Pentecost Lost… and found
Light the candles, sing the songs, cut the cake, burst the piñata — it’s a birthday. Laugh, dance, tease, shout out “Many Happy Returns!!” WAIT A MINUTE… Which Birthday is it? PENTECOST? Where? What if the gifts of Pentecost go missing this year? Shouldn’t we send out a missing feast day alert?
Pentecost is said to be the birthday of the church. Why celebrate the Spirit first unleashed two millenia ago? Should I wear red on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018 as in other years? Perhaps not. Scanning the international, national and ecclesial horizon, there is little evidence such celebration is in order or that Pentecost will have much of a season in our world today. Pentecost has gone missing.
The Pentecost Season in the church is to last several months. It is when we read some of the greatest chapters in Christian scripture — Acts 2, Ezekiel 37, Romans 8, Psalm 104, Galatians 3. And, the most reiterated word (and theme) in these passages? It is “ALL,” as in “EVERYONE,” “EACH TOGETHER.”
Here is the core identity of church, the basic DNA of God’s people. In these texts it is made clear — God includes all persons. Further, we are to love and protect ALL of creation. Francis of Assisi had it right — we indeed are relatives to brother sun and sister moon. Pentecost is about including, renewing, accepting, out-reaching. It is about creating community and not simply talking about community. In Pentecost we learn the meaning of neighboring with God and with one another.
Romans 8 speaks of all creation groaning in new birth. The work of the Spirit is about new life, addition to our social fabric and our communities of friends. It is not an excluding or dividing. Rather, Pentecost passages include, extend, restore. Like the dry bones in Ezekiel, this is a focus on that which has been separated or torn asunder being made whole. God’s heart in any Pentecost celebration is about inclusion.
If the word “All” were to be left out of these passages, they turn to gibberish. Or, if words like “everyone,” “each,” or “every nation,” “every tongue” or “all flesh” were to be omitted, Pentecost vanishes. No need for celebration, no call for many happy returns — Pentecost would drift away, vaporize, disappear.
At a national level, in the U.S. today, Pentecost may have gone missing. The preachers who affirm the mean and divisive ways of this president, have missed the story and meaning of Pentecost for our world. Instead of a Pentecost vision we are offered border walls, white nationalist rhetoric, the separating of children from undocumented parents, thinly veiled racism that smoothly falls from the lips of national leaders. Pentecost seems hidden by ugly bigotries. On so many fronts the vision of Pentecost seems erased.
Racism and Patriarchy continue to plague our nation and blind us to the story of Pentecost. We are still discovering the enormity of these curses on our national psyche and our people. Racism and sexism is baked into all we do and who we are as a nation — it masks any signs of Pentecost among us.
Take for example the tragedy of the maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States. These percentages are growing and are almost exclusively due to the increased percentage of deaths among African-American mothers and their children. “We are the only developed country the [mortality] rate is going up.” (https://www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily. The Daily, New York Times podcast, May 11,2018).
Our “infant mortality rate is high… It is 32nd out of the 35 most developed countries… A black woman is 2 to 3 times more likely to die in child-birth than a white woman and a black baby 2.2 times more likely to die than a white baby… This racial disparity is larger now than it was in 1850!” (Listen to “A Life-or-Death Crises for Black Mothers” on The Daily podcast, May 11, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily).
Today there is now overwhelming research that demonstrates this disparity in mortality is grounded in the racism of our institutions and cultural life in the United States. Such disparity does not exist to this extent in other countries. One of the most astonishing discoveries has been named the “weathering” of African-American women. (Again, Listen to “A Life-or-Death Crises for Black Mothers” on The Daily podcast, May 11, 2018.) Weathering is language that speaks of the results of chronic toxic stress on African-American women. This is the impact of racism on the body of women facing day-in and day-out challenges and diminishment in this society due to their racial identity. Put simply, our racism damages the bodies of our sisters.
Or take, for example, the patriarchy that still distorts the church from genuine expressions of the gospel — from the meaning of Pentecost. Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson has finally apologized from insensitive and dangerous remarks about women needing to stay in homes where they are being physically abused so that “they might be a witness” to abusive husbands. Patterson only recently also acknowledged that some sermon illustrations about young women were “hurtful.” It is tragic. Still this denomination and many others exclude women in leadership in multiple ways.
In my own denomination, United Methodism, we live under our own distortions of Pentecost. Jeremy Smith has argued that “the Gay Panic” has also harmed women and equality throughout the denomination. In his most recent posting Smith outlines the ways the United Methodist Church is damaged by an inability to welcome all people. (Gay Panic Harms Women and Equality, Jeremy Smith, May 11, 2018.)
In a stunning, dispiriting outcome this past week, United Methodists learned that a constitutional amendment stating that woman and girls were to be equals in the church, narrowly failed to receive the two-thirds vote from the world-wide denomination necessary for its approval. A re-vote is scheduled due to some mistakes in the original stated language of the amendment. Still, no matter. Damage done. Patriarchy clearly asserted, riding the coattails of Gay Panic in the church. Where is Pentecost in this?
Still I confess to being a prisoner of hope. Just when I believe Pentecost has been lost or gone into permanent hiding, there are experiences that renew and restore.
As in so many other places in my life, I have discovered that I was looking for Pentecost in all the wrong places. Our nation and our churches seem to be drifting away from the SPIRIT BEING A GIFT TO EVERYONE. Still there are Pentecost tracks and genuine sightings all around. Last Sunday I saw evidences of Pentecost at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Chicago. And, I know that such signs are bubbling up in churches like Broadway United Methodist in Indianapolis and St. Marks United Methodist in Bloomington Indiana (where I worship). I see it there — almost weekly. There it is — the Spirit given to ALL.
Then today, I caught what will be an enduring glimpse of Pentecost for me. It was the dedication of two Habitat for Humanity Houses in my town. Two homes — one for Colleen and her daughter Juliana; another for Rachel. Two houses — built by women and for women. There were women crew chiefs and three-hundred-and-forty (340) local women working on these builds! These women raised the money, hammered the nails, put on the roof, painted the walls and finished these homes. They completed two homes in two weeks (take that Paige Patterson)!
I watched as the crew leaders passed the keys along a line of celebration — each one a contributor — and then to the new owners. I watched Colleen and Juliana accepted the keys to their home. They have worked hard to get to this point — their own homes, their own mortgages — after years of living it difficult, counter productive situations.
Then keys were passed to Rachel. When I heard Rachel say “I have worked hard but you women have taught me more than building, you have taught that we need each other. Hey, this is MY House but your love is in every board,” I caught a glimpse of Pentecost. It has been in hiding for me, but I might see it more clearly yet. I may even wear red on May 20, Pentecost Sunday!