Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21 and Dreams by Langston Hughes
Good morning and greetings on this special Sunday! It is the official end of the Easter season in our thread of Christianity, so today in our tradition it is Pentecost, which is when we celebrate the day Jesus' apostles and friends were disrupted by the Holy Spirit and it is the day we call the birthday of the Church. Happy birthday to us, the inheritors of this experiment in radical love that goes on still today.
I invite you to take a few deep breathes, to give thanks for this day and this chance to be here in this way. We begin this time by turning our hearts and minds toward whatever message meant for each of us, as we pray this prayer from Psalm 19:14. God, Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, wherever they are, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
“Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.”
These words from Langton Hughes came to me this week. Amid the pain and blood, the tears and flames, this poem and another surfaced in my heart. Hold fast to dreams… I confess this has felt difficult in these days to hold fast to hope, to dare to dream beyond what is, as if we are grasping, reaching to hold onto a thread that is fraying- as if these hopes and dreams have floated a tad out of reach, as if all that is in the front view is a barren field of worry.
On top of the 100,000 human beings who have died from COVID-19 and the 40 million who are unemployed, right now we find ourselves in a frightening mix. Economic distress, uncertainty and anxiety are interacting with layers of trauma from state-sanctioned violence inflicted by our culture of policing- even while the fears and privileges of white people become more lethal in a moment where it is clear that some lives are valued more than others.
Those of those of us who run without fear of being shot and walk the streets without worry of being seen as dangerous, those of us who drive without fear of being pulled over- we are accustomed to having the space we need to live free of intrusion. Last week a white woman in central park, Amy Cooper threatened to call the police on a black man and local birder, Christian Cooper because he asked her to leash her dog as was the law. She became enraged by his request and said, “I’m taking a picture and calling the cops.” “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” She knew that would be a code word to law enforcement and she knew that taking that action would put Christian’s life in danger. Thank God Christian is here today, but our hearts are broken because George Floyd is not.
He is gone along with these precious lives: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray Jr., Walter Scott, Oscar Grant III, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor…
This week has reminded me of April 1992, when marches and then riots began in South Central Los Angeles after a trial jury acquitted four officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for the use of excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King. This had all been videotaped and widely viewed in Network Television broadcasts that was shared around the world. That seems quite commonplace now, but I was 13 and it was the first time I had seen anything like it.
And not surprisingly, almost immediately the mainstream media shifted the story to those causing violence, painting them as “hoodlums” and “thugs,” turning the story away from the violence caused to Rodney. This allowed the conversation to once again be about individuals, the individual bad cops, the individuals in the streets with little prospect for a life beyond the dilapidation. The conversation stayed there and never shifted to institutionally validated practices that disproportionally cause harm to black and brown people. And right now we are already hearing some of these same things- that police officers that kill people as part of their job are just bad apples and what we should fear instead is rebellious, armed youth.
In my experience, for much of white America, members of law enforcement are put on a pedestal. And in my own life, I held this view until 2011 when I found myself in the streets of Oakland as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. As a naïve white girl from the Pacific Northwest, I showed up to our prayer gatherings, our organizing meetings and our marches with the expectation that because we were assembling legally for the cause of economic justice, we would all be treated kindly. This was absolutely not what happened and it was the first time I had ever been forced to begin to challenge my own way of thinking about policing. Almost every time we gathered publicly, members of law enforcement would be present in armor with masks, batons, guns and shields. I could not believe that they showed up dressed for war and in that scene, all of us were treated as enemy combatants. Those who had grown up in Oakland laughed at my surprise. Being treated as an outsider, as someone who needed watching over, monitored, like an enemy in their own city was familiar to them. And I watched as our peaceful gatherings would suddenly change and I witnessed how the story would later be told. We later discovered that plain clothes officers had a pattern of being the ones to get things riled up. If I hadn’t witnessed it myself, I wouldn’t have possibly imagined such a thing. It seems so unamerican. But that is why we are where we are. America isn’t the same for all of us. We don’t share the same experience.
So it is common for those of us who are comfortable, to show disgust at the looting occurring and the rebellion emerging. Putting our rage at property loss, allows the conversation to remain at the individual level- it allows white people to avoid the underlying hurt. And the truth is that even if we don’t say it out loud, the wealth of white people in this world is invested in property. Property is precious. This is why the NFL banned Kaepernick- he was threatening their wealth, their project of white men profiting off of the pain and toil of mostly black and brown bodies. That kind of kneeling is not allowed, but kneeling on the neck of a black man until his light is extinguished would go unnoticed without a video and goes unpunished without pressure.
In another poem by Langston Hughes called Let America Be America Again, he writes, Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free. (America never was America to me.) Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above…”
“Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.”
This moment feels chaotic, uncertain, as curtains are being pulled back… Revealing the depth of the pain present so people of faith and conscience, especially white people in America- we need to pause, we need to listen.
In 1966 in an interview on 60 minutes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I think that we have got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard and what is it that America has failed to hear?”
And that is actually what Pentecost is all about. The prophecy that came that day, the day Jesus' apostles and friends were disrupted by the Holy Spirit, wasn’t meant to be sealed up and buried, no it is still ours now! As it says in Book from the Prophet Joel and as we heard from the Book of Acts, we summon these words to life here and now:
God’s Spirit is being poured out on all people. Our sons and daughters are prophesying, our young men are seeing visions, our old men are dreaming dreams. God’s Spirit will find us and we will share our hopes out loud. We are committed to seek wonder and look for signs, even amid the fire and billows of smoke, even when it seems the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, even when hope has floated a tad out of reach. God’s Spirit is being poured out on all of us.
People of faith and conscience must pause and pay attention. We can’t turn away because it makes us uncomfortable. We must listen beyond the surface. The story of Pentecost tells us that God showed up with the rush of a violent wind, but they didn’t run away, they stayed there together, they held on enough to be present for the miracle, which was this: everyone there was heard- even though they had different languages and experiences, they paused, they paid attention, they listened. So perhaps right now this story might be reminding us as the Church, that the way this all began is with the Divine showing up with the “rush of a violent wind” and amid the and chaos and confusion what emerges, is something that before seemed impossible! Those who need to speak, speak in their own language and they are heard. Children and Elders are given the platform they deserve. The movement is centered around visions and dreams.
Beloved of God on this Pentecost Sunday, let us remember that it is our call, our practice, to pause, to pay attention, to listen. If we do, we just might be able to hear, even those who speak a language different from our own, even those who speak the language of the unheard. Being the Church means we are among visionaries and dreamers and this means we are often invested in what seem like crazy dreams and impossible schemes. As they ask in the Pentecost story, “how is it that each of us hears them in their own native language?” Maybe it is because they did not turn away from the “rush of the violent wind,” they did not turn away from the blood and flames, instead they listened and all were heard and that changed everything. May it be so.