Sermons

To Be Church; A Pentecost Message, Rev Dee Ledger, May 31, 2020

Twice this week, I saw graffiti.  The first was on a church monument at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis.  The pastor took several the clergy virtually around the neighborhood after the events of this past week.  She showed the local bookstore, shops, the burned out 3rd precinct, the housing that her church helped to build, the post-office, the streets and sidewalks with the state patrol and National guard and others standing.  As she described the scene, she pointed at one of the graffiti tags on the church property.  On one of the structures, a person had spray-painted in red #BLM (or BlackLivesMatter).  And then the pastor remarked, “in talking with congregants, we said maybe that is a tag we will keep.” [1]

On another day, I saw a cartoon drawn by a man who goes by the name NakedPastor.  As his website says, David Hayward is a “former pastor turned cartoonist” and he creates “graffiti on the walls of religion.”[2] Having been a pastor for some 30 years, his humor is biting at times, but also filled with the Holy Spirit—it sees the issues with current Christianity as practiced and society at large.  So—this past week, I saw one of his depictions—a man in a Klansman’s hood talking to his little boy.  The boy says to his dad, “Actually, Dad, you don’t have to hide your face anymore.” I confess, it took me a split second to get the humor—then I realized that Hayward was showing how outward acts of racism and terror are happening unhooded, unmasked, and on full display.

Hayward drew his cartoon his cartoon in 2016.  In fact, when he first published it, some of his white brethren reacted by telling him: “This is way over the top!” “That’s a stretch!” “Come on, things aren’t that bad!” “You’re not an American so you have no right to criticize something you know nothing about.”

When Hayward republished his cartoon the other day, he simply wrote, “What would they say now?”

Indeed.

Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the Holy Spirit resting on the church that is you and me and every person who follows and trusts Jesus.  It rested individually on each person – each disciple—not simply pastors, not a building, and not simply some elected civil servant.  It rested on George Floyd; it rested on Breonna Taylor; it rested on those disciples as it still rests on you and me.

But perhaps I shouldn’t say, “rested.”  Because once the Holy Spirit lands on you, you do not rest.  The Holy Spirit is a heaven-raiser, a kin-dom-come-now kind of gal, a disrupter of the complacency and the status-quo that would diminish and destroy what God created to love and to cherish.  And the Holy Spirit has been known to keep Christians up at night wondering, “What should I do?” and “Who should I be in this moment?”

Before that strange day, the disciples were waiting.  Last week, we heard Jesus say to them, “wait until you are clothed with power from on high.”  And then the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples and all heaven breaks loose.  It was as if a violent wind had taken hold, but this wind was not to hurt; it was to help.  This wind was not to diminish or devalue, but to enlarge, create, and re-value.  This was the kind of Spirit needed to send those shaking disciples out into the world to proclaim what they felt in their hearts, what they wanted to live in their lives, and the kind of community they wanted to honor, save, and protect.

We are living a Pentecost moment, sisters and brothers.  A pandemic of racism continues to grip our nation and is as deadly to you and to me as Covid-19.  Our black and brown brethren are crying out to be heard—through video, through memes, through public testimony, through song, through fiery protest, and through taking a knee because too many of their own have had their own bodies and souls crushed under the knee of white privilege, power, and supremacy.  As one of you wrote to me this week, “Our nation is burning. Our nation is burning with all the pent-up sadness and anger by the people who have been abused, enslaved, and discarded by the systemic racism that fuels our nation.”[3]

We are living a Pentecost moment.  Many of us—here—are crying out in grief, in embarrassment, in helplessness, in anger, in frustration, wonder, and in mercy as we try to wrestle with our own emotions and our own complicity in this sin that has taken far too many generations to heal.  We, like the disciples, have asked each other, “What does this mean?” What does it mean to be a disciple of our Savior when watching and listening to the public and painful testimony of our black and brown sisters and brothers?  Are we merely bystanders content to see, but not speak, content to hear, but not help, content to pray, but not protest, and content to worship but not act?

In the midst of a global pandemic, in the midst of a pandemic of racism, in the midst of the worst unemployment since the Depression, and in the midst of climate change, we could shake our heads and wring our hands in a distracted way, but that would not be the way of Jesus.  Instead, we might choose to move as our ancient forebears moved—each person boldly  declaring that God expects more from humankind and human hearts—and more from us— than our current ways of disregard and destruction.

What do we do in a Pentecost moment?  We move.  To be church is to allow the Holy Spirit to have her way with us—to direct our steps, our hearts, and hands to be church for others, in this moment.  It was Pentecost that birthed the church—again, not a building, but a people, a people who felt empowered to carry on the difficult work of being church in an often hostile world that was hellbent on diminishing human flesh and disregarding human life—whether that be the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the disempowered, the sick, the imprisoned, and the suffering.  It was the church who helped to build hospitals, create schools, helped to abolish slavery, to build orphanages, and agitate for social reform.

We move as a church so that society must move collectively to a different way of being, to a different kind of living together, and to a more just and holy space.  We move because our sons and our daughters still show us what they experience, our young men and women still see visions, and our elders still dare to dream dreams.

In the conversation about masks over the past few weeks, we have been unmasked as a people and as a nation.  Even as we mask ourselves to protect the vulnerable, we are unmasking the lie that our actions do not affect others.  Even as we mask ourselves to breathe as safely as we can, and we unmask the lie that we all can breathe equally in this nation.  And even as we learn to mask ourselves to enter public spaces and to engage safely in commerce, worship, and play, we are unmasking the sad fact that, as of May 31, 2020, a large percentage of people of color can not move freely in public spaces without suspicion, harassment, or even death.

To be church may mean that we mask ourselves to protect others, but as we do so, we are called to unmask the lies in our public policies and social norms that uplift some by inflicting pain on others.  The Holy Spirit has shown the way time and time again for the building of beloved community—what tears it down and what builds it up.

A couple of months ago, my son needed an inhaler.   He’s not asthmatic so we weren’t accustomed to using an inhaler.  For those who don’t know, you need to press down on the inhaler to release the medicine and then inhale slowly as you press down and count.  For my son, this was a tricky thing.  And it was difficult for me too, as I tried to show him how to use the inhaler in a way that allowed the medicine to reach his lungs. He had to time his breathing with the pressing of a button, while we counted together, and it took a couple of tries and a whole lot of fumbling before we were working in tandem and he was really breathing in the medicine that he sorely needed.

Friends, God’s breath is the Holy Spirit infusing each of us in ways that move us towards wholeness and health.  At a time when so much is at stake—at a time when so many of our brothers and sisters are crying out, “I can’t breathe,” at a time when the sick in ICU units can’t breathe with Covid-19, and at a time when  our planet can’t breathe well due to the pollution of humankind, we don’t and shouldn’t take our breathing for granted.  We can’t and shouldn’t take the breathing of our neighbors for granted.  God offers us an inhaler—that is the church– to help us all breathe better together—equally and well.  But we must learn to harness her energy and her medicine for the good.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

“We breathe air that circulated in the rain forests of Kenya, and air that turned yellow with sulfur over Mexico City. We breathe the same air that Plato breathed, and Mozart and Michelangelo, not to mention Hitler and Lizzie Borden. Every time we breathe, we take in what was once some baby’s first breath, or some dying person’s last.

“When Jesus let go of his last breath — willingly, we believe, for love of us — that breath hovered in the air in front of him for a moment, and then it was set loose on earth. It was such pungent breath — so full of passion, so full of life — that it did not simply dissipate as so many breaths do. It grew, in strength and volume, until it was a mighty wind, which God sent spinning through an upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.[4]

Friends, when our God declares, “In the last days, I will send out my Spirit on all flesh,” we may trust her at her word.  All flesh will breathe; all people shall speak and prophecy.  In the past, we may have relied on others to speak the truths that we did not dare proclaim or own.  In the past, we may have quietly stood by as others told of things too terrible to imagine in the communities that we love.  In the past, we may have denied our complicity in the sins of our nation.  Yet, God declares that all flesh will breathe.  That day has come, friends.  These days are a Pentecost moment.  So be sure to wear your mask for your neighbor but also unmask the sin that privileges one human life over another. Now is the time for us to learn to use the inhaler that God has given us.

 

[1] Ingrid.C.Rasmussen, https://www.facebook.com/ingrid.c.rasmussen/videos/10222939128729650/?__tn__=%2CdlC-R&eid=ARBR1HfPPCwlexW-f3q_RDtY2JoIuUV98b45yQfwUF6NaXrCBgzXbCGxpwA4FijgYdBgKZJHc5XAKyMJ&hc_ref=ARQm1Q48LDTCxNMMVgv-64lyABQaSAIaZvPbjUDMJiwP6xHr5aM2p_jMil0SYteZu-g

[2] Nakedpastor website, https://www.nakedpastorstore.com/

[3][3]  shared 5/30/20 in an email and used with permission from correspondent.

 

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The gospel of the Holy Spirit,” in Home By Another Way (Cowley, 1999).