The Language of the Spirit

Numbers 11:24–30; Acts 2:1–21, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on May 28, 2023

On May 25, 2020, our city entered an alternate reality. The Third Precinct in flames. Circling helicopters.Armed white supremacists. Tanks. Curfew. Neighborhood watches. Rivers of protesters. Police assaulting journalists. I can still feel the horror and confusion, the heat, the noise, the smells, the explosive grief and rage, the fragility of facts, the complexity of truth, the sudden depth of collective soul-searching. Things are so different now, as we make meaning of that intense and volatile time from a distance. The community has institutionalized the movement catalyzed by George Floyd’s murder with a conference, a candlelight vigil, a gala and a festival.Major corporations are involved. The Star Tribune printed a guide to the events. The Minnesota Orchestra commissioned a piece of music.

There’s an analogy, I think, with the events of Pentecost. Thousands of years after the fact, we’ve inherited a quirky story, with theatrical special effects and tongue-twister place names. I’m trying to imagine, though, how it was to BE THERE, to be a witness to a gut-wrenching time of crisis that changed people and their community forever. What was it like for those who were in the room with the violent roaring wind and the fire-like tongues?How did it feel when the Spirit danced on their heads? And an exuberant cacophony of languages burst forth from their lips? What if you or I had been part of the crowd that gathered around? Would we have been bewildered or amazed? Calm and curious or agitated and afraid? And how would we have made sense of this event in the moments, days, and years that followed?

Last Friday night, I listened to the livestream of the new piece commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra. The piece centers poetry created by spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph. In dialogue with the poet, composer Carlos Simon wrote music for orchestra and choir to accompany the words. It is titled Brea(d)th, with the “d” in parenthesis. In interviews, Joseph and Simon point out that there are three key words embedded in the title: bread, breath, and breadth. They explain that the piece is not really intended to be a lament, but rather a call to hope and action. “Breadth” refers to the breadth of promise of an America healed of racism and of the breadth of work required to create that new reality.

The whole text, or libretto, created by Joseph is posted on the Minnesota orchestra website. It’s amazing and I encourage you to read it. Here are a few snippets that spoke to me:

Before it was a corner/ It was a boundless plain that never/ 

considered the square edges of man’s myopia/ Over time/ 

The edges encroached/ And brought with them/ Paper and value/

Before it was a constitution/ It was a handwritten note/ 

Presented to a native woman/ As legal tender/ she held it to the light/ 

Squinted twice/ And laughed at the myopic man who tried to/ 

pass a counterfeit bill.

The breadth of the task / Is to make a future that remembers/ 

the breath of the stolen/ To think of joy as an economy/ 

To consider its theft with interest

The promise of what’s possible/ That’s the breadth of the task/ 

To make possible/ The breadth of the promise . . .

So much work has been done. Who does the work that’s still left?

Much like the murder of George Floyd, the Pentecost events, as described by the author of Acts, disrupted reality, and opened space for something new. Pentecost, or Shavout, is a Jewish festival celebrating the harvest. In biblical times, Pentecost was one of the occasions during the year when Jews would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Like today, Jews then were scattered to every corner of the world in diaspora. This festival was truly a homecoming, because those who gathered received the gift of hearing their native languages spoken in a place in which they were foreigners. The Spirit’s gift of tongues was not a parlor trick meant to dazzle and impress. It was the gift of comfort, care and belonging for those who were outsiders, those who were displaced. And this gift of the Holy Spirit was also a catalyst for the Jesus community to become something new, something more, to reach outward and grow, to connect across difference, to join God’s work of loving, serving and healing the world.

For me, there is a Pentecost message in the cultural fusion embedded in Brea(d)th. It melds the improvisational feeling of spoken word poetry with classical music infused with jazz and Gospel styles. It focuses on the perspective of ordinary people who live around George Floyd Square, lifting up 

The breadth of the lives of folks on/ the block who didn’t have activist/ 

 intentions/ And the breadth of the local/ activists who supported them/ 

 with intention.

At the same time, the piece is also meant to reach out to those with privilege and power. As Simon said in an interview, “Here I am working for an organization where most of the patrons—as with most orchestras, it’s safe to say—are elite.[1]

Peter, making meaning of the Pentecost event, draws on the writings of the prophet Joel. “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” If we are going to embrace the breadth of the promise before us, it will take all of us—ordinary and elite, oppressor and oppressed—moving together with the Spirit. And Joel names specific groups of people whose voices the Spirit will amplify—sons and daughters, young, old, slaves. None of these are folks at the center of power, whether because of their age, gender, or social status. The Spirit brings forth a multiplicity of languages and stories, breaking through the monotone of those attempting to control the conversation. And today’s text from Numbers also speaks against the fearful hoarding of power and calls for the sharing of leadership. “Would that all God’s people were prophets,” Moses declares. Prophets, according to Joel, are those freed by the Spirit to dream, to imagine, in the midst of what is, the transformation that is possible. 

I’ve been taking an anti-racism training focused on addressing white supremacy culture in institutions. We’ve been comparing white institutional values to anti-racist “transforming values.” White institutional values include: “dualism, competitiveness, scarcity, disposability, drive to dominate, and secrecy.” The training material describes the cumulative impact of these values this way: 

They misshape relationships, predispose institutions . . . to value efficiency and metrics over people, lead to power hoarding, and close off people and institutions to the new possibilities, energy, and creativity those committed to an equitable society generate. [2]

On the other hand, transforming values include cooperation and collaboration, expansive inclusivity, abundance, affirming the worthiness of every living being, responsible interdependence, and transparency. Whereas institutions committed to white institutional values exist to serve only their own members, those invested in antiracist values approach their role in society differently. They see themselves as accountable to those most impacted by their decisions and actions. 

The Spirit is always moving in the tumult of this world. The Spirit is among us, making use of, though not causing, disruptions to routine and reality. The Spirit is like a mighty wind whose gusts clear out shallow lip service to diversity and inclusion, justice and wholeness, and usher in a new breadth of understanding and commitment. The Spirit teaches us new languages, new ways of speaking, hearing, and being community that bridge our profound differences, that space for communication that can hold both the pain of generational trauma, and the promise of healing and repair. Rather than shut down, isolate, and grasp at the familiar, the Spirit invites us to reach out, connect, and grow.





Watch the concert here:

Listen to a conversation with Carlos Simon and Marc Bamuthi Joseph here: