Scripture: Acts 2:1-21
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Pentecost is a story of revelation, of connection, and understanding. It’s also a story that lifts up the sacred reality of our individual experiences. IN the disciples time they were all in the same storm of trying to continue and ilve out the movement that their beloved friend and teacher had started, but they all had different experiences and struggles. Peter, the guilt of knowing that as soon as things got hairy, he denied any association with him not once, not twice, but three times…
Thomas, never able to forget the touch memory of his friend’s wounds, humbled and comforted by how willing he was to let him make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks, how willing he was to honor Thomas’ doubt.
Mary, Martha, wondering how they’ll relate to one another now that the one thing they had most in common was gone. in our time, it’s not much different. We are all living in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.
And then the holy spirit swept in and suddenly everyone could understand one another, suddenly the fog lifted and everyone could see all the other boats in the ocean, their rigging and construction, how much water they’d taken on, how many supplies they had left..
Suddenly understanding can be a lot- empathy can tire us out. It can feel safer to silo away…think about the stereotypical moody teenagers lamenting “nobody understands me!”, wearing it almost like a badge of honor. Being misunderstood is safer than being understood, after all.
As a teen it was safer to think “I’m unpopular because people don’t understand me”, because…what if people did understand me, and they still didn’t like me? Then it would mean that I’m the problem, something’s wrong with me. When you’re understood, that’s where the vulnerability comes in .
There’s always a risk of rejection that comes with being understood, with being seen. What if people don’t like what they see? Being understood and still lonely…that’s a painful place to be.
There’s a lot of exposure that comes from being understood. You cant hide yourself anymore. you lose the protection that the barrier of not being known provided. Imagine what it was like for the crowd in this story-
minding their own business, enjoying the privacy of their anonymity.
Not only were they enjoying that privacy, but it was easier to tune out what was going on around them.
Anyone who has spent time in place where the main language or dialect is not your own native language can attest to how you so easily tune out the conversations around you, since you can’t really understand them, and how when you hear someone speaking your native language, even from across a crowded subway car, it cuts through the hubbub like a hot knife through butter, and you cant help but eavesdrop (is it really eavesdropping if theyre in public?)
Once you can understand someone, it’s a lot harder to ignore them. And that can be…inconvenient when you have your own thoughts and worries to deal with. Sometimes all you want…all you can handle, is just keeping your head down, minding your own business, nursing your own hurts, and just focusing on making it through the day.
You can barely handle your own worries or to-do lists or burdens without knowing what everyone else’s are.
And truthfully, not knowing our neighbor, not understanding them, makes it a lot easier to blame and distance them when things get stressful or when they share a perspective that’s different from ours.
And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t hold one another accountable, i myself often use the phrase “explanations don’t excuse”, but if we’re truly trying to live in a beloved, covenantal community, we also recognize the importance of calling one another IN, rather than calling them OUT.
we know deep down that understanding someone, their perspective and motivation, their context and interior life, makes it a lot harder to simply cut them out of community , and while it doesn’t excuse harmful behavior, it gives us more tools to help make clear the path toward healing and reconciliation with God, neighbor, and self.
Because while healing is ultimately our own responsibility and choice, when we opt in to the beloved community, we are covenanting to hold one another accountable and support their healing to the extent that it is healthy for us and safe for the community.
Understanding and being understood is life-giving, and it’s terrifying and risky. And we soon realize that making an effort to understand one another doesn’t minimize or take away from our own experience or values.
After all, in the story of pentecost, the people were still speaking their own languages; they were still relating from their own experiences and perspectives, but suddenly they found they could understand one another. They could relate to one another with ease; join up their boats in a flotilla to make sure everyone could ride out the storm together…
…And that’s where I was in my sermon before I heard the news from Minneapolis.
I had planned to talk more about how we all have different experiences of the same coronavirus storm, different reactions to the need to quarantine, different anxiety-management systems and coping mechanisms that could bump up against each others’ and cause friction, resentment, and fear, some of us screaming “you’re in denial” and others lamenting “you’re living in fear!”.
I was going to talk about how we can get so hung up on the differences between our boats that we forget we’re all in the same storm. And then a police officer lynched a man in broad daylight, on video, and Minneapolis burned.
You know, white supremacy is a virus more deadly than COVID, ebola, and the plague, a storm more tempestuous and destructive than any pandemic.
White supremacy simultaneously blinds us to black excellence AND manipulates us into holding our black siblings, all of our siblings of color, to a higher standard than we hold white Americans.
White supremacy denies black innovation, denies the black roots of so much of our music, dance, and fine art.
White supremacy cajoles us into thinking we are self-made, that this is a country of freedom and individualism when it was quite literally built with stolen black labor. I wonder, is it really looting if your people built it to begin with?
White supremacy is what makes the “gay culture” zeitgeist one of the style, linguistics, and expressions of cis white men, when the stonewall riots were started by black trans women, and when same gender marriage had been practiced on this very soil by our native siblings long before Columbus arrived.
Looting is as much a part of our history as the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria, as the tea party, and as slavery, our original sin. We brought looting to this land.
And, yet, Jesus reminds us time and time again, especially in that little episode where he flipped over the tables in the marketplace, something that politicians today might decry as “thug” like looting, and vandalism, that people are more important than property. Merchandise can be replaced; lives cannot.
Come to think of it, is it not looting when we invoke the name of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. in our condemnation of protests that have destroyed property, and neglect to mention his assertion that “Riots are the language of the unheard”?
The rest of that quote goes, “And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.
And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.
And so in a real sense our nation's summers of riots are caused by our nation's winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
The holy spirit, when she shows up, she shakes things up. My clergy colleagues and I were reflecting on the similarities between the fires in Minneapolis and the fires of pentecost. The flame of the Holy Spirit represents inspiration for a new way- pointing out that something isn’t right - jarring us from our complacency in a way that only fire can do.
The Holy Spirit, in all her fiery glory and power, shows up in terrifying and unignorable ways, to force us to see things differently, to acknowledge what has been there all along, what our siblings have been born already knowing in their bones.
Because when we understand, we cannot ignore. Once we understand, our inaction becomes willful. It becomes refusal. it becomes sinful.
White supremacy is my taking up this much time in a pulpit with my own voice, as though I have anything new to say, when our black neighbors, colleagues, and leaders have been preaching this prophetic message for decades…for centuries.
If the fires of pentecost jar you into any new understanding of words already spoken, of prophets already in our midst, let it be the words and contributions of our black and brown siblings.
Tonight, at 6pm, there is a replaying of rev. Otis Moss III’s cinematic sermon, The Cross and the Lynching Tree: Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery, followed by a live panel discussion with pastors and leaders of color Rev. Julian DeShazier, Linda Sarsour, Rev. Naomi Washington Leapheart, and Rev. Dr. Velda Love. Registration is required for this free event, and the link to register is in the description of this video below. As we listen to the prophetic song of national treasure, Sam Cooke, please take a moment to open up a new page in your browser to register for tonight’s panel.