Sunday, May 31, 2020

Unbolting the Door at Pentecost

Unbolting the Door at Pentecost

May 31, 2020
Rockville Presbyterian Fellowship, Fairfield CA
Rev. Dr. Douglas Olds

Our Sermon text is the  Gospel of John 20:19-23.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us, today:

20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jew[ish leaders], Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

20:21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.

20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

(We celebrate the Living Word of Scripture.)

Let us pray: Open the door of Heaven to us, O Spirit of Pentecost.
According to the prophet, your word is like a fire, like a hammer that breaks rock into pieces.
Help us to hear your word as a hammer through the concrete of our wounds and egotism.
Send your Holy Fire to anneal and temper our faith.
Melt away our concerns and soften our hearts toward our enemies.
Raise us in gratitude for your grace and guidance. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

Jesus on a Zoom call seems to me to sum up our current situation as a church.  This graphic also shows the disciples in a kind of “upper room” where, in our reading this morning, John has them sheltering-in-place after the crucifixion.
Huddling together there behind bolted doors in their cage of fear of the authorities who had put Jesus to death, the disciples struggle to take in the strange report from Mary Magdalene of an empty tomb. Peter and the disciple Jesus loved ran and saw that Jesus’ tomb was empty, but they did not understand.
Then suddenly, Jesus is there among them!—Jesus is alive! Jesus the healer is himself healed of death. and his first message to the fearing disciples is, “Peace be with you.”
He does NOT say to the disciples, “You are safe.”
Jesus’ greeting of peace is not a wish or a prayer but rather a statement of fact. It may be more appropriately translated as “Peace to you,” or “Peace is upon you.”
When they finally recognized Jesus and heard him repeat, “Peace is for you” (20:20b), they began to understand he was a living reality.
John writes of the experience of a world that he knew. His first message from our reading this morning is that we cannot escape our fears except by knowing we have peace with God. Jesus comes to us for peace.  No longer need disciples remain huddled in fear.
Jesus then breathes on his disciples, incorporating them into the Spirit in the sky.  I want to explore through this story a Pentecost message of breath and stillness, rather than the more familiar story of Acts chapter 2 where Pentecost loosens tongues as by fire come down from afar.
The Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel story is silent breath conveyed through proximity with the resurrected messiah.  In that breath, the door between heaven and earth opens to a world of new exoduses from lives bogged down by sin and ignorance.
What was divided is now united. The Resurrected One breathes—and by that He involves us in the sanctified atmosphere, the abode of the Holy Spirit in non-violent Creation. By this we become his living, breathing body as the non-violent, unlocked Church.
So a Cage of Fear is Not Our Home - The Breathing Spirit lifts us upward to home in ministry to the Father's love. As Jim Wallis notes, “To create a new future, a small number of people have to believe a door into the new exists; then, they have to [step] thru that door; when a few walk, a few more walk.” But you can’t leave the cage if you can’t find the door.
“I am the door,” Jesus had twice said earlier, and in this passage his Spirit opens it.
So that “by where we go others [may] learn that there is something on the other side." [1].
To move into new life with the rhythms and pace of Christ is challenging. To walk with courage breathes of the presence of Godly Hope—the kind delivered to the defeated and the ground down.
This morning, I will look for company on this path of mostly silent hope by recounting a story about courage in the Spirit—a courage that endured first in stillness of presence, and only later, after recollection, given the maturity and power of voice.
To begin my story, let me pose this question: Would you willingly break into a Nazi death camp?
I met a man who did.
In the early 1980s, Jan Karski was a neighbor of mine, an old-world, courtly figure who taught history at Georgetown University.
In middle age, he had married the renowned modern dancer Pola Nirenska, a Polish Jew who had escaped the Holocaust yet whose entire family disappeared in the prison camps.
Now an older man, Jan told me of his past.
In…1940 [as a Polish Catholic, he] began [as] a courier … [between] … the Polish underground [and] the Polish Government in Exile [in London] …
During one such mission in July 1940 he was arrested by the Gestapo in Slovakia [and s]everely tortured. He managed to escape.
In 1942 Karski was…twice smuggled by Jewish underground leaders into the Warsaw Ghetto for the purpose of directly observing what was happening to Polish Jews.
Also, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, he visited a sorting and transit point for the Bełżec [buw-zhets] death camp.
Karski then met with Polish politicians in exile and the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, giving a detailed statement on what he had seen.
In 1943 he traveled to the United States, meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust.
He also described the Holocaust to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
Frankfurter, [a Jew himself, sat politely through] Karski's report [2].
Recollecting, Karski told me that Frankfurter said, "I cannot believe you of what’s happening to the Jews in Poland. I do not say that you are lying, I am saying that I CAN NOT believe you” [3].
If FDR had acted immediately to stem the atrocity by bombing the gas and incineration complexes in the death camps, perhaps 2 Million Jews could have been saved from destruction.
By the time the Allies did act against the camps, Karski’s efforts were estimated to have saved ¼ million Jews, making him their most effective savior during the war.
Karski volunteered to go silently to the voiceless.  Getting physically out of these ventures proved the easy part; much harder would be getting that hell-on-earth out of his psyche. Karski lived with the knowledge that perhaps ten times more could have been saved, IF ONLY. If only he had found the voice to convince FDR to act immediately.
Karski, who had trained for the diplomatic corps, strained every diplomatic muscle in trying to find words to persuade the Brits and Americans. In his appeal, he even extravagantly addressed FDR as “Lord of Humanity.” [4]
Karski also struggled with words around the prisoners: their condition almost rendered him mute. He recognized he was in the midst of the struggle of good and evil.  In that struggle, there were moments of irrepressible holiness by the prisoners straining every sinew of their being to help each other stay alive.
Karski recognized these were stories of fierce love inside inexpressible struggle, trauma, and horror.
My second message this morning is that the doors of history are opened to us by the Holy Spirit, and we, like Jan Karski, must go through them. We enter the portals of history to witness to God who makes all things new in the face of the evil. Evil which is striving to halt history and slam the door shut on God’s Kingdom’s progress and promise. Our witness, though, may initially reveal itself in a mute, stunned presence--
and that may be enough for the moment.
          In 1985, the French Film Director Claude Lanzmann released a 9-1/2 hour documentary series Shoah which documented the living witnesses of the Holocaust.  I committed four afternoons of a winter week in early 1986 to viewing Shoah at the Key Theater in Georgetown of Washington, DC.
During the second installment, Jan Karski appeared on-screen discussing the conditions he had found of the Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, and he wept. Then I was moved to tears in the dark and flickering theater by his descriptions of what he saw and what he experienced in the conditions at the Bełżec Death Camp. 
I left the theater that gloomy Tuesday emotionally spent and got on the bus. It was raining. I sat down and focused internally on my memories of the moving witness to the Holocaust in the documentary. I then became aware of a disturbance at the front of the bus.
It was my friend Jan Karski, whom I had just seen on screen, off from his shift as a professor at Georgetown University. He was having difficulty putting away his umbrella while trying, in flustered English, to secure his senior citizen bus discount. The bus passengers were surly at the delay, and hearing his accent, they cast their anger frontward at him:
Some shouted, “Down in Front!” and “Go Back to where you came from!”
Carried by instinct, I got up from my seat and went to the front and embraced Karski, giving him my arm for support as I almost carried him to a seat. At our seat, I told him of my emotion at having just then seen him in Shoah.
          “Yes,” he said, “Lanzmann has made an important document of that terrible time. Pola can’t watch it, it’s too painful for her.” /
Since that bus ride, I’ve often wondered if I should have addressed the surly passengers on the bus—shamed them, perhaps with the words, “this is a great man, people!”
But in the presence of holiness, my voice failed.
I sat a mostly quiet vigil with Karski during the bus ride back to the Maryland suburbs. I had nothing profound to say, and the moment seemed to require something moving and deep and profound that I couldn’t utter. 
I was stuck outside the door of understanding. /
I used to envy the quick-witted opportunism of people who are quick with a retort that puts others down. I was wrong. It seems to me now that vocal zeal can be a crude rudder of justice. I have come to believe that the meaningful episodes of our past are developed into spiritual maturity by the virtues of patience and silence that allow others to go on their own way, without putdowns.
Silences such as mine on that bus bolted the immediacy of my angry protest. My silence, I later recollected, inadvertently discovered that holiness—that ordinary, unobtrusive love-- is not found in boldly rebuking the mob, but rather in companionship and chaplaincy with an elderly man on a rainy evening as he struggled with his umbrella and the hostility of the crowd. Recollecting, I have concluded that zeal takes a back seat to hospitality.
Which brings me to the implication of these memories: Brash boldness is not the same as courage. Being slow to speak allows for a wiser, more enduring, more joy inducing voice. The church has an opportunity to be truly countercultural in regard to selective silence. This may be a time for the church to listen and to learn, especially to the African American community undergoing so much pain and fury right now.

      In our society, profane boldness is a mask of self-affirmation that bluffs indifference to danger founded on being armed to the teeth. It’s too easy to go scorched earth when everything is framed as a battle. Yet Jesus didn’t say, "Follow me, and I will make you fighters of men."
Sacred courage, on the other hand, is not a mask, but rather courage is a mirror—an imaging of the humble Spirit that establishes solidarity with the suffering and which trusts, contagiously, in God. Courage breathes peace whether it can speak comfort or safety. Courage is humbly aware that we are not in control and chooses to be present in the world.//
As I prepared this sermon on Jesus’s gift of breath and the virtue of silence, this past Monday in Minneapolis our Christian brother George Floyd took a cop’s knee on his neck for 8 minutes. “Please, please, sir, I can’t breathe,” Floyd repeatedly pleaded, but the knee stayed. Witnesses begged the white officer to get off the black man's neck, but the knee stayed.
The man went unconscious, but the knee stayed. George Floyd later died. 'I can't breathe': the same words gasped by Eric Garner in NY in 2015, put in a deadly chokehold by police for selling cigarettes on the street. America's twisted racial knot is that the knees stay until breath ceases because there is no fear or love to keep it off in the first place. “I can’t breathe” is an assault on the spirit that Jesus gives at Pentecost.
George Floyd should be alive today. We must be alert for anybody saying, "I can't breathe," to recognize the truth bolted behind oppression of the Holy Spirit. I had thought to contrast a picture of kneeling athletes with that of the cop’s knee pressing on George Floyd’s neck. Because we are faced with a choice: One knee for a brutal social order that vilifies non-whites and takes away their breath, the other knee that silently expresses a breathing symbol for justice. I don’t think there’s a middle ground.
I express my deep sorrow that it continues to be open season on African personhood. One thing we can do--when we see police approach Black and Brown men-- is commit to slowing down and standing witness to the interaction. And be ready to challenge as Christ’s witnesses against every act of oppression--every knee that crushes breath instead of kneeling in repentance.
An empire founded on slavery and theft of land lacks understanding that violence is done against a person’s body, not against property. We do well to recollect that in times of unrest, Jesus overturned tables. To make a cosmic point about holiness and justice, Jesus interrupted business.//
In this season of public closings and unrest, we recollect the lessons of Pentecost. That God can bring even out of our confinements and silences—our communicative nothingness--a new narrative, a new history, a new symbolic world, a new virtue, a new collective commitment to goodness. 
Pentecost can happen to and through us as we re-emerge into society ripe for change. Our task as disciples is to make breath—our Spiritual force-- transcend its confinement even as we cultivate all people’s relationship with abundant life.
The Holy Spirit sends us through that unbolted door of death’s cave from whence Christ released his Breath in new life for all.  This is the new door of Pentecost: let us go through with our hearts ringing and prayerfully prepared. --
Help others from the knees of their oppressors, help others to keep on breathing. Bring community out of chaos. Unlock prison doors and unlock knees. Because we are people of the raising. 

[1] Henri Nouwen.
[2] accessed on 6 August 2015.
[3] Pers. Comm.
[4] The documentary Karski and the Lords of Humanity is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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