Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

Breath, Fire, Witness

101362404_10157797057209440_9130668230082297856_nPentecost.

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.

Breath.

Fire.

Witness.

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]

Fire.

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.

Witness.

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.

[i] https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/pentecost

[ii] Genesis 2:7

[iii] Dr. Kimberly D. Russaw, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible, Christian Theological Seminary, https://churchanew.org/blog/2020/05/29/various

[iv] Rev. Angela Denker, Minnesota Pastor and Veteran Journalist, https://churchanew.org/blog/2020/05/29/various

[v] https://healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2020/03/coronavirus-face-masks.php

[vi] https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/05/30/video-timeline-george-floyd-death/?arc404=true

[vii] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/14/nyregion/eric-garner-police-chokehold-staten-island.html

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] https://www.aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/block-the-vote-voter-suppression-in-2020/

[x] https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-05-30/dont-understand-the-protests-what-youre-seeing-is-people-pushed-to-the-edge

[xi] https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/pkyb9b/far-right-extremists-are-hoping-to-turn-the-george-floyd-protests-into-a-new-civil-war

[xii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_(mythology)

[xiii] See Acts1:8

[xiv] Dr. Eric Barreto, Associate Professor of New Testament, Princeton Theological Seminary, https://churchanew.org/blog/2020/05/29/various

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2004/apr/08/thisweekssciencequestions#maincontent

[xvii] Dr. Shively T. J. Smith, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Boston University School of Theology, https://churchanew.org/blog/2020/05/29/various

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Persistent. Resilient. Adaptive.

98350027_2933499853406610_1310349137090183168_oActs 1:1-11
May 24, 2020
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig
(Image by the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow)

Whatever else they were, the early followers of Jesus were a persistent, resilient, adaptive group of people.

Yes, they failed to understand what Jesus taught them. They made mistakes. They fell short. Often. At the end, Judas betrayed Jesus. The other men fled when he was arrested.

Then there was Peter. No follower demonstrates their shortcomings as clearly as Peter.

When Jesus taught his disciples that he would suffer and die, Peter “took Jesus aside” and objected to the teaching. This may have been a set-up. Because the gospel says that when Jesus replied, he looked first at his disciples and then rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan.”[i]  I don’t know about you, but I would have something of a problem following someone who called me Satan. Peter hung with Jesus.

John’s Gospel tells us that there was something of an awkward moment when Jesus went to wash the disciples’ feet at the meal we call the Last Supper. Peter said no. Jesus explained why. Peter said wash my hands and head too. Jesus explained why not. Twice in one conversation, Peter got it wrong.[ii]

He did so again when Jesus talked about his coming death. “I’ll lay down my life for you,” Peter said. Jesus answered, “before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”[iii] After Jesus’ arrest, Peter did exactly as Jesus predicted.

At the arrest of Jesus, A disciples took out a sword and started hacking away. All three gospels include this story. John names the disciple. Peter. A noble gesture to protect Jesus. But misguided. “Put away the sword,” the nonviolent Jesus said.[iv]

But, for all the times that Peter fell short, and for all the times that the others fell short, I still say those first disciples were persistent, resilient, and adaptive.

Consider all they went through as they followed Jesus.

They left their families behind. Not always easy to do.

They left their homes and employment. I do not know how much a fisherperson earned in the time of Jesus, but it had to be more than one could earn following an itinerant preacher and teacher with no place to lay his head.[v]

Jesus expanded their understanding of who God loved. To the Jewish people, Jesus added: Samaritans, Gentiles, Romans, Syrophoenicians, women, children, people with illnesses that normally put them outside the community, and everyone. Each act of kindness and healing and welcome on the part of Jesus meant his followers had to draw love’s circle wider and wider until it disappeared, and they realized that each person is a beloved child of God.

The length of Jesus’ ministry is not precisely known. Many scholars suggest between 3 and 3.5 years.[vi] Others think it was shorter. However long, his disciples spent most of that time with Jesus.

Then  came the arrest and crucifixion. And Jesus was gone. His disciples left alone. They struggled with what to do.

Three days later, the resurrected Jesus appeared to them again. After some confusion, they rejoiced.

Then came the Ascension. The return of Jesus to heaven. The events described in today’s passage. As did many of the people of the day, his disciples still had political expectations of him. They still thought he would establish an earthly kingdom, so they asked if he would do that now. Jesus responded that that was not for them to know. God controls the time.[vii]

Jesus then promised the Holy Spirit.[viii] I invite you to join us next Sunday at the same Zoom time and the same Zoom channel to learn, or hear again, what became of that promise.

For now, consider all the disciples experienced.

They left much behind to follow Jesus.

Life on the road.

Prejudice breaking, mind expanding teachings.

Jesus with them.

Jesus arrested and put to death in a state-sanctioned execution. Not with them.

Jesus resurrected. With them.

Jesus ascended. Not with them.

They lived a whirlwind life following Jesus. And for the record it that whirlwind would continue as they continued to follow.

Through it all, they were persistent, resilient, and adaptive. Persistent. They stayed the course. Resilient. They recovered from difficult events kept on going. Adaptive. They changed again and again and again.

Persistent. Resilient. Adaptive. These are not named in the Bible as either the fruits or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I believe they are both. Because without them, the movement that started with those first followers of Jesus could never have grown to be the church that it is today.

This weekend, one of the conversations in our nation has been about opening churches and other house of worship. But to talk about opening churches is to address the wrong question.

Buildings played, play, and will play an important role in the life of the church through the ages. But the Church is the people—people who have committed to follow Jesus and covenanted to do so together.

I was confirmed as a member and ordained as a minister of the Word and Sacrament inside the physical facility known as East Main Presbyterian Church in Grove City, Pennsylvania. But that building has undergone many renovations and additions, as I noticed when I returned three years ago for my mother’s memorial service.

As it is and as I remember it, it holds a warm spot in my heart. But far warmer are the spots filled with people – Rev. Gordon Boak, Rev. Jack Dunlap, Nancy Paxton, Polly Beech, Becky May, the list goes on and on. Because the Church … the Church is the people. People who have committed to follow Jesus Christ and who have covenanted to follow together.

A church is not closed because the doors to its building are temporarily shut.

A church is not closed because the people have made the difficult choice to provide sacred distance and care for its members and community—particularly the most vulnerable people in its community—by not meeting in person for a season.

A church only closes when its people fail to love. Only closes when its people stop proclaiming the word. Only closes when its people no longer reach out to one another and the community and the world.

Churches have not closed. The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has not closed. We do not need to open or even reopen the church because we never closed the church. We and many others closed church buildings. And when the time is right and the risk can be minimized, we and congregations and mosques and synagogues and other houses of worship will return to our buildings.

Until then, we will be persistent. Resilient. Adaptive. The first followers of Jesus did this. And the Church of Jesus Christ has done this since the day of Pentecost. Teaser alert: tune in next week, same Zoom time, same Zoom channel to learn more about that day.

The Roman Christians of the third century who from time to time worshiped underground in the catacombs would be stunned to take part in a Zoom worship service.[ix] But after a while, and after they learned English, they would figure out that gathered around devices the likes of which they never imagined, we are worshiping Jesus.

Despite all the movies I have watched, I really have no idea what it would have been like to worship in a massive cathedral during the middle ages. I have no desire to invent a time machine and go back and find out. I do not want to study Latin for one thing. But if I did, I would learn what to do and see the connections.

Persistent. Resilient. Adaptive. That is the story of the Church. That is the story of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone.

Presbyterians have gathered for almost 149 years on the corner of 15th and 149th. The building has changed over the years. I first saw our building about 10 years ago. Fellman Hall and the lift were not there. Programs changed over the years. But the essence of the Church has remained the same. The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has always consisted and consists today of followers of Jesus Christ who have proclaimed the Good News of God’s grace and witnessed to the love of God in Jesus Christ.

After almost 149 years, we worship on Zoom Church.

We share the Lord’s Supper.

We sing. That is a challenge for us and for everyone using Zoom, but we have figured out a way to make it work.

We pray for each other and for needs in God’s world.

When one hurts, we all hurt. When one rejoices, we all give thanks to God.

We celebrate birthdays.

We study.

We have learned a new way to reach out to neighbors who hunger.

We have received the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering to support caring ministries in our nation and around the world.

We have trained officers. We will ordain and install them next Sunday.

The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone is open, serving God, and following Jesus.

We are Christ’s Church:

Persistent.

Resilient.

Adaptive.

And one last time, I invite you to join us next week at the same Zoom time, the same Zoom channel to hear about the Holy Spirit who gives us those gifts. Amen.

[i] Mark 8:31-33

[ii] John 13:1-17

[iii] John 13:36-38

[iv] John 18:11

[v] Luke 9:58

[vi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ministry_of_Jesus

[vii] Acts 1:6-7

[viii] Acts 1:8

[ix] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/catacombs.html

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Lent 2017, day 15

“Our job is to [paraclete] comfort, console, and advocate, as God has given us a [paraclete] Comforter to comfort, a Consoler to console, and an Advocate to advocate. The use of this Greek term may be a theological reminder that the trinity works on our behalf, while also working on us, to bring about God’s desired unity.”
Jerrod B.Lowry
Lenten Reflections on the Confession of Belhar

It is interesting to ponder the Holy Spirt – the paraclete – as a verb. We are given the Holy Spirit to care for us. We are also given the Holy Spirit to live as the Holy Spirit – to shape our behavior.

This Lenten season I am using a new resource to explore the Belhar Confession: Lenten Reflections on the Confession of Belhar, edited by Kerri N. Allen and Donald K. McKim. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in which I serve as a teaching elder (pastor), added the Confession of Belhar to our Book of Confessions in 2016. This confession came from the Dutch Reformed Mission Church during its historic struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

See you along the Trail.

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Embracing the Other: Podcast “Love in a Dangerous Time”

My friend Grace Ji-Sun Kim explores the themes of her book, Embracing the Other, in a podcast with Russ Jennings of “Love in a Dangerous Time“

Grace Ji-Sun Kim

Kim_Embracing the Other_cov_9780802872999This is my new Podcast Interview about my new book, “Embracing the Other“. 

It is for Russ Jennings’ Podcast, “Love in a Dangerous Time“. Please listen to all the other interesting podcasts on Jennings’ site.

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New Book: Embracing the Other

My friend Grace Ji-Sun Kim has a new book, Embracing the Other. I look forward to reading her reflections on how the Holy Spirit inspires and sustains us to work toward healing, reconciliation, and justice among all people, regardless of race or gender.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim

Kim_Embracing the Other_cov_9780802872999Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love will be released this Fall 2015 by Eerdmans.

 It is book for the Prophetic Christianity Series.  Co-editors Peter Goodwin Heltzel, Bruce Ellis Benson, Malinda Elizabeth Berry.

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