May 31, 2020
The Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, Addressing Today’s Toxicity
Based on Acts 2:1-21 and John 20:19-23
It would be best to read the above appointed lessons before reading below.
Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, when The Spirit of Truth and Power of Forgiveness promised by Jesus came to his followers. We Lutherans have not given it a whole lot of attention. Oh, we rev up some excitement. We wear red. We speak in known languages. We roll out our most tear-jerking Lutheran tunes. Now we even wave some streamers.
Yeah. So it’s Pentecost. Truth told, we’re not that into celebrating it, partly because of reserved Lutheran disposition. But these days, given just too much pain and grief, especially after this last week, who wants to celebrate Pentecost amid a pandemic? How could that even be respectfully done? Who brings party balloons to forbidden funerals, the vast majority of which could have been avoided?
We are in the thick of a pandemic whose dominant political presiders evidently were never boy scouts, a pandemic which has revealed awful truths about the way we really are. Pentecost today comes after a week when this nation passed the threshold of one hundred thousand plus last breaths; when the even worse virus of racism rampaged from Central Park to the nation’s streets; when our breaths were caught having learned about Ahmad Arbery’s last jogging breath; when we learned so long after the fact again about Breonna Taylor; and when local Third Ward raised George Floyd cried his last breath under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman; that city, by the way, which for us used to be known as where “Lutherans are densest” now having suffered so much unholy fire. This was a week when the Covid epidemic revealed again how racism colludes with poverty and privilege to seep into the very soul of our nation, ineluctably staining us with a blood that is not the red of Pentecost.
The people of God cry with horror at what we now see of four centuries packed into one week. As a white man, it would be a criminal understatement for me to say that “I’m uncomfortable” in this moment. I’m uncomfortable often. But my discomfort and privileged white discomfort are in no measure like that of my black and brown brothers and sisters. Their inculcated fear, in Howard Thurman’s words, is like that of a trembling rabbit whose options are unequal to the monstrous force that will soon kill it. That’s what centuries of racism have done. That’s what prayer on knees more recently in stadiums and churches tried to get the knees of violence to understand.
So, yeah. Who wants to celebrate this birthday? Birthdays are celebrations for privileged people. Deeper down, they are the message moments that the birthday person counts. Knowing, but never acknowledging, confessing, and owning who we have been as undeserving, we want to be treated nice. We want to be consoled. But do you know what God wants? Conversion. And when God gets what God wants in conversion, God gives too the consolation that will never dissolve, will never go fickle, even in the infestation of inhumanity around us. Just as human individuals cannot be saved by what is in them, so also people gathered together, no matter how noble their purpose, cannot be healed and healing by what is in them. The centuries prove the point.
So God gives Pentecost! God gives the fire of the Spirit that converts individuals and people together from inside-out. This is not an abstraction. It is as personal as it can get. Having been born to and among us, it was not enough that God became human in Jesus. For even though he taught and healed, as another human we kept him at our side and quite literally at our disposal. When Jesus’ breath was stopped by our knee of inhumanity, God then raised him from death so to tell us to stop the violence and to live by grace. Thereby in the raised Christ God is eternally for us when we know compassion, though against us when we forget.
Still that was not quite enough. So it is that with Pentecost God in Christ comes as Spirit into our very human-being. Now inside us personally and communally, God’s Holy Spirit impels and equips people to do what we on our own could never do before: which is to be converted to compassion, and thereby to be consoled. If we come to church wanting consolation without conversion, we will receive neither. And surely without our conversion, which means daily remembering our baptism, black and brown sisters and brothers will not know consolation. Stifle and deny God’s Spirit in you at your peril, because that puts your neighbor in peril. Receive and depend upon the Spirit’s breath, then all see the positive signs and portents of the reign of God!
What does God say how God’s reign looks? It looks like the society where Black lives matter. It look likes the place where when you say certain lives matter that you recognize it is not about you and it does not negate you; that it accents those whose lives are under the boot and knee and thereby also values your lives; for where when one suffers, we all suffer; and where a whole people suffers we all lament and cry out and rage with love. God’s reign looks like that place where all hear—not just say—that each of you and every body bears the image of God and can again dream dreams and have visions. God’s reign looks like the deep breath of hope-filled life you finally take when you look closely, prayerfully, into the fire of the Holy Spirit and see that she wears a rainbow robe.
God’s reign is where and when Pentecost is the pandemic. The Holy Spirit wills us to bring positivity to the word “pandemic.” After all, it is a neutral term. It simply means “all people.” Something that affects all people is “pandemic.” It need not be a plague. It can be a party; a birthday party that starts when the collective soul so long steeped in white supremacy is cleansed from inside out by the Spirit who God gives and to whom we can and must turn with trust. To turn there is our conversion and our consolation. Because to turn there in conversion will be the consolation of all lives together.
A Pentecost Pandemic doesn’t have to be “churchy.” It starts with a caring curiosity that forces us into new understanding that further gives us right speech and right hearing, the real miracle of Pentecost. Who are the people to whom the Spirit has newly bound me? Who are you? Tell me your story! Our positive curiosity in the neighbor gives us the capacity for lament, too, so needed today. Small windows into peoples’ souls are enough for much new prayer, for praise and healing grief!
Consider last Sunday’s front page of the New York Times; one thousand honor phrases of twenty words max that crack open dreams and visions for a healed world. “Donald Raymond Haws, 88, Jacksonville, Fla., administered Holy Eucharist to hospital patients…Alan Merrill, 69, New York City, songwriter of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”…Mary Lou Armer, 43, Sonoma Valley, Calif., veteran police detective…Jesus Roman Melendez, 49, New York, famous in family circles for his birria beef stew.” Those are but four prayer moments of a hundred thousand plus; examples with whom real Christians driven by the Spirit can do healing and reconciling work.
Here is what we are appointed today to do. We are to renew a pandemic of Pentecost. Whatever we do individually contributes to what the church is literally in-spired and charged to do. The risen Jesus breathed a breath that will never be lost. He breathed it to the first followers in whose company we are to be the first responders with whatever it takes to bring forgiveness—nothing less than a full healing—to a hate-weary world. When we live from Christ’s Spirit, healing forgiveness pours out on all flesh. When we don’t, the world looks like last week. God is campaigning for a Pentecost Pandemic. And, thanks be to God, we have time. For it is only nine o’ clock in the morning!
Christ the King Lutheran Church, Houston, TX May 31, 2020