Where Is God When All Hell Breaks Loose?

So, we have arrived once again at Pentecost Sunday. But this time around, it seems like we’re in an altogether different world, doesn’t it? As if the pandemic wasn’t enough to deal with. We’re learning this week that physical viruses aren’t the only viruses we have to worry about. There are moral viruses as well.

Ruth Bills, our music director, informed me on Wednesday that Courtney, who works at the Coffee Shop NE three blocks from here and was the fiancé of George Floyd. Well, I’m a regular there, and Courtney is my favorite person over there! I remember once when the person I-now-know-was-George walked in: big, friendly guy. And Courtney lit up like the sun as she came around from behind the counter to see and embrace George. I remember that vividly, because I thought there was a lot of love in that moment. (pause)

So where is God in all this, and what do we who are people of faith – what do we do now?

These are the two questions I’d like to address this morning.

But before I do, we need some space as God’s people just to lament, because let’s face it: it’s been a really bad week and I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling drained and my spirits are low right now. This was a hard sermon to write.

For some perspective at times such as these, the Bible is kind of like a whole bunch of sermons and some of them were really hard to write! And those sermons come out as laments, where people tell the truth about what’s going on right where they live, and they tell it in agonizing verse. And what’s going on in our city and country is agonizing and unspeakably sad. It started, of course, with the heartbreaking and horrifying death of George Floyd. But we all know his death is the tip of the iceberg, that there is a far deeper tragedy behind it that has been unfolding for many, many years that we as a nation seem unable to acknowledge or unwilling to deal with.

Then the peaceful protests earlier in the week bearing witness to this injustice created some hope, I think, considering protesters were numerous and comprised of many different races, not only African Americans.

But then the peaceful protests gave way to riots, looting and destruction. That’s our city out there! And those are our cities out there. So, there is anger, grief, fear, and more sadness.

And through it all, we wonder, what will become of us as a nation after this week? There is uncertainty, anxiety, helplessness. Is this your lament? If not, what is? We have a God who invites us to lament, will listen and respond with love.

Speaking of the helplessness we feel, Pentecost is all about power – the power of God being loosed into the world to bring healing to the broken, unity to the factionalized. But forgive us if we wonder this year where God’s power went. Did God take an extended lunch break this week – and all of 2020, for that matter? Where are you, God?!

That, by the way, is a lament. A major form of lamenting is to wonder where God is and to plead with God to show up and make it right. As Jesus and the Psalmist both said, “my God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” So, it is normal and quite biblical to ask where God was for George, or when buildings and businesses were going up in flames.

And lament takes us right into our main question today: where is God – and God’s Holy Spirit power – in the events of this week? The color of Pentecost can help us here, which is what? Red, and it’s red because that’s the color of fire, and fire is the primary symbol of Pentecost. Well, that’s a color we’ve seen a lot of this week, but it sure seems like it has nothing to do with Pentecost! Kevin Ziegler, one of our members who is a Minneapolis Fire Fighter, has had his hands full this week. Normally with Pentecost, we might think of nice little manageable flames of fire, like a candle maybe. In Acts, it speaks of tongues of fire on people’s heads, as if they became candles themselves. And this was all a euphoric experience, fire here symbolizing the renewal of life, the coming warmth of summer, and the growth of the church.

Oh, but the fires we’ve been seeing are not about this, but about anger and destruction, and it’s terrifying!

Part of the promise of Pentecost is this: God is in those fires and flames of human anguish. Intermingled with those flames of protest and mayhem are the flames of Pentecost, for our God comes to us right when things go up in flames and God is in those flames. For those flames are there for a reason: they point beyond themselves and tell us that something is very wrong, that God’s work with us is not yet done, that we need to learn something and renewal is at hand.

This is not to say that all the fire and looting is justified; that is clearly not the case. But the fires of mayhem do tell us something, don’t they? They tell us about human beings and whole communities who are in deep despair and do not know what to do. Oh yes, it also tells us about the provocateurs who just want to start fires. There are those folks, too.

But in your interpretation of this week, to reduce the events of this week in cities all over America, to reduce this historic outburst to a bunch of lawless hooligans who are trying to cause trouble would be to seriously misread the situation. As my wife, Heidi, tweeted a few nights ago: “If you’re more outraged by the property damage resulting from protests than the murder of George Floyd, time for some self-examination.” Yes!

“I can’t breathe,” is not only a literal cry for help, it’s a metaphor for the African American experience. Squeezing the breath of life from someone is bad enough, but all the fires everywhere tell us it’s about much more than George Floyd. It’s about hope – and sometimes life – being squeezed out of African American persons and communities for generation after generation by (mostly) those of European descent, and this goes way beyond the police to include all of us. It’s about Jim Crow reincarnating over and again on our cultural landscape and robbing black Americans of their futures. If you haven’t read Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” read it. Read it this week. It is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read and it couldn’t be more relevant to what we’ve witnessed here this week.

So, despite the anguished voices who bear witness to the targeting of black males in America, those voices go unheard and nothing changes. Eventually, in the midst of despair and hopelessness, matches get lit, and there’s destruction.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

And even when George Floyd said, “I can’t breathe,” – even then – he was unheard.

Are we whose lives have been couched in white privilege ready to finally listen?

You see, we have a choice to make: the fires we’ve seen this week can just divide us even more, so that we now each go to our corners and our factions and say terrible things about the people on the other side of the river. Or, we can see fire as a sign that we are blind and broken and in need of God’s redemptive promise: that we might see in these flames the necessary destruction of old ways that must yield to more life-giving ways.

Again, how can such awful events as burning buildings that house ambitions and dreams; how can that be of God in any way? Well, one could ask the same about the cross. There is no more god-forsaken event in history than the one where Jesus hung to die. And yet, because God was there, bearing the weight of human brokenness, out of the cross came life for us. So, too, with fires of destruction. Out of these ashes can come learning, listening, a new resolve. That’s the way God’s power works. If we open ourselves to it, we are drawn into new relationships – and new life.

So, what do we do now?

Did you notice that one of the other symbols of the Holy Spirit is wind? Or “breath.” These two are closely related in scripture. The Holy Spirit, you see, works in human hearts and minds to restore the wind of breath to those who can’t breathe. To those who are unable to hope.

What has happened in this city and country is a wake-up call. And I mean call – as in call from God. God is calling us to leave the sidelines and get into the game, step up, be a part of building community and new relationships with our African American brothers and sisters. We can no longer afford to sit back and make observations and judgments from the confines of our comfortable social positions. We must step up, listen, and learn. That’s what the church does! We are called to be reconcilers in this world.

Then we must join together with God’s Holy Spirit and our neighbors to create a more more trustworthy and hope-filled world for our fellow Americans to live in. That means those neighbors across the river with whom we rarely connect. It means connecting with the broader community that supports them and all of us, from city leaders, to social workers, to non-profits, to judges and the legal system – and yes, the police.

This means we are not “down on the police.” It means we’re up on them, and we support them, because they have such an important role to play and there are so many good police out there. In fact, we’re so up on them that we hold them accountable. That’s what love does, doesn’t it? You can’t love someone without holding them accountable. In fact, everyone has to be accountable in a trustworthy world. That’s how people can breathe again.

What do we do now? That is for all of us to discover, and it has to start by all of us wondering together what we can do and offering suggestions. So, I’m asking all of you: what can we do? I want you to email, post, call, talk.

What does it mean to be church in the post-George Floyd era? What does it mean to be this church in the post- George Floyd era?

May the Holy Spirit surround us, bring healing to us all, and learn to give breath to one another! Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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