On the day of Pentecost, also known as the birthday of the church, Jesus’ followers received a new gift: the Holy Spirit. “Come, Holy Spirit” This is the ancient prayer of Pentecost. This is not a prayer to pray lightly. The Spirit we urge to come among us is a loud, violent rush of wind, a fierce and cleansing fire. When we pray, “Come Holy Spirit” what we are welcoming is agitation and turmoil. We are praying to be changed—to hear with new ears, to see with new eyes, to speak in new tongues, to dream new dreams.
Our worship today includes several African American spirituals and the compositions of African American poets. This art speaks out of the slave experience, and from the new guises of slavery has taken in more recent times. Most of us do not share in this experience of generational trauma and therefore lack a true, in-the-bones understanding of it. Even worse, those of us born into white skin, through no choice of our own, benefit from this suffering. And we are taught, subtly, through breathing the air around us, not to notice it, not to feel it, not to realize that we are part of perpetuating it.
The version of Christianity handed down to us from white ancestors contains a fatal flaw. A liberating faith was contorted to justify oppression, and to lull the enslaved into accepting their lot on earth as God’s will. That’s why the spirituals have so often been heard by white ears as songs about a better future after death.
But it’s clear that the spirituals are actually about turning this oppressive tradition against itself. “Wade in the Water,” “Steal Away to Jesus,” “I Hear Music in the Air”—these are songs of resistance, sung at secret meetings in the woods, used as code to communicate about plans for escape and rebellion. They draw on central biblical metaphors, such as the Exodus, to give people the strength to demand freedom and human dignity in the here and now.
So, as a congregation steeped in white privilege, our liberation requires facing uncomfortable questions. When we sing the songs and read the poetry of oppressed communities, are we simply appropriating a cultural experience we do not share, and can never understand? Are we, yet again, acting in a way that reinforces, rather than dismantles, the dynamics of white supremacy? Or can our engagement with these traditions be an act of respectful learning? Can it provide a window into another world that changes how we view our own world and how we act in that world?
In the white privilege discussions we’re having as a church, one aspect of our covenant with each other is that we will accept non-closure. This means we will sit with unanswered questions and unsolved problems. We will bear together the pain of open wounds.
Today, let us risk praying, with all our hearts, “Come, Holy Spirit.” Let us welcome agitation and turmoil. Let us hear with new ears, see with new eyes, speak in new tongues, dream new dreams. Let us enter into the creative tension of life led by God’s Spirit. We are the church—the body of Jesus—dying and rising, birthing something new for the sake of the world.
As we worship together, may the peace of Christ be with you.