May 31, 2020, Pentecost Uniting A Dispersed Community, by Pastor David Tatgenhorst
For our Bible study time on Thursday, realizing that we were just about to reach the milestone of 100,000 US deaths from COVID 19 and with the country reeling from the murder on camera of George Floyd, I decided we needed to study a Psalm of Lament. I picked one out, the first one I came to, Psalm 44 and read it in the New Revised Standard Version. It seemed to be poor theology, blaming God and accusing God of being absent. I could understand why this Psalm never appears in our lectionary of regular readings. But in the Bible study, we read the passage in the Message translation that Ann is going to read today and it really resonated with the way a lot of people are feeling during this time. Feelings are different than thinking or theology, but sometimes we need to express our feelings to get at deeper truths. Our feelings are not necessarily the truth, and are not always the best guide to action, but they are part of who we are and need to be included in our thinking about what to do. So listen to the second part of Psalm 44. Thanks for reading, Ann, from the Message translation.
Psalm 44: 17-26 All this came down on us, and we’ve done nothing to deserve it.
We never betrayed your Covenant: our hearts were never false, our feet never left your path.
Do we deserve torture in a den of jackals? or lockup in a black hole?
20-22 If we had forgotten to pray to our God or made fools of ourselves with store-bought gods, Wouldn’t God have figured this out? We can’t hide things from him.
No, you decided to make us martyrs, lambs assigned for sacrifice each day.
23-26 Get up, God! Are you going to sleep all day? Wake up! Don’t you care what happens to us? Why do you bury your face in the pillow? Why pretend things are just fine with us?
And here we are—flat on our faces in the dirt, held down with a boot on our necks.
Get up and come to our rescue. If you love us so much, Help us
Acts 2: 1-8 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
I invite you to take a deep breath of the Spirit as you reflect on that passage. Take a deep breath and notice that you don’t notice that breathing most of the time, that the Spirit is always doing it for you. Breathe and be thankful.
May 31, 2020. Pentecost Uniting a Dispersed Community St. Luke
I spend an hour each day breathing, one lovely hour each morning noticing my breath. I count my breaths, 1-10, watching the breath go in and then out. My mind wanders and I notice and gently come back to breathing, watching the breath come all the way in to the bottom of my diaphragm and back out. I pray prayers of praise, repentance, Petition and intercession, silence, and expectation. Plenty of silence, listening, and breathing. I know my Cincinnati soul is already slower than most people out here in Philadelphia, but this spiritual discipline slows me down even more, driving some people a little crazy. But it’s delicious. just breathing.
Pentecost is a celebration of breath, a celebration of the Spirit breathing into community, bringing the community that we call the church into life. The Greek and Hebrew words for wind, spirit, and breath are the same. In Hebrew it’s ‘ruach;’ in Greek ‘pneuma.’ Breath, wind and spirit. the silent force that blows where it wills, through and among us. It’s also a celebration of the diversity of community, people hearing and understanding each other despite different languages and backgrounds.
Unfortunately, this year, it’s a little harder than usual for us to hear or understand each other. Our voices have to come across a distance through computers and phones, through masks that make it hard to breath let alone talk, and across boundaries of experience and understanding. It takes breath to speak and be heard and right now ruach, pneuma, can be hard to come by.
The number 100,000 deaths is hard number to comprehend. The news keeps comparing it to the number who die in all the wars since the Korean War, trying to put in some perspective how many have died in the last three months. When I read what it’s like to not be able to breathe, what it’s like to be put on a ventilator, what it’s like to live with this virus, I want to do everything i can to protect our people, and to slow the spread of the virus.
That is what the Spirit calls for this Pentecost - that’s what uniting a community means - being dispersed, wearing a mask even if it means not breathing as easily. That’s how the Spirit is uniting us in care for each other and in protecting each other from an invisible killer. The Spirit is working through us as we keep our breath to ourselves.
And then one more dies. Listen to this poem by Linda Unger.
We’re dying in the land where democracy was born.
In a nation sick, fractured, forlorn.
For over one hundred thousand, we mourn.
But let us remember one more as we grieve.
One whose last words were I can’t breathe.
It’s almost too horrible to talk about or think about the death of George Lloyd. I had trouble sleeping on Thursday night thinking about how to talk about it this Sunday, thinking about what it’s like to die begging for breath, begging for your mother who had died two years earlier, begging to be treated like a human being while four policeman who are supposed to protect you looked on, one with his knee on your neck.
It’s too much to comprehend this death along with those of Breonna Taylor, who was shot in her sleep in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery, killed while he was out jogging. People just trying to breathe, just trying to live their everyday lives.
I remember the riots in 1968 following the death of Martin Luther King. How people clucked their tongues and felt like it invalidated everything King was fighting for. As a high school student, it confused me. But not so much anymore. I know now who started the fires we see on the news. Those fires are the flames of racism. I started the fire. We white folks started the fire. The fires of racism burn all around the Black community and keep Black people from getting away. The fires force people of color to suffocate in neighborhoods with few jobs and fewer opportunities, where children go to schools filled with asbestos where they cannot breathe. These and many more are fires of racism, that were started by the dominant community not by the Black community.
Clucking our tongues and looking down on people is hypocritical unless we are fighting to help people breathe, helping people to be organized. When folks are organized, as we are through POWER, we have a place to put the anger, a place to express our outrage in a way that can make a difference. Please don’t look down on people who don’t have such an outlet. Rather take advantage of the outlet we have to work for justice for all people - schools where kids can breathe, and a place we can learn about the history of oppression that causes despair and frustration.
Here’s another poem by Lynn Ungar, (who I believe is a different person than Linda Unger, above.)
Breathe. Lynn Ungar
Breathe, said the wind
How can I breathe at a time like this,
when the air is full of the smoke of burning tires, burning lives?
Just breathe, the wind insisted.
Easy for you to say, if the weight of injustice is not wrapped around your throat,
cutting off all air.
I need you to breathe.
I need you to breathe.
Don’t tell me to be calm
when there are so many reasons
to be angry, so much cause for despair!
I didn’t say to be calm, said the wind,
I said to breathe.
We’re going to need a lot of air
to make this hurricane together.
The wind, the spirit of Pentecost, calls us to breathe together, to hear God’s breath in our silence. I’ve been reading a book titled My Grandmother’s Hands, by Resmaa Menakem which talks a lot about breathing. His thesis is that racism is not a mental construct. It’s in our bodies. It’s in white bodies and Black bodies and police bodies. He suggests a lot of exercises, meditation exercises to help people realize where the tension and hurt is in our bodies that keep us from seeing each other. Almost all the exercises involve breathing deeply, so that we can notice what is in our body, how our body clinches and reacts to other bodies. He has done training with police to help them heal their bodies and the internalized racism. It’s an important book. I been recommending it to everybody. But it doesn’t help if we don’t do the work, if we don’t find a way to breathe, and to struggle with our racism and our internalized racism.
My heart has been broken this week. I couldn’t sleep, as I said on Thursday, thinking about how to communicate with you. I could watch that picture of George Lloyd having the breath completely choked out of him, and then not worry whether that would happen to my son. But I thought about my friend Russell’s sons and our dear friends Paul and Emilie and their sons.
I hope that on this Pentecost holiday, we will find the Spirit moving in us to help us breathe, to help us hear the pain and know that we can do something about it. We can make room for people to breathe. We can work for school children to have a place where they can breathe and learn. We can advocate for a better health care system so that folks have the supplies they need to keep breathing even if they have to work in a scary environment and so they can help keep people with the virus alive and breathing. We can work for a community where people have decent jobs so they can support their families and not fear for their lives.
We can feel the spirit and we can breathe and help other people take time to breathe even when and especially when they’re upset, and help police take time to breathe even when and especially when things get tense. It starts with learning to pray in all situations, with learning to breathe easy, with feeling God’s living presence as we open our hearts to pray.
Responsive Hymn. 404 Every Time I Feel the Spirit