The Way of Oneness
May 31, 2020
The Day of Pentecost
Text: Acts 2:1-21
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
When I think of Pentecost, I see red – literally – the color red comes to mind because there usually are only two Sundays in the church year when the assigned color is red – Pentecost and Reformation.
Perhaps some of you thought I meant that I’m angry about Pentecost, which I expressed by saying, “I see red.” That’s not the case, but it does remind me of a story that is told by Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber, who was the mission developer for an ELCA congregation, House of All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, and has written a number of books.
It seems that a neighboring congregation gifted the House of All Sinners and Saints with a set of gently used paraments. Their church was used to getting a lot of hand-me-downs. As a group of them went through the beautiful altar cloths, they came to the red set and found one with an image of a descending dove with completely crazy eyes and claws that looked like talons. As Pastor Bolz Wever said, “Yep. It was as though the Holy Spirit was a raptor.” “Man,” someone else commented, “We can’t use that one! It makes the Holy Spirit look dangerous!” (1)
Now…that’s an interesting statement…perhaps the Holy Spirit is dangerous in its ability to transform people in ways that they inclined to resist. Who knows, maybe the Holy Spirit is angry, is “seeing red”? Does the Holy Spirit get angry? Probably not, but perhaps frustrated that we, God’s people, have its empowering presence available to us – within and around us – and we somehow miss the possibilities that reality presents.
One of those possibilities is revealed in the reading from Acts but is often overlooked in favor of other details. Earlier in Acts, the followers of Jesus is numbered at 120, including the 11 remaining disciples, the women who were devoted to Jesus, including his mother, and others whose lives had been touched by their resurrected and ascended Lord. They are praying and waiting for the Holy Spirit to come, as Jesus told them would happen, although they do not yet know exactly what that means.
Fifty days have passed since that Sunday morning when the Good News, “He is risen!” was proclaimed. It was a major Jewish festival – the Pentecost – celebrated at the end of the wheat harvest. The streets of Jerusalem are filled with Jews from all over the known world. Suddenly, there was a rushing, violent wind filling the place where Jesus’ followers gathered; what appeared to be flames rested on each one, but instead of being burned, they were given the ability to speak in languages they had not previously spoken.
Which detail grasps your attention? I’ve always wondered who exactly was there; just the 11 or some of the others too, including the women? If so, they all were equally filled with the Holy Spirit. However, the detail that I love is the fact that they began speaking in other languages, which, presumably, they did not know. Did the speaker know what he or she was saying, I wonder? Were they being fed an internal translation even as the words came out of their mouths? It is a scene I like to imagine.
But, I recently noted a detail that I’ve overlooked – think about the crowd that witnessed this great public event (not a private, mystical experience). There were Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Africans, and Asians. Pastor George Harris notes that although the crowd was made up of Jewish pilgrims, they still have different languages, skin tones, customs, and probably histories of fighting and disliking one another. It’s likely that they treated one another with suspicion, prejudice, and scorn. Let me quote his colorful description: “So, I don’t imagine all these strangers breaking into, “It’s a Small World Afterall,” I imagine lots of tension-filled jostling and the exchange of wise-cracks, barbs and slurs. Parthians are stupid. Medes stink. Elamites are lazy. Mesopotamians are greedy. Judean men are lude, and Cappadocian women are trashy. Phrygians are dishonest, and Pamphylians are drunks, and so on and so on.” (2)
All of this slandering was stopped by a sudden wind and the sound of their own languages coming from Judean mouths, speaking in a way that they could understand. The Holy Spirit transcended multiple layers of differences. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they became one in hearing the Good News.
That causes me to wonder, how many of our differences could be transcended if we allowed the power of the Holy Spirit to reign in our lives? It is not new news to say we live in a divided country and world. Are those divisions beyond the reach of the Holy Spirit?
It is interesting to note that in today’s Pentecost account, the crowd responded in a variety of ways. Some were amazed and perplexed, others sneered, responding with doubt, suspicion, and judgment. That tells me that what we do with the Holy Spirit’s presence and a message is up to us.
Pastor Harris describes how he was a co-facilitator of racial equity groups in which other adults and some youth were trained to lead high school English classes in reflecting on the experiences of students of color and LGBTQ students at the school. A variety of written scenarios were developed that drew from actual experiences of students at that high school; the scenarios included experiences of being feared, stereotypes, diminished and harassed, and were read aloud in small groups. Then, the students were invited to say how the scenario made them feel and why. Each class included some representatives of those who were the focus of the accounts.
Many responded with curiosity and empathy, saying the felt sad, upset, or angry in response to the scenarios. Some responded with suspicion, either doubting the credibility of the scenario or blaming the student being described. A number of boys would simply “pass.”
Pastor Harris noted that, and I quote him, “Although there was no Pentecost moment in which all the students transcended their differences and came to hear and believe as one, there were some glimpses of a beloved community when racial and sexual minority youth found the courage to share their experiences, and other youth would hear, understand and empathize with those experiences. Though not in a church setting, I certainly felt the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in those moments.” (3)
Indeed, only the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, combined with our response to it, can transform our country, so it becomes a safe and empowering place, particularly for those who regularly are unsafe, our African American sisters and brothers. Today we think of George Floyd, who was so abused by police officers in Minneapolis that he died and Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered while on his daily run in a Brunswick, GA neighborhood for no other reason than his skin-tone stirred suspicion and prejudice in two self-appointed vigilantes. They are two of thousands who died due to racism; recent riots, sadly, are another legacy of that sin. I will tell you that I feel ashamed and powerless, so I’m thankful that tomorrow I’ll be meeting on ZOOM with Father Steve, Pastor Nelson, and Rabbi Brown to share our grief and, hopefully, move on to respond.
And, so, I want to end today with two questions. First, how many hearts and minds could the Holy Spirit transform if we prayed for the Holy Spirit to have its way in our community? And here’s the second question, which informs the first: what if, in terms of that which divides us, we applied what Pastor Harris calls the 20/80 principle – that each person can be 20 percent certain about what he or she believes is true but commits to be 80 percent curious, inquisitive open-minded? That would lead to the dangerous reality, for some, of being more able to hear the Holy Spirit speaking – in ways each can understand – and being one. AMEN
(1) “The Promise of Pentecost: a Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church”, www.revfranmusings.blogspot.com
(2) “Pentecost: 20 Percent Sneering, 80 Percent Surprise and Amazement” by Pastor George Harris, June 9, 2019, www.pastorgharris.wordpress.com
(3) Same as number 2