— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ Pentecost Sunday ~~~
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
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. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
On this Pentecost Sunday when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit coming like a violent wind and fire, when we celebrate the birth of the Christian Church we do so in the midst of an unholy, violent wind blowing throughout our nation and our world. The pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people and led to massive disruption in work and family life in our society. The rush of a mighty wind has blown and rather than leaving life there is a wake of death. How then do we find our voices for singing and our lips for prayer during this awful time of mourning and grief?
I think I found a glimpse of an answer in a story I heard on the radio this week.
She was raised and has remained in body and spirit a part of the Navajo Nation. She played point guard for Arizona State University and then attended medical school. She is now serving as a family medicine physician at the Little Colorado Medical Center in Winslow and at the Indian Heath Care Center. Her name is Dr. Michelle Tom, and she in on the front line of the highest per capita outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States having recently surpassed New York.
I listened to Dr. Tom as she was interviewed on the radio show “On Point” on Wednesday, May 26th. Dr. Michelle Tom talked about how her work is physically tiring – but she learned to manage such physical depletion while playing division 1 basketball. She said her work is mentally taxing – but she learned to manage that stress in medical school. The hardest part of dealing with the outbreak in the Navajo Nation, said Michelle Tom, is spiritual exhaustion.
When the interviewer, Megna Chakrabarti, asked Michelle Tom what was so hard on her spiritually, Dr. Tom’s answer brought to my mind the gifts of the Spirit on Pentecost.
Michelle Tom said that growing up where she now practices medicine she knows everyone. She is biologically related to many but her family is much larger than her immediate family and cousins. She sees the elderly, no matter who they are, as her grandmothers and grandfathers and her contemporaries, no matter who they are, as brothers and sisters. She speaks Navajo to those in ICU and for many of them hearing their native language brings them strength, strength they could not get in a different hospital with non-Indian physicians and nurses. Dr. Tom thinks of her patients as family, and to be on the front lines of the battle with the spreading virus drains her … spiritually.
She is, however, finding strength is her calling to be one with her people, all of them, and in her ability to communicate with them in this time of fear, confusion and isolation. She brings them strength by channeling the strength of the people, especially as she speaks to them in their native language. She finds strength herself by her oneness with her community.
In another interview Dr. Tom said this of her Navajo upbringing: It just comes from the way we are brought up as Navajo people. Our belief system revolves around balance and healing and giving back to your elders and community. You as individual never come first. What comes first is family and the community (ASU, media relations; 4/28/20).
When the Holy Spirit came upon the early church it came breaking down barriers. The Spirit of God is a Spirit of unity, compassion, empathy. The Spirit of God is a Spirit that seeks to open our hearts and minds, our eyes and ears to the truth that we are one family – all elderly are our grandmothers and grandfathers, all people are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins. We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord.
This oneness – and let us not turn our heads from this truth – is what can make us tired because we weep with our fellow family members who are suffering and who are dealing with illness and death. This oneness, however, is also the healing that will come. We are stronger together even and especially in the midst of suffering. God’s Spirit is pushing us to embrace a love that makes us whole and makes us one. The burden of thinking of our full society, of all the people in the world, as our siblings can lead – and let us not turn our heads from this truth – to spiritual exhaustion, but the gift of such a mind and heart is that we find strength and purpose by loving the world as God loves the world. The call of God to love, while it will break our hearts at times, is the way through our present broken-ness and divisions.
It is not news to say that we are living in a time of fear and divisions. Racial tensions have arisen once again with the unnecessary killing of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The virus itself is taking more of a toll in minority communities.
Nearly 40% of all deaths are in nursing homes. We as a people, as a nation, as a society have a calling to see the elderly as our grandmothers and grandfathers, but there is indifference on the part of too many who could have made a difference in these homes where our most vulnerable reside.
Divisions have been revealed in our facing of the pandemic. All too predictably the elderly, African Americans, and the working poor are the hardest hit by the dark wind of the virus. The Holy Spirit of God is being blocked in some groups of people by our inabilities to be empathetic with our neighbors, to see all people as family.
Yet, maybe you heard this story… Dennis Ruhnke, a retired Kansas farmer, donated an unused N95 mask to New York governor Andrew Cuomo to give to a doctor or nurse to use. In a letter to the governor, Ruhnke said he’s frightened by COVID-19, especially because his diabetic wife has only one lung; yet, he wanted to do something for the people of New York. “How beautiful is that?” Cuomo said. “I mean how selfless is that? How giving is that?” (Kansas City Star, April 25, 2020; as reported in Christian Century, May 20, 2020).
Our divisions and inabilities to see one another as one family can be de-spiriting, but, as Fred Rogers said, look for the helpers. Look to Dr. Michelle Tom, look to Dennis Ruhnke. They are showing us the way through the storm. God’s Spirit of love and compassion is finding lodging in hearts.
There’s another important piece of good news to share this day. This day is about the mighty wind, the breathe of God, the Spirit’s work like fire among God’s people.
This day is about what God has done!
This day, Pentecost Sunday, is about what God will forever do!
God has continued to bless us and to strengthen us and to call us to be witnesses to the love of God in Jesus! God gave birth to the church! God gave us the Holy Spirit! We did not give ourselves the Holy Spirit, it came from God. God’s breath has and will forever move in the hearts and minds of God’s people. We can be tired. We can be taxed. We can even fall away exhausted and spent, but God will never stop raising up people and groups, families and societies that embody the truth of God’s healing love.
With this in mind, that Pentecost is really about God’s gifts to us more than it’s about anything we can accomplish on our own, I offer you this story. The story year is in a book by Gail Ramshaw-Schmidt entitled Letters for God’s Name.
It is the night of Passover. A peasant is rushing to finish his work in the fields so he can attend the holy service. But, alas, the sun drops and it is darkness when no travel is permitted.
The next day the rabbi spots him and asks him where he’s been. “Oh, Rabbi, it was terrible – I was stuck in my fields after dark and had to spend the night there.”
“Well,” says the rabbi, “I suppose you at least recited your prayers.”
“That’s the worst of it, Rabbi, I couldn’t remember a single prayer.”
“Then how did you spend the holy evening?” says the rabbi.
The peasant replies, “I could only recite the alphabet and
pray that God would rearrange the letters.”
On this Pentecost Sunday in the midst of pandemic, it may be all that some of us can do. We may feel spiritually exhausted. We may be struggling to give voice to hope and a way forward. We may be angry at the indifference, incompetence, division, and graft we see thriving in our broken society and worsening the impact of the virus. We may not know what to do and how to pray, but we can at least orient to God and say …a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, and z. Amen.