Scripture Reading - Acts 2: 1-17
When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. 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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
According to the liturgical calendar, today is the first Sunday of the season of Pentecost.
The scene from Acts 2 that Linda read took place during Shavuot, the Jewish Harvest Festival, which occurred 50 days after the Passover festival, and honored the giving of the law to Moses. As we heard, there is quite a lot of drama going on in these verses. A loud sound and a rush of a violent wind, tongues of fire falling down from the sky and landing on people. There’s an eloquent sermon given by Peter, who was barely literate just 50 days before, and everyone hears it in their own language. The scene is a theophany, like we saw in the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, and in Moses’ shining face whenever he met with Yahweh. This time, God is revealed in the Holy Spirit, the Advocate that Jesus promised to send to the disciples just before he ascended into heaven. Most interpretations of the passage focus on this supernatural event of holy fire that inspired the disciples to continue the ministry that Jesus started. And in most mainline churches, Pentecost is the birthday of the Christian church.
I like to look underneath the obvious interpretations, to see if there isn’t something relevant for our time and place and experience. One that spoke to me is from The Social Justice Lectionary, by Bruce Sweet, a retired pastor in the United Church of Canada. He notes that everyone gathered there that day were members of the underclass, including the disciples. Many of them were from the Jewish diaspora, and had traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost as they had for Passover. They spoke their languages and dialects. But here, they all heard what the disciples were saying in their own languages, the message being that Pentecost recognizes and honors diversity. Sweet says, “In the revolutionary community politics inaugurated by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the cultural and political differences signified by the notion of ‘different languages’ is broken down. The impetus comes from those who are seen as insignificant and valueless. The Advocate gives voice to the voiceless.”
In our world, it is too often the voices of black and brown people and poor people that are seen as insignificant and valueless. And not just their voices; their very lives. Just this week another black person, George Floyd, was killed for being black by those who are sworn to protect and serve all citizens. Video shows that George did not resist when police forced him to the ground, handcuffed him face down, and held him there with a knee in his neck and the full weight of an officer on him. He said, “I can’t breathe!” But they didn’t consider his voice, his even his life, to have equal value with theirs. They murdered him and lied about it in their report. We have heard that with Covid 19, we are all in the same boat. The virus doesn’t discriminate. But people and systems do discriminate, and we are seeing every day that some in our society are considered worthy of protection and treatment, while others are not.
In South Georgia, Latino farm workers have no protection against the virus, as they are loaded onto buses and taken out to the fields, then returned to crowded dormitories. With language and cultural barriers, many don’t know how contagious the virus is or what the symptoms are. And no one is telling them because they are providing the food on our plates. The front line low-wage workers who live in the River Park Towers in the Bronx, where 90 percent of the population are people of color, contract Corona virus at 3 times the rate of the wealthy residents of Manhattan. There are no hand sanitizer stations by their elevators. And these ‘essential’ workers don’t have healthcare or paid sick leave. What can we do? We can educate ourselves and others. And engage in conversations that look for solutions. Susan posted a book on Facebook from the UU’s, entitled Equipping Anti-Racism Allies, that I’m going to check into for us. We can keep sharing stories on social media, so that people actually know what is happening. We can write letters and emails to those who have the power to make change. We can talk back to our racist Facebook friends and our family members. We can remember that we are allies, following the lead of those who are impacted by racism and classism in our society. If we do nothing, nothing will change. If we remain silent, we are complicit. So let’s commit to doing whatever we can to ensure justice and equality for everyone.