On the sixth day of Sivan, seven weeks and one day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the day of Shavuot which the Hellenized Jews call Pentekosta, the streets of Jerusalem were filled with people from every tribe and nation, from the far reaches of the empire and beyond, some even from Cush, Iberia and Ethiopia, from Scythia and the Parthian empire. Jews and proselytes, curious gentiles and ambitious traders had come from everywhere to be in the Holy City for the festival of the first fruits of spring and to remember the giving of Torah to Moses.
The followers of Jesus were in the city, too, gathered all together in one place, in one room, waiting as Jesus had instructed, waiting for a signal, waiting for what was to come next. Then suddenly the house where they were sitting was filled with a sound from heaven, a sound like a hurricane. It filled the house and drove them to their feet while something that looked like tongues of fire danced between them until a flame seemed to alight on the head of each one of them. They felt a presence swell up inside them and knew it was the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit drove them out of the house and into the street where they began to speak to the crowd in languages they had never known as the Spirit spoke through them proclaiming the love and grace of God as it had been made known to them in Jesus the Christ. They spoke of God’s works of power through Jesus, his feeding of multitudes, his healings, his teaching. They spoke of how he welcomed strangers and touched lepers. They spoke of how he challenged the self-righteous and embraced the neglected.
On the day of Shavuot, the Festival of Harvest which was also called Pentekosta, the day on which Moses had been give the Law, the Holy Spirit began to spread the good news of the Reign of God through Jesus, the Christ, across the empire of Caesar and beyond.
Now two millennia later, on the 31st day of May, on the day that Christians call Pentecost which is also called Whitsunday or Whitsun, we are not all together in one place. We are not all together in one room, though we may be gathered in one ZOOM.
This is a strange birthday for the Church as we begin to contemplate moving back into our facilities, our sanctuary, after months apart in our homes. There are so many practical questions to consider. Is it really safe yet? Will our people be able to adapt to the new practices required for safe worship in this time of pandemic or will they revert to old, ways of doing things simply out of habit—ways which are now unsafe? With all the restrictions and safeguards, is it even worth doing now? Should we wait until there is a vaccine? Those are all good questions. Necessary questions.
But I have other questions.
What have we learned from this time of isolation? How has the Holy Spirt spoken to us? Was this, somehow, the work of the Holy Spirit—not the virus, to be clear—but the separation? Was it the work of the Spirit to send us out of our sanctuary and into our homes for a time—a time of contemplation and reflection? Have we used this time to reflect on what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ? Have we used this time to listen to the Spirit, to discern what Christ is calling us to do and to become? Are we listening now?
The Spirit has been speaking as always. I’ve been hearing the Holy Spirt, not in the tongues of xenolalia or glossolalia, but in the everyday voices and silences of the congregation. I’ve been hearing the Spirit and seeing the Spirit in phone calls, in prayer requests, in ZOOM meetings, in emails, in cards, letters and postcards, and on social media. The Church is alive even if we are not all together in one place. The church is open even if the building is closed. The Spirit is still speaking.
On that first Pentecost the Spirit came upon them with the sound of a hurricane. What kind of sound is the Spirit making now?
Sometimes, certainly, the Spirit speaks in silence. The silence of our isolation. The silence of our thoughts. Sometimes in that silence the Spirit speaks to us with sighs too deep for words about our own lives and hearts and hopes and dreams. As I listen to the Spirit in silence, I have been hearing the silence of a nation that has not yet grieved for 100,000 dead.
I believe, though, that there is also a sound that is carrying the presence of the Holy Spirit, a sound louder and deeper and broader than a hurricane and more turbulent than an earthquake, and yet often we seem deaf to it. I wonder if we haven’t been sent out of our places of worship and into our homes so we could hear it better and learn to see the hand of God at work. I wonder if our ears and minds and even our souls haven’t been so preoccupied with our hymns and liturgies and the pageantry of worship that we’ve been deaf and blind to the things the Spirit of God is engaged in, the things God is call us engage with.
At the beginning of creation the Spirit moved over the turbulent welter and waste of the waters to bring order out of chaos. On this day of Pentecost is the sound of melting glaciers and rising seas the sound of the Spirit calling us to begin an era of re-creation, to take meaningful action in the battle against climate change? Are we being called anew to fight pollution, to restore the earth, to cherish God’s creation?
In his day, the prophet Amos was filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to challenge the economic disparities of Israel and to predict catastrophe for the wealthy. In a country where 10% of the households have 70% of the wealth, in a country where 40 million have filed for unemployment as businesses have closed due to the pandemic, where Wall Street seems disconnected from Main Street, is the Spirit calling us to reexamine our priorities and restructure our economic systems?
In an era when the people of Israel thought that all God cared about was religion done rightly and in the right place, the Holy Spirit spoke through Isaiah and later through Micah and said quite literally, “I do not want your bull. Not while the poor are languishing. Not while there is rampant injustice. Take care of those in need. Give justice where it has been subverted. Bring me a contrite spirit and a broken heart and then we’ll talk about worship.” In a day when we get caught up in discussions about the propriety or impropriety of on-line communion, when we’re deep in discussions about when and how to open our sanctuaries, when the very issue of reopening our churches has become a political flash point and fodder for the political divide, is the Holy Spirit, maybe telling us to cool our jets, to make sure first that our ministries and priorities are in order, that our hearts are in the right place, and then we can talk about worship in our buildings?
On that first Pentecost the Holy Spirit used a sound like a hurricane and tongues of flame to move the followers of Jesus into the streets. On this day of Pentecost there is another sound and another fire as the Spirit of God moves through our streets. It is the sound of the grief, the anger, and frustration of those who have been unheard, a grief and anger long suppressed and now unleashed. The flames are flames of rage that have long been suppressed in the hearts of our sisters and brothers of African descent. It is the wail of mourning for George Floyd, for Ahmaud Aubrey, for Breonna Taylor, for Eric Garner, for Trevon Martin, for the 9 killed at Bible Study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church, for Emmett Till, and for countless others. The raging wind we hear is the sound of millions of voices sighing together the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, that they as a people and as individuals, are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” It is the Spirit, the Breath of God, squeezed from a people who are crying out “I can’t breathe.”
When I listen to the Spirit at this time of Pentecost I hear all of this. A voice says, “Cry out!” and I say “What shall I cry out?” And I hear the Spirit say, “Fix This!”
When I listen to the Spirit I hear the words of Jesus reading from the scroll in the synagogue, words we drank in with our baptism when his mission became ours: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to open the eyes of those who have been blinded by ugly ways of thinking, to liberate those who have been oppressed by hideous words and evil ideas, and to set the captives free. Fix This.”
When I listen to the Spirit at this time of Pentecost I hear the narrative voice of the Gospel of John, words about Jesus that also became words about us in our communion: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge or condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved, healed, made whole through him. Fix This.”
When I listen to the Spirit at this time of Pentecost that’s what I hear. I hear the brokenness. I hear the lament and anger.
But I also hear the promise and the call of God. I hear the reminder that we have been anointed, empowered and called by the Spirit to be God’s tools of healing and restoration. I hear the Spirit calling us to fulfill the promise.
I hear the Spirit saying Fix This. Fix it in your heart and in your mind. Then help others fix it in theirs. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, calling us to transform the flames of anger and fear into flames of love. May the winds of lament become the breath of grace and kindness and healing. And with the power of the Spirit, immersed in the love of Christ, we will fix this.
That’s what I hear.
What do you hear?