Day of Pentecost: May 31, 2020
Year A, Whitsunday: Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Acts 2:1-21; • 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; • John 20:19-23
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Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.” Peace be with you. It’s a message that is sorely needed in the world. How do we find that peace? It’s certainly missing right now.
Much of the country is coming out of the lockdown of the last several months. We are still in the midst of a pandemic that ravages our community. We’re fighting about whether or not we should be required to wear masks in public places. It’s not particularly peaceful.
But coronavirus isn’t the only pandemic we face in our world. We are experiencing the continuing and ongoing pandemic of systemic racism playing out across our country. If anyone doubted that we live in a world fueled by racism and fear, this week should put an end to that doubt.
On Memorial Day, a white woman in Central Park pointed her finger at an African American man, Christian Cooper, and demanded he stop filming her after he had asked her to leash her dog which is required where they were. She refused. She then threatened to call the police and immediately acted on that threat saying, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life”.
That woman knew exactly what she was doing. She weaponized Christian Cooper’s race by conjuring the image of a damsel in distress at the hands of a black man. Even if she “did not mean to harm that man in any way” as she claims, she certainly knew exactly how to do so. She blatantly used an understanding of racism in a structural way. She knew that a single cry for help, claiming an African American man was threatening a white woman, could quite literally bring down the weight of law enforcement on him. She threatened his life as surely as if she pointed a gun at him. Her body and verbal language during that encounter was painful evidence for me of racial discrimination that has never fully subsided even among the supposedly enlightened.
Taken as a single event it might be easy to overlook. But, look at what happened in Minneapolis on the same day she was making a false police report. There, a police officer kneeled on the neck of a fully restrained and handcuffed African-American man, George Floyd. For nine long minutes this went on – while Mr. Floyd cried out “I can’t breathe” and onlookers begged the police officer to stop. The officer didn’t even seem to care that he was being recorded.
A week earlier, Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman in Louisville, an EMT, was shot and killed in her own home, in a narcotics raid looking for someone who was not only not there, but was already in police custody. She was shot eight times as her boyfriend was trying to defend her against who he thought were armed men breaking in. A “no-knock warrant” they called it.
I’ve used the well-known trope of “we don’t know everything”, over the years, but the painful reality is this has been a way of life for years. We now know because people can record it on their cell phones and upload it in real time. And it just so happens that my own house in Philadelphia was once the site of at least four, armed state narcotics task force officers pounding on the wrong door at 6:00 a.m. Obviously, I’m here to tell you about it. I had the ability to get the District Attorney of Philadelphia on the phone to express my outrage at that screw up. Breonna Taylor never had the chance.
Hate and racism are real. Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and so many others paid the ultimate price of the sins of hate and racism. It was a very real possibility that Christian Cooper could have paid the ultimate price.
Others are paying a different price. For several days now we have watched the anger and distrust explode into vandalism and violence on the streets of so many cities. Anger and distrust are justified, but vandalism and violence do nothing to further the sacred cause of fighting hatred and racism. These actions won’t help build trust and many will use this violence as a reason to engage in more violence. And amidst all the distrust, division and disagreement, we lose sight of Christ’s message of love, hope and forgiveness.
Christ lived in world of distrust, division and disagreement as did his disciples. In today’s epistle, Paul was addressing the disagreements of the community in Corinth. And the story of Pentecost is about a diverse group of people – who don’t particularly get along – gathering together and having the Word of God cut through their divisions and speak in words they could hear. Words that they understood. Words that changed them.
The words of baptism are meant to change us. Do they? The Day of Pentecost is a traditional day of baptism in the church. When we are baptized, we renounce “Satan, and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” and “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” Hatred and racism are forces of wickedness.
If we truly renounce the forces of wickedness, we have to be counted as standing firmly against the sins of hatred and racism. We have to say no to hatred. We have to say no to racism. We have to say no to violence. We have to reject hate, and hateful, ignorant speech. We have to reject the evil, hate-filled actions and motivations of those who seek to divide people. We have to hold our leaders accountable for their actions and their speech and we have to say no to the deeply divisive hateful, partisan rancor that not only exists, but that we sometimes encourage. I’m not asking us to keep our head in the sand or ignore real differences. I’m always up for a good debate; but, I am asking that we dial down the rhetoric not just a little, but a lot. And yes, I fail at this a lot. But it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep trying.
Why? Because over the last several days I’ve heard about how children are looking desperately to their parents for answers to the hatred they see and sense in the world around them. One of my seminary friends tried to explain to her six-year old daughter what happened to the man named “George”. As little kids do, her daughter kept asking repeatedly why. Near the end of the conversation her daughter who looked shocked, sad and surprised said – again I remind you that she’s six – “I thought Dr. King made all the world fair and people were safe now.”
Out of the mouths of babes.
Another friend told me about the tears and fear of the daughter of her former sister-in-law, who also happens to be six – this little girl realized that she can be hated simply because of the color of her skin.
These aren’t theoretical stories about unknown people. I can’t help but be a bit overwhelmed by the cognitive dissonance I feel, and yes, my own anger.
Yet, I also think about the Holy Spirit blowing through and bringing together people of varied gifts and backgrounds, of Jesus breathing on the disciples and saying to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The very real struggle we face can be won by the action of the Holy Spirit and through the message of Jesus Christ. It can be won by acting as Christians are called to act, together as one body with many members, working for the good of all. It’s about the ultimate social contract: “love one another as I have loved you.” That Christian, social contract is to love all – Jew and Greek, slave or free.
And it means we have to work – and I mean really work, not just talk about – to build a better world, especially a better world, especially for our children. Because Jesus doesn’t breathe on us and say, “keep this to yourselves”. Jesus breathes on us and sends us out to do the work of the Spirit in the world. To give breath.
Imagine how we can make things better. How we can make a difference in our world. How we we can make a difference in our community. How we can stand up for our brothers and sisters in the world. How we can stand against hatred and racism without becoming part of the hate. We must start by remembering that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate.
We also start by doing what I know happens every day among people in this congregation. Pray deeply every day, living Christ’s love every day. And maybe imagine starting that prayer with the words “I can’t breathe”. Imagine allowing those words to soak into your body. To feel the fear that George Floyd felt. To feel your own fear.
And then remember the words to the hymn, “Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew…Breathe on me, Breathe of God, until my heart is pure.” Until my heart is pure.
Remember that the Holy Spirit comes among us, holding us together and we need to bring that word to others. We as members of the Body of Christ are called again and again to bring a message of peace and the Holy Spirit to the broken world around us. And now more than ever, the world needs our prayers and needs us to care for our neighbors and the world.
“Veni sancte spiritus”. Come Holy Spirit, come.
Before the Covid-19 caused us to cancel services inside our churches, the sermons were usually recorded at St. Andrew’s and uploaded by Kemp Miller, for whose ministry we are all grateful. To access the entire library of audio files for past sermons, CLICK HERE.