We began this Pentecost journey back in February with Ash Wednesday. We put ashes from a burned-out fire on our foreheads as a symbol of repentance, of our commitment to work through Lent on our relationship with God. We may do this by giving things up, retreating from the world, from all the things that distract us or get between us and God. It is a contemplative, prayerful, quiet time.
Then comes Easter, where the disciples discover that the tomb is empty and the story of Jesus and God incarnate in human flesh is not over. God cannot be stopped by the assassination of God’s beloved child.
If you read the gospel accounts of the resurrection side by side, you will notice that the instructions to the disciples at the tomb differ. In Matthew and Mark, the women disciples are told to tell everyone to return to Galilee, where Jesus will meet them. In John, Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus in the garden and mistakes him for the gardener; he does not give any instructions. In Luke, which is written by the same author as Acts, the disciples are told to remain in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes. So here they are, still in Jerusalem, staying apart from society in an upper room. They are grieving, fearful, and uncertain of what happens next.
Perhaps we can relate in a new way. For the past 14 months, like the disciples, we have more or less gone into our own upper rooms and stayed there. We haven’t worshiped in person in the same space together. We haven’t seen family or friends or been out and about to the same extent. We’ve had 14 months of Lenten retreat. Maybe you have cleaned out your garage, developed a new prayer practice, read all the books that have been stacking up for years, planted a big garden, sewed quilts, taken up the guitar. But in the coming months, as more people get vaccinated, we are slowly being allowed to get out and about, to come into contact with people again.
We are not the same as when we started this journey 14 months ago. We have changed as individuals. We have all learned how to use Zoom. But we are changed as a society as well. This Tuesday we will mark the one-year anniversary since the murder of George Floyd. One year of Black Lives Matter protests, and all the recognition of the racism endemic in our society, and the high cost we pay.
This week I went to the Seattle Art Museum. Going to a museum—even with masks on, it felt great to get back out and about, to see art that feeds my soul and gives me insights into someone else’s take on the human experience. In addition to the wonderful Jacob Lawrence exhibit called “Struggles,” there was an exhibit by Barbara Earl Thomas, who had studied with Jacob Lawrence. Her exhibit, “The Geography of Innocence,” focuses on the faces of young Black children of family and friends. She uses a paper-cutting technique where she starts with this vibrant background layer, covers it with black paper, and then cuts the black paper into the image she wants. All the places where the paper is cut out, the vibrancy of the background shines through. You have to have both the black surface layer and all the rainbow colors behind in order to make these images radiate, in order for them to be complete.
Speaking about Barbara Earl Thomas and this exhibition, SAM curator Catharine Manchanda says,
The installation as a whole, centers on the symbolic significance associated with light and dark. Deeply rooted in religious and mythological contexts (good and evil, innocence and guilt), these values were applied to light and dark skin in the context of colonial history. They inform our perception of Black individuals, including children, to this day. The exhibition . . . undertakes the inversion of the values associated with light and dark that have dominated Western belief systems. [Thomas’s] cut‐paper portraits make the individuals appear illuminated, connecting to the visual repertoire of religious icons. (Barbara Earl Thomas and Jacob Lawrence at the Seattle Art Museum (phillips.com) )
In other words, rather than having black be linked with evil or guilt, here it is the layer that gives shape, meaning, and radiance to all the color flowing out from it—like a stained-glass window.
In one image, called “Boys in the Night Light,” two young boys—brothers, perhaps—grin at us in the foreground. One wears a t-shirt with basketballs and the words “On Fire.” Behind them is a neighborhood full of busy streets, trucks and traffic, houses—and possibly a house on fire. I imagine this could be a neighborhood shaped by poverty, racism, violence, resilience, and love. And this vibrant image leaps off the wall, on fire with life, energy, youth, innocence, and hope. On fire.
When the disciples come spilling out of their upper room into the streets, they are on fire with Spirit in every language, much to everyone’s astonishment. Peter quotes the prophet Joel, saying, “Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18). The two little boys in Barbara Earl Thomas’s cut-paper art prophesy to us of hope, possibility, what could be.
Some branches of Christianity will try to say that they’ve got God and nobody else does—that Spirit is poured out on them alone. Apparently they haven’t read this passage, where it is clear that Spirit is poured out on people of every age and station and gender. Across the distance of time and space, some 2,000 years later, this is still true: Spirit is poured out on us. All of us. In the museum exhibit, Spirit leaps out of these images of Black children and preaches to us with a full rainbow of colors, like stained-glass windows showing us God’s beloved.
Peter says, “Then everyone who calls on the name of God shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). Saved? This word makes me uncomfortable. I think of the “Jesus saves” bumper stickers from the 1970s, or the people who go door to door asking if you are saved. What do I need to be saved from? Does it hurt? Is it a one-time thing—one and done, like the Johnson & Johnson vaccine? Or do I need to be saved every day?
Given that we live in a culture that has practiced oppression of everyone who isn’t a straight white male, I think we do all need saving every day. Saving from the racism that cripples our ability to live together in peace. Saving from the culture that has taught white people to be blind to the problem, because if we see it, we have to feel bad, and we will have to address it. Saving from the school-to-prison pipeline that destroys the lives of poor and minority young people by failing to give them a good education, failing to provide employment opportunities, failing to pay a living wage, and failing to provide justice through the police and the courts. I need saving from that system every day, even though I am on the privileged end of it, because when we destroy the lives of those young, innocent Black children, we all suffer the consequences. We do not get to celebrate the contributions they could offer if they had the same opportunities and privileges that the white children do.
So here we are, on Pentecost, celebrating Spirit alive in each and every one of us, including those prophetic children. Spirit shows up like fire, not of a tidy fireplace fire, but of a forest wildfire, a house-burning fire, the racing fire that flattened the town of Malden, Washington last summer in no time, the endless funeral pyres of COVID-19 victims in India. Our world is on fire, people. But this Spirit fire that threatens to change everything is a fire of love. It is a fire that invites everyone to catch the flame, to dance in the streets in their own language, to fan the flames of love and justice throughout their community. That’s the fire that calls us out of our upper rooms. We get to be part of that fire and spread it everywhere.
You may recall this quote from Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do [—as those two little boys do]. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
We have passed through the burned-out fire of Ash Wednesday, the contemplative quiet of Lent, and the upheaval and confusion of Eastertide. We have reached the fire of Pentecost. It is time to dance and spread the Good News of God’s love to everyone. It is time to overflow with Spirit, to celebrate God’s presence in and around us. It is a moment to consider the gift of this time on earth in these bodies. Are we loving well? Are we spreading that love fearlessly, joyfully, abundantly? Are we working for God’s justice for everyone? Life is not to be wasted. As Mary Oliver wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This is it. This is our chance to be on fire. Let us use this wild and precious life, this on-fire-with-the-Spirit life, to come out of our upper rooms, to join the disciples in the street, to rejoice in God’s presence. The boy in the cut-paper art had a t-shirt that said, “On fire.” Let us be on fire with God’s love. Amen.