question is, how can I help you? This is a world I know. This is a world I’ve experienced. How can I help you understand?”
What a beautiful conversation it was that followed! A Pentecost moment – a challenge to all of us on that call. A challenge given with love.
Then on Friday night I read a reflection written by Cheyenne, a young woman who I had in confirmation class in Middlebury probably 20 years ago – another Pentecost moment that offers us all a real challenge as we think about privilege. She writes:
I am a teacher. I am a white teacher. I am a white middle class teacher. I am a white middle class teacher with an immense amount of
privilege— privilege afforded to me simply due to my skin color.
I’ve learned that if you remain silent or neutral in situations of injustice, you are choosing the side of the oppressor. I have remained silent for far too long. My silence stops now. I am here freely admitting and acknowledging that my privilege has afforded me comfort, safety, and opportunities others never experienced sheerly due to the color of their skin. I am also here acknowledging that my privilege, and my voice, must be used to help the voiceless.
I have spent the past few days educating myself in the wake of the death of George Floyd. I’ve read books. I’ve researched topics and experts previously unheard of to me. I’ve learned from Black friends who are exhausted from fighting the monster called racism. I’ve talked with fellow White allies about what the next steps are, asking ourselves how can we do better? I am here to do the work.
As an educator, I can no longer justify myself teaching a sea of culturally diverse faces each day—if I am not willing to see the inequities society deals out to our children of color. If I teach students that their voice is important in my classroom, important to me—then I must use MY voice to speak for them, the voiceless, when no one will listen to them.
Reminder: the goal of education is NOT “I don’t see color.” The goal NEEDS TO BE: I see your color. And I honor you. And I value your input. I will educate myself about your lived experiences. I will fight against this racism that harms you. Teach me how to do better. I will do the work. That is the goal.
All lives can’t matter until black lives matter. All students can’t matter until black students matter. The stories of your Black students aren’t an elective to be taught if you choose. They need to be a part of the narrative.
Cheyenne says, “I was that person with my eyes closed. Now they’re open. Open so wide. To shatter the glass-like privilege of those who find discomfort in everything that I’ve written thus far because they have also been protected for their entire lives. I am here acknowledging that this world was built in a way that allows me to succeed. I am privileged. This admittance leaves me uncomfortable. Leaves me vulnerable. Leaves me breathing frantically trying to feel at ease again.
But I am still breathing. And we need to have this conversation so our Black sisters and brothers can live and breathe freely. Can live in comfort. Can live with no fear.
She ends, “As I lean into this discomfort, I challenge you to do the same. Black people are exhausted from their unending fight against racism. Victoria Bower said it best: “Being an ally is not someone who says nothing and stays hidden while the oppressed continues to be oppressed. An ally is someone who is capable of speaking up when it’s not comfortable to YOU.”
She closes, “I am here for educated discussion and respectful conversation. I am here to work for more light to shine on this broken system.” And friends, I have no doubt that she will do this.
What might God’s Holy Spirit be doing among us today?
Maybe God is using this unique time to “infect us” with a spiritual agent which draws us together through increased respect, concern, and affection for each other. We can only hope. We can only go forth and act.
May we be amazed, astonished, and perplexed as God fills us with the Holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit: inspire us with courage, spark our creativity, and blow us into the transformed future for which God has been waiting and working all along. Amen.