In the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit forms a new community. A new assembly of people that did not exist before the Spirit rushed through Jerusalem. People moved beyond fear and self-limitation to become something the world needed: a community of the living Christ.
It happens first through language. Jerusalem was teeming with people that festival day — people from all over the ancient mediterranean world were there to celebrate the spring harvest. Acts says there were “Parthians, Medes, residents of Cappadocia, Asia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Arabia.” And as Acts goes on to describe, amidst the range of that splendid diversity, “all of them heard in their own language.”
Some of you know what it takes to learn a new language. It doesn’t usually happen all at once, with a rush of a wind and a tongue descending on you. You have to ease into it. You have to change things about your lifestyle, linguists will tell you, so that the language can become familiar over time. My friend, Dr. Eric Barreto, who is himself multilingual, has said “To learn a particular language is to orient oneself in a new way — process reality differently.” Most of all, the first rule of learning a new language is that you have to listen before you can speak. “Listen first. Speak second,” the experts say.
I’m trying to practice that this Pentecost, as the Spirit descends on us today right along with the rushing, roaring pain that is the latest moment in America’s centuries-long crisis with the sin of racism.
In recent days, protest in many of our cities has become the primary story, occurring in so many various forms — including within our city just yesterday — and sparking plenty of debate about what’s productive in leading to change.
But protest can also be understood as a kind of language. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said so. Speaking in 1967 he explained that “our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.” Dr. King’s words coalesce with Langston Hughes’ question on behalf of black Americans, “What happens to a dream deferred?” His ultimate poetic answer: “It explodes”
Dr. King emphasized his own support for nonviolent tactics in the “struggle for freedom and justice,” but in this 1967 speech and at various points in his later work, he would say that “riots are the language of the unheard.”
Some of us are familiar with that quote. But are we as familiar with the question he asks right after? “Riots are the language of the unheard. And what has America failed to hear?”
It’s a vital question to be asking this day, especially for those among us who are white people of faith. What have we failed to hear?
George Floyd’s last words included the repeated phrase, “I can’t breathe.” A wrenching word, but, then, haven’t we had the chance to hear it before? From Eric Garner, six years ago, and from how many others unrecorded or unknown to us, suffocating amidst the burden of racism in its many forms.
The Racial Equity Institute here in our city has described racism as groundwater. Some of you know the analogy, also used by Dr. Eduardo Bonila-Silva, sociologist at Duke University. He says that if you walk by a lake and see a fish dead, you wonder what’s wrong with that fish. If you walk by a lake and you see all the fish dead, you wonder what’s wrong with the lake. But if you walk by every lake, and see a large percentage of the fish dead, then you know it’s underneath somewhere in the groundwater. Racism is that groundwater, flowing in and out of all these lakes we know by their various names: education, healthcare, economics, criminal justice, and on and on. 95% of the earth’s freshwater is underground. So much is unseen. So much goes unheard.
As I was writing this sermon, I heard some sibling screams from outside on the trampoline, as an allegedly accidental elbow from one had knocked the wind out of the other. I jumped up and looked, ran out, cause this was my daughter crying. Her words: “I can’t breathe.”
But how often have I failed to hear it from others? Or heard it and remained seated or still? How often have I remained insulated from it? How often have I ignored the urgency, or kept it somewhere in the distance where it wouldn’t disturb? How often have I been like the rebellious people the Lord describes in Ezekiel 12, “They have eyes to see but do not see, and ears to hear but do not hear.”
Some of us might be hearing this language today as loudly as we ever have before. There seems to me to be a swell of grief, outrage, anger at the reality of racism and the history of white supremacy, along with a collective desire to be more and do more than we have before. But let’s remember that if these are new realizations for us, it’s not because it hasn’t been said before, it’s because we weren’t listening closely. It’s not because the language is new. It’s because our hearing is.
That’s really the gift of Pentecost. Ultimately it’s not new language that the Spirit brings. It’s new listening. New hearing. New understanding.
And that asks a lot of disciples. It takes a lot to understand something anew. After all, before the Spirit ever arrived, those disciples had already been given the call. “You are my witnesses” Jesus had said in Acts 1:8. “You are the ones who must listen and look for my presence in the world, then make it known through your own lives.” And the disciples had to decide if they heard that. In any age, we disciples have to decide if we heard it, and how we will respond to this call to be and do what we have not before.
Many of us have the option to hole up, stop listening, remain insulated, stay stationary, keep it distant so we’re undisturbed. In fact, that’s what Jesus’ first followers do, finding their safe upper room, where everyone speaks the Aramaic they know, where they don’t have to be exposed in the streets, or encounter the diversity of God’s creation, or be out among all these people of every nation and tongue that fill the square. The gospel of John even describes them locked there in that room, out of fear. It’s where we all find ourselves from time to time, with a chair up against the door, wanting to block out the new revelations and preserve what we know, keep the safety of our assumptions, the faith we’ve always known, the experience of the world that has held up for us to this moment, the languages we already understand.
But Acts describes a different vision. There’s a rush of wind, the active movement of the Spirit, and the disciples seem to throw open the doors and windows and follow it out into the street, pouring out into a new vision of their world and believing God’s Spirit can do a new thing.
Peter stands up in the middle of it all and begins to speak. You listen first, but then speak. There comes a time to speak. And we might ask in this moment not only “What have we failed to hear?” but also “What have we failed to speak?”
Can we speak words of lament? Words of righteous anger?
Can we speak unequivocally our opposition to violence, and particularly the prevailing violence against black people in our country?
Can we speak without hesitation our value of human lives, particularly the lives of black sisters and brothers and siblings who are undervalued and threatened in particular ways?
Can we speak the words that Peter calls forth as the passages continues? When asked, “What should we do?” Peter exclaims in verse 38 perhaps the most important words many of us could hear today, as we wonder aloud the same. “What should we do?” Peter says “Repent.” Turn. Change. Be renewed by this Spirit.
It’s something Peter knows about. After all, he had denied his Lord. He had avoided the cross. He had gone far enough away where he was undisturbed, and he couldn’t hear anything as Jesus died and ultimately fell silent. So Peter had thought himself lost and wasted, until Jesus came to find him and said, “Feed my sheep. Love my people. Listen for my voice, and then use your own boldly. Follow the leading of my Spirit. Stand up and dream new dreams and see new visions.”
So Peter comes to know what we now know. How such repentance, such grace, and the power of the Spirit that enables it, can birth new understanding. The Spirit doesn’t bring a return to something safe and familiar. It will not reestablish something normal with the same old language and patterns. It will bring an entirely new community. And we call that community “church.”
In South Minneapolis today one building remains open to the public. It’s a church — Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. I’ve known of this church, and their pastor, Rev. Ingrid Rasmussen, for a little while now, having admired the incredible work they do in their neighborhood, their commitment to inclusion of all people, the work they’ve done as a historically white congregation to work against racism. But I had no idea this church I had admired from a distance was also right in the center of the protests happening all around them this week.
Friday morning, Pastor Rasmussen recorded a video, Facebook Live. It was the first time she’d ever done that, but she took viewers along on an early morning walk around the church’s neighborhood at about 6:30am. 8 months pregnant, she admitted she moved slowly. But she wanted to show what was happening around. She started by saying the name George Floyd and acknowledging that his death and generations of inequality led to the destruction she was seeing around her. And then she began this tour, walking with a deliberate pace for about 10 minutes through the neighborhood she loved, past the local brewery boarded up, the favorite book store, the indian restaurant Gandhi Mahal that has been in the news. She gestured to the spot in the distance where the 3rd police precinct stood before the fire. She passed the two affordable housing developments next door that the church built and maintains, grateful they were thus far unphased.
As she continued the tour, she came to the church’s community garden. The compost bin had been tagged with spray paint. “This is one of two places we were tagged” she said, pointing to the letters BLM, for Black Lives Matter. Pastor Rasmussen said, “Our church members have said that’s maybe a tag we’ll keep,” because I suppose because they’re trying to listen, to hear.
And then she acknowledged all these church members who had been there when she arrived that morning. She had stepped out of her car at about 6am and there they were, cleaning up; offering snacks and water; staffing the aid station in the church for those injured; forming a support center for local business owners; working with local officials to try to bring about the best possible resolution; listening to people and understanding their grief, their anger, their basic needs; providing counseling and direct services. Their pastor was clear, they were not there trying to lock doors or safeguard the church, just trying to be a presence.
“I don’t have many words myself this morning,” she said, finally stopping and sitting down to turn the camera to her face. Then her voice broke, and she cried these tears of weariness and deep pastoral compassion: “This is the church’s neighborhood. It’s also my neighborhood.” And she wiped her face and looked into the camera: “We are trusting, now more than ever, in the promise of the Spirit, who leads us into new realities often before we’re ready and who always, always, always beckons us closer to God’s vision for the world.”
It’s the same spirit that came to those early disciples, sending them from their upper room of safety and sameness out into the Jerusalem streets to become a community beyond any they could have envisioned themselves.
And it’s the same Spirit that comes to us this Pentecost Day, empowering us beyond fear, activating us beyond the safe and familiar, that we might listen faithfully, and understand compassionately, and speak boldly; seeing visions and dreaming dreams and becoming more fully the community of the living Christ that this world needs all over again.