Beth Hoffman Faeth May 31, 2020, Pentecost
Scripture: Acts 2:1–8, 14
Friends, I continue to miss you . . . especially this week when Minneapolis is fraught with such grief. I am grateful for the ways we can continue to make connections virtually, and I hold you all in my prayers as we persevere together in this strange and surreal time. This is being recorded on Thursday morning, and I am aware that much could happen between this moment and the moment you view worship. If you are looking for a response to something that has happened in the last 72 hours, you may not hear it addressed specifically. It is our hope that the words strewn throughout this worship service will fuel your spirit in a myriad of ways.
Our scripture reading this morning is the retelling of the first Pentecost Day, when the Holy Spirit revealed Herself in dramatic fashion to a befuddled crowd of believers feeling bereaved and abandoned. Hear these words from the Book of Acts, in the second chapter:
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as She enabled them.
Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue? . . . We hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!” All were amazed and disturbed . . . What does this mean? They asked. Then Peter stood up with the eleven and addressed the crowd: “Women and Men of Judea . . . listen to what I have to say!”
Let us pray.
Divine fire and rushing wind, open our hearts to the gifts of your Spirit. Amen.
* * *
It must have been some worship experience. No matter how many live streaming cameras strategically placed, or microphones hidden from spectators’ views, or high-tech sound machines or pyrotechnics or any other attention-grabbing, scene-stealing, multimillion-dollar gimmick to which some congregations have grown accustomed, nothing could ever compare with Pentecost Day and the tongues of fire, the buzzing of many languages, the deafening rush of the wind.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
And She couldn’t have arrived at a better time. For Jesus was gone for good—in the physical sense, anyway—having ascended to heaven after several post-Resurrection appearances. The disciples are back to their old ways, hiding out in a closed-up room, shuddering at the thought of life without the one they were beckoned to follow. Who will lead them now? They know there is work to be done, the gospel to be preached, a message to be delivered, lives to be changed, miracles to be performed, but they just do not know how to get started.
Cue the fire and the wind.
At an annual festival, 50 days after the Passover, people from all over gather to give thanks to God for the first fruits of the harvest. Little did they know how different this festival would be. For as people are clamoring to be heard, order comes from chaos as the Holy Spirit makes Her appearance. Suddenly, even though dozens of languages are being spoken, everyone can understand. And with the coming of the Holy Spirit—that Advocate that Jesus had promised—comes understanding and purpose, comes new direction and commitment, comes the birth of the Christian community: empowered, equipped, encouraged . . . united.
Breathe on us, breath of God. Fill us with life anew.
And while the Pentecost story is sensational and dramatic, it is what happens next that suggests the true gift of the Holy Spirit. After the special effects have ended and everyone is standing around mouths agape and starstruck, Peter stands up to preach. Remember Peter? He is the one who denied ever knowing Jesus on the night Jesus was arrested. Now, empowered by the Spirit, Peter knows holy boldness. And just as the Holy Spirit breathed life into a lifeless crowd, Peter takes a breath and begins to testify: “God has poured out God’s Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy. Your young shall see visions and your old will dream dreams . . . and those who call upon the name of God will be saved.” Peter has learned quickly how to seize the moment. At the end of his message he calls upon the crowd to be baptized and fully receive the gift of the Spirit. Scripture states that 3,000 people were baptized that Pentecost Day. Now that was some new member class!
The Spirit prompted those believers into action, into community, into true and abundant fellowship. Later in the second chapter of Acts, we see a vision realized in the advent of Christianity. They felt called to share all they had with others; they gathered around tables to eat and laugh, cry and plan. The church had been born. The Spirit evoked believers to cherish one another in the name of the divine.
It sure seems we could use that fiery Spirit right about now, blowing winds of unity and grace upon us while clamoring for us to step into our own holy boldness. The gift of Pentecost is that it wasn’t a one-time offering. This Spirit is what has energized us for centuries, filling the space between each one of us with sacredness and charging each one of us to step into our spiritual callings to be individuals of prophetic compassion and communities to care for one another and share what we have. This Spirit gives us the courage to stand up for justice, to speak truth to power and to love with such abundance it will overcome evil. We must open ourselves to the heat of the Sprit’s flame and the roar of the Spirit’s wind, and, like Peter, we must turn around and face the crowd and get to work at being the church. Because our communities, our homes, our hearts are desperate for the effects of the Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Breathe on us and fill us with life, and hope and love anew.
And friends, we have been reminded that the very effort of breathing is a sacred act. We have watched in horror as George Floyd cried out in agony his inability to breathe as a police officer knelt on his neck. We stand back, stunned yet not surprised that George Floyd died at the hands of a police officer called to serve and protect. The roar of the fires of reaction are filled with pent-up anger and frustration and rage over nothing changing in our broken system of racism. And we do what we have been taught to do: We pray. We shake our heads and shrug our shoulders and maybe we shed some tears and we wonder what we could ever do to evoke change. Or maybe, like the disciples, we shut ourselves away so we don’t have to hear the sirens or smell the smoke or listen to the collective wailing of a community in despair. And doing so makes us complicit to a system that has destroyed and belittled and beaten up and knelt on the necks of people of color for centuries. On this Pentecost Sunday let that Holy Spirit fill us with holy boldness to stand up and to speak out. To show up and to not give up. We must continue to cry out that George Floyd’s life mattered. George Floyd’s life mattered. George Floyd’s life mattered. Black Lives Matter. The Holy Spirit came to save those early believers from status quo, because status quo was unjust, unequal, unfair. God knows we need that Spirit now, with wind and flame to burn up our status quo. We cannot have peace without justice. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Equip us with a holy boldness that will give us the courage and the fortitude and the faith to work relentlessly to destroy the systems that oppress and divide. Now is the time. Now is the time. We can no longer be silent and hide behind our whiteness and our privilege. Come, Holy Spirit, come.
In this era of COVID-19 we are reminded every day of the preciousness of breath. Because it is what this disease does—it steals one’s breath. It has now taken the breath of over 100,000 in the United States and over 350,000 in the world. A friend who is a hospice nurse told me about tending her first death to COVID‑19. “It was horrible,” she told me, her voice shaky with emotion. “There was nothing I could do to keep him comfortable. The pain was unbearable; the desperation unmanageable.” And instead of the wider church coming together in this time of death and despair, to work together to keep people safe, to reduce the risk of the virus spread, to remind our congregations that we are still in community even while apart, to state with conviction that the church is never closed . . . we have become a church divided: some denominations defying protective orders and charging local governments with a breach of human rights. To fill our church pews now is a deadly endeavor. And I want to assure you that, as much as we grieve over not being together in our beautiful sanctuary, we are also called to serve, to care and to protect. We will not offer in-person worship until it is deemed safe to do so. And this will continue to challenge us. And we will persevere. Because the Spirit is here, and there, and wherever you are, my friends. The Spirit is calling us to be together in a community fueled by love, motivated by justice and sealed by grace. And that Spirit fills all the space between us even when that space is miles long. And that same Spirit commissions us to stand up and speak out wherever we are—consoling those who mourn, challenging those with supremist power, recognizing our own inherent racism, tending hearts broken from years of abuse. We can do this without sitting in a pew each week. We can do this even as we tend the difficult factions of our own lives. We can do this in solidarity with a scattered yet gathered community of faith. Because friends, we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit—a spirit of wisdom and unification and power and grace. Let us never take that for granted. For the Holy Spirit makes sacred each breath we take.
Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come, fire and wind. Come, breath of God . . . breathe on us life anew.