God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.
Chaos and excitement.
The birth of the church.
Through the years, Pentecost worship services sought to capture the excitement of the day.
Red paraments. Red stoles. Red clothes.
One year each person at worship received a roll of crepe paper—red, yellow or orange. At the appropriate moment, they tossed their roll into the air creating a cascade of fire colors.
Another year we stationed large fans in the sanctuary corners. Turned on when the scripture reading mentioned wind. Some ideas work better than others.
Worshipers were given homemade pompoms with the instructions to wave them whenever the preacher said, “Holy Spirit.” Pinwheels played the same role one year.
A djembe drummer began a slow, soft cadence at the beginning of the scripture reading. The drumming increased in volume and became wildly uninhibited as the story continued reaching a climax when the crowd said in the followers of Jesus were drunk.
Every Pentecost service differed slightly from every other. Every Pentecost service contained similar themes.
Today’s Pentecost service is the most different Pentecost service I have experienced. But those themes remain.
The Greek word “pneuma” that is used in the Pentecost story is related to the Hebrew word “ruah”. In each language, the word is closely linked to wind, spirit, and breath.[i]
Let’s think in terms of breath today.
Breath keeps us alive. Indeed, it gives us life. According to the account of creation found in Genesis 2, God formed the human creature from the dust of the ground. And then God breathed life into the creature.[ii]
Breath gives life. Sustains life. Provides life. It is a reflex process, one of our most natural abilities.[iii] Until it is not. The age of COVID-19 has taught us that.
As the Rev. Angela Denker of Minneapolis notes, “People who die of Covid often die because they can’t breathe, the virus engulfing their lungs and suffocating them. Sometimes a machine breathes for them, for long enough that their lungs can heal and gather strength again.”[iv]
When we go out, we wear masks. They provide a measure of protection to the people we meet in the event we have coronavirus either with or without symptoms. They also offer a smaller measure of protection to us, the person wearing the mask.[v] As we breathe in and even more so as we breathe out, the mask reduces the number of air droplets that may contain germs.
Last Monday we received another startling, sobering reminder of the importance of breath.
“I can’t breathe.”
The Washington Post reports that “On May 25, Minneapolis resident George Floyd was pinned facedown on the ground, in handcuffs, by a white police officer who pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. He was unresponsive when paramedics arrived, and he was pronounced dead later.”[vi]
Under that knee, bearing the full weight of white supremacy culture, racism, and prejudice George Floyd died. Among his final words, “I can’t breathe.” The same words uttered by Eric Garner, who died in a chokehold on Staten Island almost six years ago in an encounter that was also captured on video.[vii]
The racism that claimed the lives of George Floyd and Eric Garner; the racism that that threatened the life of Christian Cooper in the Bramble and claimed the lives of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia and Tony McDade in Tallahassee and so many other black and brown people in so many places; that racism has been present in this country since its beginning. Racism has always contaminated the air we breathe. Writing from Minneapolis a few days ago, Angela Denker notes that we cannot ignore the “death in the air any longer. It burns bright orange.”[viii]
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, people took to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd. In Louisville, people took to the streets to protest the killing of Breonna Taylor. In New York and cities across the country, people took to the streets to stand in solidarity, to protest other killings, and to protest the existing impacts of racism on black people and people of color. Those impacts are seen in who is imprisoned; who has more wealth; who has better jobs. Efforts to make it more difficult to vote appear to focus on black people and other people of color.[ix] Racism appears in the age of COVID-19. Blacks and Latinx/Hispanics die in disproportionate numbers of the disease. People who continue to work during the pandemic, often in less safe conditions, are black and brown. “African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer,” states Kareem Abdul-Jabar.[x]
This underlying reality, when combined with over acts of violence, leads people to protest. Most protest is peaceful. Some is not. Some is met with overt violence by police. Sometimes agent provocateurs incite and commit violence to discredit the legitimate protest or for other reasons.[xi] Sometimes all that happens at the same time. And sometimes it leads to fire. In Minneapolis. Louisville. New York. Philadelphia.
Angry fire, purifying fire, destructive fire. Different, on first glance, from the holy fire that brought understanding and unification on Pentecost. Yet the hope remains that God, who raised Jesus from the dead, can take flames of death and transform fire into new life and hope for the future. Phoenix-like, from the flames and ash, by God’s grace, new life may emerge.[xii] God does new things. We have witnessed resurrection before. We will witness God’s marvelous acts again.
Jesus commissions his followers to be witnesses.[xiii] To bear witness to what God has done, is doing, and will do in Jesus Christ.
Witness, Dr. Eric Barreto of Princeton Seminary, reminds us is not just about our words or even our tweets.[xiv] Dr. Barreto notes that the kind of witness Jesus calls for involves seeing and listening. Witness trusts the testimony of people who have been oppressed, even when there is no video to view. Witness believes people who have been harmed.[xv]
Witness holds the hand and looks into the eyes of someone who is dying, not as a spectator, but as people whose lives are intertwined. Witness also leads us to stand with people who are oppressed.
Witness marches on the streets. Votes with love. And advocates with those who are elected.
As followers of Jesus, we bear witness to an innocent man crucified by the empire. It seems important this week to remember that crucifixion killed by putting the weight of the body on the person’s chest so that the person … Jesus … could not breathe.[xvi]
After the wind. After the fire. The followers of Jesus witnessed. They told the crowd in Jerusalem what they had seen and heard and learned with Jesus. Luke included that long list of peoples and places in this passage for a reason. And it was not to make life difficult for Eric or whoever reads the lesson aloud. It to say that the Holy Spirit is for all the world. For everyone. As Dr. Shively Smith of the Boston University School of Theology, puts it: on Pentecost all “nations heard the gospel preached in all the many languages that … reflect the glory of the God who created and sustains them all.[xvii]
Pentecost reminds us that the God who created the world inhabits the breath and speech of all our siblings throughout the entire earth. God creates a wondrous diversity in the human family. God revels in that diversity. God is present in that diversity. And God is present when diverse people who love and care for each other.
Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit … God’s breath and fire … that reminds us that it is only together with all people that we truly express the image of God. We receive inspiration to witness to that image in our words and in our actions.
If Pentecost reminds us of God’s love for diversity and the value of all people then on Pentecost and every day after, followers of Jesus must denounce racism and white supremacy culture and the actions that it empowers. We must listen and learn. And then witness in word and deed to a different world, a world where all are welcome, loved, and cherished. And when we have done that, we must do so again. And again. And again.
The effort to disrupt racism and white supremacy culture and dismantle systems of oppression is not something we do once and check off a box. It is a calling for a lifetime. It is our calling. For that calling, God gives us the Holy Spirit with its many gifts. Touched by the Holy Spirit, we can be persistent, resilient, and adaptive.
This day, and every day.
In the face of systemic evil, the Holy Spirit empowers us to follow Jesus and work to build a different world. I know I will make mistakes in that work. I will fall short. But I know that each time I fall I can pick myself up again, certain that God will have the final word and it will be a word of grace.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
[ii] Genesis 2:7
[xiii] See Acts1:8