+ A sermon for Pentecost Sunday at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on May 31, 2020 +

Texts: Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, John 20:19-23

Video: LINK

In the beginning, Genesis tells us, when God created the heavens and the earth, the Spirit of God moved over the waters bringing forth light and form and vegetation and animals.
And it was good.
Genesis goes on to tell us that God formed the first human, made in God’s own image, from the rich, dark soil of the garden.
And into adam’s nostrils, God breathed the breath of life, and adam came alive.
And according to Genesis, from that first parent, every human on this planet finds our common ancestor, that like that first human, we have each been made in God’s divine image and breathe in our lungs the Breath of God.

Now, in English, we have different words for ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ and those words have different connotations.
But there is no distinction in Hebrew, the original language of Genesis.
We hear only of רוח (ruach) which means ‘breath’ or ‘wind’ or ‘spirit.’
And the same is true in Greek, those same words are all summed up in the Greek word πνεῦμα (pneuma).
So, when we hear that the Spirit of God moved over the waters to bring creation into being, we also hear that God breathed that same Spirit into adam’s nostrils to bring humanity to life.
That each of us has God’s Spirit in our lungs, in our bodies that were crafted in God’s image from the rich, dark soil of the earth.

And so it’s no accident that we hear from John’s gospel about how the Resurrected Christ breathed upon his disciples the Holy Spirit, that same Spirit of God and Breath of his new creation and resurrection Life, commissioning them and sending them as his representatives on earth to continue his ministry of healing and reconciliation.

It goes without saying that breathing is essential to life, and yet I would guess that most of us give our breath very little thought.
Unless we are training for athletic events or learning to sing, it’s likely that we have rarely paid attention to our breathing.
But this simple action that we do 25,000 times each day[1] has a lot of power over us.
We can slow our breathing to calm anxieties, prepare for bed, or pray.
Or we can speed up our breathing to prepare for action, to get more blood flowing, to get geared up to fight.
Breath is one of the few things we can control so easily that has such a massive impact on our lives and our bodies.
Except when it isn’t something we can control.

I’ve been thinking a lot about breath this week.
For months we have had global fear and anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic, about this virus that attacks the body’s respiratory system and makes it difficult to breathe.
This past week, we officially marked the grim milestone of 100,000 Americans whose breath was stolen by this coronavirus—a disproportionate number of those lost coming from communities of color.
And on Monday, we heard those haunting words as video was released of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“I can’t breathe,” he cried as a police officer’s knee crushed his neck, the latest in a string of Black Americans whose breath was stolen by the viruses of racism and white supremacy.
This after Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Dreasjon Reed all had their breathing prematurely and permanently stopped in the past few weeks and after what could have been a similar tragedy was thankfully avoided in New York’s Central Park.

An activist holds a “Black Lives Matter” signs outside the Minneapolis Police Fourth Precinct building following the officer-involved shooting of Jamar Clark on November 15, 2015.
Photo: Tony Webster
Creative Commons: You can use this photo with attribution.

Perhaps your breathing has been heavy this week; I know mine has been.
It’s been hard to catch my breath as I watch our Black siblings lament yet another senseless death with yet another vivid reminder that they are seen as less than in our society, actively and systemically oppressed in this country.
It’s been hard to catch my breath as I’ve seen mourning and lament in the streets of Minneapolis, cries for justice and accountability quickly met by violence.
It’s been hard to catch my breath as I’ve been told yet again that saying Black Lives Matter is somehow controversial and that there must surely be some justification for George Floyd’s murder.

I’ve said it before, and I believe it must be true all the more this week, that we are in a sort of hinge point in our society.
That this is a time in history where the decisions we make and the actions we take will determine what comes next for us.
As I said a few weeks ago, we will not and cannot return to the old way of life that existed before COVID-19, but we must instead decide what our new normal, our new reality will look like.
This week especially, I am reminded that we must also decide how we will take action to dismantle the systemic racism in our society and truly honor our Black and Brown siblings as equal in this country, how we will recognize them as beautifully made and extravagantly loved by our Creator.
This is the time when we must decide how we will act individually, as a community, as the Church.
This is the time when we must take a stand, when we must decide what we will do to make change happen so our new normal is transformed and we forever reject the injustice of the past and dismantle the injustice of the present.

You know, today is typically a celebration in our Church calendar.
It’s a day we all dress up in red and celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit to those first Apostles.
But between pandemics and protests, this year feels a little different, doesn’t it?
This year, we still joyously hear a multitude of languages reading that account from Acts, but it falls a little differently on my ear this time around.
We hear about the Festival of Pentecost, that ancient celebration commemorating the time when God spoke to Moses through a burning bush and gave God’s people the Law: a law that demanded the people care for the marginalized, protect the innocent, and live equitably in the land God was giving them.
And we hear that on that day, peoples from so many nations from all across the known world gathered together in Jerusalem to celebrate.
It evokes a loud a colorful picture in my mind of a bustling and colorful marketplace, full of festivities and loud with the din of a multitude of languages as people of all nations and ethnicities and clans came together to worship God.
And we see the disciples, still huddled in fear in that upper room, waiting to see what would happen next, waiting until that time when Jesus promised he would send them out as his witnesses to all the ends of the earth.

And suddenly there came from heaven the rush of a violent wind, a rushing ruach, a stirring pneuma, that filled the room, that rested on each of them with a burning urgency, and that pushed them out into the marketplace, into the world.
And the Spirit empowers the Apostles to proclaim the gospel to the multitude that is gathered there.
But this year I am reminded that the Spirit didn’t change the ears of the crowd to hear the voices of the Apostles, she didn’t whitewash their diversity or colonize an identity within them, she changed the tongues of the Apostles and gave them the ability to speak to the multitude, each in their own language.
She empowered the Apostles so each person could hear God speaking to them as they are, in their situation, in their beautiful diversity.
On that Pentecost day, the first hinge moment of the Church, the Apostles are shown that the love of God is universal, that it is meant for all people of all nations and all languages and all skin colors.
That God is pouring out the Spirit on all flesh until every person can prophecy to the goodness and glory of God.
And that the mission of the Church is to take that message, that gospel news, to the ends of the earth.

What a message that is for a world, for a country, for a Church, that so often demands conformity, that colonizes an identity, that seeks assimilation over diversity.
What a reminder that just as each person was made in the image of God and given the Breath of God, that if we deny the holiness of our siblings of color, we deny the Holy Spirit within them and cheapen the divine image of humanity.
As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit resides within each and every one of us, filling our very lungs with the breath of life.
And the Apostle Paul tells us that the Spirit is working within each of us, burning towards action, empowering us to use our unique gifts for the common good, use our abilities for the benefit of others—especially the marginalized and oppressed—and that by doing so we can with full breath and full Spirit praise Jesus as Lord.

My friends, today we do celebrate Pentecost, which in itself serves as a sort of annual hinge time in the church calendar.
It’s the third great festival of the year and moves us from the cycle of festivals and commemoration into the long green season of “Ordinary Time” or “the Time after Pentecost.”
This festival cycle began all those months ago on that winter night when we celebrated the divine mystery of a God who chose to slip into the skin of a little brown baby boy living under the oppression and domination of a foreign empire.
How that little boy named Jesus grew up, was anointed by the Holy Spirit, and began his ministry proclaiming the good news of God’s love for all people and inaugurating a new reign rooted in love, justice, and peace.
How this way of living and this new kingdom was so threatening to that Empire and those in power that they killed him by hanging him on a cross—a torturous form of execution that slowly asphyxiates a person, that makes it impossible for them to breathe.
And then we celebrated how God’s love could not be silenced and how life triumphed over death.

And now we celebrate how the resurrected Christ breathed the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, upon those ordinary dark-skinned people living under oppression, and empowered them and us to continue his ministry on earth, to proclaim that same gospel, to live into that new Kingdom of God.
And we’ve marked this day as the birth of the Church, something that has never been properly defined as a building of any sort, but as a band of committed Christ-followers united in action, committed to continuing the life-changing and world-altering ministry of Jesus.
And on this hinge day, on this great festival, we are commissioned again to do just that—to proclaim God’s love for all people, to expand God’s Kingdom and to stand against the empires and powers that reject it, to be Christ’s witnesses to all the ends of the earth.
And we and enter the Time after Pentecost full of the Holy Spirit, emboldened by Christ’s example, ready to take action.
God calls us, God pushes us out of the building and into the world so we can get to work, to live out what we have seen and heard.
We take our place, fill our role, and follow where Christ has led us before.
We celebrate this day how the Spirit of God is being poured out on all flesh and each one of us, our children and our elders, our men and women and gender non-conforming folk, those living under oppression and those who use their freedom to liberate others, all people shall testify to the power of God and the transformation of the gospel.

In his book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US, the Rev. Lenny Duncan, a queer black ELCA Pastor, says that this indeed is the time for the Church to step up.
That this is the time for the Church to take the lead and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
Pastor Lenny writes,

We will have to follow the urgings of the Holy Spirit. We will have to be sensitive when she cries out, particularly when she uses the oppressed and poor as the embodiment of her presence. Leaving behind our safe spaces of privilege and power to instead follow the Spirit’s leading will take practice and hard work…If our gathered communities focus only on propping up the institutions of the church, all we will accomplish is propping up the failing infrastructure of empire. If we applied that same energy toward serving the people outside our church walls, we could be the spark needed to light the flame that burns away the barriers between us and the ever-living God—a God who stands ready to hold us in a warm embrace after generations of weeping for us to be in relationship with God’s own self.[2]

The Rev. Lenny Duncan

The Spirit is calling us, my friends, pushing us into action.
Our Black and Brown siblings have been crying out for decades, for centuries, and too many are literally out of breath.

Dear Church, this is not a time when we can sit by passively, assured of our own righteousness when it comes to racism any more than the Apostles could have sat by in that upper room passively waiting for the coming of God’s Kingdom.
This is a time when we must stand up in solidarity with our Black and Brown siblings, educate ourselves and actively work on our own anti-racism.
To examine our own privilege and how we benefit from this system and utilize that advantage as we amplify the voices of Black and Brown leaders, demand our elected officials take action, dismantle the systemic injustice that is baked into our country, and never cease until each and every child of God is finally seen and valued as beautiful and beloved and equal.
The fires are burning right now, fires protesting injustice and demanding change, fires that seek to burn down the artifice of empire that has been built on the backs of our Black and Brown siblings.
And make no mistake, we are being called out again into the public square, pushed out by the Spirit of God to take a stand, to demand justice, to push for equity, to work until God’s perfect reign is finally established on earth as it is in heaven.

Pentecost mosaic Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay 1500

The Holy Spirt is moving, my friends.
She is hard at work right now.
Can you feel her?
Can you see what she’s doing?
She’s coming down like holy fire, burning down our dividing walls and scorching our complacency.
She’s incinerating our systems of oppression and driving us together.
She’s filling our lungs with Christ’s resurrection life and screaming for God’s justice.
She’s breathing within us both calming our anxieties and preparing us for what’s next.
She’s rushing into our rooms and pushing us into action.

So on this Pentecost Day we cry: “Come, Holy Spirit! Fill our nostrils and our lungs. Guide our actions and our lives. Recreate our world until all people can breathe the breath of your life. Come, Holy Spirit!”

Resources to Start Anti-Racism Work
Not a complete list by any means, but some starting points

[1] NPR Fresh Air. “How The ‘Lost Art’ Of Breathing Can Impact Sleep And Resilience,” May 27, 2020.

[2] Duncan, Lenny. Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US. Fortress Press, 2019. 136.

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