May 31, 2020
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And 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 a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’ But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
When we gather virtually each week, my favorite part of the service is the prayers of the people. I love reading your Facebook comment prayers, watching my phone lighting up with texts, asking Eric to open the phone lines, all these ways of hearing from you. It is a gift each week to lift up to God in prayer those people who are on your hearts, giving thanks alongside of you, offering you a blessing, witnessing your care for our world. During my week, I get to call some of you, admittedly fewer than I wish I could, and we get to talk. When I’m able to volunteer with the Assistance Center of Towson Churches and the Interfaith COVID Taskforce’s Farm to Stoop Project, I am strengthened by hearing your voices, seeing you in person. In between your words, that’s where I encounter the Holy Spirit most often. In your stories, in your thoughts about the world, in the midst of your lives, for me, that’s my weekly Pentecost. Among your voices, the voices of our community partners, in conversations with those acting for justice and wholeness and love in our world, that’s where I hear tell of the mighty acts of God. Which is why it has been so hard for me this week to be apart from you all. The injustices of our world are in stark relief around us. This is when I need to hear of the mighty acts of God at work in our world, like that crowd did in Jerusalem during the festival of Pentecost. This is one of those weeks where I need to hear witness of Jesus making all things new.
The Early Church has experienced so much by the time we get to the story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts, the Sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Jesus’ friends have been gathered, learned from their Rabbi, and watched as Jesus is arrested and Murdered at the hands of the Roman Empire. And yet, somehow, the story continues with his Resurrection, and ascension to Heaven. Now it’s their turn, this ragtag group of fishers, tradeswomen, farmers, redeemed tax collectors, young religious scholars and so many. There aren’t orators in this community, and yet Jesus has sent them to share Good News with people who are oppressed, afraid, in the shadow of the boots of Rome. How on earth were they going to put their faith in God into words? And which human words? What language should they speak in? Ancient Palestine had so many languages flowing and bubbling through its streets, Aramaic, Koine Greek, some small pockets of Hebrew, languages as many as there were Jewish communities spread through the world in the Diaspora, plus the languages of traders and their Roman occupiers.
When the Holy Spirit is poured out on the Apostles, they start to speak. This week I came across an insight from a colleague in St. Louis, Rev. Erin Counihan
who works with our friend, the Rev. Max Hill, who was a student pastor here a few summers ago. Erin is a pastor and activist in St. Louis, and she shared that this year, she noticed that the Holy Spirit doesn’t empower the Apostles to speak the Gospel at Pentecost. Not at first. No, with the crowd of folks gathered, separated by so much, hear about what it is God has done, to intervene in our very human experiences. They hear that God heard the cry of the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt, and with a mighty hand, led them out of oppression, destroying Pharaoh’s army, looting leading the Hebrews to loot some of Egypt’s wealth as they left. They hear of The Holy one’s acts for Justice in the world, acts that overthrow the powers that diminish human life, and try to make themselves God. Instead, God gets involved, and the people are invited to be a part of a new world breaking forth. These are terrifying acts, mighty actions that change the course of human events.
We are in the midst of some mighty acts of God these days. Unsettling, upending, challenges to the systems that attempt to dehumanize, silence, and kill the Beloved Children of God in our midst. White Supremacy and State Sanctioned Police Violence have struck yet again with the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. We have seen reporters arrested live on television, heard of a photographer blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet, here in Baltimore City witnessed the police clumsily escalate confrontations with peaceful protestors by overreacting with riot gear clad officers. And yet, there seems to be a response that is bubbling up that I don’t know how to categorize apart from naming as mighty acts of God. This week saw Lt. Peter Heron a Baltimore Police Officer read out the names of those murdered by police, as he took part in the litany with protestors. The New York Times shared the story of Ruhel Islam, owner of the Gandhi Mahal Restaurant in Minneapolis. His 18-year-old daughter was angry at first, at the loss of his father’s source of income. But then she heard him speaking to a friend on the phone, “Let my building burn,” he said. “Justice needs to be served.” “We can rebuild a building, but we cannot rebuild a human,” said Mr. Islam. “The community is still here, and we can work together to rebuild. “I am going to continuously promote peaceful ways and nonviolent movement,” he said. “But our younger generation is angry, and there’s reason to be angry.” Going even further, the Islam family helped medics set up a makeshift field hospital, providing space for protestors to catch their breath after inhaling tear gas, providing treatment for a man whose neck was torn open by a rubber bullet.
“We were just trying to do what we could to help our community,” said Ms. Islam, who helped treat wounded protesters. “Sure, we had our business. Sure, we were trying to keep our kitchen open. But more than anything, we were concerned for our people.”
There has been an ability for people to hear, in their own heart languages, of the oppression and fear of state-sanctioned lynching of our Black neighbors, family members, friends and colleagues fear every day. Now, it’s not enough, not nearly enough. We’re still in the midst of the push, in the midst of the reckoning. White Supremacy is Sin, is counter to God’s will, and it is not easily rooted out. But I have been amazed to see white people, some even in power, are able to hear the truth, are recognizing that God has heard the cries of Black People, and that it’s time for us to be part of the change our world needs.
I don’t have answers for the way forward. I don’t want to minimize the pain, the fear, the exhaustion of the Black people I love, the confusion so many are feeling. But I am hearing something new in the air; different ways of speaking the mighty acts of the Holy One in our midst, and the responses of people with Power, white people in police departments in some parts of this country, sharing that something has to change, that they need to change. When the Consent Decree went into effect with Baltimore City’s police force, and when Philadelphia’s police force similarly was reformed, statements were developed, that sound very theological. These statements are Titled “On the Sanctity of Human Life.” They are set as core values of police departments, and as core values, every practice, training exercise, technique must adhere to the sanctity of human life. Yesterday I sent a tweet, and an email to the Baltimore County police departments public relations office. I expected to hear back on Tuesday of next week. Last night at 7:15 PM I received a call from the department cell phone of a police colonel. He shared that, while the value of human life is implicit in the County’s policies, he shared my concern that it should be made explicit, and that the process of doing so would be important for our police department. He shared that he would mention our conversation to our Police Chief, Melissa R. Hyatt. I ended the phone call a little quicker than I expected to, because I was in shock. I expected to hear something about the long process, some whiff of the blue wall that often surrounds police departments. None of that emerged. It’s not the end of the story, but it’s a spark of God being up to something, that wouldn’t be possible if so many weren’t lifting their voices in protest.
Beloved, the Holy Spirit is on the move. The barriers that White Supremacy builds to keep us separate, the walls that the American Empire tries to build, the Holy Spirit can break them down, and speak across them through languages that speak to human hearts. God is acting. When people of color and Black citizens say over and over again that the racist systems embedded in policing must change, when the health inequalities that COVID-19 has brought into stark contrast are so clear, it is a miracle that God is at work, and people hearing of the power of the Lord across boundaries. I don’t know what the Good News will be that emerges, what Jesus is going to do next. I know that the Racism that this country was founded on is Sin, and that it has permeated so much of our lives, but I also know that the Spirit can make all things new. I know that Jesus is with those crying out that they can’t breathe. Jesus is with those lynched by the State, those terrorized by White Supremacy. Jesus is with people of color who have the police called on them for just living, who have to try and make themselves acceptable to people who seek their harm, just so they can live. The cries of the oppressed are heard by God, and God is acting. May we have the courage to hear those telling of the mighty acts of God, and not Scoff, not to write them off. May we be opened to being called into the Gospel Community of the Disciples, of the Apostles, of walking the Way with Jesus. May we listen for the Holy Spirit’s rustling, looking for the flickers of Her flames above the faces of one another.