by Allison Ruari
This is not the kind of sermon I thought I would be giving today. If all were right in the world, we’d be here together, possibly singing “happy birthday” to the church. A group of us would be processing experiences from our immersion trip, seeing our own city in a different way. We would be able to hold our grandkids and celebrate weddings and grieve communally. We wouldn’t know the names George Floyd. Or Breonna Taylor. Or Ahmaud Arbery. Or Philando Castile. Or Sandra Bland. Or Eric Garner. Or Michael Brown. Or Rodney King. Or Emmett Till. Or…
But all is not right with the world. And instead of celebrating this morning with pageantry and liturgy as a community, we’re at home, because that’s what loving our neighbor requires or us. On a day where we envision the Holy Spirit’s presence as breath and wind and fire blowing through us, we remember the words “I can’t breathe” and we see destructive fire, started in order to discredit protests. Instead of singing praises of joy, we’re left with cries of lament and grief. Instead of actively working towards systemic justice, we’re left reckoning our own complicity in passively participating in an a system that make “work” (or work well enough) for us, but falls tremendously short for many of our neighbors and siblings in Christ.
We know from the gospels that Peter and the other disciples had experienced something life-altering and world shattering. They learned from Jesus while he was alive, they grieved his state-sponsored and horrific death, celebrated his resurrection, and were empowered and commissioned to share Jesus’ message after his ascension. And then comes Pentecost, a festival that gathers the Jewish diaspora together, to remember Moses and his experience receiving the 10 commandments. There, Peter and the disciples share signs and wonders that they experienced, deeds of God’s power. Rather than believe that they hear, some at this gathering accuse others of being drunk. Rather than participate in this threshold moment, rather than receiving this invitation to share in God’s mighty acts and deeds, some try and deny the message entirely, saying “They are filled with new wine.” Even when it’s spoken in a language most easily understood, for some at this Pentecost gathering, it’s easier to believe in morning drunkenness than it is in Peter’s inaugural address and invitation into a new community.
Now thanks to Paul’s letters to various Christian communities, we know that the church described in Acts may not paint the most realistic picture of the early church. But it is aspirational—a model of what church can be. A community that emphasizes communal compassion over individual greed and people over profits and property. It’s a community that celebrates and highlights unity in body and spirit, recognizes that those living in the margins will have important words to say and that God’s spirit will put upon their hearts. Young and old, women, and slaves—all named by Peter through the prophet Joel. These are not necessarily those with societal power, yet we are reminded once again that God speaks through the oppressed and pours God’s spirit onto the downtrodden.
Are we listening to the young people’s vision of the future? Are we hearing old people’s dreams of what could be? Do we see our daughters and women prophesying—crying out that this cannot be?
What if being filled with the Holy Spirit requires and demands listening to the experiences of the oppressed without defensiveness or rationalizing your own behavior and instead allows those experiences to change you so that you can work towards bringing a visible peace and tangible justice to a world that God loves so much?
We like to align ourselves with the disciples, sharing the good news of God’s deeds and Acts. Other times, we can see ourselves in awe of receiving God’s message in new and incredible ways. But we also need to acknowledge that we are sometimes the ones saying our neighbors, “They are filled with new wine.” But it sounds more like, “They should have complied” or “All lives matter” or “I don’t see color.” What if these visions and prophesies are ones we just don’t want to hear because it disrupts our sense of comfort?
Every day, as individuals and as a community we’re at a crossroads. But it feels especially prescient today. Because the sin of racism, the sin of promoting property protection over people’s lives—specifically black people’s lives, the sin of complicity and silence—specifically white people’s silence, and the sin of individualism are being highlighted over and over again. Some share a tweet and do nothing more. Some withdraw and disengage because they can. Some seek to make false equivalencies. Some prioritize their feelings over other people’s experiences.
A friend and colleague shared, “If we take Pentecost seriously at all, we’d do well to see it as an invitation to participate in a threshold moment, where words are challenged to become actions and norms for a community that has experienced significant hardship, trauma, and state violence.” She goes on to issue a challenge, “If the repeated killing of People of Color by an empire isn’t a baptism by fire propelling us into anti-racism work, please articulate for me what it means to be the body of Christ at work in the world. Because this is where ecclesiology and theology matter or they don’t.”
What will it be, friends? As a denomination, we have named being a pro-reconciliation, anti-racist church to be a priority. We’ve been doing this work for over 40 years and named it as a denominational priority over twenty years ago. By naming it as a priority, we aspire to use this anti-racism work to be a framework and worldview for how we do ministry. It requires conscious choice “every day for us to be who we say we are. That means not only standing up, but speaking up and acting in solidarity without fear.” Our General Minister and President, Terri Hord Owens offers, “Those first believers in the upper room on that Pentecost were empowered and emboldened by the holy spirit to not only tell the story, but to re-imagine themselves as community and to reimagine themselves as followers of Jesus in relation to a wider community. They knew Jesus, but it wasn’t until the holy spirit came that they had the power and courage to do what was necessary to do what was necessary: to be who they said they were and who Jesus called them to be.”
And yet, opportunities arise. Opportunities for us to listen and lament. Opportunities to sit with each other’s grief and anger. And opportunities for us to examine the radical ways the Holy Spirit is at work, stirring us from placidness and inaction to be the community of Christ. Opportunities to live out Christ’s mission of justice and peace in tangible and visible ways as individuals and a community. Opportunities to learn and re-examine and re-interpret our scriptures and our worldview.
This year marks our 200th year as a congregation in Nashville. Our renovation project has begun. What might we be known for 10 years from now? 50 years from now? 100 years from now? A group that loves and cares for one another? Sure! A building that offers space and respite for the weary? Absolutely! A community that speaks out against injustice and works quickly to mobilize resources and privilege so that BIPOC don’t end up dead on the streets? I certainly hope and pray that it may be so. Christ followers that actively seek tangible solutions for unjust systems, so that everyone has adequate food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare? That’s the ultimate goal isn’t it?
Until then, may we be a community that grieves and laments life lost and may we say their names. May we be a community challenged by the Holy Spirit to work towards unity and dignity and justice. May we be a community who listens and learns to speak one another’s language.
Every time we feel the spirit, moving in our hearts, may we pray. May we pray with our words. May we pray with our hands. May we pray with our feed. May we pray with our resources. May we pray with our privilege. So that God’s will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.
Allison Ruari serves as Associate Minister at Vine Street Christian Church in Nashville, TN where she delivered this sermon on May 31, 2020, Pentecost Sunday.