When the day of Pentecost had come, the Jesus followers were all together in one place.
Twelve weeks into Covid World, we know that it is possible to be together while in many different places. Twelve weeks into pandemic distancing and separation, we are learning that there is more than one way—that there are many more ways—to be the church.
On this day, when so much about our world is different, perhaps we should also re-think some of the lessons of Pentecost. Whereas we normally celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the church, on this Pentecost, when much of the world is under lockdown and Minneapolis and other cities are on fire due to protests for racial justice (and the possible sabotage of those protests and violent responses to them), perhaps we should, instead, focus on what the church is for.
The church is about and for many things, of course, and I don’t mean at all to suggest that the church’s mission is limited or clear or formulaic. Our scriptures have Jesus and his followers speaking of it in any number of ways, from the love of God and neighbor to bringing good news to the poor and liberation of the oppressed, caring for the least of these, sharing the redemptive love of God, bringing all God’s children together as one, and ushering in the kingdom—or empire or realm or reign—of God.
Nor do I want to suggest that the Bible means whatever we want it to mean on any given day in whatever context we choose. Surely there are some truths that do not change. But I do believe God is still speaking, which is another way of saying that Spirit is still moving and empowering and shaking things up and that we are still learning because—oh my—we have so much to learn about the Spirit and the Holy and Jesus and God’s beloved children and what the church is for and, not least, how to confront our own racism and change racist institutions, laws, practices, and culture.
And so it is that on this Pentecost Sunday, with our nation’s cities engulfed in racial rage and supremacy, police brutality and murder, citizen protests and sabotage and violence, I am thinking (among other things) about language.
(Just to be clear: I am also thinking about a whole lot more than language. I am thinking about white supremacy and my part in it. I am thinking about my neighbors and friends of color and wondering what they’re feeling. I am thinking about institutionalized racism and how to be a white ally to people of color. I am thinking about nonviolent protesters and violent officers of the law. I am thinking about far-right hate groups and church-going, middle-of-the-road haters. I am thinking about cities going up in flames and dreams going up in smoke. I am thinking about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Christian Cooper, and so many more black people who have been killed or threatened or otherwise treated differently because of the color of their skin. I am thinking about life and death and hope and despair. I am thinking about Donald Trump’s deceitful and divisive tweets and Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic and provocative words.)
And, yes, in part because it is Pentecost, I am thinking about the church and I am thinking about language.
It was Dr. King who said in 1967 that “riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. … But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”
“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.”
Did you notice the echo in Dr. King’s words?
“America has failed to hear.” It has failed to hear suffering cries; it has failed to hear demands for freedom and dignity, justice and equality.
Which is to say that we, the white people of America, have failed to hear, have failed to act. Which is to say that we, a largely white congregation, have not done enough to confront our own racism and a national history and culture built on white supremacy, which, as Fannie Lou Hamer once said, is to say on the bent and bloody backs of black people.
Hear this summary of recent events by New York Times writer Roxane Gay:
Breonna Taylor was killed in her Louisville, Ky., home by police officers looking for a man who did not even live in her building. She was 26 years old. When demonstrations erupted, seven people were shot by police.
Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in South Georgia when he was chased down by two armed white men who suspected him of robbery and claimed they were trying perform a citizen’s arrest. One shot and killed Mr. Arbery while a third person videotaped the encounter. No charges were filed until the video was leaked and public outrage demanded action. Mr. Arbery was 25 years old.
In Minneapolis, George Floyd was held to the ground by a police officer kneeling on his neck during an arrest. He begged for the officer to stop torturing him. Like Eric Garner, he said he couldn’t breathe. Three other police officers watched and did not intervene. Mr. Floyd was 46 years old.
These black lives mattered. These black people were loved. Their losses to their friends, family, and communities, are incalculable.” 1
All this lynching in the year 2020.
The headline on Ms. Gay’s opinion column was “Remember, No One is Coming to Save Us.”
So isn’t it interesting that so much of the story of the birth of the church on Pentecost has to do with speaking and listening, language and understanding, repenting and saving?
On what turned out to be the church’s birthday, Jews from the known world had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival of Pentecost. The city was a babble of different languages. But when the Spirit came, when divided tongues, as of fire, rested on each of the Jesus followers gathered in that one place, an amazing thing happened: They began to speak in other languages, and the Jews who had come from the world over with their own, foreign languages heard the believers speaking in their own language.
Michael Eric Dyson, in his book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, says,
Beloved, your white innocence is a burden to you, a burden to the nation, a burden to our progress. It is time to let it go, to let it die in place of the black bodies that it wills into nonbeing. In its place should rise a curiosity, but even more, a genuine desire to know and understand just what it means to be black in America. 2
In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by a white police officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while three other white officers stood by and bystanders begged them to relent, the income disparity between white and black households is one of the highest in the nation. This is due in no small part to a huge racial gap in home ownership, which is due in large part to city highway construction, property covenants, and massive protests by white people in the 1930s and ‘40s that kept black people out of new housing and destroyed existing black housing.
As one Minneapolis resident (a white person), has said on Facebook,
White people often want black people to justify or explain their anger. Don’t do that. Your approval is not needed. Your education is on you. Instead of asking "but why are they doing this? What does this accomplish?!" Ask yourself what systems created this situation, and why you think *you* know the right way for oppressed people to react. Instead of thinking you know best, try to learn what you don’t yet know. We are steeped in biases and prejudices we aren’t even aware of. It is our job to pull them out from ourselves and one another, over and over again. 3
And as white followers of Jesus, it is our job to let the Spirit break down walls of language and race, supremacy and oppression. As the church, it is our job to let the Spirit transform us so that we might hear the cries of the oppressed, so that we will seek to understand the language and the experiences of our African-American siblings, so that we will recommit ourselves to working against racism and white supremacy.
On the birthday of the church, the apostle Peter quoted the Hebrew prophet Joel, saying
In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your children shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your elders shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
The prophet Martin told us that riots are the language of the unheard. And in these days it may be that some of the most destructive behavior in our cities is being perpetrated by white, outside agitators seeking to heighten racial division and conflict.
As the church, we must listen to the cries of the unheard. We must attend to the wounds of a nation built on 400 years of white supremacy and racism. We must learn to speak the language of the oppressed.
Then, by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be delivered.
May it be so.