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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Pentecost and the Time of Zoom
distributed 5/29/20 - ©2020

On the Christian calendar, next Sunday is Pentecost, "the birthday of the church."

In this strange contemporary moment of safer-at-home without public gatherings, we can find food for thought in that strange, long-ago and very public event. If we hope to be faithful and effective -- as advocates for social change, and/or as people of faith -- we need to pay close attention to what's going on today.

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Pentecost -- the Jewish festival fifty days after Passover -- was an occasion for crowds to gather in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus were gathered together indoors when odd things happened. There was the sound of rushing wind, tongues "as of fire" rested on each of them, and they all began speaking in foreign languages. They went out into the streets, among the crowds who had come from all around the Mediterranean.

The visitors where bewildered. Each heard in their own language a message about God's deeds of power. How could these locals be speaking with such a range of languages? In response, Peter speaks up with one of my favorite explanations in the Bible: "these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning." (Acts 2:15)

Rather, Peter says, it is what had been spoken by the prophet Joel. God's Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, and they will all prophesy -- young and old, men and women, slave and free.

Pentecost, for the church, is a miraculous day of prophetic communication which overcomes all the expected barriers. It is called the birthday of the church because the church is supposed to be continuing that Spirit-filled prophetic proclamation.

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For more than fifty days now, we've been gathered indoors -- not as a community of faith, but as isolated households seeking to flatten the curve of pandemic infections. For good and noble reasons, many of us have followed imposed restrictions to dramatically reduce our social interactions, while others (voluntarily or not) face risks by performing essential services in public settings.

Into this time of isolation has come Zoom, and the kindred pieces of technology that allow us some form of face-to-face interaction through our phone and computer screens. We may be stuck at home, but we can still keep in touch. I hear of friends and colleagues who are spending hours every day in on-line meetings. It is a mixed blessing.

Church services are now live-streamed or pre-recorded. The rituals and liturgies continue, but it isn't the same. We can't sing together. (Indeed, signing may be a long-term casualty of the virus, even when we can gather again as congregations.) Responsive readings feel pretty unresponsive when we're all muted. We try to pass the peace without eye contact or a handshake. Preachers preach to an empty room, with only the most abstract kinds of feedback and response. And there's no coffee hour (the "hunger and thirst after righteousness") where we engage in fellowship and build community.

There are deep losses on the front of political advocacy and social activism, too. That was most painfully evident in April, when huge public protests for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day were shut down, and the organizers moved on-line. The EarthDayLive team did a heroic job of creating diverse and meaningful content, but 500 people watching a webinar are very different from 500 people blocking the doors of a Chase Bank office to demand a stop to their funding of fossil fuels. Countless times, I've been on protest marches where the call-and-response chant says, "Tell me what democracy looks like!" It is dispiriting when "This is what democracy looks like!" is typed into the chat box of Zoom or FacebookLive. If webinars are the future of in-your-face democracy, we're in serious trouble. (The street riots this week rejecting police killings show that the pandemic isn't keeping everyone at home. Automobile parades around state capitol buildings are another creative response to physical distancing.)

To protect and preserve public health, our public lives have been constrained. Social and political interactions are shifted into artificial forms which are probably better than nothing, but which have substantial drawbacks.

The first Pentecost was a miraculous day of prophetic communication which overcomes all the expected barriers. We can't manufacture a miracle, but we can make choices about how to structure communication and community that are prophetic and engaging.

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What guidelines can we discern to strengthen and enliven our witness while we're shut down from public events? I'll offer a suggestive list of three qualities.

1) Whether in worship or in activism, we'll be more effective if we are boldly prophetic. When we gather on-line, a repetition of routines is not enlivening, and pure education is rarely empowering. We are prophetic when we proclaim truth grounded in strong values, a truth that calls us to just and sustainable and compassionate ways of living. We are prophetic when we announce real good news of hope and liberation. If we are prophetic, even on-line, our pronouncements will be energizing and will stir up some conflict.

2) In the spirit of Pentecost, and of most good activism, we need to find ways to be public about our witness. Emails to a legislator are good, but they don't build a movement. Symbolic actions give visibility and stimulate conversation. Those "car parades" make the news. Even more, though, when those demanding an end to stay-at-home restrictions drove around the Colorado capitol, the public debate took an amazing turn of message when two people in hospital scrubs and masks stood in the street to block the parade. It is more important than ever that political calls to action be reinforced with letters to the editor, and yard signs, and t-shirts. In our churches, having live-streamed services provides a new opportunity for folk outside the normal community to drop in and experience the prophetic message we're offering. Invite folk to listen in ... if you think the message does make a difference.

3) Prophetic witness needs to be emotionally engaging. We need to work hard with poetry and the arts, with contemporary media, to stimulate the emotions that call us back into community and that call us on into action. We can't sing together, but music can be a powerful element of on-line presentations. Poetic reflections are more enticing than prose. Even on-line, we can be invited to join in motions which engage our body as well as our brains. My home church has been working hard to do Sunday services via Zoom, mostly with a recreation of the ordinary liturgy. Last week, the opening of the service was a video from youth around the denomination which, as several people put into chat, "moved me to tears."

These are difficult and important times. As I've written before, "The plans and dreams that we create today will define what is possible in the years to come." It is essential that we are public and prophetic in demanding that recovery from the pandemic empowers a reduction in climate-warping emissions, and works to reduce the obscene disparities of wealth that have been revealed. (The HEROES Act in the House of Representatives is at least a step in the right direction.)

Pentecost is about prophetic communication which overcomes all the expected barriers. We know the barriers we face this year. How can we overcome those barriers, and be powerful in proclaiming prophetic truth? How will your church and community find new ways to speak and act?

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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The vivid and inclusive Pentecost artwork used on today's Facebook post comes from Bauche Art - Common Sparrow Studios.


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