Sermon for the Day of Pentecost, May 31, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Acts 2:1-21+Psalm 104:25-35, 37+1 Corinthians 12:3b-13+John 20:19-23

In the Upper Room, the risen Jesus breathed his life-giving Spirit on the disciples, giving them an authority once only ascribed to God to forgive or retain the sins of others.

Those same disciples gathered on the Festival of Shavuot, Pentecost, when a mighty rush of wind came upon them with flames of fire, emboldening them to speak and teach and preach.

Spirit. Breath. Wind. All the same word. All bestowing the same gifts.

And we have squandered those gifts.

We have a life-giving Word of Life for the world, and we have failed to preach it. We have failed to live it.

We have the breath of life, and George Floyd couldn’t breathe. Eric Garner couldn’t breathe. Ahmaud Arbery, breathing hard while out for a run had that breath shot out of him. Brionna Taylor, who restored breath to those in distress as an EMT had hers ripped from her body by shots fired from a police officer’s gun. Tony McDade, a transgender man lost his breath in a police shooting in Tallahassee.

And there was, of course, a parade of breathtaking indignities, from a 911 call on a Central Park birdwatcher to another 911 call from an office gym in Minneapolis to a 90-year old grandmother falling on her grandson, pleading for his life as officers pointed guns at him for running a stop sign.

We, the Church, have life to give, and we have hoarded it. We have focused on worship and acts of service and mercy – all important things – but we have ignored our baptismal promise to strive for justice and peace among all people. We have failed to respect the dignity of every human being.

But here’s the thing about failure.

8 God is full of compassion and mercy, *

    slow to anger and of great kindness.

9 God will not always accuse us, *

    nor will God’s anger last for ever.

10 She has not dealt with us according to our sins, *

    nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.

11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, *

    so is God’s mercy great upon those who fear her.

12 As far as the east is from the west, *

    so far has God removed our sins from us. (Psalm 103, adapted)

From the time Adam and Eve were hurled from the Garden for trying and failing to claim God’s power as their own, humankind has continually failed to live into God’s promise to us, loving us with an unending love that we can neither earn nor lose. We always get a do-over, even when – maybe especially when – we don’t deserve it.

Dr. Cornel West quoted Irish writer Samuel Beckett in a CNN interview on Friday night, using the words from Westward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

That’s us. That’s the Church. Because until God’s reign comes on earth, we will continue to miss the mark. That’s what sin is – missing the mark. And on matters of racial justice, we have been missing the mark for far too long.

On this day when we remember that gift of the Holy Spirit,  blowing through Jerusalem and sending the followers of Jesus into all the world, it is good to remember that this Jesus, our savior, the Son of God, was a brown-skinned Palestinian executed by the state, and on this day, his mostly young but all brown-skinned disciples were accused of public drunkenness, causing a disturbance, because the languages the people spoke were not the languages of Jerusalem but came from everywhere. And those in authority knew that could only mean trouble for them and their hold on power.

This gathering of disciples in the Upper Room? These are the deniers, the ones who argued about who’s the greatest, the ones who demanded proof, the ones who never quite got with the program. And since that day on Calvary they have lived in fear that their fate might be the same as Jesus who now was physically gone.       

But then, that Holy Spirit came. And they went into the streets. Over the course of their ministry and of so many who followed them, there would be more executions at the hands of the state. And there would be protests and there would be uprisings and there would be riots and there would be failures. Over time, the Church would be the one doing the persecuting. And over time, prophets and martyrs would call even the Church to account for her failures.

And here we are, comfortably settled in Hoboken, NJ where the trouble seems so far away. But if we believe the words that Paul wrote: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12), if we truly believe that, then the black folk dying at the hands of police or white vigilantes or disproportionately from COVID are members of our own body. They are not separate from us.

And if they can’t breathe, neither can we.

Thank God we have a savior who loves us. Who allows us to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

After this sermon, we are going to renew our baptismal covenant. When we get to those promises that we make, remember that your response is “I will, with God’s help. We do not do this work of dismantling white supremacy and injustice on our own. The power of Almighty God is with us.

Pray that this country will be set on fire with a zeal for justice. Pray that God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh so that sons and daughter shall prophesy, and young men see visions, and old men dream dreams, and maybe at last, God’s will for humankind will be fulfilled. Pray that we – all of us – will be set on fire and will not rest until God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.

ASEPSermon for the Day of Pentecost, May 31, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas