Friday, June 5, 2020

"Dove, Breath, Fire" - Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020

Text: Acts 2:1-21

Here we are on another special day on the church calendar, figuring out how to do things virtually.  We had do-it-yourself palms and a kind of shelter-in-place palm procession on Palm Sunday.  We celebrated on Easter as best we could, and then Ziggy the dog punctuated the celebration by running in circles to the Hallelujah Chorus.  Here we are on Pentecost Sunday, and while we have not made that big a deal of it in past years, I see a lot of folks wearing red today.  Good for you!

The question may be, what is Pentecost, anyway, and why red, and what is the big deal?

For the Jews, Pentecost was a pilgrimage festival, one of three big pilgrimage festivals throughout the year.  There was Passover.  There was Sukkoth in the fall – known as the Feast of Tabernacles, a remembrance of God’s protection while Israel was in the wilderness.  And there was Shavuot, a festival connected with the barley harvest.  Shavuot commemorates Israel receiving the 10 commandments.  Greek speaking Jews called it Pentecost, which means 50th, as it comes 50 days after Passover.

Like the other pilgrimage festivals, this was an occasion when Jews dispersed throughout the world would come to Jerusalem.  In our reading, we heard many of the nations represented in Jerusalem who were there for the festival.

Do you remember what it was like to go on a big trip?  Back in the time BC?  The planning, the anticipation, the experience of being there?  I remember in my first year here in Ames traveling with my friend Bob Grizzard to Indianapolis for the NCAA Final Four.  There were tens of thousands of people there, people from everywhere.  For a basketball fan, it was a religious pilgrimage.

I remember so many American Baptist biennial meetings – traveling to Portland or Providence or Pasadena along with hordes of American Baptists from all around.

Whether it is for a meeting or convention or whether it is a trip to Disney World or maybe a reunion of some sort, we all know what it is like to travel to an event and arriving to crowds of people.  Travelers from many places, from many cultures, had come to Jerusalem to be there for Pentecost.  It was a motley collection of folks from all over the Mediterranean world.

Among those who were there were Jesus’ followers, waiting for the promised Holy Spirit.  And we read what happened: a mighty wind blew.  Tongues of fire descended.  The apostles began to speak to the crowd, and what was amazing was that everyone understood.  The Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak so that everyone could hear and understand in his or her own language.

The crowd was astonished.  “Aren’t these people speaking just a bunch of Galileans?” they asked.  There were hecklers who saw all that was happening and said, “Those Galileans have been hitting the bottle.  These people are drunk.”

Peter uses this as an opportunity to address the crowd, saying that “these people are not drunk; it’s only 9 in the morning, for heaven’s sake!”  The implication seemed to be that if it were later in the day, that might be a plausible argument. 

Peter said that what was happening was the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel - that God would pour out the Spirit on all flesh, on all people, men and women, young and old.  The apostles were given the boldness and power to speak, and this was the fulfillment of God’s promise, said Peter.  And the reason for God acting in such a dramatic way through the Holy Spirit was so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

There are several symbols commonly attached to the Holy Spirit.  Steve Garnaas-Holmes’ hymn that we just sang, Spirit of God, speaks of the Spirit as Dove, Wind, and Flame.  At Jesus’ baptism, a dove descends, a symbol of the Spirit and a sign of peace.  The Spirit brings us peace.

Then there is wind, or breath.  Wind, breath, and spirit are all the same word in Hebrew – ruach.  The breath of God hovered over the waters of creation.  God breathes life into all of humanity.  The wind of God blows where it wills.  The Spirit brings life.

And then another symbol is flame.  Tongues of fire descended, and this is where the red for Pentecost comes from.  Fire is a symbol of power.  And enthusiasm.  And boldness.  We talk about being fired up.

Maybe you can see the new banners on the wall behind me at the back of the chancel.  We have similar banners we have used, purple for Lent and green for ordinary time of the church year.  This is the first occasion to use the red banners.  You may look at the banner and see a dove, but if you look closer you can see fire and wind as well.

Those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost were a mix of people from all over the world.  They had a shared religion but they lived in different places, they spoke different languages, they had different cultural practices and understandings.  But they could all understand the apostles, and that diverse community was brought together by the power of the Spirit.

This has been a grim week.  I look at our world, and it is just crying out for an infusion of God’s Spirit.

This past week, our country recorded the 100,000th death from the coronavirus.  100,000 deaths that have touched untold numbers of people, affecting family members including some gathered here today.  The economic and social and mental health fallout from the crisis we are experiencing is enormous and will be with us for a long time.  And it is painful to see a public health crisis becoming divisive.

And then we were all horrified to see the video of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.  For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, an officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck as he lay on the ground, finally lifeless.  It was another awful reminder of the pervasive racism that still - still – plagues our country, like a virus that will not go away.

George Floyd’s last words were no doubt the same as some who have died of COVID-19: “I can’t breathe.”  And here we are this morning, thinking about breath.  Ruach.  God’s Spirit that gives life to us all.

There are those who can’t breathe because the foot of oppression is on their necks and there are those who can’t breathe without a ventilator.  Many of us are privileged to be able to breathe without fear and without a ventilator.  With that privilege comes responsibility.  The Spirit gives us strength and boldness and a heart of love to work for justice and peace and to care for neighbors who have trouble breathing.

It will take an outpouring of the Spirit to heal the racism that affects and infects all of us.  None of us are immune.  But just as at Pentecost, by the power of the Spirit, folks from diverse cultures and backgrounds and perspectives and ethnicities and races can live and breathe freely, together.

We need the Spirit’s peace.  But don’t misunderstand; peace is not simply the absence of conflict.  The prophet Jeremiah speaks of those “Who have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, Peace’ when there is no peace.”  Peace means justice and good will and respect and compassion and care for all people.  The pandemic we are in has exposed the depths of racial disparities in our nation.  People of color have lost their jobs disproportionately, and died from the virus disproportionately.

I was in a Zoom call with about 10 or 12 other ABC pastors last week.  One was the pastor of our newest church – Swahili Baptist Church in Des Moines.  The pastor had recovered from the virus.  A young man in his church, 34 years old, had died from it.  Also in the meeting was Pastor Benjamin from Carson Chin Baptist Church in Columbus Junction.  20 something members of his church, a church of people who had come here as refugees from Burma, had contracted the virus.  It was no coincidence that our immigrant churches had suffered more than others.

Peace involves praying for and working toward God’s shalom, God’s peace, for all of our brothers and sisters.         

This is a hard time.  There is so much emptiness around us.  Schools are empty.  Church buildings are empty, or nearly so.  Many businesses are empty, some closed permanently.  Bank accounts are empty.  Folks are stuck at home feeling isolated, disconnected, empty.  There are empty stomachs, empty hearts, and plenty of empty promises.  The reservoir of goodwill and cooperation, if not empty, is surely running low.  And in the midst of this emptiness we read:   

Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting… Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.
We need the Spirit to act in a mighty way and to fill the empty places in our lives and in our world. 

Alan Jones was for many years the dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  He said, “Only a fool would pray for the Holy Spirit…Only fools for Christ do.”  He suggests that the Spirit is most present at three open spaces in our lives: “in the unpredictable, in the place of risk, and in those areas over which we have no control.”

The unpredictable.
The place of risk.
Those areas over which we have no control.
I think we have a Bingo.

God’s Spirit can bring life and hope and power and grace in the least expected times and places, in those situations that may appear to us hopeless.  Those are exactly the kind of places where God loves to work.  The Spirit can move in such a time as we are in right now to bring transformation.

Like those gathered at Pentecost, we are a somewhat motley collection, gathered from different places.  We come with a variety of hopes and fears and joys and pains.  But we are united in our shared need and in God’s abundant and amazing grace.

For the emptiness we experience in our lives and for the vast emptiness we see and experience in our world, we pray: Come Spirit, come.  Amen.

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