On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them." By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. -John 7:37-39 Read the entire chapter.
In many ways it's hard to believe the time that we have been through going through significant portion of Lent, observing Palm Sunday and Easter, and now this season of Pentecost all while under the adjustments that COVID-19 has created: a church in diaspora, separated, and scattered to our homes. And yet we are grateful for the tech that allows us to be able to worship, gather, and connect together in ways otherwise that wouldn't have been possible. So we are grateful for that and we continue to press on through this. And yet, when we observe these significant days like Pentecost and I'm in an almost empty Sanctuary except for those who are here to help make this streaming service possible, it definitely changes how we perceive and receive these events.
When I was in seminary, I had a professor named Dr. Welborn who taught New Testament in Greek, so I had him for a number of classes. He was an exceptionally bright man and had studied in Germany when he did his doctoral work. One of the things that he always emphasized with us when it came to studying Scripture was a German phrase that he'd picked up from his time at the university: "Sitz im Leben", the place in life for the text. We simplified it or boiled it down that when we're reading Scripture and we come across a passage, the Sitz im Leben, the place in life is the answer to the question that comes up of "so what?" So we've just read this passage, but what does it mean for us here and today. This Pentecost, this season that we're in, these texts that we have been looking at over the past few weeks talking about and trying to better understand this Holy Spirit. The Spirit that was poured out in Acts 2 in a mighty and powerful way. This Spirit in John 7 here where Jesus is saying that "it is out of the believer's hearts shall flow a river of living water". It brings to mind John 20 where Jesus appeared to the disciple and breathed into them saying "receive the Spirit".
All of these are playing in my mind today as I think about what it means for us to be the church, separated and worshipping from our homes. But also what it means for the events of the past week with the killing of George Floyd. It's shaking our nation. If you've been watching any of the news you've seen the protests that have erupted in violence. We need to include that in what we're talking about today because it's part of our place in life, it's part of the "so what?" of Pentecost. What we're talking about when it means to be the people of faith. In 1951 poet Langston Hughes was well, what was termed the Harlem Renaissance: an emergence of black writers, authors, and other significant minds. He wrote a poem titled "Dream Deferred" and I want to share it with you to kind of set the stage for where we're at.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Make it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Hughs wrote this poem in 1951, 12 years before Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a dream" speech. And yet Hughes had a sense of the struggle that was going on, what happens when dreams are pushed aside? Sadly I think what we're seeing right now is that final verse, "or does it explode?" People have been longing and waiting for this dream that Hughes apparently had as well as the one that Martin Luther King Jr. so well articulated. But we're not there. There has been progress, there's been strides that have been made. King gave his speech in 1963. In March 1965 there was the March on Selma. It had started out as a peaceful march, but that day has been termed "Bloody Sunday" because of the violence that happened. It was in that same year that the Voters Rights Act was passed in which our nation said you may not be discriminated or denied voting simply because of your race. A few years later in 1968 the Fair Housing Act was passed attempting to put an end to the redlining of communities where banks could deny people based upon the community they lived in primarily because of the ethnic makeup of that neighborhood.
Some of you probably remember these events, those who are younger may not remember the larger political things that happened with some of these movements. But we have those names that continue to rattle around in our minds going back to my youth: Rodney King, a few years past Trayvon Martin, most recently down in Georgia Ahmad Aubry, and now in the last week George Floyd. There are any number of names that can be added to this list of black men who have died in the midst of altercations with police officers. We could debate at length all of the "well there's this statistic" and "that statistic" and "there are things that happen to people who are white and people who are not". But the truth is as much as we talk about being an equal society, we're not.
Just about a month ago across this country, there were numbers of groups protesting the quarantine and lockdowns. Many of those were conservative white groups who showed up at state capitals carrying their firearms that they are legally allowed to carry. There was no incident that I'm aware of, no lives lost but I've seen a number of people speculate if that protest had happened and they were black men carrying guns, would the outcome have been the same? And sadly, most of us have to admit it probably wouldn't.
So what does that mean for us? We live in a country that has a Constitution that says all men are created equal. And yet when those words were written they knew it wasn't true because it applied to white men, it didn't include people of color. And somehow it's gotten stuck in the fabric of who we are as a nation. As much as we want to look around and say "we've come so far", we still have a long way to go because it's woven into the fabric of who we are. So how do we change it? I know I recognize that I'm a person of privilege. I'm a person of privilege because I was born in this country, there are opportunities and freedoms that I have that many people on this planet don't. I'm a person of privilege because I had two parents who loved me and supported me. I'm a person of privilege because I'm male, because I'm heterosexual, because I'm white. In spite of those things I can't change who I am. I shouldn't feel guilty for who I am. But I also need to be mindful of what it means. Because just as I recognize that I have privileges, I also need to recognize that there are people who may not. Just as it's not easy, or possible, for me to change who I am, for people that lack those privileges they can't change those things about themselves either.
So what does all this mean on Pentecost, when we live in a world of wonderfully diverse people? At Pentecost God's Spirit was made known in a way like it had never ben before. In Acts, we hear of the disciples being gathered together in a room and that sound of wind and what appeared to be fire coming upon them and all of them being able to speak in a language that they didn't know. What the power of the Spirit did that day was give them a means, give them a vehicle to bridge a gap that existed in that time and in that place. In Jerusalem there were gathered people from around the known world further down in Acts 2: it names many of those places but from North Arica to Asia to Rome to all of that known part of the world people were gathered in Jerusalem. When that Spirit appeared that day, those disciples went out and began speaking to the people around them in the language that the people around them would understand. It brought down a wall, it brought down a barrier and opened up an opportunity for dialogue, most especially for them to able to share and to proclaim this great love that God had for all people that had been made possible, that had been made real through his Son Jesus Christ who had died and rose again.
So maybe Pentecost for us, this place in our life, this "so what?", why does this Holy Spirit matter? Maybe we need that Pentecostal Holy Spirit right now more than ever for us to live up to what our mission statement here at Aldersgate is: to make the love of Christ available to all, to help that love to reach everyone. It's a tall order. It's one that's going to run into barriers because they're going to be things that make it difficult, if not impossible for us to be able or willing to do that in this world we live in right now because of the coronavirus, because of the tensions that are rising in the communities around us. There are barriers like
They're a Republican.
They're a Democrat.
Their lifestyle is different than mine.
They speak a different language.
There's a cultural barrier.
They're a white supremacist.
They're a part of Black Lives Matter.
The call for Christians is not to judge but rather to be a vehicle of God's love. A vehicle of God's love made possible and empowered by that outpouring of God's Holy Spirit. Often we associate and rightfully to this day of Pentecost with the birth of the church. Friends, now more than ever I think this world needs us, the church, to offer a different way. A way in which the love of God takes the lead. A way in which we trust in the Spirit to guide us, to open us up, to allow us as Jesus said in John 7: to be those rivers of living water flowing out of us and made possible by this Spirit: this Spirit of God's that was poured out was the Spirit that was there with Jesus throughout His ministry.
In Luke, Jesus in His hometown stood before them and read from the prophet Isaiah and said "Today the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recover of the sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to announce the day of the Lord." When Jesus breathed upon the disciples, Jesus gave a gift. Whether your understanding of Pentecost happened in that Upper Room in John or on that day of Pentecost in Acts, that outpouring of God's Spirit is a gift that we receive of God's very presence in and through our lives.
In the German language there is a word, it's a the verb for give: gabe. There's a similar word that has a similar root: aufgabe, which means to give an assignment. There's a saying in German that every gift, every gob comes with an alf gob, an assignment. Every gift comes with an assignment, the outpouring of God's Holy Spirit at Pentecost into the world and into our lives is a gift that comes with an assignment. We are called upon to be a Spirit-filled people. A people who don't rely on our own strength, our own understanding, our own privilege or lack thereof. We're a people completely and utterly dependent upon God's Spirit so that we can make this love of God very real in the lives of all people.
So friends on this day of Pentecost with the movement of that wind and that outpouring of God's fire upon our lives and upon His church, our assignment is to be so filled with that Spirit the things of this world kind of fade into the background. Just as God gathered in and together all of those people on that first Pentecost, may we be so filled by God's Spirit that we participate in the work of gathering together God's people that all may know this great love that He has made known to us through His Son Jesus. This is our assignment. This is our mission. May we accept it with joy. Amen