Sunday, June 5, 2022

Pentecost 2022-C: Liberating, transforming love

 Lectionary: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, (25-27)

God, who created us, dwells in us. God dwells in all God has created: human, creature, and nature, and has declared that everything created is not just good, but very good. Everyone and everything issues from the breath and word of God and is, therefore, to be treated with respect and dignity.
Humanity has a long history of establishing hierarchies of people and creation. The notion that some people are better than other people is ludicrous. As much as I enjoy the stories and characters in Downton Abby (and I do want to see the movie), it holds up for us the human habits of sinfulness through classism and elitism – both of which are alive and well in current experience here and across the world.

As our Nicene Creed reminds us: Jesus is the one through whom all things were made. All things – human, creature, and nature. It is only by loving Jesus, clinging to him, keeping our attention focused on him, that we are able to keep his commandment to love God, neighbor, and self as he did.

When Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” he wasn’t asking us to obey rules. Look at all the rules Jesus broke in the name of love! He ate with sinners and tax collectors, touched the lepers and the dead, welcomed and spoke with women and children who weren’t his family.

Entering into love with Jesus means giving up the priority of self and our reliance on the rules we made which divide us into categories for the benefit of a few. For the people in our Scripture stories, that meant letting go of the notion that foreigners were bad, and that women, children, and beasts were of lesser value and could be owned and disrespected.

That’s one of the things the Pentecost event did – it blew away the boundaries of their habits and opened the disciples and all present to something new, amazing, inclusive, and expansive – the love of God in all people.

Another thing the Pentecost event did was awaken the presence of the Spirit of God in the disciples. The tongues of fire that rested on the heads of the disciples are an amazing image. Fire, in Biblical language, is the presence of God. Remember the burning bush in Genesis, the pillar of fire in the desert in Exodus… At that first Pentecost, pieces of God were distributed by Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus. Each one was given a piece of God to bring into the world. Paul talks about these later in his writings about the gifts of the Spirit.

Finally, the Pentecost event bonded people into relationships that previously had been inconceivable. The Good News of the salvation of God in Christ was shared among people who didn’t share language or experience or even respect. Yet God bonded them miraculously and they became one family – the family of God – of which we are the current generation.

Years ago, I was a chaplain on the oncology/hematology unit of a regional hospital in south GA. One day I sat at the bedside of an elderly man, Rufus, who was dying of cancer. Rufus had no teeth and spoke with a very thick southern accent that I found nearly impossible to understand.

As he spoke, I could hear enough to know he was telling me his life story as many dying patients did. Rufus had a 3rd grade education, something about his sisters and his grandmother… and the death of his parents when he was very young.

There I was, knowing how important it was for me to hear this man’s final words, yet feeling helpless and frustrated because I just couldn’t understand him. “Lord, give me Pentecost ears” I cried silently in prayer. “Open my ears so I can understand him – and hurry!”

Just as I finished praying, I literally heard what sounded like the rush of a wind. My ears felt like they popped, the way they do when you’re in an airplane and they adjust to the change in pressure, and suddenly, the man’s voice was as clear as a bell. 

He was talking about meeting the woman who became his wife just before he shipped off to Europe in WWII. He told me about his children, how his heart broke when his son went to prison and the joy his grandchildren and great-grandchildren brought to his life. 

As he spoke, part of me was marveling at the fact that I could actually understand him. Another part of me was aware that we were experiencing a miraculous moment, a moment full of the power of the Holy Spirit. It was at once perplexing and enlivening.

When Rufus finished speaking, he wanted to rest, so I told him I’d sit nearby and read the Psalms to him. As he slept, I looked at this weathered, toothless, 90-something year old man, whose great-grandparents were slaves, and I realized, he felt like family in my heart. Though he died only 6 hours after I’d met him, I will always cherish my memory of Rufus and the Pentecost moment we shared.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once said, “Power at its best is love… implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” (186)

This is the power that came upon those gathered at that first Pentecost and it is the same power that comes upon us today. Filled with the liberating power of love, Peter preached to the people from “every nation under heaven” gathered there in Jerusalem that they were witnessing the fulfillment of God’s promise given through the prophet Joel where God declares, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” Not just male flesh, or Jewish flesh, but all flesh.

Look around you, Peter is telling them. The Holy Spirit is alighting upon all of us: Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, free – and it’s happening now.

On this Day of Pentecost, I declare to you, my beloved siblings in Christ, that God is still pouring God’s Spirit into all flesh: black, brown, white, gay, straight, non-binary... all flesh – and it’s happening now. When we put together the pieces of God that were given to each of us, we can change the world.

That’s why we’re here – in this church. Whenever we gather together to worship and share the holy food of Communion, we are inviting the Spirit of God to awaken the divine love that is in us, to liberate us from a preoccupation with ourselves that we might see and respond to the needs of the people and world around us.

I want to clarify, however, that when we do good works it is not for our own benefit. It isn’t about us doing what we need to do to get into heaven but about us bringing heaven to earth.

Good works happen when God’s presence is awakened within us by the Holy Spirit. That is our Pentecost moment when the proverbial tongue of fire is visibly resting on us, and it happens not just once, but often, continually throughout our lives.

When we come upon someone who doesn’t know the presence of God’s love within themselves and they haven’t experienced it much, if at all, in the world around them, we draw nearer to them – unafraid - as Jesus did with the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20), and allow the awakened Spirit of God in us to reach out to the slumbering Spirit of God in them. It is sinful to blame or judge them, or to get defensive or selfish about the gifts we’ve been given that they have not.

When Rufus and I shared our Pentecost moment, we both felt an immediate closeness, like family, only deeper. In addition, Rufus found the comfort he needed to die in peace and I experienced what it felt like to bring heaven to earth for the sake of another.

I will admit: my heart has been troubled lately. I’ve been so distressed by the school shooting in Uvalde, the subsequent multiple mass murders over the Memorial Day holiday, and even more since then. At last count, there have been nearly 250 mass shootings in the 155 days of 2022.

Realizing that caused my stomach to lurch, but then I remembered Jesus and what his love did in his world and what it is doing in ours – through us. So I’m also at peace, the kind of peace that can only come from Jesus. Conflict and division are historical, continuing earthly realities, but the peace of Christ – the peace that brings wellbeing, wholeness, holiness - is our eternal reality.

God’s own spirit is within us, liberating and transforming us, leading us to change the world simply by unleashing the power of the divine love that abides in us. 

So, let us go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit, with all humility as beloved creatures of God, and change the world! Amen.

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