The Feast of Pentecost
Becoming the Beloved Community
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7:37-39
We can be sure that the members of every tribe mentioned in this morning’s reading from the Book of Acts: all those Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontians, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Cyrenians, Romans, Cretans and Arabs, every tribe represented in that assembly, thought themselves to be superior when they compared themselves to the others.
After all, does not, “better than”, seem to be a knee jerk response when it comes to tribal self-awareness. In our own context, last weekend, the public voices did, as they usually do, on national holidays. They bathed their remarks in the rhetoric of national exceptionalism. You know, the greatest nation among all the nations of the earth.
I like to see Pentecost, the feast we celebrate today, as offering a divine corrective to any such tribal distorting of reality.
Yes, the impulse to tribal exceptionalism has cursed the human family from the very beginning and in our time its darkest expressions continue to mount a fierce assault on what is good, and what is possible, and what is holy for human beings who will to live as God has always intended and ever desires us to live. To be, in the words of Dr. King, the Beloved Community that identifies with the poor and disenfranchised everywhere in this world and seeks justice on their behalf.
The basic truth with regard to our identity is that we are all human beings. This identity alone must always command the utmost respect. Whatever the difference with which we might be inclined to pride ourselves, we are all made of the same substance. We all know the same needs. We all experience the same emotions. We are all capable of committing the same sins. We are all fathered by the same God. We are all brothers and sisters to each other. And all that we share in common, seeks its highest resolution and its most profound expression, in that yet to be fully realized community that defies all borders, boundaries, distinctions and differences. That Beloved Community was birthed from the pierced side of our Crucified Lord and is ever animated by His Risen Spirit poured out upon all human flesh.
But if we are paying any attention to many of the winds that are blowing quite fiercely around the world and the fires that continue to be ignited in too many hearts, we cannot but be aware of the dark and even evil places to which a little of this tribalism can take us.
Populism remains on the rise. Self-serving nationalism, in the name of self-protection and self-preservation, has evidenced an unhealthy and unholy renaissance. Right wing politicians around the globe hold leadership roles in too many places. Nativism that makes pariahs of immigrants and refugees and victimizes even children is national policy in many countries including our own. Just last week the Department of Homeland Security was instructed to deport detained children without any requirement to identify and notify their parents. The incendiary flames of virulent xenophobia are stoked at every opportunity. White supremacy has license to police our streets with murderous cruelty.
Political leaders with neo-fascist hearts, and a chorus of like-minded religious leaders, garner their support with this mindless appeal to the most insecure, psycho-socially and even spiritually compromised among us. Those who know and experience no authentic ground or well-spring for healthy self-esteem, are left to seek and to draw the basic affirmation that sustains life from such a pitifully empty reservoir.
The tribe can wear a national mask, a racial mask, an ethnic mask, a religious mask, a gender mask, a sexual identity mask, an economic class mask, and so many other masks for human beings to hide behind and trumpet themselves as superior to the other.
Can our common life be left to mimic the competitive fantasy that is played out in every sports arena? Will it only ever be about winners and losers, the victor and the vanquished and the relatively shallow bravado of team spirit?
This past week we could not have been more horrified than to have watched yet another white police officer murder yet another black man in full view of a group of pleading bystanders and with the obvious complicity of three fellow white police officers. George Floyd was a human being. He was our brother. He was murdered because he was a black human being.
This week a white woman in New York City’s Central Park invited the police to come to her aid as she contrived an outlandish story about being threatened by a black man who happened to be bird watching and who simply requested that she leash her dog as the park ordinances require. Had the police responded there could well have been another Erick Garner moment in New York. When will enough be enough?
Here at Holy Cross/Santa Cruz we know something of the joy, the hope and the love born thru efforts we have made over these years to better model the Beloved Community that prizes diversity, and mines the richness to be found in difference, as a resource to enhance our possibilities rather than as marks of superiority and cause for division.
We are a panoply of national and ethnic origins, religious traditions, and races. In our interface with the wider community we recognize ourselves as a faith community that exists for those, who while not belonging to our tribe, remain within the active embrace of our hearts.
We have sought to deepen our commitment to growing more fully in the direction of the Beloved Community, through our commitment to being one with so many different others – Christians, Muslims, Jews, believers and non-believers – in service to the least among us.
The Feast of Pentecost invites us to celebrate, to reconnect and to recommit to the gift of a far different Spirit, a different wind, and a different fire than that represented by the chilling winds and the killing flames that would otherwise command the present moment.
The mighty wind and the bright flame of Pentecost command our attention. God, in gifting us with His Spirit, has given us an antidote to those destructive winds and destroying fires. Ill wind and burning hate do not have to own the present hour.
We can be sure, brothers and sisters, that the God and Father of Jesus accords no priority at all to any specialness that we would claim for ourselves predicated on any tribal, national, ethnic or race affiliations, if that claim would have us think less of and care less for the other.
Rather the Spirit of God would have us lay claim to the one and only thing that actually makes us special. That we are children of the one Spirit, that we are sons and daughters of one Father, that we have all been washed in the blood of Christ and thereby we have all been made God’s special possession, whether or not we are actively conscious of this truth. The bond that God has forged with us and that binds us together goes deeper than any and every other bond.
Even the familial bond of blood must cede priority to the bond formed and sealed with the blood of Christ. Yes, the Spirit of God would have us own and be moved to action, by the truth that we are to regard and own the wellbeing every child, as if that child were biologically our child, and the wellbeing of every adult, as if that person were our biological brother or sister . The child, who by yet another cruel and inhumane executive order is now being sent back over the border with no notice being given to family, is our son and our daughter. The adult who has lost employment, knows food and home insecurity and has no access to unemployment insurance is our brother and our sister. I would hope and I pray that we would allow the Spirit to open us up to ever more fully embrace this truth.
We can only authentically create space to appreciate and value whatever might be our other connections and our differences in the light and context of our living in a loving communion with each other that transcends all that might otherwise separate us.
The commandment given by Jesus is that we love one another – not just our family members, not just our friends, not just those who are like us.
Yes, the church, whose birth we celebrate on Pentecost, is indeed essential, because its work is essential. As bishop-elect of the Diocese of Missouri Deon Johnson put it:
“The work of caring for the lonely, the marginalized, and the oppressed is essential.
The work of speaking truth to power and seeking justice is essential.
The work of being a loving, liberating, and life giving presence in the world is essential.
The work of welcoming the stranger, the refugee and the undocumented is essential.
The work of reconciliation and healing and caring is essential.
The church does not need to “reopen” because the church never “closed”. The building is not the church. We are the church.
And if we listen with loving and Spirit-filled minds and hearts, though the others may be speaking in a language other than our own, or living differently than we do, we too, like those gathered on that first Pentecost, will surely hear and understand what they are saying in our own language. Love is, after all, that language that we have all been empowered to speak and understand.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
May 30, 2020