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Rev. Derek Penwell
Pentecost is a high holy day in Christianity. But unlike Easter and Christmas, it doesn’t come with much fanfare. The whole thing is pretty subdued, really. Kind of a bland holy day, where the most common take on it is, “the birthday of the church.” The Holy Spirit makes an appearance—which is nice, kind of comforting. But all in all, not an especially big deal.
But you may not get the full import of what happened on Pentecost if you see it as the neglected third cousin in the liturgical family tree. In reality, it’s at the very heart of the Christian lineage.
Pentecost is sweeping, cinematic—and not the family friendly, Pixar kind either. In fact, Pentecost is more like a David Lynch movie—twisted and a little creepy for everyone watching—the kind you send the kids out of the room for when it comes on TV.
For one thing, when the Holy Spirit shows up on the scene, it’s not a polite introduction—a gentle breeze that calmly washed over the disciples. No. A mini-tornado blows into the room, accompanied by a firestorm. And if the sound and light show aren’t enough, everybody starts speaking in different languages.
All of this craziness drives them out of the room they’re gathered in, and into the streets. When passersby hear all the commotion, Luke says they are “amazed and astonished.” And just so we’re clear, this amazed astonishment isn’t the kind of delighted reaction to hearing Miles Davis play the trumpet or seeing a 500 foot home run; this is the dumbstruck reaction scientists had upon seeing the first nuclear detonation in the New Mexico desert.
Luke says everyone gathered is “amazed and perplexed,” asking, “What does this mean?”
The whole thing has an apocalyptic, end of days vibe. In fact, Peter says just that to explain what’s going on: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
And what will this pouring out of God’s Spirit on all flesh do? Luke says, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.”
Happy Pentecost! Let’s get the kiddies! We’re going to grandma’s for cake and ice cream!
But guess what? You’re the prophets in this story.
Now, when people hear about prophecy, they almost always think that what we’re talking about is telling the future—a kind of religious mumbo-jumbo inflected with dark mysteries, eliciting pictures of women in flowing skits hunched over crystal balls. However, the Bible’s understanding of prophecy has more to do with a way of reading the present social, economic, political, and religious landscape and offering and telling the people that if they don’t make some changes, the road down which they’re headed is going to be grim.
Prophets cry out against the injustices of the world, drawing people’s attention to the lies that make injustice possible. “Prophecy,” as Abraham Heschel reminds us, “is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world.”
Consequently, prophets are always saying things most people don’t want to hear, summoning the courage to speak uncomfortable truth. They shake things up in pursuit of the truth, resisting the pressure of a society that wished they’d just shut up.
Oh, but they can’t shut up—even when it might cost them their lives. They’re truth-seeking, trouble-making, hell-raisers. As Martin Luther King was fond of saying, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”
In April of 1963, a group of well-meaning (I think) white clergy in Alabama got together and issued a statement calling for the end of demonstrations they considered “unwise and untimely,” by “some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” even though this group of white clergy recognized “the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.” Martin Luther King responded to these clergy in his, now famous, Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
Not surprisingly, Dr. King’s anger at the unjust social systems made bolder through their embodiment in law is present throughout his letter, raising again the Augustinian question about whether unjust laws—laws that degrade “human personality” and “distort the soul”—ought rightfully to be considered laws at all.
But Dr. King reserves his biggest disappointment for the church. He rightly criticizes white moderates, whom he considered to be “more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘justice,’ who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” King speaks candidly in his letter about weeping because of the laxity the church, about how “blemished and scarred” is the body of Christ “through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformist.”
At one point, Dr. King recalls with a certain wistfulness “a time when the church was very powerful.” It’s interesting to note, though, just how he sees the church’s relationship to that power. The church was at its most transformative, he argues,
when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than humans. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their efforts and their example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide, and gladiatorial contests.
It occurs to me that we who have committed ourselves to the violent wind of the spirit are the inheritors of that legacy—a legacy that hears the cries of inequity and injustice, and remains incapable of turning a deaf ear.
We’re the spiritual offspring of the creatively maladjusted. We cannot stand by and do nothing. We join together across the diversity of location, across the chasms of economic difference, across the span of generations to take our place in the procession—a procession of the creatively maladjusted that stretches back through the Civil Rights movement, through the labor movement, through women’s suffrage, and through the abolition of slavery.
We are people who cannot abide and will not stomach the excuses offered up by unjust systems that somehow “now is not the time,” or that raising a ruckus only contributes to the problem. We draw together because we’ve been called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God—not because there is anything necessarily heroic in us, but because we’ve been passed a torch by heroes, saints, and prophets who’ve gone before us, and who have called us to bear witness that God is not satisfied with either an unjust society or a passive church “more devoted to ‘order’ than to a true ‘peace.’
There’s a constituency within the churches today urging caution, who think it “unwise and untimely” to press the issue of justice for young African American men who suffer disproportionately at the hands of the justice system and the police who enforce it.
There are church folks in the present age who believe it’s not a good time to trouble the waters for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people within the life of our society.
I’ve spoken with Christians who’re convinced that it’s not politically expedient to call for a beloved community that includes our Muslim neighbors, our refugee neighbors, our immigrant neighbors—even though this constituency recognizes “the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.” These timid folks believe that taking any kind of a stand will be heavy-handed and disruptive, while failing to realize that, if the Holy Spirit is in our midst, heavy-handed disruption of the existing unjust order is not the thing we wait for the right time to pursue, but the very thing we lead, empowered and emboldened by the Holy Spirit who breaks in on us with an apocalyptic mini-tornado, the one who sets the shape and trajectory of our ministry.
The prophet Joel says, “And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.” And there’s nothing politically expedient about that.
If we are indeed the offspring of the creatively maladjusted, we will never have a better time than right now to the be the prophets we’ve been told we are.
On Thursday I went to Western Middle School in West Louisville, along with a number of other faith leaders, at the invitation of the Governor. He wanted to address the problem of violence in the West End. That he started out by saying that he wasn’t going to direct any money or resources to his proposal was not a positive first step among a group of African American faith leaders, who have lived in an area largely forgotten by any government, where, as one African American pastor put it: “In the West End it’s easier to buy a gun than a piece of fresh fruit.” And the true horror of the situation is that that’s not hyperbole; it’s reality.
The Governor went on to say that the problem of violence in the West End isn’t economic, it isn’t political—the problem is spiritual. Now, I’m a minister, so I have a stake in spirituality. But saying that the issue of people killing each other in underserved and poorly resourced areas isn’t economic or political, but spiritual is like saying that the reason that a car with no engine block and no drive train won’t go is because it has flat tires. The fact is, you need all of those things fixed if you want the car to operate correctly.
As a way of confronting the violence the Governor proposed that the faith communities represented in the gathering should commit for one year to pick a block in the West End, and walk around it 2–3 times per week, praying for the people in the houses along the way. There was a lot of cheering by white pastors from out in the state, and a lot of jeering by African American and white mainline pastors.
Now, I’m a minister. I believe in prayer. But come on, man.
By this time, I was a little bit worked up myself. Two times the Governor laid the blame at the feet of those who “can’t control themselves.” So, idiot that I am, I shouted out when he paused: “What block are you going to commit to walk Governor?”
I was sitting behind a row of white ministers from out in the state, with whom I suspect I shall not go digging fishing worms any time soon. After I hollered, they turned around and one of them said, “Why don’t you be quiet? You know, you’re very rude?”
I said, “I’m not rude. I’m creatively maladjusted.”
Well actually, I didn’t say that. But I wish I had. What I really said was … well, I can’t say it here. But it wasn’t nearly as fine a representation of my faith.
But here’s the thing, you don’t choose whether or not to be a prophet. After Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on you. You’re a prophet whether you like it or not.
The only question is: Are you going to live like it?
Are you going to prefer truth to lies?
Are you going to call out injustice when you see it?
Are you going to stand up, stiffen your spine, and offer your life to be “the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world?”
Are you going to live out your heritage as the creatively maladjusted?
There’s a world out there dying to know your answer.