The Empowering Spirit
The ACLU is currently tracking 490 anti-lgbtq bills in legislatures across the country, including 2 in Massachusetts (https://www.aclu.org/legislative-attacks-on-lgbtq-rights?state=MA&impact=school).
Six months since the Dobbs case that effectively overturned Roe V. Wade, 24 States are on track to pass near total bans on abortion (https://www.guttmacher.org/2023/01/six-months-post-roe-24-us-states-have-banned-abortion-or-are-likely-do-so-roundup).
In the wake of several bills signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, “the NAACP has issued a travel advisory for the state of Florida, claiming the Sunshine State is "openly hostile" to African Americans, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals” (The civil rights organization added their decision comes in response to Gov. Ron DeSantis' attempts to "erase Black history. https://www.msnbc.com/yasmin-vossoughian/watch/naacp-issues-travel-advisory-for-florida-175457861800).
Houghton University, a Christian school in upstate NY, recently fired two staff members for appending their pronouns to their e-mail signature (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/19/nyregion/houghton-university-employees-pronouns.html).
That’s right, fired a cisgender heterosexual man for stating that his pronouns are he/him and a cisgender heterosexual woman for stating that her pronouns are she/her - which, for the record, even the most conservative Christian would agree.…they are. I know reality has a well known liberal bias, but I still don’t even know where to begin with that one.
A fifth grade teacher in Florida is under state investigation for showing her class a Disney film with a gay character (https://religionnews.com/2023/05/22/religious-freedom-was-meant-to-protect-not-bludgeon-what-happened/). As if they don’t all have gay characters.
And closer to home, several staff and administrators in the Amherst School system have taken voluntary or imposed leaves of absence in the wake of a title nine investigation centered around their failure to respect, protect, and support LGBTQ students in our middle school (http://thegraphic.arps.org/2023/05/its-life-or-death-failure-to-protect-trans-kids-at-arms-a-systemic-problem/).
It may sound like I’m bringing politics into the pulpit this morning… because I am, but I share these headlines with you because the role and influence of Christianity is front and center in each and every one of these stories.
It may not be a form of Christianity that you or I espouse, but for good or ill - and frankly it all makes me ill - Christianity is mentioned in every single article. In interview after interview, it appears to be the motivating force behind constraining people’s rights and erasing their personhood, which breaks my heart for 3 reasons:
First, because it is just so clearly about power. So much of this division and controversy we see playing out across our country right now is clearly being manufactured by politicians and religious leaders bent on manipulating people’s fear and faith in an effort to galvanize their base and shore up their power.
I know this is nothing new, but it still infuriates me. I know it’s the oldest play in the political handbook, but I also know that the fall out for those who are targeted - be they people of color, refugees, Jews, muslims, Queer folx, or women - will be devastating, if not fatal.
Yes, we’ve seen this before, but every time this kind of scapegoating takes place in the name of Jesus - Jesus whose whole life and ministry was one of lifting up the least and restoring the lost and loving those on the margins until he himself becomes the target of politicians and religious leaders bent on shoring up their own power- it’s not just ironic, it’s not just a misreading of the gospel, it’s an abomination…and it has to stop.
Second, it breaks my heart because I’m pretty sure that the Christians out there who are working overtime to ban books, sanitize history, and police other people’s bodies, think they are acting as true patriots of this “Christian” nation, when what they are doing, whether they realize it or not, is undermining the very principle of religious freedom our country is founded upon; a principle that is there to protect them along with everyone else.
One of the wiser aspirations put forth by the founders of this nation - all of whom knew the damage people can get up to in the name of religion- was the belief that as citizens we should all have the right to practice our own faith or none each in our own way: the right to pray to the God we espouse, worship at the place of our choosing, read the books we find edifying and skip the ones we don’t.
But we do not have the right to dictate what that looks like for anyone else. Religious freedom is about making room for one another’s beliefs, not imposing our beliefs on our neighbor.
Therefore, when we step into public roles as elected officials or state employees, regardless of our religion, we have a civic duty to respect and allow for difference.
But - again with the irony - as Christians, as people taught to love not just our neighbor but our enemy, as people taught to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized, I would think we also have a sacred duty to show that respect, a sacred duty to see all people as created in the image of God no matter how different they might be, a sacred duty to protect the rights of others to exist just as they are.
People should be thrilled when Christians get elected, not terrified. But once again we are witnessing Christians in the public sphere not using their power, but abusing it to eradicate those they find threatening and silence those they disagree with. As if we don’t all know where that kind of behavior leads. (Though if you ban enough books, people won’t know, and I fear that may be part of the strategy).
And last, but not least, these headlines break my heart because the actions of our more conservative siblings in Christ seem to me to be so contrary to the very scriptures they are trying to protect and honor and obey.
How is it, that we can read the same Bible and come away with such a radically different message and mission? Do you very wonder that? I wonder about it everyday. It breaks my heart to see the Bible weaponized as a tool of division and oppression rather than utilized as a guide for peace and liberation.
And before I go any further, please know that yes, I hear the judgment in my own words even as I say these things. I hear a little voice inside me asking: what makes you so sure that they’re wrong and you’re right? How can you say we need to respect everyone’s beliefs and then condemn the Christians who don’t? If you can’t tolerate their intolerance, aren’t you just as intolerant?
Can anyone else hear that voice, or is to just me?
Yeah! I realize we’re teetering on the edge of paradox here, and if that’s the sort of mind game that interests you, I suggest you corner my husband at coffee hour and ask him to unpack the work of Karl Popper.
I, however, am not a philosopher. I am a pastor, and as such, all I can do when those little voices start to pipe up is call us back to the scriptures themselves. Scriptures like the ones before us today in which we can see people actively wrestling with these very questions. Questions like: when spiritual people disagree - and they always do - how do we know who is right? When there is disagreement, how do we discern what the Holy Spirit is up to or how God would have us act?
Well, let’s take a closer look and see if we can’t figure that out.
Right here in the book of Numbers we have the wonderful story of Eldad and Medad. If it’s been a minute since you last read the book of Numbers, and it’s okay if it has, relax and allow me to recap. Up until now, Moses has been the sole leader of roughly 600,000 Israelites out in the wilderness, and he’s tired. They’re so cranky about eating nothing but manna since they left Egypt that they all want to die. He’s so cranky about their crankiness that he just wants to die.
And so God says: Fine! Gather 70 men, bring them to the tent of meeting, and I’ll take a portion of the Spirit I’ve poured on you and put it on them so they will all have the spiritual authority to lead the people like you. The men gather, the Holy Spirit comes down, and they all prophesy amongst themselves in such a way that everyone knows the plan worked.
The wrinkle is that two of the chosen, Eldad and Medad, didn’t follow God’s directions. They never made it to the rendezvous point, but stayed back at the camp. So when the Spirit fell on them, all of the ordinary people saw it.
Eldad and Medad are out of order, doing things their own way, and yet the Spirit went and found them and used them anyway.
Of course someone tells on them and when Joshua son of Nun, who is doing everything the “right way,” finds out, he asks Moses to shut them down. Joshua wants to shore up the power of God by maintaining clear boundaries and lines of authority. He wants to keep everything and everyone - including the Spirit - under control.
But Moses says, “no,” because Moses is all about setting the Spirit free. He wants less power and more collaboration. He doesn’t want to hoard the power of God, he wants to share it, and not just with the 70, but with everyone. “Would that all God’s people were prophets,” he says.
And then we have the story of Pentecost, the beginning of the church. A story where the Spirit does fall on all sorts of people.
In the story of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowers people of every race and class and gender to communicate with people of other races and classes and genders such that they don’t just understand one another, they actually listen to one another…listen with mutual respect and understanding.
Some people immediately recognize this as the work of God and - here again - some people don’t. There is disagreement, which is why Peter jumps up to explain what is going on. He recites a passage from the book of Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…your young and your old …Even upon my slaves, both men and women…I will pour out my spirit.”
Utilizing Joel as a lens, Peter calls upon those present to see what is happening around them not as some weird anomaly or the result of people day drinking on holiday, but as the miracle of God-with-us becoming God within us.
This is the miracle of the gospel, the good news for all people that in Christ there is now no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free, no male or female, but one people from many nations, one family with many faces, one body with many parts; all of which are useful, all of which are worthy, all of which are needed each by the other, all of whom are loved and blessed by God.
Pentecost is a story of empowerment. It is a story of diversity, equity, and inclusion; a story where the weak are lifted up and given a voice right alongside the strong; a story about God’s love, God’s blessing, God’s Spirit extending to all people.
Notice that in both of these stories there are people who get what the Spirit is up to and people who don’t, but if we take a step back and look at the trajectory of the Spirit can we not all agree that it doesn’t ever seem to work the way we expect? Nothing about the Spirit is neat or tidy or timid. She comes to disrupt and reveal, surprise and provoke.
Can we see that the Spirit has no use for our hierarchies, but gives different gifts to different people who are all of infinite value? Can we see that the Spirit is always challenging us to be more inclusive rather than less; that She is more apt to break down walls than build them?
And finally, can we see that the power of the Holy Spirit does not operate like the powers of this world? The Spirit does not come to dominate or control with her power, but pours it out the same way Jesus did, pours it out over all for the sake of all; in service to all.
Her power is not finite. It is not like pie, where power for some means less power for others. The Spirit’s power is more like the power of love and light and peace and wisdom(thanks to David Bland for this insight, p 5 Feating on the Word, Year A, Volume 3). The more you share it the more you have. The more you give, the more there is; more for you, for me, for all.
When Christians live in harmony with that Spirit, we live in harmony with one another, but most especially with those who are other. When Christians live in harmony with the Spirit, our presence truly is good news for everyone no matter their race, class, or gender. The sort of news that could be…dare I say “should be” making headlines.
Would that the Spirit would fall, even now, on all of God’s people, but especially people like you and me, that we might get out there and boldly proclaim a faith that truly is good news for all. Amen.