Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
On the upper book shelf in my office, there is a ceramic model of the Cathedral Church in Riga, Latvia. The model was given to me by my former students at the theological academy in Riga. I would gather with the students for worship on Wednesday morning, and then afterward cross the street to the academy to teach them homiletics, the art of preaching. Nearly twenty years ago, while escorting a college choir through the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, I was finally invited to preach in that historic Lutheran cathedral on Pentecost Sunday. It was an honor and a privilege. The cornerstone of the church had been laid by German missionaries in 1211, and the building itself stands today as the largest medieval church in all the Baltic States. In the guidebooks, it is listed as one of the “top five tourist sites” in the capital city. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any time to stay around after preaching for the service. As the words of the benediction were being said, I was whisked away with the choir to the neighboring country of Lithuania. A week or so later, however, I heard the first reflections on my sermon shared by an acquaintance. “Pastor Haug, I heard you preached a powerful sermon in the Cathedral last week. You brought the house down.” Being a shy and unassuming Norwegian, it was hard to accept such a compliment without blushing, but I did say thank you appreciatively. Then the friend added, “Literally, you brought the house down.” I was a little mystified until I opened the weekly newspaper the Baltic Times and read, “Cracks discovered in Church Columns. French engineering expert deems Cathedral until unsafe until repairs are made.” This inspection happened two days after my Pentecost performance, and as it turned out, the church was subsequently closed for a year and a half.
Truthfully, my preaching seldom has any effect on buildings, and sometimes, I wonder if it has any particular effect on parishioners. This week, however, I am painfully reminded by that little ceramic church that the cracks in a building can be overlooked for years, sometimes decades and centuries, but suddenly a tragic event or a life lost can make those cracks evident for all to see. When the imminent danger of collapse is clear, we must find a way together to rebuild that structure that has given us wholeness and meaning and as I discovered in the Cathedral Church in Riga, It will take time, patience and hard work.
Of course, it’s not just preachers and pastors who question whether they have any effect on other people these days. I think it is true of all believers standing on this side of the tragic death of George Floyd and the carnage that this unjust act has wrought. We are all feeling helpless, powerless, anxious and afraid of what will happen next- and more aware of the cracks in our society than we have ever noticed before. This is not the city of Minneapolis we have known and loved. We go to bed at night with the sound of helicopters flying overhead, sirens screaming in the evening air, and explosions piercing what should be night’s dark calm. We all long for true justice, but we all believe that violent retribution is not the answer. Hatred simply begets more hatred. And of course, it is easy to blame others. A friend of mine, Rafael Malpica-Padilla, the Director of ELCA Global Mission, recently wrote. “Scapegoating is not a Christian virtue. In the community of Jesus we don’t blame one another. We speak ‘the truth in love,’ always seeking to understand the other, to build relationships of trust and to live together as Jesus taught us.”
My friends, you may be wondering, so what hope does the story of Pentecost have for us and for our city in this painful and tragic time? Of course, as a Christian community, I trust that our hope is in ultimately in Jesus Christ and his life-giving Spirit. Yes, I believe that Jesus’ Holy Spirit is our greatest source of healing and forgiveness and it will allow us all to move forward from brokenness and darkness to unity and light. But I also believe that in order for us to hear Jesus’ promise of hope and life, we may need to face our own “harsh truth” spoken in love first.
Most Christians today are acquainted with the dramatic Pentecost story captured in the Book of the Apostles depicting the mighty wind, the tongues of fire and the speaking in tongues, as well as the annual appearance of the Parthians, Phrygians and Pamphylians, but you may not be as familiar with the Pentecost scene portrayed St. John’s gospel. It is a quiet, intimate setting on that first Easter evening after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It contains a poignant message of forgiveness and renewal spoken to the disciples in their own tragic hour.
Lost, broken and forlorned, Jesus’ disciples were gathered in the Upper Room, when Christ suddenly stood among them and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Mind you, not one of the disciples felt entitled to receive Jesus’ gift of the peace. Not one of them felt privileged above the others to receive his gift of forgiveness. They all knew how they had acted on that long Good Friday afternoon. They had not stayed beside their teacher. They had all deserted him and betrayed him. Their tongues were silent before the crowds. Even after they had heard the good news from the women of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, they were anxious and afraid and- guilty. The doors were locked. They were fearful of what would happen to them, and then suddenly Jesus stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?” In light of all that has happened this week in Minneapolis, and in light of all the injustice that has happened in our society for years regarding issues of race and privilege, we must remind ourselves that, “Scapegoating is not a Christian virtue. We must see the cracks in our society. We too need to take our place among the disciples in the Upper Room, and we too need to face our own complacency, apathy and silence, confessing our sins and doubts, so that Jesus’ forgiveness and healing can pour from his side and bring us wholeness and peace again.
Them Jesus breathed on them, a second time, and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If your forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Comforted by this word of forgiveness, the disciples went forth to be Christ’s Apostles and to build the church. There was nothing really remarkable about any of them. Most were fisherman, one was a tax collector, another was a militant, Simon the Zealot- a nationalist, sword- carrying Simon. They were a motley crew, and Jesus breathed on them the Holy Spirit, and they were changed. They became the Church.
And in those painful moments when the task seemed most treacherous, when the nights were darkest, and the journey loneliest, they were inspired and comforted anew by the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus in their lives. And the same will be true for you.
Even now, Jesus’ Holy Spirit blows into some people’s lives with a mighty rush and for others it is a gentle human breath. Either way, he is calling and urging you to change, to receive his forgiveness, and to forgive others, so that together, we can become the Church and rebuild the structures of our society that have been unjustly, overlooked for years.
Nearly 400 years ago, the Pilgrim Fathers landed on the east coast of North America, and in the first year they established a town site. The next year they elected a government, and in the third year the government planned a road five miles west into the wilderness. In the fourth year the people tried to impeach their town government for wasting public funds building a road to nowhere. “Who needs to go there, anyway?” they said. Here were people with the vision and determination to cross nearly a thousand miles of treacherous ocean, but in just a few years they could not see even five miles out of town. They lost their way and they lost vision.
Our struggle with racism and injustice in American society has equally deep roots. But as a Christian church, our roots go back even further to a day in Jerusalem, to a time in the past when eager and forgiven disciples, moved by the power of the Holy Spirit, would not let language, race, economics or geography prevent them from sharing the name of Jesus with everyone they met. That my friends, is the power of the Holy Spirit, and that is the power and the hope that you and I have been called to share with this broken, anxious and frightened city.
On this Pentecost, we must commit ourselves anew to letting Jesus’ strong and mighty breath and his holy and wondrous name rush across this land bringing forgiveness and healing and peace. And may we commit ourselves to each to mend the broken cracks that city and society may be made whole again. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.