We begin with an image of the Spirit of romantic love, dancing. Perhaps you have experienced it: that surge of irrepressible joy soaring through your soul because you love someone and that person loves you. You can’t stop thinking about your beloved, laughing at their silly jokes, flirting. Like the character Don Lockwood played by Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, when he falls in love with Debbie Reynolds’s character Kathy Selden, he doesn’t care if it’s pouring, if it’s the middle of the night, if people in their right minds have gone to bed. He’s in love, he’s happy again, and he’s got to dance in the streets, stomp in puddles, swing around a lamppost, pretend to flirt with a cutout girl in a shop window. “Let the stormy clouds chase everyone from the place. Come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face.” And when a policeman looks on sternly, Don moves on, giving his umbrella to a passerby who is hunched against the rain.
That’s romantic love. It makes our spirit soar, and it may so bubble over that we get out and dance in the streets. But it’s mostly personal. It doesn’t really improve things for the common good, as we heard in our reading from 1 Corinthians:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same God; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12)
For the common good. So as much as we delight in Don Lockwood’s ecstatic spilling out into the street and overflowing joy, and even as we see him dancing in the street, he’s dancing a solo. Spirit of romantic love is great. But wait: there’s more.
The disciples in our reading from Acts are spilling out into the streets with that same sense of unbridled joy. They cannot contain themselves, they are so excited. Their enthusiasm is so over the top that skeptics sneer and accuse them of being drunk at 9am.
What we’re talking about here is not Spirit of romantic love, dancing. It is Spirit of fire, dancing. It is dancing in the face of oppression and fear, death and destruction. These disciples have been huddled in a house of fear since Jesus was assassinated. But on Pentecost, as Spirit of fire dances on their heads, they realize that living in fear is living a small, dead life. Spirit calls us, in the most dangerous of times, to dance in the streets, to dare to love, to speak up for justice, to include everyone, to stop being bound by fear and step out, regardless of the consequences—to step out in faith and courage, using all the gifts that Spirit gives us in all their diversity, for the common good.
Spirit of fire, dancing, looks like Malala Yousafzai. You may recall her story: born in Pakistan in 1997. Her father was a teacher and believed strongly in education of all children, including girls. When the Taliban began to shut down or blow up girls’ schools, Malala’s father took on her education at home. At age 11, Malala created an anonymous blog that was distributed by the BBC . She spoke out everywhere, even after the Taliban began to threaten her life. And then, when she was 15 and riding a school bus home from exams, a Taliban assassin boarded the bus and shot her in the head to shut her up. And even that didn’t stop her. Hear the Spirit of fire, dancing, in her words:
“The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.” (www.biography.com/activists/malala-yousafzai)
That is the essence of Spirit at Pentecost, right there: weakness, fear, and hopelessness die. Strength, power, and courage are born. There is no guarantee of an easy life or a happy-ever-after. There is dancing with fire in the streets in spite of the dangers, for the common good.
It sounds to me as though, unlike the disciples, Yousafzai never huddled at home in fear. But once the Taliban tried and failed to shut her up, there has been no stopping her dancing in the streets, speaking out against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism. She says,
“The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women.... Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.” (Ibid.)
Hear how she is never talking about what benefits her alone. Spirit—Allah, God, however she understands the Divine—gives her the gift of powerful speech, which she uses for the common good.
Here she is again:
The shocking truth is that world leaders have the money to fully fund primary AND secondary education around the world—but they are choosing to spend it on other things, like their military budgets. In fact, if the whole world stopped spending money on the military for just 8 days, we could have the $39 billion still needed to provide 12 years of free, quality education to every child on the planet. (Ibid.)
Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17. She graduated from Oxford University, has a foundation that continues to magnify her work, and will clearly never stop dancing in the streets for the common good.
We are all part of one body, the body of Christ, the body of God’s creation. We are all part of the same Spirit, dancing through us as she will. Note in both of our scripture readings the prominence of diversity and the overarching message of inclusion of all gifts and all peoples—Jews, Greeks, people from all over, people of every age, language, gender, station in life, education level, today we would also know to name sexual orientation, physical ability, political bent, race, ethnicity, economic strata. Everyone is included. Everyone is part of the body of Christ.
And what is the purpose of all this dancing in the streets? Peter quotes the Old Testament prophet Joel in talking about God’s great and glorious day: a day of reckoning, a day of truth, a day where people can no longer hide whatever nefarious deeds they have been doing in secret. It is a day of natural awe and wonder: solar and lunar eclipses. It is a day of disaster, of blood and smoke and fire. The disciples apparently thought they were in the end times, and Spirit convinced them to go out fighting and dancing, not crouched in fear inside a house. Of course, what the disciples thought was the end was actually the beginning of Christianity.
We live in our own terrifying times, and now is when we are called to preach truth, to dance love in the streets, to march for justice, to speak up with and for the oppressed, to use all our gifts of Spirit not for personal benefit but for the common good.
There will always be critics and disbelievers, those who say that we are drunk at 9:00 in the morning. We are drunk, not with alcoholic spirits but with Spirit with a capital S.
Perhaps you heard the news recently that a school in Florida has restricted access to the poem “The Hill We Climb,” which poet Amanda Gorman read at the inauguration in January 2021, just days after the January 6 insurrection. This attempt to restrict student access to this amazing poem has shone a light on the poem all over again. So I close today with an extended excerpt, and I invite you to hear how the message of Pentecost rings throughout the words, inviting us to build bridges, to be inclusive, to work for the common good.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew;
that even as we hurt, we hoped;
that even as we tired, we tried;
that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious,
not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time
then victory won’t lie in the blade
but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promise to glade,
the hill we climb
if only we dare it,
because being American is more than a pride we inherit —
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth,
in this faith we trust,
for while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption
we feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter,
to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked,
‘how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe,’
now we assert,
‘how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?’
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be:
a country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce, and free.
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the gold-limned hills of the west,
we will rise from the windswept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution,
we will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover
in every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it,
if only we’re brave enough to be it.
(Amanda Gorman, 2017 National Youth Poet Laureate, at Joe Biden’s inauguration, January 2021)