May 31, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, May 31, 2020 in Easter, Pentecost, Sermons

The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday

May 31, 2020

“This shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America.” Words of former President Barack Obama on the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody. “It can’t be ‘normal.’ If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.” His statement Friday came as protests erupted across our country. This is hardly the first time such a thing has made national news, and tragically not even the only act of violent racism this month. Yes, as Obama says, it falls to Minnesota leaders to “ensure Floyd’s death is fully investigated, and that justice is ultimately done. But it falls on all of us, regardless of our race or station—including the majority of men and women in law enforcement who take pride in doing their tough job the right way, every day—to work together to create a ‘new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts.”

I pray that this man’s death and subsequent protests occurring across our country, can be heard alongside of this Day of Pentecost. A day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and how it meant people miraculously could understand each other, beyond barriers of language and origin and culture. How is it we have gone backwards in our ability to hear each other, understand each other, acknowledge the presence of God’s Spirit resting upon each other? How has doing the right thing become so difficult or fearful?

I think of that small group of Jesus’ followers gathered on Pentecost, knowing awaiting something he had promised, and which they did not yet understand—and it does not come quietly or subtly. “Violent winds”, “divided tongues of fire”, speaking all at once in languages they’d never learned or spoken. It must have been terrifying and thrilling and bewildering all at once. In contrast John’s gospel tells us of the quiet evening on the first day of the week after the resurrection, how Jesus comes and says “Peace be with you.” He shows them his wounds and then breathes on them, giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit. It comes with the enormous responsibility to forgive sins, and what will be when they do not forgive. While both scenes are about the followers receiving the Spirit, the earlier night with the risen Lord seems more about his giving it to them, blessing them with it, charging them with what it means. The event in the Acts of the Apostles occurs after Jesus’ ascension (which we honored last Sunday) is when I think Jesus’ followers, Apostles now, fully receive the remarkable gift. Quietly given, uproariously received — then, with no premeditation, the wild gift is immediately poured out on those  all around them.

My understanding of Pentecost has always centered on receiving the power the Spirit and it empowering them to share the good news of God revealed in Christ. Of their ability to harness the Spirit’s power to do what Jesus sent them to do. Living with these readings this week I saw a different emphasis coming out of Pentecost, as the escalation of racism becomes a worse ‘pandemic’ than the coronavirus. In this context the Holy Spirit shines through her power to transcend our differences, to give us that power to transcend all kinds of ways we judge, categorize, declare ‘others’ as ‘different’ — and by that we often mean lessor.

In the crowd that day were Jews from all over the area, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Africans, Asians and more, and somehow they heard and understood words in languages not their own. The violent wind did not drive them away, rather more people gathered to hear what was happening. The Spirit received, transcended all those differences to empower them to accomplish what the good news of God in Christ was all about.

Can you imagine this happening to you? One person, not unlike any one of us, was ignited by the Spirit’s power  that day, and found himself transformed; Peter becomes almost unrecognizable in his spontaneous and “holy boldness.” A term used by Professor of Homiletics Debra Mumford.* She asks, “Who is this man who addresses a crowd of thousands and demands to be heard? Who is this man who does not simply make a speech but preaches a sermon?” She asks, “Who is this man who so skillfully crafts his message using a progressive rhetorical strategy: He first calls his hearers Israelites, then fellow Israelites, then brothers. Is this Simon Peter?” During Holy Week we heard of Peter as one who could not stay awake an hour with him, Peter who repeatedly denied even knowing Jesus,  saying, “I do not know what you are talking about” and “I do not know the man.” Peter also wept bitterly as he realized what he had done. Before Jesus’ death Peter is one who questions often and also recognizes Jesus. He asks, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” And “How often should I forgive, as many as seven times?” “Is this parable for us disciples or for everybody?” He is never said to preach in the gospels, nor do we hear he knows the scriptures. Yet when Jesus asks who they all think he is, it is Peter who answers, “the Messiah of God.” Just when we think he’s got it, he turns around and rebukes Jesus for telling them what will happen.

Peter’s ‘holy boldness’ is inspires us too on Pentecost, as he preaches his first public sermon in front of thousands of people. He tells them about Jesus, he testifies to the truth he knows, deep down. This is the Spirit working in him and through him, working so powerfully that some 3000 people became believers and were baptized that day after hearing him. He moved from denying Jesus to preaching his promises, his resurrection. When you or I cannot imagine being so bold as to share our faith with someone or to courageously and publicly reach beyond differences, remember Peter, and that in the Spirit’s power, we too have ‘holy boldness.’

As protesters are interviewed, I know they’re right to be angry, disheartened, fearful, frustrated. Like any of us, including the majority of men and women in police work, they want to stand up for what they know is right and true, what they believe in. I don’t mean those perpetuating violence, but those calling for us to hear the message in a language which might not be our own. Most are peaceful in their protest, crying out for people to see one humanity instead of only differences, to transcend bias and cruelty, and instead share in holy boldness together, as the beloved children of God we all are created to be. One man said the intense fear he feels as peaceful protests turned to burning riots might be a small taste of the daily fear his friend has for the safety of his teenage kids, navigating in a world which can be so dangerous or hostile because of the color of their skin. God’s Spirit to actively proclaim Christ’s gospel of love amidst such turmoil is for both of them, and for each of us.

You too are like Peter who received the Holy Spirit with his brothers and sisters in Christ. Like him we each receive it in the way which gives us a voice to be heard. Today Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Some receive the utterance of wisdom, to another the utterance of knowledge, or faith, gifts of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, discernment, of speaking holy truth, or of interpreting it, and more. Our gifts can be so familiar to us that we cease to recognize them. If that’s you, ask someone; what spiritual gifts they see in you? (Then listen, instead of arguing.)

As we renew our baptisms today and share in splashing the waters recalling the Holy Spirit, we open ourselves to a holy boldness the Spirit ignites in us. Look around in wonder at what can happen when that Spirit inspires us, is alive in us; divisiveness is transcended, cruelty and judgement wane, we respond from love not suspicion. Imagine the wonders this Body of Christ could bring about if every morning as we splash our faces, we remembered that the Spirit moves through water, and with that splash we choose to renew our decision to live our baptisms – daily. How different would our workplaces, neighborhoods, communities, —the world be? Speaking up and standing up for the values of Christ’s gospel, being bringers of faith, breachers of chasms, speakers of truth, and witnesses to God’s grace — there is no limit.

O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.
Bless the Lord, O my soul. Hallelujah! Psalm 104:25,31,37

*I am most appreciative of insights from Debra Mumford, Professor of Homiletics at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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