Are We on Fire?

Pentecost is one of my favourite Sundays in the church year. Sixteen years ago, I was ordained on Pentecost, wearing the stole you can see as a backdrop. Pentecost… the wind of the Holy Spirit swirling and dancing… tongues of fire touching each one, empowering the frightened disciples. Pentecost… passion, excitement and commitment unleashed upon the world. But it doesn’t feel that way today…

For one thing, we are not gathered together in one place. And for another, the Holy Spirit, ruach, an African American’s very breath was snuffed out this past week… … simply because he was African American. There was a rally in Halifax yesterday because Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a woman with roots in Nova Scotia’s Black community dead after an encounter with the police in her home. No, we don’t usually have the kind of racial violence that seems to permeate the United States… but we have racism… less overt… and in some ways harder to address. We have women and men who are prevented from reaching their full potential because of the colour of their skin. We have disproportionate rates of incarceration for people of colour in Canada.

We who have white skin have a great big dose of unearned privilege. Let me be clear, having white privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been challenging, but it does mean that the colour of your skin hasn’t made it more challenging.

Susan Leblanc, MLA for Dartmouth North wrote this in her newsletter on Saturday, “As I write this, I am mindful that over the past several days there have been numerous instances of violence against people of African Descent in the news, both in the United States and here in Canada. This news has been deeply heartbreaking and angering. Dartmouth North is home to a historical and significant population of African Nova Scotian people, and I want to send a message of compassionate solidarity to that community. Many Black people do not feel safe on our streets, in our green spaces, in our institutions and even in their neighbourhoods and homes. As a white person and a legislator, I take seriously my role in addressing and taking action on this problem. It is up to us to call out racist acts and work to address the systemic racism that is at play in many of our government systems. Black lives do, and always will, matter.”

As always when I preach, I take the events in our world and put them alongside the scripture readings for the week. Pentecost is a harvest festival, taking place fifty days after the Feast of the Passover. It’s a Jewish festival and symbols abound! The wind may remind us of God’s Spirit in creation. Fire may remind us of the pillar of fire that guided Moses and the people escaping from slavery. The languages were understandable and may represent how the gospel can transcend divisions and be relevant in any culture. If the precise details of Luke’s account may be unclear, the essential message is not: the followers of Jesus were changed from a timid group, hiding with their memories in the Upper Room, to a group inspired to change the world.
Let’s listen, as the story unfolds in Acts 2: 1-21:

2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2:2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 2:3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 2:5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 2:6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 2:7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 2:8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 2:9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 2:10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 2:11 Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

2:12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

2:13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

2:14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 2:15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 2:16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 2:17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 2:18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 2:19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 2:20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 2:21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Debie Thomas, in her lectionary essay wrote this: The story Luke describes is a fantastical one, full of details that challenge the imagination. Tongues of fire. Rushing wind. Bold preaching. Mass baptism. But at its heart, the Pentecost story is not about spectacle and drama. It’s about the Holy Spirit showing up and transforming ordinary, imperfect, frightened people into the Body of Christ. It’s about God disrupting and disorienting our humdrum ways of engaging the sacred, so that something new and holy can be born within and among us. It’s about the Spirit carrying us out of suspicion, tribalism, and fear, into a radical new way of engaging God and our neighbor. (Debie Thomas – Journey with Jesus)

That last sentence is key to me: It’s about the Spirit carrying us out of suspicion, tribalism, and fear, into a radical new way of engaging God and our neighbour. This time of enforced isolation had made us grapple with a new way to be the church… Covid-19 has changed us forever. The Holy Spirit has knocked down our walls and enabled us to connect with many others, near and far. Will we become fearful and want to stay behind the brick and mortar walls of our church building? Or will be catch Pentecost fire and want to share the all inclusive, all liberating, all loving message of Jesus?

We are not singing ‘It Only Takes a Spark’ but as I was writing this reflection, the words came to mind.

It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
and soon all those around can warm up in its glowing:
that’s how it is with God’s love,
once you’ve experienced it:
you spread God’s love to everyone,
you want to pass it on.

A fire can give warmth and it can destroy. It can give life and it can bring death. What spark is laying dormant in your heart? In our hearts? What spark needs the wind of the Holy Spirit to fan its flames so that we can spread God’s love around? For it’s not up to us. Or rather, it’s not only up to us. Because if it is only up to us, what need do we have of God?

There are two things that are burning in my heart… one is around food security and one is around racism. Our Food Bank is a wonderful ministry… but as most of us know, Food Banks were meant to be temporary… As I have spent time in Dartmouth North, I see all kinds of small pieces of land… what if we started or partnered with some other organizations and people in the community to grow food in those places? What kind of barriers might be broken down? What kind of relationships might develop? Anyone who has spent time working on a church project knows just how much a common task helps build friendship and trust.

The other is more cerebral. I am wondering who would like to read and discuss together a book entitled White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism? This book will make us uncomfortable; it’s on my shelf, but unread.

If we are committed to following Jesus… If we believe that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on each person… Are we willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit that is blowing through our lives? Can we stay silent in the face of hunger? Can we stay silent in the face of racial injustice? Are we ready for the Spirit to carry us out of suspicion, tribalism, and fear, into a radical new way of engaging God and our neighbor?

Pentecost is now!

Pentecost is now!

Pentecost is now!

Acts 2: 1-21
May 31, 2020 – SMUC


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