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Trusting the Spirit

A sermon on Acts 2:1-21

(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash)

Pentecost Sunday has long been one of my favorite Sundays of the church year.

I love the imagery of God’s Spirit pouring out on God’s people with the undeniable energy of wind and fire.

I love the recognition that THE VERY FIRST THING that happens in the formation of Christ’s church is God’s work of inclusion, a miraculous act of communication that redeems the confusion of languages from the Towel of Babel and ensures that every person, of every language and nationality knows that they are truly welcomed in the new thing that God is doing.

I love that, in our community here, we are able to embody that same welcome – lifting up and celebrating the diverse heritages and experiences that our members bring to this congregation, and the richness of language and perspectives this diversity provides.

My joy in all that today’s feast day represents means that I always look forward to this worship service.

It speaks to my soul about all of the reasons for hope for Christ’s church – both through the confidence we can have in the power of God’s Spirit, and for the evidence of the work that Spirit is doing here, among us.

This year, however, I began to realize that my personal love of this celebration might be blinding me to an important part of this story: the fact that a joyful response to the Spirit’s movement is by no means universal.

There is joy in the scene reported in Acts chapter 2.

Some of the observers are amazed. They hear the witness to God’s power in their own native languages and they feel included and valued.

If we read on to the end of the scene, we learn that about 3,000 people that day responded to Peter’s call to change their hearts and lives![1] They were baptized that day and joined the new community of faith, living together in joy and unity.

But there are other reactions as well. Some of the people are astonished (vs. 7) or perplexed (vs. 12) – confused by such chaotic and unexpected behavior… a reaction that is just as likely to repel as to inspire holy curiosity.

And others are unambiguously bothered – sneering at the miracle and ascribing a derisive interpretation.

Rather than consider that God might be doing something disruptive but nevertheless good, they reject what is happening and cast aspersions on the authority of those involved, deciding that they are just drunk and disorderly.

Peter responds to the detractors, of course, and his impassioned witness to the story of Christ and Christ’s promises to the church is what brings the 3,000 new people into the community… but there is no claim in the text that this 3,000 represents the entire gathered crowd.

Considering human nature… it probably wasn’t.

There were almost certainly people there, witnesses to the outpouring of God’s Spirit that birthed a diverse and transformed community, who just walked away…

Because it was too unexpected… too disturbing… too challenging to the way they were used to encountering God.

This is the part of the Pentecost story that I have been grappling with this week … the reality that God’s life-changing way of breaking into our human stories and disrupting the status quo in order to do something powerful and new… doesn’t always feel like good news.

And the more attached we are to the status quo… the more the current way of doing things advantages us, or makes us feel comfortable, the more likely we are to see the evidence of God’s Spirit moving as evidence that someone else is out of bounds.

I know I have done this more than once in my journey of faith.

At this point in my journey, I am intentionally conscious about that temptation.

I try to stay open and to seek God’s guidance in discerning about things that make me feel skeptical or defensive, rather than just going with my gut.

But I also know the power of defensiveness from the inside. I know that it’s always possible that I will be the one turning my back on God’s rushing wind of the Spirit because it’s blowing in a direction I can’t come to grips with… or because it’s threatening to knock down a structure that gives me power, or protection.

Our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, may very well be facing our own Pentecost moment right now… and I’m not sure if the powers that be are going to end up on the side that God’s Spirit is blowing.

The broad, public commitments of the ELCA call for the same inclusive welcome that the Pentecost story so clearly and powerfully proclaims to be God’s plan for the church.

Of the five values articulated in the ELCA’s Mission and Vision statement, one specifies “inclusion and diversity,” and another calls for “courage and openness to change.”

There is a stated commitment to “challenge dynamics of power and privilege that create barriers to participation and equity in this church and society – for women, people of color, minority ethnic groups, people with disabilities, people who are marginalized or living in poverty, and the LGBTQ community.” [2]

These are Pentecost commitments!

But recent actions in one or our Synods, and from the Presiding Bishop, have caused serious harm to the credibility of these commitments.

Yesterday, by e-mail, I shared a letter from New Jersey’s Bishop, Tracie Bartholomew, that provides some context about these actions. For those who have not had a chance to read it or any other information about the current crisis, the simplest explanation I can offer is this:

Last December, Bishop Meghan Rohrer and the Synod Council of the Sierra Pacific Synod, in consultation with the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, used their power to remove the pastor of a Mission Development congregation of Latinx people in Stockton, California, effectively dismantling and defunding this faith community of more than 300 members.

There is a complicated and disputed story about the events that led to the removal, but it is clear that the way in which the removal was done, including the choice to do it on the most important feast-day of the community, caused traumatic harm to this vital and growing immigrant faith community.

It is also clear that Bishop Rohrer deliberately refused to consider the specific cultural needs of the Mexican-American community that made up the church.

Policies and procedures deeply rooted in white cultural values were prioritized over the well-being of our siblings of color, both in the initial action and in all the conflict that has followed.

Regardless of whether the intent of the action was racist, racist tropes have been used to defend the action, and the procedures of our overwhelmingly white institution have been used to avoid accountability for that racist harm.

At the urging of every Lutheran organization that represents ethnic and racial minorities, the Presiding Bishop eventually convened a Listening Panel to investigate the actions of Bishop Rohrer.

The results of that panel’s investigation were released publicly this week, and they are painful to read.[3]

Bishop Rohrer has exhibited a pattern of racist action and abuse of power. People of color in our church have been deeply hurt. Their faith in the values and inclusive commitments of our denomination have been shattered.

The listening panel recommended disciplinary action against Bishop Rohrer and restitution to those most directly harmed.

Presiding Bishop Easton has committed to follow some of the recommendations from the listening panel, but not these two most pivotal steps.[4]

And there are leaders now who are starting to talk about a split in the ELCA… and people of color wondering how they can ever again believe that they are actually valued in this denomination.

The story is so much more complicated than this summary.

It is made all the more painful by the fact that so many of us across the denomination celebrated Bishop Rohrer’s election last Spring as the first trans bishop in the ELCA.

Some of those celebrants were members of the very community that Bishop Rohrer has since traumatized and devalued.

This whole mess raises questions about where God’s Spirit is in any of it!

Enough questions that I debated with myself whether to share this story with you all, because the last thing I want to do is to push you to question whether this church values you!

But silence in the face of injustice perpetuates injustice.

And today is a day where we celebrate God sending tongues of fire to speak truth in a language that EVERYONE will hear and understand.

So, we have to tell the truth, and find a way to trust that the flaming wind of God’s Spirit is still present and active – perhaps setting fire to the systems that stop us from living into the values we have claimed, so that new life can emerge.

I think that most of us, myself included, want inclusion and diversity to be a simple path… one that can make us all feel good about how welcoming we are, and how much the church benefits by opening our arms to everyone.

We want it to be obvious to everyone that including and valuing people over policies is the way of the gospel, and then just do that.

But even on the very first Pentecost not everyone was willing to embrace the Spirit’s fire.

And true inclusion requires the same kind of change that was a barrier to them.

It requires the willingness to genuinely value the things that are important to another culture, rather than letting our agendas or systems take precedence.

It requires us to question the “don’t say anything the lawyer tells you not to” instincts of our institutions and commit to true accountability and restitution when wrong has been done.

It requires the vulnerability to let go of the ways of doing church that keep us comfortable, so that those on the margins can know they matter more than our policies and systems of power.

The situation in the Sierra Pacific Synod and the Office of the Presiding Bishop is continuing to evolve, with new developments happening over the course of this weekend.

But whatever happens in this crisis, my hope and my prayer for our denomination and for Christ’s Church is that we will be able to recognize the movement of Christ’s Spirit… even… especially when those tongues of flame are burning down the systems that make those with power feel safe.

May we always trust the ways that God’s Spirit calls us to hear new voices, and include people on the margins, and re-discover the disorienting and life-changing joy of Pentecost.

Thanks be to God.


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