“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing before you O Lord for you are our Rock and our Redeemer.”
I pray this prayer before I preach aloud, but I also pray it as I think, as I write. I invite God to let my words be the words God wants me to say.
And last week I had some thoughts for this sermon, I wanted to preach a good word about Pentecost, a moving sermon about the power of the Holy Spirit and knowing we want to lift up our graduates today also, I thought, well we sometimes think about Pentecost as the birthday of the church, and it is= but I wonder if I could talk about the commencement of the disciples- the new beginning God was giving to them, after their course of study with Jesus their rabbi, which means teacher. They had been students training in the ways of the God of life, they had been training in the situation of the Roman empire of death, of strict hierarchy, to reject those ways and live out the kingdom of God- and now they would become professors- for they would profess, with their mouths, the words they knew to be true, about God’s power to save. So it was kind of a commencement, complete with the centering speech of Peter, who everyone thought was the dullest student but turned out to be the valedictorian…
But something happened this week. And as I thought about this sermon and this amazing thing that happened at that Pentecost, the particular way the Holy Spirit came to them, God lay on my heart some things that I need to say. And so this is a Pentecost sermon, but it is not the one I imagined giving a week ago. Because the Holy Spirit does not wait for an invitation, the Holy Spirit shows up, and I have learned that it is best if I listen when she does.
What happened this week, my beloved brothers and sisters, you know. A white police officer kneeled on the neck of a large black man for around 8 minutes and killed him. It was caught on video .This happened just a couple of months after the story came out of another murder of a black man by white men as he went for a jog. They shot him from the vehicle as if he were an animal they were hunting. That also was caught on video. This in the context of COVID-19, a horrific virus that has killed more than 100,000 people, in just over 100 days in our nation- but a virus that has proven more dangerous for Black and Brown Americans, and for poor Americans who are “essential” workers, than for white Americans who are more likely to have financial security and flexible jobs that allow them to work from home. Additionally many Asian Americans have been discriminated against as somehow being more likely to be infected because of their appearance. COVID 19 is a horrific virus which has exposed some of the horrors of the virus of racism that we already lived under in a horrific way.
And then all of that injustice, all of that systemic racism, all of that needless suffering hit a boiling point and protests began, that happened this week and yes there has been looting and yes at least one more person lost their life in a struggle for protection of property.
Precious lives lost, needlessly. Some because of the coronavirus, some because of systemic racism, some because of the overlapping of the two.
We need to stop and say, lord have mercy. Lord have mercy for Ahmaud Lord have mercy for George, Lord have mercy on our nation. We need to lament together all of these needless deaths. But then we start to say, okay what can we change?
Jim Wallis, evangelical pastor and editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine has said that America’s original sin is racism. I think we can go farther and say humanity’s original sin is devaluing of a human life, assuming one life is worth more than another. Humanity’s original sin is one person saying to another, I have something you don’t- something is different between us, so I will have control over you, and all the systems that are built up to keep that imbalance of power existing. Humanity’s original sin is fearing difference instead of celebrating it as a gift. This sin manifests itself in many ways, one very clear way was the white officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck.
What happened at Pentecost, was a huge wind and tongues of flame and people speaking in languages they shouldn’t have known how to speak. It was a huge day, it caught attention, yes the church as we know it was born that day.
But we sometimes don’t go deep enough in what was really going on.
The miracle was not just that these Galilean peasants, most of them as they were, could suddenly speak other languages, the miracle was that they were understood. They weren’t throwing out words that made no sense, they were getting the message through. If you have learned to speak a second language you know, How, in order to speak a language other than your mother tongue, you have to let go a little bit of yourself. You have to relearn some things. Because language is not just syntax and grammar, language carries history and culture. You think differently when you speak in another language. You have to be vulnerable, you let go of some of your power. You have to listen well so that when you speak, So that you can truly be understood.
The Holy Spirit does that, on Pentecost, had them relinquish their sense of control so they could be available to others who were different. The spirit makes the disciples vulnerable, so that some who are there, write them off as fools and drunks. And then, when Peter does get up to speak, he quotes from the prophet Joel, about how the spirit would –in the last days, which he interpreted to be beginning at that moment- be poured out on young and old, male and female, slave and free.
There in that verse we have some of the great differences, the power imbalances that humanity has institutionalized, codified, even worshiped. The spirit of God breaks all of that down. The spirit is not saved for the oldest, malest, most powerful- the spirit is poured out just as well on that powerful old man’s slave girl’s baby girl. Equal. Celebrating each one with all their particularities.
We are used to paying attention when powerful men speak. The spirit asks us to listen just as carefully to the enslaved, the oppressed, the young. In our country today those with less power are usually Black and the Brown persons.
The spirit redistributes the power of voice. The spirit makes us to speak the message of the gospel in a way that is understood, no matter what cultural or power imbalance differences there might be between us.
Here now are two stories that came to me on facebook this week. The first is a pastor colleague in Los Angeles, his name is Jonathan Hemphill. I don’t know Jonathan super well but from what I do know he is dedicated to his family and his church, and always ready with a smile. He is African American with long beautiful dreads and impressive girth. He posted this:
“I’m not going to lie. I don’t really ever get pulled over by the police, but I keep thinking these days, if I ever get stopped and ask to get out the car, because of my size they might kill me. Imagine them tying to get me to the ground. They are going to use excessive force, they are going to be rough with me, they are going to want to choke hold me. Not because I’m resisting, but because they think my size will overpower them. Wow, Im kind of sick of writing these types of things”…. He goes on about how this keeps happening and ends with an appeal to others to flood the world with a message of love.
He knows that his difference, skin color coupled with size, could be feared enough by others to cause him harm. His physical characteristics make some see him as dangerous, needs to be feared, this is humanity’s original sin playing out in the body of a good hearted servant of the Lord.
The second story is from a white cop, not anyone I know personally, but a police officer in Colombia Heights, a diverse city bordering Minneapolis. Justin Pletcher, had always wanted to be a police officer. May 25 was his 10 year anniversary on the force of Colombia Heights. I will paraphrase some of his comments- he was shaken by the murder of George Floyd, he has watched the video trying to be able to justify what his fellow officer did but he sees none, he calls it a murder. He joined the police to change the world and though he has changed moments he hasn’t been able to effect change like he has wanted to.
After seeing the video, when he had to go back to work he was dreading it, another officer told him he watched the video and it made him feel sick. As a shift they discussed and mourned together what had happened.
Then he goes on, saying “I got a phone call from a man named Calvin, a health inspector and that he would be inspecting some neighborhood homes today. Calvin said, “I’m a big black man with dreads,” and he wanted to make sure that police were aware in case we got a call about him walking around the neighborhood. Calvin asked that I come out there to verify his employment so I could squash any calls before they became something bigger. I obliged and I apologized to him for this even being necessary, but I told him I understood.” – Here is another large African American who needs to fear for his safety because of the pattern of how others perceive him. -When they met they quickly found out they had a friend in common, then they decided to walk the neighborhood together. “Calvin was about 15 years older than me, but we talked about how we both loved to travel and about our kids. We spoke about George Floyd and police brutality, and how it’s a different world for black men. We talked about the importance of getting to know people and how racism is borne of fear and ignorance. Calvin spoke and I listened.”
It was an encounter that helped both men that day, in their own way they both believed something bigger had brought them together, then they took a picture together.
Justin knows that that doesn’t make everything okay, he thinks Black and white people should be angry, and he is angry too= but he offers himself to listen, and to work together to find answers.
He finishes with= “We need to listen to each other. We need to support each other. I’m only as good of a police officer as my community says I am. If my community doesn’t trust me, I need to listen. If my community fears me, I need to listen. I met Calvin today and I listened, and because of this I gained an ally and a friend. I know enough about change to know that you can’t tell people what to do, you need to listen to them and build change together. I’m here. As both a police officer and as your friend. So speak. I’m listening.
Here is one police officer who has decided to share the power he has as a white cop. He does not hoard it but in this imperfect system we have, this sinful reality of hoarding power, trying to have control over, and weaponizing power, Justin tries to use the power he has as a white police officer for good. By trying to listen, by trying to understand.
That is what the Holy Spirit does. It helps us to listen to understand one another. So we can see that we never had to fear those differences in the first place. That the Spirit pours out on all, that all bear the image of God.
I want to tell you my testimony of one time the Holy Spirit worked in me. I have told this story before I know. I will tell the shortest version:
When I sat and prayed and was still long enough, God showed me my own racist biases. When I listened, the Holy Spirit spoke, and it was of how I needed to repent. How I had been taught to consider others as inferior, and the utter wrongness of it. My own version of this original sin.
The Holy Spirit does some amazing wonderful things- but often what the Spirit does is challenge us. The Spirit calls us to look deep and make a change. We call this repentance. It is often not comfortable. We need to repent, and I am speaking especially to white people here, we need to repent of how we let the original sin of fear of difference continue on. Because people are dying from that.
They are Black and brown people, at the hands of white people. So we have work to do, to undo messages of control over and superior/inferior that sometimes we are so used to we don’t even see are there.
The Holy Spirit can help us in this work, as the prophet Joel that Peter quotes has said, to start seeing the slave girl’s baby girl as, just as honorable and worthy and important as the rich old guy. The Holy Spirit gives us the boldness to get vulnerable so that we can listen and understand. The Holy Spirit makes the understanding possible that God wants this message of abundant life and equality to get around to everyone, so by being vulnerable to one other we all can see the great gift of our differences, not try to squash them, not fear each other.
The Holy Spirit arrived that day with a mighty wind and tongues of fire. May we sense what the Holy spirit is doing today. May today be for all of us A new commencement, a new beginning. God still does new things, God still does life -giving things, God still reconciles us and God still saves! God still gives out the visions and the dreams –if we can listen to the voice of the Spirit, still speaking today, and listen too, to one another.