Summit Presbyterian Church
Acts 2: 1-21; John 14:8-17, 25-26
May 15, 2016 (Pentecost)
Students of the Spirit
At our last “conversations on race” meeting on Wednesday, inspired by the film, we talked a bit about the American history we learned in school. Our experience differed depending on how old we were and where we went to school. But those of us who spoke felt we weren’t taught the truth, or taught enough of it, when it came to slavery, racism, the African American experience. College was better, but even now, much is left out or distorted in what young people learn about our collective history. Now, historians tell us there’s no such thing as “pure” history, no single truth about the past. History reflects the understanding and interests of those who teach and write it — which is true, and why we need to expand the circle of historians and always re-examine what we think we know. But we can’t deny it: the history most of us learned underplayed the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow and discrimination in the North. It understated the achievements of Reconstruction and African Americans, left out the stories of many peoples or told them in simplistic ways: women, native Americans, Asian Americans. Those stories are being told more and more, but even when we seek them out we don’t necessarily explore what they mean for the present. Or, to paraphrase Faulkner: we haven’t reckoned with the truth that the past is not even past.
There are many reasons for this. Sometimes they’re economic. The film explored how theories of race were developed to justify slavery and the removal of American Indians from the land. It’s not that white scientists or anthropologists said I’m going to make up a theory to justify slavery: but they asked questions that would give them the answers they expected and wanted. There’s nothing like greed, or fear of not having enough to keep people from facing the truth. Grappling with truth, especially an inconvenient truth — and most truth is inconvenient for somebody - also means change. Change is hard. Learning and facing truth takes work: listening, studying, observing - and we don’t always know for sure where truth lies. It brings conflict. Not only in presidential debates, but among family, friends, and congregations. It’s no wonder that the world cannot receive it — and that world often includes us.
After our discussion Wednesday, I remembered a time when I taught second and third grade, about 20 years ago. I taught in a progressive, teacher college-affiliated elementary school, with largely white, middle and upper middle class students. It was Black History Month — or maybe the Martin Luther, King Jr. holiday. We had been learning about the Montgomery bus boycott — a developmentally appropriate topic, as all second and third graders care passionately about where they sit on a bus. I gave a homework assignment to be discussed in class the next day. I can’t remember exactly how I phrased the question, but it was something like: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus because she knew it was unfair. Is there something in the world today that you think is unfair? (use at least four sentences and don’t forget to capitalize the first word in each sentence). I took care to phrase it in a neutral way. I told them it could be about anything they thought was unfair. . . I was trepidatious. I expected several of them to bring up an intimate experience of racism and economic injustice: The fact that their caregivers - their nannies — and the caregivers of their friends and neighbors were almost always black, and they were white. Their caregivers were almost always less well off than them. Their caregiver’s children probably didn’t see their mothers as much as my students saw them, as the children often lived far away, in Barbados or the Bahamas. I wondered what my students would say, and how I would handle the discussion. I wasn’t going to deny that it was unfair: 500 years after Columbus arrived on San Salvador island, a combination of racism, imperialism, sexism, etc. had led to this state of affairs. At the same time, I wanted to honor the relationships that the caregivers and the children had, with deep love often going in both directions. I wanted to affirm that caring for children was important, skilled and even joyful work — not something that anyone who had a choice would avoid. I wanted to respect the decisions of all parties given the constraints of our world. It felt very complicated and very fraught. I wondered if I should give the assignment: but I thought, if after discussing the Montgomery Bus Boycott we couldn’t ask such a straightforward question, what was the point?
And sure enough, a few children did write about it. Children are observant and honest. I have no memory of the discussion itself, except that I tried to listen and it also included issues like the unfairness of losing choice time if you talked too much in the hallway. I may have done more harm than good with the assignment. If I were to do it again I would have prayed and consulted more beforehand. (Have I said - recently - that pastoring is easier than teaching?) Truly: discerning truth, hearing it, teaching it, is no easy thing.
So it’s no accident that when Jesus says the Father will send the disciples an Advocate to be with them forever, he calls it the Spirit of Truth. He promises that they will know this Holy Spirit; that it will abide in them. This Spirit will teach them everything, and remind them of all that Jesus has said to them.
Today we give thanks for that Spirit of Truth, the Advocate that abides not only in those first disciples, but in all who love Jesus and seek to follow him. The Spirit of truth which reminds us of all that Jesus said. This Spirit of Truth guided the gospel writers. This Spirit of truth that helps us understand what Jesus’s words mean for us, not only in our personal lives but as the church today — it’s not always evident. Even though this Spirit abides in us, we don’t always understand it, or listen. But when we do, it brings us to Christ because it’s the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of Christ who teaches us the way we should go and who also gives us peace. Not the peace of silence in the face of injustice. Not the peace that comes from avoiding conflict or change by going along with the majority opinion. Not the peace that comes from a life of ease: Jesus never promised discipleship would be easy. But it’s the peace grounded in the love and grace of God. The peace that offers forgiveness and new life time and again. The peace that assures us of our sacred worth in the eyes of God. The peace that tells us all will be well, as the world is being redeemed. The peace that we can rely on even in the midst of change or conflict that comes with truth telling. The peace we can rely on when learn that the things we thought to be true, knew to be true may not be so. The peace that gives us courage to seek truth and teach it, even when our hearts are afraid. For, as Jesus also said, “the truth will set you free.”