Architectural detail of window arches on Old South Church in Boston

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The Season of Pentecost, 2020

By the Rev. Donald A. Wells

The question before us is where do Christian communities of faith go from here once this pandemic has subsided? It may be a bit premature to come up with firm answers, but we all have been thinking about it one way or another over these past months. Many are approaching it from the perspective of ‘thinking outside the box’. Here at Old South we are engaged in much the same mindset. How do we brainstorm and then build on some new approaches to ministry. These are questions that began before the pandemic hit. They now take on new urgency.

But the fear many of us have is that once the crisis of Covid-19 subsides, at least somewhat, the desire for ‘normalcy’ will take hold. After going through so much sadness, loss, anxiety, deep trauma, along with anger and consternation that our federal government mismanaged the response, we yearn for ‘normalcy’. And yes, some normalcy is needed: gathering for worship in our sacred spaces, passing the peace, the joys of studying, praying, talking and eating together without fear. Normalcy. I, too, long for a good dose if it.

But let’s see it in context. Pentecost is the time set aside to celebrate the ‘Birth of the Church’. Jesus was no longer physically present in the world and the Disciples were frightened. They wondered how they could ever carry out the work that was given them to do: to witness to the radical life changing message of redemptive love. Then, as they gathered in a great assembly, something amazing happened. In graphic and poetic language we are told that something akin to tongues of fire alighted on them: a sign that God’s Spirit would be with them to empower their ministry. Peter gave an impassioned sermon. People from many nations were present. They now heard each other clearly across all boundaries. I take that to mean they heard the message of redemptive love clearly. They knew what they had to do and the power to engage the task was now theirs. Some 2000 years later we continue to celebrate this dramatic event: the birth of the Church.

All good so far. Christendom will again celebrate this momentous occasion. We will sing with gusto and great joy! It’s done. The Church is established and all is well. We have it nailed down, so to speak. We remember; we celebrate; we move forward in ways that seem good. They are the tried and true ways that have always worked; or ought to have worked. We know what we are about! Getting through these hard days has been stressful to say the least. But now we can fall back on old and established patterns of ministry with a sigh of relief. Normalcy.

But not so fast! In this season of Pentecost we dare not yearn for too much normalcy. It is not a time for such thinking. We have changed; the world has changed. Going back to something nice and comfortable is not an option. Renowned biblical scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann, warns us about such thinking. It is God’s Spirit we are talking about. The Spirit blows where it will. We cannot domesticate it as we might like. We cannot make it fit our understanding of where and how it should blow. Brueggemann lays it out: he hears the wind at Pentecost:

Holy wind that dismantles what was; Holy wind that evokes what is to be; Holy wind that overrides barriers and causes communication; Holy wind that signals your rule even among us.

Normalcy? Not to be found at Pentecost!

We have experienced too much. We have borne much grief and sadness. We have expressed anger at the mismanagement of the crisis. We have celebrated those on the front lines of care who risk their lives to help others. We have buried the dead. We have discovered new dimensions of what community means. The list goes on. We have learned more about solitude; of creating personal Sabbath time; of anguished prayer; of celebrating simple pleasures: the first Robin, the Spring flowers, the warming sun; the yearning for more human connectedness; the plight of the unhoused with no safe place to go; of immigrant families with no space to do social distancing, much less wear a mask or seek medical help should the virus strike; of underserved communities who have felt the added burden of environmental decay and neglect; of long lines of people waiting for food to feed their families; of millions without work and the rent is due; about the vast inequality between the top executives and those who work for a weekly paycheck. Go back to normalcy?

In this season of Pentecost, 2020, our prayer is that the Spirit will blow in ways that upset normalcy and thus call us into new paths to be the Church in a vastly changed world. These new ways will hopefully emerge as we prayerfully and thoughtfully brainstorm together and allow the Spirit to lead. Sometimes it will be through trial and error. No matter. The challenge is before us. Let the wind ‘dismantle’ what was and then ‘evoke; what will be. Amen.

(Quotation from: Walter Brueggemann. Prayers for a Privileged People. Abington Press. 2008. p. 33).