“If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving,” as we heard in Lydia’s beautiful reading of Pablo Neruda, “Si no pudimos ser unánimes moviendo tanto nuestras vidas, tal vez no hacer nada una vez,” “If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and Perhaps do nothing for once Perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.”
“If I were a physician,” wrote the Christian thinker, Søren Kierkegaard, “and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one hear it with so much noise?”
When we fall still and listen, when we allow our flashing reactions and endless strivings to settle, and we put our trust in the embrace of the Divine, what do we hear? What do we hear of the Holy One within us? Among us? Beyond us? And from whom do we hear that voice, those voices, of our still-speaking God at work in in our times amidst all its troubles? Are those voices still cries in the wilderness?
This Sunday in the ancient story cycle of our church, we have the opportunity to hear anew the story of Pentecost. The story of Pentecost occurs after the followers of the Way of Jesus have passed through the experiences of bearing witness to Crucifixion, and to Resurrection, and to Ascension. We can’t understand Pentecost without remembering that it’s coming out of an experience of crucifixion.
Jesus suffered the state sanctioned violence and terror of the Roman Empire, which was a fate that his Jewish disciples all feared for themselves. It was all too common way for the Empire to assert its dominance in the name of peace and order. Crucifixion, by the way, ultimately kills through asphyxiation. They couldn’t breathe.
For the faithful we know that through Christ, God, Godself – the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all and everything in the Universe – joins creation in bearing the wounds of our sinful alienation from each other, from ourselves, from our true God and our true purpose.
And, for the faithful, we know through the Resurrection & Ascension, that the Power and Love of the Creator overcomes the powers of death, breaking through and blossoming out to embrace all and everything in universal grace.
For the first followers of the Way of Jesus, who were witnesses to these things, their purpose then became to share the Good News of all this. And to invite those who heard to receive it in their hearts and so undergo what is called metanoia and aphesis. Often this is translated as “repentance” and “forgiveness.” Metanoia in Greek means something like “A shift in our fundamental understanding”, “A Going Beyond our current sense of ourselves and the world.” The word that’s used in Hebrew means “A turn around.” The result of this is forgiveness from God, a restoration or reunion with the Transcendent Source of all Being.
When we experience this, even just taste it, we realize that Grace is the reality of God offered freely and abundantly to everyone. And this compels us to reverence and gratitude, to love. It also can cause us to be more attuned to the suffering due to our distance from God, exemplified by the crucifixion, and to more inclined to acts of courage to relieve that suffering and to share the Good News that this suffering need not be so.
The story of Pentecost is the story of the Holy Spirit suddenly filling and enflaming the disciples for this task. One astonishing result of this is that they found they could speak in ways that anyone could understand. Language was no longer a barrier.
What was still a barrier, people’s willingness to hear.
The disciples were unsparing in their message. They were very clear about calling on people who themselves helped to crucify Jesus, to hear the Good News and undergo this Metanoia and receive forgiveness, to be transformed in the image of God’s grace.
Those who did hear this message and receive this message, we are told, were “pierced to the heart”, or one translation has it, they were “conscience-smitten.”
This allowed a huge silence to interrupt their sadness of never understanding themselves and of threatening themselves with death. In that silence they finally could hear God.
Throughout history the people who tend to understand the message of Christianity the best, have been those who well know what it is like to stand in fear of crucifixion.
It is for the rest of us to listen more to them than to ourselves.
At present, we’re in the midst of a kind of crisis that is turning the volume up on other crises that have long been festering in our nation and our world. This past week, yet another Black person in America was crucified, George Floyd. Our country’s original sin has survived generations and wars and pandemics, because we have not sincerely repented of it. We need not fear that repentance, because we know our God is a God of grace.
I cede the rest of my time to voices greater than my own:
This is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, from a speech call “The Other America”: “I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention”
And this is Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, from the end of his book “Stamped from the Beginning” (510-511):
“Any effective solution to eradicating American racism must involve Americans committed to antiracist policies seizing and maintaining power over institutions, neighborhoods, counties, states, nations – the world. … An antiracist America can only be guaranteed if principled antiracists are in power, and then antiracist policies become the law of the land, and then antiracist ideas become the common sense of the people, and then the antiracist common sense of the people holds those antiracist leaders and policies accountable. And that day is sure to come. No power lasts forever. There will come a time when Americans will realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that they think something is wrong with Black people. There will come a time when racist ideas will no longer obstruct us from seeing the complete and utter abnormality of racial disparities. There will come a time when we will love humanity, when we will gain the courage to fight for an equitable society for our beloved humanity knowing, intelligently, that when we fight for humanity, we are fighting or ourselves. There will come a time. Maybe, just maybe, that time is now.”
On behalf of that beloved humanity, I invite us to pause and to hear that huge silence that might interrupt the sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.
As Neruda says, “Perhaps the earth can teach us/ As when everything seems dead/ But later proves to be alive.”
So, my friends, let us be still a moment and listen.
I give thanks to God.
(Delivered May 31, 2020, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla)