“What Does This Mean?”
“What does this mean?” I stopped the scripture there this morning, even though typically on Pentecost Sunday we keep reading. We pass quickly over the question, “What does this mean?” and keep reading about the disciple Peter’s idea of what it means. We keep reading and chuckle when those who were speaking and understanding new languages were accused of being drunk – and oddly, the scripture makes sure to record Peter as saying that, no, they cannot be drunk because it is only 9am. We keep reading, quickly passing over the question, “What does this mean?” to hear an explanation, which Peter tries to offer by quoting scripture. We quickly pass over the question, “what does this mean?”. But, I don’t want us to do that this year. I don’t want us to quickly pass over the questions, I don’t want us to rush to find answers, I don’t want us to offer quick interpretations about God and the Holy Spirit. I want to sit with the question, “What does this mean?” because it is a question prompted, not by human actions, but by the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost Sunday is the day in the church calendar when we celebrate two things: the arrival of the Holy Spirit, that deeply mysterious, invisible but ever-present blessing of God, and the birth of the church. We have reached the point in the Biblical story when the resurrected Jesus has ascended, and for the first time his followers are without him. But, just as Jesus promised, he did not abandon them – God sent them a Great Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the presence of God that cannot be separated from humanity. And that Great Advocate, the Holy Spirit, came into the world as if a great wind and tongues of fire. It rested upon all those who were gathered and, for a moment, barriers were broken and they could truly understand one another. It was a extraordinary thing, and the people rightly asked, “What does this mean?” But, almost immediately, doubt crept in. Scornful words, “they’re drunk” were the first uttered. Peter then steps in and offers an explanation, using scripture to prove his point, and the question “What does this mean?” is passed over as if it doesn’t matter.
But that question does matter. When we question things, when we question leaders, when we question politicians, when we question God – it matters. But, far too often, we ask our question, “what does this mean?” and the question is snatched away from us and we are offered an explanation. “What does this mean?” we ask leaders – ‘it means what I have been telling you all along, so stop asking the question and simply trust me,’ we hear back. “What does this mean?” we ask politicians – ‘it means that you should vote for me, and you should stop asking me to explain why,’ we hear back. “What does this mean?” we ask God – and…and if we are lucky, no one will hear our question just to take it away. If we are lucky, we can ask God our question and if we are brave, we can open ourselves to the answers, even if they are not what we want to hear.
I have been asking the question a lot lately. “There is not enough adequate and affordable healthcare in our country even during a pandemic…what does this mean?” “We are being told to value money over human life…what does this mean?” “We hear that church isn’t church unless it happens in a certain type of building…what does this mean?” “100,000 people have died in our country and all we seem to talk about is the President’s latest Tweet…what does this mean?” “Amoud Arbery is murdered while jogging by two white men who admit and defend their action, and no charges are brought until the public sees a video and demands justice…what does this mean?” “White people can enter a capital building carrying automatic weapons and nothing happens to them, but an unarmed George Floyd is killed by police while pleading that he can’t breathe…what does this mean?”
I am exhausted from asking the question. It is an exhausting question to ask. So, it makes sense that we are quick to offer explanations and accept them. It makes sense that we settle for an explanation that already fits with our ideas, because a comfortable explanation is better than an uncomfortable and exhausting question. I am exhausted from asking the question, and I am sure you are too, but I refuse to offer a quick and easy explanation. Rev. Lenny Duncan, ELCA pastor and author of the book ‘Dear Church’ which we read during Lent, said last week that the last thing the world needs right now from church leaders is more b.s. I couldn’t agree more. So, I am not going to try to offer you an explanation. Instead, I want you to sit with the question.
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit broke through and for a moment, just a moment, humanity looked at one another not as strangers to be feared but as people who they could understand. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit broke through and for a moment, just a moment, what divided us no longer existed. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit broke through and for a moment, just a moment, we were one human family, and if I can understand you then you can understand me, and we can finally speak truth. What does this mean?
Ask the questions and don’t let anyone snatch them away from you too quickly with trivial explanations. Ask the questions and demand truth. Ask the questions and allow yourself to be uncomfortable when what you learn goes against what you want to believe. Ask the question to our leaders and to those asking for your vote. Ask the question to God, throw the question at God and demand an answer. Ask God questions because God can handle our questions. The questions are not an act of fear, they are an act of faith. “Why, o why?” Jesus cried out to God. Ask the question, what does this mean?
On this Pentecost 2020, on a day to celebrate the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church – we must ask the questions. Because the Holy Spirit is at work in the world and in the church, demanding that we pay attention and demanding that we settle for nothing less than the truth. And the church must listen to the truth that God is giving. So, that is my prayer for all of us today – that, as an act of faith, we ask the questions and not quickly pass them over for quick explanations.
Let us pray:
Great and glorious God – your Holy Spirit is constantly at work in and through the world and our individual lives. Your son, Jesus Christ, promised that we would never be alone, and you have fulfilled that promise. Your Holy Spirit moves in and through us in each and every moment, in the very air that we breathe. Your Holy Spirit comforts us and inflicts us at the same time. You prompt us to ask the hard questions and assure that your Kingdom is possible and real. Give us the courage we need to ask the questions our faith demands of us and the fortitude to not easily accept just the answer we want to hear.
On this Pentecost celebration, we give great thanks for your church. We give great thanks for the ways you draw us into community with one another, and for the ways you prompt us to work for justice, and to seek kindness. We give thanks, that even though we cannot gather in person to worship you, we are still drawn together by the miracle of your Holy Spirit.
As your church, help us to ask the question, “what does this mean?” when we see injustice, cruelty, systemic racism and violence. Give us the courage to ask the question and open our Spirits to hear your answer.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, whose example we strive to follow in all that we do and all that we ask, and who taught us to pray together by saying…Our Father…