Today is Pentecost, often referred to as the ‘Birthday of the Church’. When we celebrate it, we get to relive, and in some ways, experience the mystery and the power of the Holy Spirit.
The text tells us that that many of those gathered were amazed and astonished, perplexed even at what was happening. Others thought that the group was drunk on wine.
The image of the Holy Spirit resting on the faithful, like tongues of fire, is mysterious enough, but add in the group’s ability to understand each other regardless of their native language, and the mysterious becomes miraculous.
There aren’t too many sightings of the Holy Spirit these days, at least, not like this. No blaring headlines or breaking news segments to tell us that a group of people were overcome by the Holy Spirit for a time, and suddenly could understand each other regardless of their language.
I’m sure the Holy Spirit is upon us at times: many can sense the presence, even without the tongues of fire, just as many sense the absence of the Spirit.
Last year, I preached about Pentecost, and I suggested that one universal way to let others know we care is to use our smiles. Quoting David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Paul Kantner, from the song Wooden Ships, I suggested that ‘if you smile at me, I will understand, ‘cuz that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language’.
In looking back over the last year, however, I’m starting to get the sense that a smile might not be enough. I may not have been wrong, but what I know now is that a smile, a universal sign of sister- and brotherhood isn’t enough. The world as we know it needs something a lot stronger than a smile between strangers.
Given the kind of violence and hate the world has witnessed in the last year, a smile for a neighbor, or a stranger, or even an enemy isn’t even a band-aid on the wounds inflicted by the forces of evil.
Some of you know that I was in Buffalo in the aftermath of the racist killings at the Tops Market on the eastside, to support the pastors of those communities, and to support the work of the wider church seeking to help in any way possible.
I met the United Church of Christ Associate General Minister for Justice and the Local Church, Rev. Traci Blackmon there, and together, we visited the site, now a memorial to those who lost their lives, attended prayer vigils, and a free concert for the families of the slain. We also established a working group of pastors in the area who will receive resources from the United Church of Christ Neighbors in Need fund to try and address some of the systemic ills that plague areas like the East-side of Buffalo.
In giving some remarks at one of the prayer vigils, Rev. Blackmon told us, and I paraphrase here, ‘there is a lot of hate in the world, so we’re going to have to love the hell out of this place!’
So there it is: a smile isn’t going to cut it in these hateful and violent times. Smile is nice, non-threatening, but under-powered for what we need. What we are going to do, is find a way to love the hell out this place, because love is so much more powerful than hate, and so much more powerful than what a smile suggests.
In the short-term, we need to love every family touched by violence. Love them as they mourn, and as they heal, as best as they are able. But we can’t stop there. We’re also going to have to love the hell out of those who would use violence to achieve their goals. More on that in a bit.
In order to maximize our resources, in order to bring extravagant, unconditional, and universal love to bear upon the hate in this world, we have to start close to home. And by close to home, I mean that we have to be able to love ourselves first, before we can love others.
By loving the people God created us to be, we can build a strong love foundation. So if any of us struggle with not being able to love ourselves, I say this: if God loves us, can we find it in ourselves to love ourselves too?
And if so, then we can turn our love to those closest to us. Our family, and friends. Letting them know we love them may seem redundant, but really, who doesn’t love to hear that they are loved? Once we become accustomed to telling others we love them, we can also work on showing them. How do our actions coincide with our words? Can we be doing more to bring them in alignment? If our actions don’t broadcast our love, then we’re not doing it right, and we have to go back to the beginning.
And once our actions match our love for others, it’s time to start spreading that love around, to neighbors, to strangers, to anyone who is in need. In the context of our worshiping community, that means remembering to always have our mission aligned with our love. If someone were to ask who we love, we can show them our mission work, and say our aim is to love the hell out this place.
If we have come to a place where we love ourselves as individuals, and we love those closest to us, and we love our neighbors, and our actions match our love, then it will be time to really dig deep. You probably already know where I’m going with this, don’t you?
One of the more challenging things Jesus asks us to do is to love our enemies. No matter how you define enemy, literal or symbolic, our journey as faithful children of God includes loving our enemies.
Loving those who mean to do harm, those who hate others because of the color of their skin, or because of who they love, or because of what they believe. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but we can’t hate the hate out of others, we can only love the hate out of them.
Here’s the thing: we have to love the hell out of those who would use violence to express their self-hatred, we have love the hell out of those who would use violence to express their racism, their hetero-sexism, their ableism, whatever their misguided philosophy or manifesto.
In order to love the hell out of this place, we will have to bring our resources to bear in order to get help for those who hate. And, we’re going to have to love them enough to keep the weapons of destruction out of their hands.
Our collective resolve as a country, as a group of communities, can’t be based on hatred for the violence done in the name of racism or any other ‘ism’, it’s going to have to be based on love for others.
I alluded to this in the Sacred Seeds earlier, but in our love for others, can we please find a way to love our children, to love the vulnerable, even if it means that we sacrifice some of our freedoms? How many of us here, in person or online, really need an assault weapon and high capacity magazine? I’m not looking to get into an argument about how this is a slippery slope on the right to bear arms, I’ve already made up my mind about this: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
How many of us are in a well regulated militia? Military or law enforcement? Those are the people who get to keep and bear arms. Not 18 year olds who are barely old enough to vote, much less have access to assault weapons and Kevlar vests.
Can we love enough to bring our resources to bear on this issue? Can we find the resolve to not only love potential perpetrators out of their hate, their self-hatred, and their hate of others, but can we also love our children enough to prevent potential perpetrators from having access to efficient weapons designed and manufactured for only one purpose: to kill?
I think we can. It starts with being able to love ourselves as God has made us, with all of our shortcomings, with all of our foibles. And it continues with our love of our family and close friends, and continues still with our love of neighbor and love of stranger. The ultimate test of our use of universal love, the love we remember on Pentecost Sunday, is our ability to love our enemies, to love the world God created so much, that we are willing to sacrifice heard-earned resources, and maybe even some of constitutionally guaranteed rights in order to make the world a safer place.
If there was a time when a simple smile signified acceptance, gentleness, and safety, well and good. But I believe that we need something stronger than acceptance, gentleness, and safety in these times: we need love.
We need extravagant, assertive, insistent, unwavering, and unconditional love, because it’s only with these gifts that we will be able to love the hell out of this place. Let’s get started. Amen.
Our gospel lesson this morning from John recounts a conflict that Jesus had with the synagogue authorities. They confronted him about being the Messiah, and demanded of him that if he was the Messiah, he should tell them plainly.
Jesus responded by saying that he had told them, that the works he had done in the God’s name said all there was to say, and yet, they still did not believe. He told them that his works done in God’s name testified to who he was, and they did not believe. He used a shepherd metaphor to point out that the synagogue authorities did not belong to his sheep, that his sheep hear his voice, and follow him.
I love that Jesus told the authorities that he told them who he was by what he did in the name of God. The teaching, the healing, the feeding, the miracles. The advocacy for the oppressed and the vilified. Table fellowship with the despised. He didn’t have to come out and say it, because he lived it. And I especially love that he told them plainly that they weren’t part of his flock. Not because he rejected them, but because they rejected him.
We want to be a part of that flock, don’t we? We want to hear the voice of Jesus, want to join together under his protection, guidance, and care. Want to find rest in green pastures beside still waters.
Believing that his actions testified to who he was helps us be part of the flock; listening for, and listening to his voice helps us be a part of the flock, but I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t a time when the members of Jesus’ flock have to work harder at doing their own actions in God’s name. At what point in our faith lives do we have to act on our faith in order for the world to know whom it is we follow? When, as part of the flock, do we band together in order to feed and comfort, clothe and house, advocate and invite? Even if it angers the authorities? When is it that the followers from the flock begin to push against injustice, and oppression, even if it’s unpopular? Anytime now, actually.
The metaphor of shepherd and sheep only goes so far. In today’s gospel lesson, we learn about those who hear the shepherd’s voice and those who do not. We hear from Jesus that the consequence of being part of his flock is eternal life, that we will never perish. But something is nagging at me about this. Part of my spirit is restless, anxious. Those of us who follow Jesus can do many acts in God’s name. We can specifically act to resist racial oppression, to eliminate gender violence, to find ways to bring about economic equity, to advocate for reproductive freedom and justice. But are we?
It is nice to find rest in Jesus, beside the still waters, yes. But after we’ve rested for awhile, it will be time for us to gather ourselves and begin acting on our faith, acting on our beliefs in a shepherd stands for the oppressed.
The authorities of today may not belong to the flock. They may not hear his voice. Do we? And what does he say? Where does our Good Shepherd want us to put our energies? What risks does he want us to take, since he has promised us protection? How will our acts in the name of our Creator God testify to who we are?
Each of us can do our part, each of us has gifts given to us for this purpose. What God-given gift have you been given, that can help in the work of the flock? What are you willing to risk, to sacrifice, in order to faithfully act in the name of God? What will your testimony be?
As individuals, as members of our two congregations, as part of one worshiping community, we can be a powerful force for good. With resolve, with focus, and with confidence, we can act in ways we never thought possible. I firmly believe our future depends on it. Being good listeners is a start. Being willing to follow is a good start. The difficult part is acting, sometimes, especially if it flies in the face of the authorities.
No matter how many days we’ve been walking upon this earth, there is always something we can do to advance the love, the compassion, the patience, and the caring of the Good Shepherd.
As you reflect during the coming week, I’d encourage you to consider how it is that you act on your faith, what things do you do in the name of God? Prayer? Stewardship? Feeding? Clothing? Visiting? Advocating? Resisting?
Now, I know these are not traditional words used to describe sheep, but as I said before, that metaphor only goes so far. The world as I see it needs us, the flock that follows Jesus, to start tipping the balance towards justice, towards the core values and principles of our Shepherd. To find ways to make a difference with the gifts God gave us.
Jesus told us who he was by what he did. Jesus told those who would silence him, those who were afraid of him who he was by his actions. We can do the same. And we need not be afraid. He knows us. He knows each of us, inside and out. And I believe he calls us to act, in the name of God, in any way that we can, to fight the injustices of the world. We hear his voice, even when it’s a quiet voice, calling us to action. Can we respond?
I believe we can. I believe we do.
There is protection by being in the flock. There is reassurance. There is support, affection, even power.
Those things will help us in our mission. With the guidance of our Shepherd, and the power of our flock, our works in the name of our God can do miracles. Let us listen for our Shepherd’s voice, for we know it well. Let us remember the protection our Shepherd gives us, so that when the time comes to act on our faith in God’s name, we won’t be afraid.
There is no shortage of injustices out there. No shortage of oppression. But maybe our work together as the flock can identify one on which we can focus: bring to bear all our resources and all our gifts to affect change in one area of injustice or oppression.
We may in fact, be individual members of the flock, but we are not powerless: we are the very testimony the world needs to survive. Let’s get to it. Amen.