You are phenomenal.
Did you know that?
The Holy Spirit thinks so.
We think of Pentecost as an event that happened thousands of years ago. We remember vaguely that after the ascension, Jesus’ followers locked themselves in a room and waited. They prayed and prayed and finally the Holy Spirit came down from heaven like fire and changed those people forever. But Pentecost isn’t only a historical event.
Pentecost happens every day. The gift of the Holy Spirit continues to blow through the Church, continues to guide ordinary followers of Jesus like us, continues to animate our life together. So, what does the Holy Spirit do?
In our Gospel of John reading, we see Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit onto his followers, just as the Creator God breathed life into Adam. The world around us constantly tries to deflate us. The breath of God animates and fills us, so we can participate in creating the Kingdom of God.
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself walking around, shoulders slumped, as I processed all the #YesAllWomen tweets on Twitter. I don’t know if you followed that movement, but after the Isla Vista shooting, it turned out that part of the cocktail of mental illness and gun violence that motivated the shooter was a deep loathing for women. He saw women as objects to conquer and deeply resented that no women showed interest in being conquered by him.
A day later, one million tweets with the hashtag YesAllWomen flooded twitter. Each tweet recounted a woman’s incident of feeling afraid or dismissed because of her gender. Women recounted instances of being followed, being assaulted, being threatened. The point was no matter whether a woman has been assaulted or not, nearly every woman in this country lives with the reality that she could experience violence. We lock our cars as soon as we get in them. We avoid walking alone at night. We run in the street instead of the woods. We tell people who come on to us that we are married, even if we aren’t, because we know rejection may cause violence. None of this was a surprise to me. The security cameras are one of my favorite features of my gym. I was really grateful when we added flood lighting to the outside of the parish house. I live with the same anxieties other women do every day and don’t think about them much. But something about the veil coming off, seeing the breadth of the problem communicated by hundreds of thousands of women deflated me. Does the world care so little about half the human population that we allow this sort of thing to continue?
But here is the hope of Pentecost. Where the world deflates and demeans us, whether we are men or women, the Holy Spirit fills us up with the breath of God. After all, the remarkable part of the story of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit descended on everyone in that upper room in the book of Acts—men and women, young and old. And then the first act of the Holy Spirit was to give these followers of Jesus the ability to tell the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to people of every language. Jerusalem was an international city and Jews from many countries were there. Suddenly, people were hearing the good news in their native tongues! They were important. The Holy Spirit wanted to reach out to them where they were. The Holy Spirit didn’t ask them to conform to one way of being, the Holy Spirit connected to these people as their full individual selves. These international Jews didn’t have to become someone else, speak Hebrew or Greek, to be enveloped in God’s love. God loved them right there.
At its inception, the Christian church was an incredibly egalitarian community. This changed over history, but the Holy Spirit’s first concept for us was for all of us to be filled with the breath of God as we worship and serve God together as peers. All of us matter. All of us have work to do for the kingdom. God loves and can use each of us, no matter our age, gender, or ethnicity. All of this is still true, whether the world believes it or not.
Coincidentally, right as all this #YesAllWomen writing was happening on Twitter, Maya Angelou died. No one could accuse Dr. Angelou of being a deflated person. After all, she wrote the lines:
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
I say, It’s in the reach of my arms,
That seems like a woman deeply confident in herself, doesn’t it? Well, did you know that Maya Angelou did not speak from the age of eight until she turned thirteen? When she was eight years old she was assaulted by her stepfather. She told her brother, who told the rest of the family and a few days later her stepfather was murdered, probably by one of her uncles. She became convinced that her words had killed him and so she remained silent for five years. The love of God and of a good teacher helped her regain her courage and her ability to speak as she and her teacher immersed themselves in literature.
Maya Angelou’s faith and deep connections with other human beings sustained her the rest of her days. Listen to what she says about her relationship with God:
“I believed that there was a God because I was told it by my grandmother and later by other adults. But when I found that I knew not only that there was God but that I was a child of God, when I understood that, when I comprehended that, more than that, when I internalized that, ingested that, I became courageous.”
The Holy Spirit, and a whole lot of love of the faithful adults around her, transformed a frightened little girl into an incredibly courageous adult woman whose writing changed the world and gave many other little girls and women hope that they too, could be courageous. Dr. Angelou became a teacher and cultivated deep relationships with hundreds of students, giving back into the world the love she was given. The Holy Spirit has a lot of loving for us to do in the world. But before we go out to the love the world, the Holy Spirit’s job is to remind us that we are loved. The Holy Spirit picks us up, reminds us that God cares about us, and heals the wounds we have been given by a world that chips away at our souls. The world is not going to change all at once, but if each of us who professes to be a Christian, in Angelou’s words “internalize, ingest” that we are children of God, how God could use us to change the world!
We have huge, societal problems—and we won’t be able to break them down all at once, but with the Holy Spirit’s help, we can make a world a little more like God’s kingdom. This week I got a phone call from a woman named Anna. Anna is a Friends with Flowers volunteer. One of the recipients of the flowers was not able to receive them this week, since they were in the middle of moving to a new home. Anna called me to let me know that she took the flowers to the Cedars, a nursing home. She took them there, because every day on her commute, she passed a cheerful old man who waved at her from his beautiful flower garden. One day Anna noticed he wasn’t there any more. Unlike most of us, who would have kept driving, and forgot he existed within a week or two, she pulled over and asked a neighbor where he was. The neighbor shared that the man with the flowers was a 101 year old WWII vet and former minister, and he was too frail to live alone any more, so had moved to the Cedars. And so, when Anna found herself with these flowers she went to the Cedars and asked for his man, whom she had never met, told him how much his flowers and daily cheer meant to her, and delivered him some flowers from our church.
This seems to me like the work of the Holy Spirit. Do you see how this story lifts up the humanity of everyone involved? Do you see how the bonds of love are strengthened? Do you see how this veteran and this SPIVY member could see the light of Christ in each other’s eyes? So much separates us and dehumanizes us in the world, but if we let it, the Holy Spirit will work within us to chip away at those dehumanizing forces in the world with the light of the Gospel—that all are loved, all are redeemed, all are held in the embrace of God’s love and light. We are all phenomenal—whether we are men or women—because we are loved by a phenomenal God. Amen.
If you are experiencing domestic violence and live in the Charlottesville area, please contact the Shelter for Help in Emergency.