This sermon was preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020, online for Green Street United Methodist Church(Winston-Salem, NC). The text was Acts 2:1-13, and the service included a video of the Scripture read in English, French, Gullah, Mandarin, Portuguese, and Spanish.
One day in the spring of 1906, David Starr Jordan walked into his lab at Stanford University to find a scene of chaos and destruction. On that day in 1906, an earthquake with an estimated 7.9 magnitude shook the coast of Northern California. More than 3,000 people died and over 80% of the city of San Francisco was destroyed, but when Jordan entered his lab, his mind was on something else.
Jordan was the founding president of Stanford, a taxonomist and an ichthyologist—a fish scientist. Over the course of his career, he and his crew discovered thousands of species of fish, one-fifth of those known to science at the time. These specimens were preserved in ethanol, their newly assigned names meticulously etched onto the rows and rows of glass jars on high shelves filling the collection storeroom.
And you can imagine what an earthquake does to high shelves lined with glass jars.
Jordan’s collection was in shambles. Many specimens were damaged, but the worst part was the separation of the names from the fish. Without the proper name attached, the flesh and bones and scales were meaningless, useless. But instead of mourning the loss and starting over, Jordan did something remarkable: he took up a needle and thread, and one by one, he salvaged his specimens and reclaimed their identity for them by stitching their names directly onto their scaly flesh.
I learned about Jordan’s story from a new book called Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, who talked about it on a recent episode of RadioLab. What she said—what I just summarized—made me think of Pentecost, and here’s why.
As I thought of the nameless and voiceless fish scattered around the room, I remembered Jesus’ disciples all together in one place, wondering what was next now that their teacher had left them to carry on the mission. And when I thought of Jordan meticulously giving back names and identities to each of his specimens, I remembered how the Holy Spirit spoke through and to each person in their own language, that loving act of honoring the particularities of who we are and where we’re from.
The Pentecost story is a reversal of another Bible story, that of the tower of Babel. We read in Genesis chapter 11that the whole world had one language, and as people moved to a new land in the east, and there they said to each other, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.” But God is displeased, so God comes down, confuses their language, and scatters them across the earth.
We are often told that the moral of the story here is that we should not be too proud, that we must recognize that God is God and we are not. A cynical take on this interpretation suggests that God confused the people’s language because God did not want competition.
But what if the sin of Babel was not pride? If there were only one language in the whole world, it would have to be the language of empire. The idea of a common speech across the entire world conjures up images of boarding schools that forced Native American children to speak English. At these schools, teachers punished children for slipping into Navajo or Sioux or Cherokee or any of the more than 300 indigenous languages once spoken in the United States. Today, a majority of indigenous people in the U.S. speak only English.
It matters that at Pentecost the Holy Spirit does not simply make everyone able to speak and understand the language of Rome. That probably would have made it easier to share the information of the good news, but the good news is not information, it is embodied, incarnate, liberating love. To have simply made everyone understand the same language would have amounted to an endorsement of the empire that had executed Jesus, the empire that would go on to persecute his followers, the empire that would eventually appropriate their new religion.
Pentecost resists the uniformity of empire expressed at Babel and reminds us that we are all worthy of speaking and hearing the gospel in our own language. When I imagine David Starr Jordan combing through the remains of his lab, carefully identifying and naming each fish he rescued from the rubble, I imagine the Holy Spirit searching every corner of the room at Pentecost to find and know and name and reach each person present in context.
But naming and classifying are tricky things, aren’t they? Sometimes having our particularity spotlighted makes us feel cared for; sometimes it makes us feel exposed. And sometimes, names and categories can be used against us.
It turns out that the image of David Starr Jordan lovingly rescuing and labeling specimens in the wake of an earthquake does not paint a full picture of the man. He wasn’t a great guy—it’s even suggested he may have had something to do with Jane Stanford’s death—but the really bad part is that Jordan was a proponent of eugenics. Eugenics, that pseudoscience that ranks some human characteristics as more desirable than others, that promotes policies and practices designed to increase the occurrence of supposedly more desirable ones, that underlies so much racism, classism, and ableism even today. Eugenics, which we most readily identify with Hitler and the Nazis but which was popular in America long before it was adopted by the Third Reich.
As Jordan explored and discovered new parts of the natural world, he saw not just an order but a hierarchy. Some fish he categorized as morally superior to others based on certain traits, and he translated this hierarchy to the human world. Jordan believed that some people were not worthy to reproduce and should be removed from the gene pool by forced sterilization. His work paved the way for a California program that deported and sterilized people who were mentally ill, poor, immigrants, or in some other way deemed inferior. North Carolina has its own history of eugenics, sterilizing thousands of people, many of them on welfare and most of them black, between 1933 and 1977. You heard me: 1977.
The forced uniformity of empire goes hand in hand with the degradation of individuals, communities, and cultures deemed inferior by people of power and privilege, and it is a form of violence.
And this brings us back to Babel again, because if Babel shows us that hierarchy and singularity is a sin, Pentecost shows us that connectedness and community are God’s design. Creation is not a ladder, but a web.
I will admit it makes me a little sad to read of Jesus’ followers being “all together in one place”—I miss y’all! But we read that at that gathering, a wind rushes, fire sparks, previously unknown words and phrases form on human tongues and leap to strangers’ ears. At Pentecost, we are reminded of the startling truth that God became flesh in Jesus, and we learn the good news that in the Holy Spirit, God is fire and breath and air.
Speaking of fire and breath and air…you knew I was getting there.
We find ourselves on this Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, yet again mourning the death of a black man who couldn’t breathe. When naming diversity becomes not an opportunity to celebrate but a means of discrimination and oppression, black and brown people die. For seven minutes, a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck while bystanders shouted at him to stop, while Floyd gasped in chilling echoes of Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe.” And now Minneapolis burns with righteous rage.
We witnessed George Floyd’s murder in the midst of a pandemic propelled by a disease whose symptoms include shortness of breath, whose victims’ lungs fill with fluid, whose survivors sometimes have what seem to be long-term decreases in lung capacity. COVID-19 is disproportionately claiming black and brown lives, and it is pulling back the veil on pre-existing disparities on every level.
It can feel like we are back at Babel, back in the throes of empire, back on the ladder where those who by violence or by accident of birth find themselves on the higher rungs either don’t care that those below them are suffering or are finding ways both subtle and overt to ensure that they fall. When we fret over Colin Kaepernick taking a knee but rationalize the knee on George Floyd’s neck; when recognize our liberal white woman selves in Amy Cooper spitting the phrase “African-American” as a threat against Christian Cooper, knowing exactly what she was doing; when we condemn the looting of businesses and destruction of property but not the looting of communities that has been enacted by the trail of tears, the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, redlining, eugenics, orchestrated poverty, and more—these are all ways we try and kick people of color off the ladder that white supremacy built.
My friend and colleague Darryl Dayson, who serves Simpson-Gillespie United Methodist Church in Charlotte, wrote a Facebook post this week that I asked if I could quote in part. In it, he wrote, “The murders of my black siblings are a product of racism and white supremacy. If you are not actively rebelling against these principalities and powers by striving to be anti-racist you are aiding and abetting all that is birthed from them.”
Many of us saw Ibram X. Kendi speak on MLK Day this year and read his book, How to Be an Anti-Racist. In this book, which I’m told is currently backordered on Amazon, which is awesome—Kendi says what Darryl was clear about: you can’t just not be racist; you are either racist or anti-racist. You can’t just not call the cops on Christian Cooper or abstain from kneeling on George Floyd’s neck; you have to work for the right of our black and brown siblings to breathe freely and live in safety.
It’s times like these that I am proud to serve a church that has an anti-racism team, a church that publicly acknowledges that white is real and black and brown lives matter. But I want to caution us, especially my white siblings, that this does not make us exempt from the work going forward; indeed, it puts an even greater responsibility on us to, as Darryl said, actively rebel against these principalities and powers.
And Darryl is clear about the weight of that responsibility. In his post, he went on to say:
“If you feel as though this is an insurmountable task, it is and you can’t do it by yourself. But don’t worry, the Spirit is coming. She will empower you and set you free.”
Friends, there has been and still is an effort of empire to force all of us to speak the same language, the language of white supremacy. But the Holy Spirit will not allow it. Because this Spirit is a liberating Spirit. This Spirit is a revolutionary Spirit. In his commentary on the book of Acts, Dr. Willie Jennings notes that while this book is usually looked to as a history of the early church, it is really a story of revolution in the midst of empire. It is a story of what Dr. Jennings calls “revolutionary intimacy” in a time of separation and isolation.
I started this sermon by talking about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. There was someone else whose name you may recognize who lived through that earthquake—Dorothy Day, then 8 years old. In the wake of mass upheaval and destruction, Dorothy watched neighbors share food and possessions, offer shelter and assistance, and take care of one another in concrete ways. And she asked herself: “Why can’t it be this way all the time?”
Dorothy saw not the ladder but the web, and she went on the found the Catholic Worker Movement, a movement committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, and works of mercy. Dorothy opened a hospitality house together with philosopher Peter Maurin, “where the homeless, hungry, and forsaken would always be welcome.” One of the Catholic Worker beliefs is that they are called to create “a new society within the shell of the old.” This was the work of the early church; this is our work today.
My white friends: I see many of you speaking up about systemic racism. Good. I encourage us all to look for concrete ways to support justice and care for our black and brown siblings. Continue to educate yourself on white privilege and racism. Call and write your legislators. Support black businesses. Donate to bail funds in cities where protests are happening. Decolonize your bookshelf, your social media feed, your habits of consumption. Engage with this list of things white people can do for racial justice. This is the language in which we can share the good news of liberation with our black and brown siblings in this moment.
And my black and brown friends: breathe. Rest. Grieve. Rage. Do whatever it is that you need to do to take care of yourself in a world that so often fails to care for you. And if there are ways that your white siblings can support your self-care in this moment, may we be ready to follow your lead.
We cannot be all together in one place today, either to celebrate the birth of the church that happens at Pentecost or to mourn the continued assault of white supremacy on our siblings of color. But the Spirit is coming. This Spirit speaks to us each in our own language. This Spirit abolishes hierarchies and nurtures diversity beyond tokenism and appropriation. This Spirit lovingly retrieves us from the scene of disaster and reminds us who and whose we are.
“The Canticle of the Turning” is a song based on the Magnificat, that song that Mary sung when she learned she would become the theotokos, the God-bearer. The refrain is deeply fitting for this moment, so I offer it to you with the invitation that we all become God-bearers, carriers of the Spirit’s revolutionary fire:
My heart shall sing of the day you bring
Let the fires of your justice burn
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near
And the world is about to turn
This Spirit sets our hearts and the world on fire for justice and mercy. This Spirit comes to be our breath when we cannot breathe, to empower us and set us free. May we be accomplices in her revolutionary work until the world finally turns. Amen.