I have never in my life heard a Pentecost sermon that began in total honesty. A Holy Week homily can easily start with “It is finished.” And who can resist the back-and-forth that begins Easter Sunday sermons around the world: “He is risen!” followed by an emotional “He is risen, indeed!”
The Pentecost story gives preachers no such easy start.
In my mind, a Pentecost sermon should begin with something along the lines of “Shut the front door!” or “You cannot be serious.” As a reminder, because it’s been three weeks since we’ve heard the story: the disciples have gathered together when suddenly a “sound like the rush of a violent wind” fills the room and “divided tongues, as of fire” descend and rest above the disciples heads. Then, the disciples start speaking in different languages.
They are Galileans, yet they speak the languages of Parthians, Medes, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, and parts of Asia and Egypt. Witnesses to the event are both amazed and perplexed, with a few folks (of whom I no doubt would have been one) snickering that the disciples must be drunk.
Peter will have none of that, though, he stands among the eleven and proclaims the fulfillment of the prophecy of 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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they 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. Then everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Acts 2:17-21, NRSV)
As my favorite seminary professor would say, “Let’s unpack this a bit.”
A violent wind. Tongues of fire. An internal force that allows and compels the disciples to speak languages previously unknown to them. A sun that turns to darkness. A moon turned to blood. More fire.
Do you see why it is that I am totally puzzled as to why more Pentecost sermons don’t start with baffled exclamations? This is a scary story. This is an apocalyptic story. And for these reasons and more, it is a story of our time and for our time. Wars rage. Infant mortality is staggeringly high. Unclean drinking water claims more than three million lives each year. These are scary times.
As the Minister of Visual Arts at First Congregational Church in Memphis, TN, it’s my job to create large-scale installations for our sanctuary for each church season. With each install, there are two goals: to visually communicate the essential message of the given season and to help to make our sanctuary a sanctuary from fear and violence.
The liturgical art that I often see in churches on Pentecost Sunday tends to focus on the tongues of fire, with lots of bright red fabric descending from ceilings and hanging over congregations. It’s visually stunning when done well, but can feel like a Hieronymus Bosch painting if it ends up being even a little too on the nose.
So, for Pentecost this year I traded tongues of fire for streams of rainbows.
For weeks, church members came to the First Congo community art studio to cut strips of cellophane and tape them to hula hoops. Together, we created over 50 rainbow mobiles. Throughout the summer these mobiles will throw multi-colored light and shadows over our heads as together we sing hymns, pray, and hear the Word.
Why the rainbow? Because the rainbow, in this season of Pride and Pentecost, is the strongest symbol of the prophetic promise of the Holy Spirit that we have. When we strip away the scariest parts of the Pentecost story, we are left with a miracle profound in its ordinariness: people talking to and understanding one another across their differences.
Too often, the violence we see on the news is mirrored by the violence of homes broken and families torn apart by the virulent homophobia propagated by churches in our own neighborhoods. By declaring ourselves a “Pentecost people,” Christians promise to resist this violence and to speak a language of love that is truly universal.
By embracing LGBT identities as part of the larger identity of the church universal, we truly honor the hard work of the Holy Spirit.
We create in our churches true sanctuaries: places where we can find peace and restore our souls for the work of creating a just society.
Photo Credit: Mary Button