Year C; Pentecost Sunday; 6.9.2019
Come, Holy Spirit, empower us. Come, Holy Spirit, inspire us. Come, Holy Spirit, unify us.
Today is the day of Pentecost when Christians glory in the amazing power of Christ’s Spirit. We enthusiastically wear the color red to remind us of the “tongues of fire” that seemed to light atop the heads of the disciples as the mighty wind brought God’s Spirit into their lives. In physics class I remember measuring the energy of fire. For those of us who count calories, we can delight in the fact that the unit of measure for fire is a calorie!
Today, we remember that Christ’s death and resurrection was not held captive in time. God saw to it that Christ ascended into heaven and his Spirit is sent to each of us and to Christ’s Body, the Church. God’s Spirit has been giving power, inspiration and unity to Christians for centuries. The souls of the pilgrims that day in Jerusalem who had come from all ends of the Roman Empire, from North Africa, the center of what is now Turkey, Cappadocia, Europe and even Arabia – these souls were witnesses to the strength of the Spirit blowing into their lives, and they were so delighted by what was happening that they appeared to the mocking crowd to be drunk. Their delight and amazement was expressed as “drunken delight.” Now, I’d say that is the character of a great party!
I was away last week studying the theology of Reconciliation at the annual summer institute at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. Our diverse gathering of about 90 lay Christians, academics and ordained people read like the list like we find in Acts: Burundi, Peru, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Chicago, Rwanda, El Salvador, Durham, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Brunswick, Richmond, Colombia…just to name a few.
While I was there, I had good evening conversations with my mother on the phone in her Lawrence, Kansas nursing home. She is 93 and has been in a wheelchair since her stroke in 2012. On Wednesday evening, I could tell she was tired and her speech was slurring. Still, we enjoyed our conversation. She always tells me to be “a good girl.” I always tell her to be “a good girl.” We always giggle about it, but that evening, I also wondered if something was amiss.
And indeed, the next night, she had a massive stroke and now is receiving prayers from us and her church, Plymouth Congregational Church. Right now she is receiving hospice care. My family and I are consoled by your prayers. Thank you.
These are the times of our lives when the faithful truly hope in the Apostle Paul’s words that nothing, not even death can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And we believe that it’s the unifying character of the Spirit to bring us together, to “draw us in the Spirit’s tether” to quote a hymn of unity and connection.
“Draw us in the Spirit’s tether, For when humbly in Thy name, Two or three are met together, Thou are in the midst of them…” We are indeed drawn together in the Spirit and we know Christ is in the midst of us.
Cloaked, consoled, awed, amazed, energized and inspired, we, like that early morning Jerusalem pilgrim crowd join each other in the common bond that God’s Spirit provides for us. My delight this week as I met with my small group during the conference, was to be able to speak to each other frankly about racial reconciliation. Our group was given the name, “Righteous Resisters,” and our expert facilitator and professor shared videos and readings that invited us to delve deeply into our cultural heritage and explore our ancestry. Some of us descended from European ancestry. Some descended from western African ancestry. Some of us descended from indigenous grandparents in the mountains of Bolivia. Some of us descended from Native Americans, Dutch and Indonesian ancestors.
We read material that challenged the European-centered interpretations of Scripture and of Jesus in art, and we imagined what Jesus would have looked like as a Middle Eastern Jewish man. We read Acts 2 and imagined the gathering of pilgrims that day of Pentecost and wondered what THAT mix of people would have looked like – so very different from a 21stcentury crowd sitting here today. We learned that connection with each other in Christ is a gift and that the Spirit guides us and inspires us in our connections.
One of the presenters last week introduced us to the work of Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, Inc., a South Central Los Angeles non-profit gang intervention organization. Father Boyle is a Jesuit priest and currently employs over 400 former gang members. Rival gang members learn to bake bread together and sell it. They all wear the hair nets – certainly hairnets are a unifying kind of garment! They learn how to remove tattoos of their gang markings. They produce silk-screen and embroidery garments for sale.
Our presenter told a story about Father Boyle and his “homeboy” former gang members. Three of his “homeboy” former gang members made a trip to Washington, D.C. at the invitation of First Lady Laura Bush. Laura Bush had learned of their program and has since championed Homeboy Industries. She was organizing a conference on Youth at the White House and knew that their stories would inspire others at her forum. She not only invited them to speak at the forum, she invited them for dinner at the White House.
Well, just to consider such an invitation, there were several factors that made it an impossibility. First, everyone at Homeboy Industries has an arrest record. By law they were not permitted to leave the State. Not one of their parole officers was willing to go to bat for them.
Not only that, they clearly could not and did not pass the Secret Service background checks. The fact that none of the three young men had a suit or tie paled in importance to getting the parole officers and the Secret Service to allow them to accept the First Lady’s invitation. Eventually, though, at the last minute, they were allowed to take the trip.
Gabriel was one of the three. He was covered in tattoos, all around his neck, down his arms and across his back. His language was “street” and coarse. AND he had cleaned up, sobered up and was one of the most trusted employees of Homeboy Industries. On their flight back to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., at about 34,000 feet, somewhere over the Midwest, Gabriel turned to Fr. Boyle and asked if he knew where the restroom was. “In the back,” replied Father Boyle. Gabriel went back and didn’t return to his seat until 45 minutes later.
“Where WERE you? I thought you fell in,” Boyle kind of testily asked him. Gabriel looked back and said, “I made that lady cry. I don’t know if that’s ok.” Gabriel said she’d asked him about his shirt. It had a Homeboy Industries, Inc. embroidered logo on it. He told her that he worked there and that they were on their way back home from Washington, D.C. where they were invited to the White House to tell about their work. He told her that he worked with rival gang members to bake and sell bread. He told her about removing the gang tattoos and the work they do to embroider things like the logo on the shirt he was wearing. He told her about eating dinner at the White House.
“And she cried and I don’t understand,” he said.
Father Boyle, great theologian and shepherd that he is, replied, “What did you expect? She caught a glimpse of YOU. She saw YOU. She saw that you are somebody. She recognized YOU as the shape of God’s heart. People cry sometimes when they see that….”
…and suddenly two souls are “tethered by the Spirit” and recognize their worth even at 34,000 feet. And there were tears of delight and a deep understanding, in the language of connection.
Gabriel’s story makes me wonder: have there been encounters in our own lives when we see the Spirit tethering US with an unlikely soul? When have we been moved to tears by the story of someone whose ancestry is very different from ours?
Are we able to see the “other” and recognize the shape of God’s heart in them?