There is a wonderful bit of comedy during one of Monty Python’s movies where there’s a crisis within an underground resistance group that calls for quick and immediate action. So, the leader of the resistance, in a parody of well-meaning committees everywhere says, “this calls for quick and immediate debate!” Then they all sit around a table and start parsing parliamentary procedure and Robert’s rules of order. It’s clear this group will never get around to action.
Ever been to a meeting like that? Of course you have!
In fact, in a much broader sense, maybe that’s one reason there have been riots. Good intentions, nothing changes. No actions are taken.
There is a clear contrast here with the scene from another movie. Can you tell I’m longing to show movie clips again? The scene I’m referencing is an historical one from the movie “Lincoln,” where President Lincoln is debating with his cabinet about how and whether to move forward with the Emancipation Proclamation amendment that would permanently abolish slavery. They’re debating back and forth, when Lincoln makes his move,
“I can’t listen to this anymore. I can’t accomplish anything of any human meaning or worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war, and…this amendment is that cure! We’ve stepped out upon the world stage now, now, with the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment! Now! Now! Now!”
I bring this up for two reasons. First, this sentiment perfectly captures the mindset of many millions of Americans right now collectively looking in the mirror and saying, “We’re better than this. We’ve let racism get out of hand. We have to change. Now.”
But second, as we continue to celebrate Pentecost, we learn about the God who said, “Now! There is work to be done, and human beings and myself, we are going to work together. So,” said God, “I will not only send Jesus to save my people, I will send my power to them. The power of the Holy Spirit!”
And what does that power look like?
It’s like Stephenie says in her wonderful children’s sermon this week – you’ll have to watch it on Facebook: God’s grace has been shared with us, so that God’s grace can be shared through us. Because God said now.
And look at the very title of the book where we learn about Pentecost and the Holy Spirit: Acts. Acts of the Apostles. But it’s really Acts of the Holy Spirit through the apostles. This is about action. So, look around, wherever you are, whenever that may be, with the people you know who need your love and presence. If someone is hurting, or needs encouragement, or forgiveness, should it wait until “whenever”? Or does God say now?
Because of this urgency, the Holy Spirit is a like a task master pushing us to get things done. Mt Carmel had our first day on site last Thursday at the makeshift distribution center in the parking lot at Cub Foods in North Minneapolis. North Minneapolis was a food desert before the riots, and now that Cub Foods is shuttered, the crisis has intensified and our sister congregation there, Gethsemane Lutheran Church, has coordinated massive donations and distribution. Each day they serve hundreds of people. At our sight, there were 25 volunteers or so from 3 different churches and a few free agents thrown in for good measure. Doug and Linda Jones were there, Ruth and Duane Bills, my son Thomas, my friend Mark. We were unpacking deliveries of donations from trucks, sorting out the food and diapers and things, repackaging grocery bags and eventually distributing to the people lining up.
Donna, our site leader, called us together before the people came and prayed over us, a reminder of Stephenie’s point: God’s grace is given to us so that God’s grace can be at work in us! And then we got busy. A fellow named KG – no, not that KG – was like the onsite Holy Spirit! He was overseeing the distribution of baby and toddler products and cleaning materials, taking requests from recipients and mobilizing the volunteers like a finely tuned instrument. His every move and manner were all about moving people and products, “now!” “OK, we need some size three diapers, not size two; let’s hurry people! Now!” “We need some wipes and formula!” “We need Lysol and Clorox! And by the way, M’am, remember this is to clean the inside of your house, not your body.”
It was gratifying to work here because we all knew there was and is an urgency to this work.
But when it comes to human need – in north Minneapolis or anywhere – there has always been an urgency, and God’s Spirit is the response. In those first few generations of the Christian church, the Holy Spirit moved Jesus’ followers across Mesopotamia, into India and Africa. This Spirit moved outward the same way it came to them: by speaking to everyone in their own language and uniting peoples from many races and languages. Indeed, soon people would recognize that it was not only Jews who were God’s chosen people, but Gentiles, too. God saw an urgency to breaking down the barriers between tribes and nations.
And what did this power of God look like as it ran loose in the world? It started pushing all the boundaries of that world, first crossing them, then redrawing them, in order to bring healing, life and community to everyone. Why? Because this Spirit was working to bear witness to the kingdom of God, where salvation is offered as a gift to all, even the outcasts. And when the writer of Acts uses the word “salvation,” it almost never refers to the afterlife. It refers to this life, in all its many facets, social, political, economic. It means making people whole again and restoring them to a community in this life.
It means all the people who seemingly don’t matter in our world matter again.
But when you do that, the social and political structure gets upended because people who formerly had no standing, value or power, suddenly do. And this means those who benefit most from the structure are threatened, because now they have to share space and power with those who were previously deemed unworthy. Do you see how this sort of power can put the one who wields it in someone’s crosshairs? Like Jesus, for instance. Or Martin Luther King, Jr. They both wielded a great power, the power of love and the conviction that all God’s children matter. And down they went.
And now we’re wrestling with whether black lives matter. We say of course they do, but then we look at the world we’ve created – past and present. And that tells a different story. Here’s God’s story and God’s power does after the Holy Spirit is given in the book of Acts, and pay attention to who it is that God says “matter”:
A lame man excluded from the temple is not only healed of his affliction but welcomed into its community.
An Ethiopian Eunuch, a black man whose biology has been altered for someone else’s purposes, is baptized into the new humanity of the Holy Spirit.
An adolescent slave girl possessed both by demons and earthly owners is freed by the power of the Holy Spirit from both.
Greek widows overlooked in food distribution, largely because of ethnicity, are given priority by newly appointed Christian leaders in the economy of God that the Holy Spirit creates.
Who matters in the kingdom of God? An outcast paralyzed man, a possessed slave girl, Greek widows without standing, an African eunuch. And the Holy Spirit, through Jesus’ followers, restored their lives and dignity.
Through your faith and baptism, you have a partnership with the Holy Spirit. You’ve received grace upon grace so that same grace can flow through you to others. How do you exercise that power?
I’ll tell you one thing: I never thought that power was in a clerical collar. Some pastors practically wear their collars to bed, but I don’t even wear mine at church. My congregation knows I’m a pastor. Nobody needs that visual, or so I thought.
On Tuesday last week, hundreds of clergy marched together to the now historical site of George Floyd’s final moments on 38th and Chicago. Most had their collars or stoles on, including me. This is a public witness to people in the neighborhood or visitors of our callings. When we arrived at the site, there were a lot of people there already. Clearly, many view this as holy ground, as do I. In fact, some are already making pilgrimages there from other cities across America. As I walked around observing the details of this site – the artwork, the flowers, the reverence of people – a young black woman approached me with a smile on her face. Seeing my collar, she asked if I was a pastor. I said yes and introduced myself. She said her name was Alyssa. “Could I take your picture?” she asked. I said yes. Then I asked Alyssa why she wanted to take a picture of me. “Because I think it’s really a good thing that pastors are here.” I thought to myself, “Well of course pastors would be here.”
Then she explained she had traveled up here from Memphis because Minneapolis had now become another sacred place where black men had fallen. She reminded me that Memphis has had that status for over 50 years, of course. It was there that Dr. King was shot. And she wanted to take another picture of me with her friend.
And then it hit me: in our country, it is not a foregone conclusion at all that this would be a place where a pastor or priest would visit, maybe because of politics. And I realized that Alyssa wasn’t sure whether white pastors stood with them, whether we believe that “Black Lives Matter.” Knowing who Jesus was and who he loved, is there any question where Jesus is on “Black Lives Matter”? Jesus’ whole life and death said they do matter, and yet this young woman from Memphis took it to be a sign of hope that a pastor was there. So, Alyssa sought out the man with the collar and even took a picture of him.
We’ve got work to do, my friends.
As God shares grace with you, may God also share grace through you, to those who are closest to you and those who are often denied such things. Amen.