Awe and Dread
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli for Foundry UMC May 31, 2020, Pentecost Sunday. “Life Interrupted” series.
Text: Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, there were gathered online for worship people from many places, shaped by different cultures, inhabiting radically different contexts, each with their own language.
On this day some—like the first disciples of Jesus—are waiting to receive power from on high, the promise of something unexpected that can change everything, turn the tables, make things right, shake the foundations. Among this group, in this moment, in the wake of report after report of the disproportionate toll that COVID-19 has taken on communities of color, added to the daily indignities suffered by racist aggression increasingly caught on film, followed by breaking stories of the racist murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, our black and brown family, friends, colleagues, lovers, and leaders are gutted. Tired. And doubtful that anything will change. White words and outrage—that is, words and outrage from anyone who is not daily at risk—are a day late and a dollar short. A dime a dozen. Choose your idiom. They’re not worth much. Come, Holy Spirit and do something radical!
Others—like the pilgrims in Jerusalem, gathered for the Jewish Festival of Weeks—may come expecting the familiar ritual of a Sunday service and hoping—even desperately needing—to receive a word that helps them simply get through another week with the way things are. Some of these folks have already begun to feel themselves shut down or put defenses up at the naming the most prominent headline of the past few weeks, even some who really care but just want a break. Come, Holy Spirit and give us peace!
Different languages, different expectations, different experiences from within the same world, within the same nation—a world and nation fractured and frayed at every possible level, creation and creature trampled and abused, disease breaking bodies and revealing broken bonds of mutual concern and broken systems, family members and neighbors rejected, despised, and gasping for air.
Who can communicate what is needed in such a reality? Well, let’s look at our story for clues. You’ve got the Galilean disciples—probably around 120 women and men, mostly uneducated, working class folk. What can they possibly say that will connect, for example, with the proselytes from far-flung, rich and powerful Rome? But somehow they all speak in their own language yet communicate God’s power in ways that everyone can understand. And then there’s Peter from among them whose track record for saying the wrong thing is epic, but who, on this occasion seems to have a shining moment. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say the primary communicator in every case in this story is Holy Spirit. // It is Spirit I call upon today to make another Pentecost miracle of communication that allows my limited, privileged, white self and my imperfect offering to speak something of the power of God’s liberating and life-giving love into the hearts and minds of so beautifully diverse a gathered body. May it be so. Amen.
The Holy Spirit that is poured out upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost is the same Spirit who moved across the face of the waters at the moment of creation to bring life out of chaos and to separate light from darkness. This Holy Spirit had filled prophets and sages and holy people from the beginning of creation, empowering them with gifts and courage beyond their own. This Holy Spirit is the one who from the dawn of time had been convicting and cajoling and creating and comforting God’s people in order to keep the dream of God’s Kin-dom alive. And this Holy Spirit had been dwelling in a very concentrated way in and around Jesus while Jesus was on earth. And now this self-same Spirit, newly soaked in humanity as a result of indwelling Jesus, is poured out upon the followers of Jesus and the power of God is unleashed in a very new way. From that first day of Pentecost right down to this very moment, Holy Spirit is at work in and through those who seek even in frail and faltering ways to follow Jesus. And that means that Holy Spirit is poured out upon you and upon me.
And let’s pause and consider the fact that in this story She is not coming in gently. The church tends to tame the story, to make fire into crepe paper or felt or a few candles on a birthday cake and makes the mighty wind the gentle breeze of an oscillating fan. But the experience is described as looking and sounding like a violent wind and fire.
This is not a birthday party, this is a revolution igniting a dream. It is not a cotton candy cloud dream, but a cling-tight-to-love, hold-on-to-your-humanity, remember-what-really-matters, things-about-to-get-real, life-and-death turning-point dream. It is the dream perceived and agitated by the prophets, it is the dream kindled in Jesus’ parables of the Kin-dom, stirring our moral imagination and bursting our self-centered bubbles, it is the dream of love, peace, justice, and beauty that Spirit will not let die.
The dream is possible because Spirit is the dream-maker…and Spirit knows all our languages and knows what each one of us needs to hear—not what we want to hear, but what is needed for the dream… Spirit spins the vision of the Kin-dom which is at one and the same time both judgment for some and promise for others—a call to conscience and repentance AND assurance of justice and reparation. And no matter what part you most hear today, the Kin-dom vision is good news for all. It is not just a message of hope for one tribe. Our God is determined by the power of Spirit to draw all into a place of greater dignity and flourishing, oppressor and oppressed, poor and rich, persons of every conceivable design.
It’s a dream where Spirit falls upon all flesh and that breath is not choked out of any because of the color of their skin or the language they speak or whom they love or any other thing; where things that divide and set us at enmity are burned down; where the twisted, learned perceptions that blind us to the humanity and beauty of others are cut away like cataracts; where the layers of resentment, hatred, prejudice, and greed are blown away as in a destructive, Oklahoma tornado. And what is left, the ashes and the wounds and the destruction, provides the raw material and necessity for new creation. The Spirit who moved across the waters to bring order and life out of chaos flows, rains, blows, a mighty storm to stir and move us to do something. I am not suggesting that God is causing violence or desires it. But rather, that Spirit’s power flows to make things new and that always means that things change, really change, are lost, really lost, are sacrificed, really sacrificed from our own lives.
On the day of Pentecost, Spirit comes in hot to set us on fire, to give energy and hope to those exhausted from a lifetime of struggle and to those who are newly awake to the work, to blow out of apathy those whose privilege allows that response, to remove the scales from our proverbial eyes so that we might perceive not only the pain and rage, but the history of which this present moment is but a part. Spirit blows into all the places we are today to move us precisely as She knows we need to be moved.
And here’s the thing. We see in the story today that it’s possible to Spirit-proof yourself. “They’re just drunk!” To Spirit-proof yourself is to allow layers of gack—cynicism, hatred, control, selfishness, defensiveness, bigotry, fear, indifference, distraction and all sorts of other crusty, corroding things—to close your heart and soul from allowing Spirit to dance with you and move you and give you what you need. Spirit flows freely and God’s grace and presence is ever-present, regardless of how closed off we might be, no matter how determined we might be to sneer and scoff at signs of Spirit’s power. But God will not overpower, control, manipulate, or bully us. Part of God’s love is found precisely in restraint that allows for our freedom, our dignity. We are free to choose.
In this moment when things could so easily go even more wrong than they already are, what will you choose?
Will you choose the status quo or will you allow yourself to be open to Spirit’s power and dream? Will you allow yourself to be drawn into the center of God’s activity in the world, to live not only for “you and yours”—your family, your tribe, your nation, your issue, your experience of injustice, your vision, your 401k, your property values, your comfort, but rather to understand that any hope for this beautiful, broken world depends upon our living with and for others, the future flourishing and dignity of all people depends upon our standing in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable and hurting?
In these days, it is very tempting to be reactive instead of responsive. There is too much happening all at once. The pain, the needs, the brokenness, is all too much and it is overwhelming. Fight or flight tends to kick in. Part of the beauty and promise of this day, is that Spirit helps us recalibrate and get perspective. She is determined to move into our hearts to help the brokenness make space for more of the world to be held there. Spirit will take all the broken pieces—the ash, the wounds, the destruction—and guide each one of us to the place where our particular passion, gifts, and energy will best serve the dream of a creation and human family no longer enflamed with hatred and violence and fear, but on fire with love and compassion and with ears to hear, eyes to perceive, and hearts to understand the gift of this life and of life together.
As you are moved by Spirit to respond, I encourage you to connect to the place in Foundry where your passion serves others. The way to begin is to begin and start where you are. Washington Interfaith Network is rebuilding our strength as we imagine a new vision for DC that is more just and equitable for people of color, low-income people, the unhoused, and all residents. In June, I’ll be hosting a ZOOM with Rev. William Barber to share information about how to engage with the Poor People’s Campaign. Project Transformation, ESL, LGBTQ advocacy, Green Ministry Team for environmental justice, and more are all ways that your engagement or financial support will impact the intersections of justice that will fuel the Kin-dom vision.
We are not alone. You are not alone. When Holy Spirit is poured out upon you, you are bathed in love and grace that will hold you in your rage and exhaustion from being a person of color in this racist culture. When Holy Spirit is poured out upon you, you are bathed in love and grace that will hold you as a white person when you risk getting it all wrong while trying to make things right.