Day of Pentecost - May 31-2020
May 31, 2020 | Sonja Gerstenberger
Passage: Acts 2:1-21
I’m going to start off by saying, I wasn’t supposed to be here today. I was supposed to be graduating from Luther. I missed out on taking my family up to Luther and having them experience the things that I’ve enjoyed over the last four years, seeing the members of my cohort one more time, and joining together in celebration of what we have all done over the last four years. Because, certainly, anyone who goes to seminary takes their entire family with them, as they each have needs that go unmet and time that goes unspent so that the person in seminary can focus on the work of discerning how God is calling them to be a pastoral identity in the world.
The other thing that can’t go without saying at this point is that the place I was to go, where I was to be celebrating with my fellow cohort members and other graduates of 2020, is the Twin Cities. The place that was to be the center of our celebration is now afire with the pain of generations of unheard and unanswered trauma, lit by another video of power taking the life of a black man. A knee on the neck of George Floyd not for seconds, but for agonizing minutes as his life slipped away, while he begged for his mother, and cried, “I can’t breathe!”
And instead of being there, I’m here. And as the work of the Spirit often is, I don’t believe it’s any coincidence. This Sunday, we celebrate Pentecost, and our sanctuary is beautifully lit with the red, yellow, and orange of the fires of Pentecost, the flames that were lit on the heads of the disciples as they spoke in languages that were not their own and that each, in their hearing, heard their own language. This festival takes place 50 days after Passover, and the reason people had gathered was the Feast of Weeks, the completion of the grain harvest, a celebration commanded by God. And this feast, this time, this Pentecost that we now celebrate, we celebrate as the end of our Easter season.
And if you haven’t noticed, throughout Easter we’ve done something a little different: we’ve had a remembrance of baptism at the font, we’ve poured water and spoken words to remind us of our own baptism; to remind us, in our own baptism, one is adopted into the body of Christ, delivered from the forces of evil and, in Luther’s words, our sinful self is put to death, and we are raised to new life through the work of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist baptized just with water and foretold of Jesus who would come and baptize with the Holy Spirit. And we Lutherans have a delicate relationship with the Holy Spirit: we call upon her in baptism, we remember her when we have our young people affirm their baptism, we even speak words over each individual and a prayer that the Holy Spirit may ignite in them, and we definitely pray over our ordained pastors when they are ordained. But we tend to leave her in those moments other than when we name the Trinity, and I don’t think it’s by chance. Because the Holy Spirit is dangerous.
At Pentecost, the disciples were equipped and sent with the Holy Spirit, and if we remember, the places that they went and the ways that they were received weren’t always with thanksgiving and joyous celebrations. Certainly, they spread the gospel, but they were also at risk. They were proclaiming words of freedom in the Roman Empire, in the Pox Romana, when the peace was built on the idea of submission, and they were calling for freedom.
To be equipped with the Holy Spirit looks like the quote from the prophet Joel that Peter spoke, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy; young men will see visions, old men dream dreams.” We often get stuck on the part of prophesy that mentions the culmination of this time and the beginning of God’s reign on Earth as some sort of hard stop, and that prophesy is about leading up to that time in only as much as what we might look for. But I think we misunderstand prophesy if all we think it is is signs for us to look for when this time will end, and we will enter the fullness of the kingdom of God.
Prophets sent during the time of the kings were to warn God’s people of the consequences of their actions, and usually the consequences of their actions were invasion and exile. And their actions can be summed up in a couple of readings from Ezekiel and Isaiah that I'll share right now. In Ezekiel 16, the prophet says, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore, I removed them when I saw it.” And Isaiah 58, “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day and oppress all your workers. Is not this the fast that I chose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the throngs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to cover them? And not to hide yourself from your own kin. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly.”
We wonder in our modern, comfortable lives, why it seems like fewer and fewer young people choose to be part of a faith community. Perhaps it’s because of the stronghold we have on the Holy Spirit. And I admit, we preachers fear you can’t handle the truth: that our predominately white congregations are filled with people that benefit from the systems that work to keep people oppressed and silent through intimidation and violence. And we could never dream of participating in those circumstances so to call them out would be too hurtful. And we have failed you, even worse, we’ve failed the very neighbors Jesus has called us to love.
In our tradition, the act of preaching is to distinguish the law, which convicts us, and point to the gospel, our forgiveness and freedom in Christ. Most of the time, a good sermon does both, but sometimes a sermon is just law. And today’s readings and the circumstances of George Floyd’s death remind me that action of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 is to create prophets, and prophets tell the truth; prophets warn us about the ways in which our actions are not living out our call to love God and love our neighbor. Our actions witness to Christ, and not the Jesus of the storybook Bible who gives us good, moral ways to live a good life, but the Jesus who disrupted an economic system by turning over tables in the temple because those tables were taking advantage of the poorest among them, the people who couldn’t afford to bring any sort of sacrifice to the altar on their own and had to purchase something in order to participate in the sacrifice. And so there they were, ready to sell things to them at a high price. The Jesus that stood between men ready to throw stones and a woman caught in adultery. Nobody ever said she didn’t do what she was being accused of, and Jesus said her life is worth more.
I hear echoes of the ancient prophets all around me, and this weekend, those voices are people I know, people I have come into relationship with, people who are standing and saying ENOUGH, pointing to violence and death, reminding us of the untold history of our nation, built on the backs of uncompensated labor, necessitating violence and injustice to sustain itself. They’re living out their baptismal promises, and we too, who are baptized into Christ’s death and born anew as children of God through the work of the Holy Spirit, we too are called to condemn injustice. We’re called to care for the orphan and the widow, and that doesn’t mean just these two populations of people; that means the ones who cannot care for themselves, not expected to figure out to do it by themselves to prove their industriousness and worth, but cared for, supported, built up, held in community; to shelter the immigrant; to stand up with persecuted; to confront racist jokes that may be said in our midst, even if it’s uncomfortable and even if it means we might have some hard conversations; to call out covert racism; to support organizations working for justice.
This is one of the best ways we can support the people on the ground who are really crying out for justice in Minneapolis, and there are a lot of narratives, and there’s a lot of really awful stuff happening. But I tell you, there are people working, committed for justice whose hearts are bleeding. We can support them and the agencies that are supporting their work. And another thing we can do is learn about the deep history of racism in America so that we can better advocate for our neighbor. We live in a pretty insulated place; we have to do work to learn what life has been life for decades, centuries for a population of people who have been begging us to listen.
We are freed in Christ and baptism for the sake of the neighbor, not to earn our salvation, you don’t have to do any of this to be saved, but our baptism calls us beyond just that. God didn’t stop desiring justice and mercy in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And He certainly didn’t bring Jesus to free us from relationship and responsibility for the neighbor. God has bound us together; we are the body of Christ so that when one part hurts, all parts hurt. We might not yet realize how our own identity is broken because of what we refuse to see. God brought and demonstrated in and through Jesus, God’s deep love and commitment for all of creation and desire to bring humanity into the work of extending God’s love to the world around us. Not to earn our salvation, but to participate in it in the here and now, God’s new creation. God is at work. God is alive. God is active now.
The Holy Spirit, a gift of God through Jesus Christ, is a gift of baptism, and the Holy Spirit is not just for preachers, but also for you. As we conclude the Easter season this Pentecost, may we remember that in baptism, God claims us from sin and death and renames us Child of God. And I invite you right now, if you’ve gathered that bowl of water and have that candle lit, to dip your finger in the water and trace a sign of the cross on your forehead to remember that, in baptism, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. And that is something no one can take away.
And now, hear this blessing: God who is rich in mercy and love gives us new birth into a living hope through the sacrament of baptism. By water and the Word, God delivers us from sin and death, and raises us to new life in Jesus Christ. We are united with all the baptized in one Body of Christ, anointed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and joined in God’s mission for the life of the world.
We give you thanks, oh God, that through water and the Holy Spirit, you give us new birth. Cleanse us from sin and raise us to eternal life. Stir up in your people the gift of your Holy Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the Spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. And God, may your Spirit pursue us relentlessly to use our freedom to participate in loving our neighbor by working for the freedom of all.