Fired Up. Ready to Go.

Four bishops gathered over the five days of the Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in Southern California.  From various local denominations, Episcopal, Roman Catholic and African Methodist Episcopal churches, they were invited to speak at the United Methodist Bishop Charles Golden’s, maiden Annual Conference that year in Southern California. On a hot, stifling afternoon, the Episcopal Bishop Fred Borsch was the first.

As the body quieted as Bishop Borsch settled into the pulpit, an air of expectancy filled the cavernous chapel at the University of Redlands.  Fred took one last glance at his notes and waited until he knew he had the attention of all.

“Fire, Fire, Fire, everywhere.  Except in the hearts of Episcopalians,” he began.  For a second, I feared we might have a stampede out the doors, but Fred quickly continued. Yes, indeed!  He certainly had our attention.  “Fire everywhere except in the hearts of Episcopalians.” 

Fire!  I had thought a few days ago that my sermon was well on its way to competition.  Add in some bits to carry the theme through the text, maybe a humorous story to keep interest alive, and I would be done.  Ready to send it in to Faith, our Administrator at St. Francis, have her mail it out for those not having internet.

Fire!  They say be careful what you wish for.

Now the whole country seems of fire – literally, as well as metaphorically.  I’m taken back to the tragic days in Los Angeles after the assignation of Dr. King.  I was a young deacon at an inner-city church in the Pico-Union Neighborhood.  Not a one of us was untouched by the grief of our community.  Fortunately, in our community, cooler heads prevailed.  We gathered in the church for prayers, singing, the sharing of memories and outrage.  And when it seemed that what needed to be said, the anger and grief expressed, when the tears had been choked back, we all drifted back to our homes.  Each wondering if hope could ever be restored.

St. Augustine of Hippo said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

If we are going to heal this nation, we must first address the anger.  Some are angry at those looting, burning and causing wanton mayhem.  I get that.  There is the 10-80-10 rule that pertains to disasters. 

Ten percent of those affected will step up.  Their minds will be focused on what needs to be done.  They are the ones who will begin immediately, once their safety is secured, to look after their families and then their neighbors.  They provide the necessary leadership for recovery. 

Eighty percent, whether in shock, or by natural inclination, will wait for leadership to emerge and then pitch in.  They will begin taking neighbors to medical facilities, they will grab their chainsaws and begin removing fallen trees to clear the streets for emergency vehicles.

And then there are the remaining ten percent.  These folks will use most any calamity to act out their sickness and perversion.  They are the arsonists that went from store to store with containers of gasoline and matches.  These are the ones who are the profiteers.  And I hope they are stuck with boxes and boxes of worthless toilet paper when all is said and done.  These are the rumor mongers, those spreading the lie that some of the officers were wearing “Make America White Again” hats.  These are the people that necessitate the summoning of the national guard.

Our nation now needs that first ten percent and the next eighty percent.  We need these folks fired up with compassion and clear minds, strong arms and open wallets.

This morning when we look around and gather our wits, there is much to do.  First, we need to get a grip.  We need those disciplined national guardswomen and men to clear the streets.  To send everybody home.  Arrest, if need be,, that last ten percent who will use the killing of George Floyd for their own demented ends. 

We need our houses of worship and spiritual leadership to help us mourn and express our grief about all that has happened.

The righteous anger folks felt upon watching the life slowly being choked out of George Floyd needs to be acknowledged.  We need to realize that this anger did not materialize overnight.  This nation has witnessed black men and women disrespected and murdered under the cover of state authority now for years.  Some would say four hundred years in America.  It was only one generation after that fabled first Thanksgiving that the sons of those first Pilgrims were committing genocide on the same people their mothers and fathers had broken bread with.  Now we are only left with a trail of tears and broken promises. 

The anger of Broken Knee, Watts, the James Pettis Bridge, Ferguson…and Minneapolis…We need to get our arms around it all and grieve with those who grieve.  We need to cry, to scream and shout, to hug one another – to do what ever is necessary to give voice to the pain we feel.

Tweets of bluster and threat do not improve the situation.  They will not heal.  We need an adult in the room who can acknowledge our collective grief and hurt. We need leadership to point a way forward out of this present chaotic, helpless moment, if our nation is to have any chance of healing.

That beautiful daughter of anger needs to be heard.  Her voice is cleansing fire that will weld us back as one.

“We all feel as if there’s a knee on our neck,” mourned Andrea Jenkins, vice president of the Minneapolis City Council last night.  There is a knee on our collective neck, but is not just the knee of police authority. 

This pandemic has been a window to another knee on the neck of America.  Those who have gotten sickest, those who have died are not distributed randomly across our cities and nation.  The dead are the poorest, those with no health care.  They were already the sickest because their diabetes and coronary issues were left untreated.  These victims of coronavirus are a window to the stifling poverty stalking our land.

These victims are those who never received any PPP check.  Nothing!  Because all the Big Boys cut the line at our large banks.  Their anger has been festering since the 2008 Great Recession.  They are the discarded and ignored.  Of course they’re mad.  As always, almost all the recovery went to the top one percent, the top one tenth of one percent.  They are the ones who still had to pay when the bankruptcy laws were jiggered and those who owned towers in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., got bailed out and stiffed their workers.

Yes, we need healing and consolation.  We need each other to wrap our hands around one another, to remind one another how we have gotten through such national trauma before.  That is what our faith is about.  It’s also about this second beautiful daughter of hope. The courage to change. 

That is the entire lesson for the Day of Pentecost.  We must acknowledge the fire that burns in so many disrespected hearts, in our hearts.  And we must remind one another of the courage and hope inspired through our walk with Christ.  Courage as infectious in the Jesus Movement as that of a virus on our unmasked streets and grocery stores.  Every bit as infectious.

This is our scriptural heritage.  It is the testimony of those who have gone before us.

If ever the Church needed a wake up call from the Holy Spirit, now is the time.  But what is the nature of this summons.  Our three texts appointed for today are spot on.  Tell the story!  Tell that old, old story!

There was a sound like the rush of a mighty wind.  The tongues as of fire appeared on the heads of the disciples and they began to speak in the languages of the gathered crowd.  Partians, Elimates, Cappadocians – they all understood.  Those from Medes, Pontus and Cyrene and visitors from Rome.  They all understood, each in their own language.

Where did we have the referent of this story?  Come on, biblical scholars, here’s a hint – Genesis.  Okay, another – the word babel.  Oh, you’re getting warmer.  Yes!  That’s it.  The confusion of languages of those building the Tower of Babel.  The end result of such hubris was that no one understood any of their coworkers anymore.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  That chaos looked like that of the streets of Minneapolis and some of our other major cities last Thursday night. 

The miracle is that out of confusion and chaos God’s will is for reunion and understanding.  Unity over tragic division is the miracle.  And what do they all hear?  What is the life-giving Word?  Love one another as I have loved you.

Paul speaks of the many gifts of the Spirit, all working together to bind us into one.  This is also Pentecost Fire.  Unity out of diversity.  To each is the suitable gift for building up the whole, each one needed.  All are baptized into the Body of Christ.  All Christians are given this one same Spirit and charge.

In the Gospel of John, the words of the Risen Lord with the gift of the Anointing Spirit are, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And then this enigmatic charge, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 

Friends, we are not meant to luxuriate in these sins.  We are meant to forgive them.  We are meant to be “repairers of the breech.”  To bind up the sorrowful and lend a hand up to the fallen.

On the Day of Pentecost, the Church is commissioned to be the body of restoration.  It is to be the repairer of the breach.   And if you forgive the sins of any?  Folks, that is our job.  Sin is separation   Our job is to forgive, to restore.  That is our power we have in Christ.  That is the Pentecost miracle. 

Looking at where we are now, I think the best we can say is that this commission is a work in progress.  We’re so far from it.  In many ways.

Last Sunday, the New York Times featured on the entire first page one thousand of the nearly hundred thousand lost to the coronavirus.  One commentator would give voice to the sadness in his spirit, “Jesus wept.”

Accompanying each of the names was a short piece:  Audrey Malone, 68, Chicago, sang gospel music as a member of the Malone Sisters.  Clara Louise Bennett, 91, Albany, Georgia, sang her grandchildren a song of the first day of school each year.  William Helmreich, 74, Great Neck, N.Y., sociologist who walked New York City.  Johnnie D. Veasley, 76, Country Club Hills, Illinois, teacher’s aide.[1]  Would that the tragedy of this disease might have pulled us together.  The opposite has been the result.  This scourge has become so politicized.  We’ve substituted opinion for science, rumor and conspiracy theory for facts.  Wishful thinking for action.  Jesus wept indeed.  Unity is the gift of the Spirit.  Unity in respect – wearing facemasks, in social distancing, in following our God-given intellect.  Follow the science.  God gave us a brain, let us use it to the God’s glory, for heaven’s sake!

All this death needn’t have been so.  Had we begun, even one or two weeks earlier, taking the necessary measures rather than blaming and denying, upwards of some 60,000 names might not have been on this list. 

O Lord, give us the courage for the needed change.  Cast aside our hesitations.  Cast aside the battalions of lobbyists we willingly suffer with suitcases stuffed with money (campaign contributions).  Give us righteous anger at our pay-to-play politics of greed.  Give us courage for change.  So many deaths needn’t have been so.  So many.

The tragic truth is that the fire has gone out of too many of our churches.  Pierre Burton wrote much earlier, in 1965 a damning indictment of comfortable, laid-back Christianity, The Comfortable Pew.  If ever we needed that strong voice and example of unified purpose from our faith leaders, this is the time.  Fired-up moral leadership is what we need from our faith communities.  Like the Rev. Dr. Barber of “Moral Mondays” down in Goldsborough, North Carolina.  Like our friends at Urban Mission in Pomona, California. 

There’s a story told of the 2008 presidential primary.  It comes out of Greenwood, South Carolina.  On an uncomfortable sultry evening, rain pouring down, the dispirited and weary Obama campaign pulled into the parking lot of the civic center.  As then Senator Obama and the campaign staff slogged through the downpour into the center there was a small bedraggled group of about thirty who had come out to hear the candidate.

When the grandmotherly, African-American organizer, Edith Childs, saw the downcast look on the candidate’s face, she belted out, “Fired up.”  And the room came to life.  “Fired up,” echoed back the response.  Edith continued, “Ready to go.”  Again, the chorus responded in full voice, “Ready to go.”  In future rallies, with thousands in various auditoriums across the country, this became the signature chant of the campaign.  “Fired up.”  “Ready to go.”  Now and then, Edith would be invited onto the stage to lead the crowd.

Christians, we would do well to appropriate that chant.  The world needs us fired up and ready to go.  This nation needs that fire in our hearts and minds. Though the night be long and oppressive, it yearns for folks fired up for unity, fired up for common cause, fired up for justice.  And ready to go.  Our nation needs us ready to go right now.

Some have been in the trenches for weeks battling this virus.  In hospitals and food distribution lines, in prisons and in community centers.  Fired up?  We’re needed.  Ready to go?  It’s time for the second team to get in the game.

The new Scientific American arrived in the mail the other day.  The entire issue is devoted to various aspects of this pandemic.  One section featured the stories of those healers on the front lines in our overcrowded hospitals.

Most exemplify the dedication of many who went into the health professions.  Though many have been beaten down by the inhuman hours and incessant days of duty, a subdued idealism is still driving these people.

Roxy, an emergency room nurse from Dallas, Texas, talks about how the stress and worry has consumed her.  She is torn in her conflict between the duty to her nursing vocation and the duty to her family.  “It was so hard to stay away from my family and even harder to stay away from my work, which I love.  It felt like punishment, like I was losing my mind.  I’ll admit that I was drinking more than I ever do.  In early April I decided to start staying in a hotel so not to accidentally bring the virus home to my husband and two kids, who could also spread it to my immunocompromised dad, who helps with child care.” [2]

Where Sin did abound, Grace did much more abound.  Yes, as George Floyd’s life was snuffed out and the pandemic death toll passed one hundred thousand, Eric Trump could tweet, “GREAT DAY FOR THE DOW!!”  To which one of America’s compassionate souls responded, “Not a great day for the 100,000 Americans who died of coronavirus.”  Sin and Folly does ever abound.

Not a great day for the citizens of Minneapolis.  Not a great day for the meat packers stuffed in contagion-filled plants in Sioux Falls, South Dakota or Perry, Iowa.  Not a great day by a long shot.

Each is given a gift of the Spirit to heal, to restore.  To come to our senses.  It’s all in that prayer repeated meeting after meeting in twelve-step recovery groups – the Serenity Prayer.

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference. 

This prayer leads us to those two lovely daughters of HOPE:  Anger and Courage.  Straight from the heart of God this prayer comes.  A blessed Day of Pentecost to you and those you care for, those you serve.  And don’t forget RED. It’s Pentecost Sunday!   Amen.

[1] New York Times, “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, an Incalculable Loss,” Sunday, May 24, 2020.

[2] Jillian Mock and Jen Schwartz, “How the Healers Feel,” Scientific America, June 2020, p. 38.

Dear friends in Christ

May 31, 2020
Day of Pentecost

The Rev. John C. Forney
John  20:19-23, Acts 2:1-11, I Corinthians 12:4-13

Fired Up.  Ready to Go.

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