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With Flames Above Our Heads

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Acts 2:1-21

One of the challenges of making the transition from in-person worship to online worship is the need for more visuals. In person we can have a four-minute prelude and you can choose to use it to prepare your hearts and mind for worship, or you can read the announcements in the bulletin, or you can try to keep your children quiet for four minutes. But when we’re watching a screen, we don’t expect to sit for four minutes looking at the same still image. And if anybody is scrolling through Facebook and stumbles upon our worship, they’re not going to stay around long staring at a picture of our altar unless they happen to love organ music. The medium changes the way we need to deliver the message. Now, we might say that the TIMES change the way we need to deliver the message, and that we need more visuals in worship regardless of where it takes place. But it’s particularly important online. So one of the ways I’ve been addressing this need is to show artwork that goes along with the scripture. I use a website that has copyright-free images, particularly of classic art, so that I am not infringing upon anyone’s copyright by sharing their work.

This week I was not impressed with what they had to offer, particularly in the classic pieces. Most of it pictures “small, polite tongues of fire dancing through a room or resting as unobtrusively as possible (for fire) upon the heads of people calmly sitting in their places. There seems to be little that would draw a crowd of onlookers or invoke much more of a summation than a simple, ‘That was weird’ before observers turn to what’s next.”[1] Look again to see what I mean. No offense to this great artist, Giotto di Bondone but there is nothing about this piece that speaks to me of Pentecost. They’re all sitting there calmly, with the typical haloes of divinity or holiness, but I would not know this was depicting Pentecost if it weren’t for the title of the piece. It’s called “Pentecost.” This one from an altarpiece in Siena Italy at least has little flames above their heads, but they look rather bored by it all. This piece by Greco is better because there is at least some reaction. The person in gold on the left has his arms open but I can’t tell whether it’s to receive the gift that God is giving or whether it’s to say “Woah! We don’t need any of that nonsense!” I do like the fact that the two figures in the middle appear to be women. But what about the guy who is the second from the right? Is he looking at the guy next to him, or is he looking at us? What is he thinking? He seems skeptical, or perhaps unimpressed.

My favorite of the art from that website was this one from Cameroon. “JESUS MAFA is a response to the New Testament readings from the Lectionary by a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa. Each of the readings was selected and adapted to dramatic interpretation by the community members. Photographs of their interpretations were made, and these were then transcribed to paintings.”[2] I love the joy evident on the face of the young boy, and I also can relate to the person on the right hiding his eyes.

Still, in general, the artwork depicting Pentecost is very tame compared to the scene we read about. Let me tell you about it. In New Testament times, the Festival of Weeks, also called Pentecost, was celebrated fifty days after Passover. The feast was held in Jerusalem, and people came from hundreds of miles away to celebrate. Everyone was invited. “No one was to be excluded. The guest list was God’s guest list and was clearly stipulated in the Scripture for all to read: You, your sons and daughters, your men servants and maid servants, the Levites in your town, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows living among you. What a guest list!”[3] And they all have come to the party. Jerusalem is a holy mess. People everywhere, livestock in the streets, children running wild, and many of them foreigners. More languages than you can shake a stick at—if you had room to shake a stick, that is.

It is into this chaos that the Holy Spirit comes. The people are gathered and suddenly the sound of a violent rushing wind fills the house. And then flames appear above their heads and suddenly they can speak in languages they had never learned. The party flows out from the building into the streets, and a crowd gathers because Jews from every nation under heaven can hear in their own language. Not just a language they speak, a common language of the time, but their native tongue. The language they learned at their grandmother’s knee. The language in which they know lullabies. The language in which their exasperated parents had counted to three. The language in which they dream. They are surprised, amazed, mystified, because the speakers are Galileans—country bumpkins, not well-educated travelers. How in the WORLD is everybody hearing in their own language? And what’s what the fire? The Rev. Dr. Frank Crouch points out that this experience was “fear-inducing, adrenalin-pumping, wind-tossed, fire-singed, smoke-filled turmoil” that left people “thoroughly disoriented, completely uncomprehending.”[4] Now, I have no idea how to portray THAT in art, but people sitting calmly with flames over their heads isn’t it.

Yet this is what God’s Spirit does—the Spirit comes into turmoil, causes more turmoil, and ultimately empowers people to speak and be heard. And not just those who own the microphone because of their power or their race. On all people God will pour out God’s spirit.

Back when Jesus promised the people that he would send the Spirit to them, the word he used is Paraclete. We sometimes translate it as “Advocate” and more often we call the Spirit “Comforter.” Comforting us is certainly part of what the Spirit does. But to quote the scholar and preacher David Lose, “I just don’t think it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to make us feel better. . . . Because everywhere I look in these familiar Pentecost texts, the Holy Spirit ISN’T comforting anyone or anything but instead is shaking things up. . . . There’s nothing particularly comforting about the rush of a violent wind, let alone descending tongues of flame. . . . The Spirit didn’t comfort anyone but instead prompted the disciples to make a very public scene with the troubling good news that the person the crowds had put to death was alive through the power of God.”[5]

And as if that wasn’t enough, God says “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Young and old will dream dreams. Men and women will prophesy.” Remember that prophesy doesn’t mean telling the future. Prophesy means telling the truth right now. This is what the Spirit, the Greek paraclete, has come to do—get us to tell the truth, even if it’s painful, even if it hurts, even if it causes more chaos.

People, it is time for some truth telling. It is time for all of us to tell the truth about the pandemic of racism in our country. It is time—it is well past time—for Christians, especially white Christians, to stand up and demand justice, to declare clearly that Black Lives Matter, and to demand no less than full human rights for every single human.

That Holy Spirit Greek term “Paraclete” literally means to come alongside. And yes, sometimes that means comfort, and other times that means challenge. Other times that means change. Other times that means creating chaos in order to bring true peace. We have the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the one who comes along side. Folks, we have flames above our heads. And we have the ability to prophesy, to speak truth to power. We only need the courage.

Our closing hymn says “You call from tomorrow, you break ancient schemes. From the bondage of sorrow the captives dream dreams. Our women see visions, our men clear their eyes, with bold new decisions your people arise. Spirit, spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness, calling and free. Spirit, spirit of restlessness, stir me from placidness, wind, wind on the sea. May it be so. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2457

[2] http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/diglib-fulldisplay.pl?SID=20200529272485463&code=act&RC=48388&Row=19

[3] Imathiu, Rev. Grace. “The Day Heaven Burst Open.” www.day1.org, May 23, 1999.

[4] Crouch, Frank L. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2457

[5] Lose, David. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/05/pentecost-b-come-alongside-holy-spirit/

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