Today is the Feast of Pentecost. At the Eucharistic liturgy on this day we always here the story of the Holy Spirit’s descent on the disciples on this day as tongues of fire, and of their transformation from a group of puzzled and disoriented followers of a Jesus Christ who had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, to a band of missionaries, evangelists, and healers, who went into all the world proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ and making disciples.
It’s a powerful story and even at a distance of 2000 years we are quickly caught up in the excitement and strangeness of it all. On this day when we celebrate the flames of the Holy Spirit burning in the hearts of the faithful, we also lament the flames that are burning in cities throughout this nation, and even here in Madison last night, as we watched on live video a police cruising being burnt.
There are many kinds of flames, flames of passion and love, flames of hatred and violence, and at this moment in our nation’s and city’s history, we are anxious and fearful. Many of us are outraged, not just by the all too familiar stories of police killing unarmed people, but by the scenes of militarized police attacking peaceful demonstrators, and also of those few instigators of violence who want to burn everything down, or by inciting violence, bring destruction on our communities, our cities, our nation.
We grasp for an appropriate, faithful, effective response to the injustice, racism, and violence we see, wondering how we as individuals or as the body of Christ might offer a witness to Christ’s love in the midst of this ongoing tragedy. The reading from Acts for the daily office seems especially fitting for our situation. It’s early days in the little Christian community. The disciples are still in Jerusalem, still worshipping in the temple, still figuring out what they are supposed to do, and how they should go about it. In chapter 2, there’s the coming of the Holy Spirit. Chapter 3 offers an account of an event that took place some time after Pentecost. Peter and John were going into the temple for daily prayer when they encountered a lame man who was brought by others to beg at the entrance. They heal him, and then go into the temple and preach.
Today’s reading picks up after that. They were arrested in the temple for preaching and brought before the council for a hearing. Peter’s testimony, and the presence with them of the man who had been healed forced the authorities to release them. It’s here that our reading picks up with Peter’s response to their demand that they no longer speak publicly about Jesus. Released from custody, Peter and John returned to the gathered community, and instead of retreating or keeping their heads down, the faithful prayed that God grant them the strength “to speak the word with boldness.”
And then we are presented with that powerful image of the believers “who were one heart and one soul” and all things were held in common. Hearing that description of a community united not only theologically but materially, sharing all possessions, confronts us with the vast chasm that divides the image of that community with what we see in our own city and nation. Economic and racial inequities persist, with the effects of those inequities being on full display thanks to COVID-19. Not only the way the disease hits and kills communities of color disproportionately, but that many in those communities are forced to put their own lives at risk as they seek to survive and earn money.
We see these inequities. At Grace we have been talking about the deep racial inequities in Dane County and Wisconsin for over five years but we seem to have little to show for it. Our consciousnesses have been raised, our white liberal guilt assuaged from time to time by the efforts members of our congregation have made, by the programs we have supported and organized, and by our involvement in organizations like MOSES, an interfaith group that is advocating for criminal justice reform. We have had dialogues on racism, hosted press conferences and other gatherings. We have done a great deal.
But little has changed. The inequities persist in spite of all our efforts and the efforts of so many others who are working toward a more just city and nation.
And now we are dispersed, prevented from gathering physically, sensing that as a community, the bonds that unite us are increasingly fragile, as “virtual” as our worship. I find it increasingly eerie when I go downtown. While the streets and sidewalks are not nearly as empty as they were a month or two ago, there’s still a very strong sense that the city has been abandoned. The Capitol Square, the public square is empty and silent. And next to the public square, the church is empty and silent as well, except for the bells that ring the hour.
In this time of suffering, fear, anger, and violence, we are called to speak boldly and to be a healing presence. We must find the strength to speak and to call our community to justice. We must find the courage to bear witness to injustice and oppression. And we must be present, for only in our presence can we do what we must do, which is to listen to the suffering voices of the oppressed and afflicted, to hear their stories. And we as we listen, we must look for signs of Christ’s presence among those voices and stories. For on the cross Jesus suffered as one of them, and they, communities of color, victims of injustice and oppression, are the crucified classes of our time.
As we discern where the Holy Spirit is leading us, as we seek to be faithful to God’s call and to respond to our community’s need, as we reimagine our identity in this new era, may the Holy Spirit guide us, giving us the strength to speak boldly and the wisdom to listen deeply and carefully.