Courageous Hope: What to Do When the Flames of Pentecost Go Out

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Altar at Edgehill UMC for Trinity Sunday

Autumn Dennis preached this sermon at Edgehill UMC in Nashville, Tennessee for Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2014.

Last Sunday, we witnessed the Spirit of the Lord rush in like a wild fire. In the midst of the chaos, tongues of fire rested on our heads, and the Spirit came to dwell in the commotion. The church was born. Pentecost! It’s an exciting day–everything is decked in red, we get to sing lots of songs about the Spirit, and so on. But I think we all know that excitement, that fuel, that energy…doesnt last forever.

For example, last week, I was sitting in a screening of Twelve Years a Slave at the Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the very true story, the year is 1841 and Solomon Northrup is a free black man in the state of New York. While visiting Washington DC where slavery is very much legal, he is kidnapped and sold into slavery, being shuffled from plantation to plantation, whip to whip, owner to owner for twelve years. The film is especially brutal to watch with extremely graphic scenes of whippings, sexual abuse of slaves, and of slaves being sold. While I was weeping my way through the movie, all I could think about was all the white Southerners I’ve ever met who always champion the mythical “good slave owners.” When the movie ended, there was a open discussion where a white man talked about how the movie sensationalized slavery and how we don’t know that it was “really that bad.”

What do we do when the flames of Pentecost go out?

A few days later, news reports were circulated about how there have been 74 school shootings since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut in December 2012. Just last week there were shootings at Seattle Pacific University and Reynolds High School near Portland, Oregon. In response, President Obama made a statement saying that the United States is the “only developed country” where these school shootings happen nearly every week.

What do we do when the flames of Pentecost go out?

A few days ago, spikes were installed in the corners of some London doorways to deter unhoused people from sleeping there. These spikes are not a new invention, and they can be found underneath highway overpasses all across the world. Here in Nashville, we more commonly see dividers being installed on every bench-like object across the city to deter our unhoused friends from their human right to rest. A few weeks ago, the mayor of Honolulu declared war on homelessness by introducing lots of criminalizing laws against lying down on sidewalks. Conducting sweeps of people in public parks. Cracking down on public urination. You know, criminalizing other things that people do to try and exist. And last year, Hawaii’s State Rep. Tom Brower, a Democrat, openly bragged about roaming the streets with a sledgehammer to destroy homeless people’s possessions. Nashville cops make a practice of literally setting homeless campus on fire.

What do we do when the flames of Pentecost go out?

Meanwhile, Tennessee is bringing back the electric chair and trying to ban abortion. An Oklahoma state house candidate includes “stoning gays” in his party platform. At least one thousand immigrant children are being held in a warehouse on the US-Mexican border where they are sleeping in plastic tubs and havent showed in ten days. And to top it all off, there has been a 21% increase in LGBT hate crime violence in the past year.

(This is all not to mention how in the midst of all this, our loved ones continue to be sick and hurting, our bills continue to be hard to pay, traffic is always awful, sunburns hurt really bad, people have short tempers, and we forget our lunches at home.)

What do we do when the flames have cooled and the altar is a steady green? When the flames of Pentecost are already nowhere to be found? When the liturgical heyday from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost is all over–what is left to fuel us? What do we do when ordinary time ushers in and we once again struggle to internalize the incarnation of God and the defeat of death? When each day becomes a little too ordinary? What do we do when the flames of Pentecost go out?

Now real quick like, let’s have a flashback to that lectionary scripture. Jesus has been chilling with the disciples after resurrecting and all that, and they’re all going up to a mountain in Galilee. This is right before Jesus peaces out and ascends and Pentecost happens, and Jesus says some stuff that’s pretty relevant to us now that Pentecost has passed. Alright, back to the scripture. The scripture says “When they say him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.” (Good to know that even after he was resurrected, people still doubted him. We’re in good company.) Jesus proceeds saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Now, I’m not much for authority, but I really take comfort in this part. This is a revolutionary statement coming from Jesus, the homeless executed immigrant who just defeated not only death but defied his execution at the hands of the Roman Empire! All authority on heaven and earth belongs to Christ. Not to any death-dealing state. Not to the governments that condemn, exclude, kill, or threaten. Not to the governors, the mayors, or the often brutal police. Not the judges, the electric chairs, or the deportation squads. They will not have the final victory or the final say. All authority is given to Jesus, the messenger of love and grace. When earthly authorities wish to serve up a sentence of death, Christ does not judge but instead introduces grace. When this truth is hard to see in the present or the past, we have hope that it is true in the ultimate and the soon-to-come.

Okay, the fire is getting a little bit rekindled. What else does Jesus tell us? “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Trinity, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Sometimes I have mixed feelings with this line. Hurray for going into the world; cringe because often the church frames it in terms of proselytizing, colonizing, and converting people. But let’s unpack some operative definitions here. I would like to propose that to be a disciple means to actively live out a set of principles that one has been taught. If we go and make disciples, it is because we ourselves are disciples of Jesus who taught us to live out love, mercy, grace, peace, and justice. What if making disciples doesn’t mean converting everyone we meet to professing some sort of doctrinal creed, but instead means living our lives so that others believe in the power of love, mercy, grace, justice, and peace? Maybe it’ll start a movement of genuine love. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant.

And as for the Trinity, you know, for the longest time I thought that the Trinity was just some really obscure illogical doctrine I had to subscribe to in order to be Methodist. But there’s a couple of different ways to look at it on this Trinity Sunday. If you’re stressing over the logic of three-and-one, I want you to put that on hold for a minute and let’s just think about the members of the Trinity and what they do. My favorite ways to refer to the Trinity are with the titles Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. When we are baptized in the “name” of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer, we are born into new lives where we are creators, redeemers, and sustainers of one another. Just as we are made in the image of God, we are baptized in the name of the Trinity. We have work to do. We are to create justice and safe spaces, we are to redeem the brokenness of the world around us with healing love and grace, and we are to sustain the work we do by sustaining the community around us. We cannot do this alone. Just as the Trinity is a community of three persons, so are Christians inherently communal people.

So when the Pentecost flames go out, we remember what Jesus told us to do. Often we will find ourselves scrambling in the darkness, struggling to remember the glories of Christmas and Easter morning. But that’s just when the real work of creation, redemption, and sustenance begin.

The last thing Jesus told us was that he would be with us. “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The promise of Emmanuel is a promise for all time, not just the incarnation at the birth of the Christ child. Jesus is now incarnated through the church. It’s often really hard for some of us, me included, to hear this because of how often the church has abused and condemned us. But instead of seeing this as a fact, this too is a hope. We HOPE that Christ comes to us through the presence of our friends. It’s up to US if we truly embody Christ. When Christians gather around the communion table, we re-incarnate Christ as we partake of the body and blood. We re-member Christ–we put Christ back together piece by piece, one by one with each of us. Jesus is always with us. Jesus is found in the eyes of our homeless friends, in the body of the prisoner, in the laugh of the newborn baby singing in church, in the hands of a friend departing this life. Jesus is always with us.

It’s not easy to maintain hope in the face of injustice, death, sickness, warfare, executions, and the never-ending stream of awful news reports. But I pray that we can keep pressing forward with the tasks of discipleship, creation, redemption, and sustenance that Jesus has put upon us. I pray that we may have courageous hope, daring hope, illogical hope. Amen.

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