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Sermon: The Church Has Left the Building

 
Rev. Dr. Sara Rosenau, Pastor Waverly Heights United Church of Christ

Sermon: The Church Has Left the Building

Scripture: Acts 2:1-13
 
I come to you with a heavy heart. I feel the weight of the pain of America this morning.  The fires that we see on the news, maybe these are pentecost fires.  These are certainly symptomatic of a deep pain among the poor and people of color, especially black people.
 
I feel speechless.  I was reminded by Romans 8:26 when we don’t know what to pray for, “the Spirit herself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”  That’s true for us, for America this day.
 
Maybe you feel speechless too.  It might come from a mix of feelings. You might feel anger, you might feel scared, you might feel confused, you might be sad, you might feel guilty. You might have a mix of all of these. As I’ve said before, all the feelings are welcome.
 
So the Spirit goans in us, when we don’t know what to say and yet we cannot stay silent.
 
The Spirit is an agitator.
 
The Spirit wrestles in us.  I felt this yesterday when I was preparing this sermon, I felt the wrestling of the Spirit. You remember when Jacob wrestled the spirit all night and came out with a limp but also with a blessing.
 
I feel us, the collective soul of America, wrestling for a blessing.   And frankly, I don’t know if we will get it.
 
But the Spirit wrestles with us and agitates us and asks us to look with clear eyes at pain.
 
One thing we can do in this time is follow the prophets. I was watching Rev. Dr. William Barber II on FB live, pentecost press concert letter to the nation.  (You should watch it).
 
He said thank God for the protests.  He said can you imagine if as a nation we watched a white police officer kneel on a black man’s neck while he pleads for his life, remain steadily looking in the camera with his hands in his pockets while a 17 year old filmed him and bystanders pleaded please let him breath.  Can you imagine if there were no protests.  Thank God that black and white people and native people and brown people came out and said we will not be silent.  We’re are going to wear masks and get our bodies on the street.  We will not condone police violence and impunity for murder of back bodies.
 
We will say his name, George Floyd.
 
But there is more going on here, in this time of the pandemic.
 
As Rev. Barber went on to say, before the pandemic, before George Floyd was murdered we already had systemic poverty in this country, where an estimated 700 people die each day from living in America while poor.  Before the pandemic and before George Floyd was murdered we had systemic racism in this country, where we have seen over and over unarmed black people be murdered by what we call “our safety officers.”
 
And now we have a global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted the health and economic viability of racial minorities and immigrants, in Minneapolis and beyond.
 
We have a national leadership that is turning its back on these people.  They give billions of dollars in economic stimulus to corporations, but there is still poisoned water in flint.  There are still brown families in cages on our border, there is police killing unarmed black people. 
 
Every day.
 
So take a breath. 
 
The spirit is wrestling in us and asking us to see this moment with clear eyes.
 
What happened that day of Pentecost that might be helpful for us now? 
 
I’m relying on my clergy colleagues for some of this (Rev. Peter Jarrett Schell, thank you for calling out white pastors to preach on this).
 
The Pentecost story is about hearing people: The first act of the Holy Spirit was to bring people together, there’s a long list of peoples that I left out of the scripture reading (Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome) the list for us might be different, maybe we would say: Indonesians, Somalians, and Russians, Residents of Central, South, and North America, Residents of Los Angeles and Omaha, Dallas and Atlanta and the parts of the midwest near the Canadian border; visitors from NYC)  So that’s who heard the Spirit.  Tongues of fire fell on them and they suddenly were able to hear each other, they heard each other’s humanity, heard each other’s pain and understood each other’s story.  The hearing was the release of a deep empathy, the Spirit releases this in us.
 
If there is one thing I have learned from my ally work, it is to believe the pain of people of color.  When black people talk to white people about the pain of racism, about the trauma of the lynching of black americans by police officers and vigilantes, believe them.  When black people say what Fanny Lou Hammer said in her testimony to congress after the murder of Medger Evers “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” believe them. One friend of mine told me he was going to go on a long hike and hike as far as he could to get away from whiteness.  And I said, I hear you.  
 
And let me say, part of that hearing is also hearing ourselves when we make excuses as white people.  We make excuses. We say….I just didn’t know, or I just think the protests should be peaceful, I don’t know what all this looting is about.  I loved Trevor Noah’s amazing 20 min video on the daily social distancing show (you should watch it) when he said police have been looting black bodies in the name of white supremacy every day.  That is the looting and the violence we should be upset about.  
 
Also, hear me when I say that more than one thing can be true at once.  I believe in the power of nonviolent protests, and the young black youth leading BLM also advocate non violence.  There is probable cause that much of the looting was an infiltration from white supremacy groups from out of town.
and yet, Martin Luther King was labeled as an agitator from out of town.  
and yet, there is evidence of across the nation against non violent protesters and the free press.
 
So we need to see that with clear eyes.
 
The second thing the Pentecost story was about, it was about disruption: The Pentecost event was profoundly disruptive for the disciples. The rushing wind, the tongues of fire, this was a major disruptive event. Receiving the Spirit of God requires us to allow our own lives to be disrupted. We often describe the Spirit as an advocate, not on behalf of us to God, but on behalf of God to us.  The Spirit agitates us, stirs in us to see the truth of God’s love and God’s justice.  Let the Spirit prompt us to get out of our comfort zone and say something.  We need to speak out against injustice.

In a message specifically to white people, I’m just going to call us out when we say we don’t know what to do.  You can do something.  

You listen, as I said above, to black people. There are many prophetic pastors and social justice advocates you can follow.  Go find black people to listen to, Rev. Barber, Bishop Yvette Flunders, my friend Rev. Lenny Duncan who wrote Dear Church, our own Traci Blackmon UCC and find white anti-racist activists too.  My colleague Jennifer Harvey who wrote Dear White Christians and is being interviewed today by All Things Considered.  Rev. Liz Durrant who is constantly agitating our CPC and UCC churches here in the Northwest. They are out there and they will teach you what to do.

Donate money.  Many of us didn’t need our stimulus checks. The fact that we got them and poor people are still struggling is part of the injustice.  Many of you donated to Waverly, thank you, now I’m also asking you to donate to black led justice movements.  I’ll say more about that at the end of the sermon.
 
The last thing that relates to disruption is that we need to show up and speak out: there were some opportunities to show up this weekend in town, thank you to Rev. Tyler Connolly.  Thank you to Rev. Liz Durrant showing up today for Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon event.  This is just a moment but the work continues.  Don’t Shoot Portland is an activist group here in Portland organizing for social justice. Take an hour and listen to black organizers in Portland. 
 
I titled this sermon church has left the building, because I was thinking about the reality that this Pentecost we are not in our buildings we are sheltering at home, in a movement to save lives.  We have decided as a church not to gather, even though the state now says we can gather in groups of under 25.  But we have decided not to gather because we care about our most vulnerable.  

But church has left the building in so many other ways.  When people get on the street to protest police brutality and the lynchings of black Americans, that is church on the streets this week, the spirit was on the move.  Even if we are not able to go out, we can show up and speak out.  

Let me confess to you, that part of me was really resistant to preach this sermon.  I was afraid that my church would think it’s just one more sermon about social justice about black lives matter and we already talked about that.  But that’s part of white supremacy that is eager for us to stay confused and silent.

Part of being an ally is speaking up and messing up, and being in good relationships with people of color who will call you out.   

We each have our own path in our social justice work.  There are some right ways to do it, but to do it right you have to do it wrong first.  Just step up and do something. This is a moment, and this is a long fight.  Black people in America have been asking for 100s of years, do black lives matter?  We need to say yes. 

Proclaiming the truth requires encountering the possibility of ridicule, even in our scripture they said “they are filled with new wine.” We need to be willing to be called foolish or disruptive to confront White Supremacy.
 
Hear this blessing: May the Spirit move you to tears and open your heart to empathy, may the Spirit confront you and open your mind to true knowing.  May the Spirit agitate you and move you to right action.  May the Spirit bless America in this time spiritual wrestling and agitation for the soul of who we are as a people.
 
Amen.

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