When the Spirit Comes

Presented by Rev. Michael E. Livingston

 Sixth Annual NJCC
Pentecost Dinner & Service

 Acts 2:1-21

I Corinthians 12:3b-13

John 7:37-39

 Willie Glaspar is a mailman in Vicksburg, Mississippi, site of one of the most fierce and protracted battles of the Civil War.  Under siege by Union Soldiers for over a month, soldiers, north and south and civilians suffered severely, some dying of starvation.  Seventeen thousand mostly Union Soldiers are buried in a cemetery in Vicksburg.  Ceremonies on Memorial Day ended in the seventies, but Willie organized a parade and cemetery gathering for prayer and song some few years ago.  It’s grown to about 40 people participating.  “I’m a mailman, not a veteran, but I played here as a boy and used to study these graves, I look at the War from a freedom standpoint.  One side won, the other lost, and we became free as a result…Maybe that’s why the white folks don’t come.” (Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, Tony Horwitz)

In the confederate room of the city’s museum there is a pair of rebel trousers with an inscription that says they were sewn by a “plantation mammy” alongside a picture of a Southern Matron “with her slaves who refused to accept freedom.”  Jefferson Davis delivered his first public speech in Vicksburg and a plaque commemorating the occasion says, “There was a special relationship between Jefferson Davis and his slaves.  He was not only their master but also their friend.”  With friends like that…

On an exhibit of a Klu Klux Klan Hood with eye holes and a Red Tassel the inscription reads, “The Klan’s purpose was to rid the South of carpetbag-scalawag-black governments, which were often corrupt…Atrocities were sometimes attributed to the Klan by unscrupulous individuals.” The Civil War isn’t over in some people and places.

One of the most revered soldiers in the battle of Vicksburg was a private named Albert D. J. Cashire.  A soldier in their company said of Albert, “In handling a musket in battle he was the equal of any in the company.”  Cashire fought in forty skirmishes and battles and he participated in veterans’ affairs for decades after the war.  In 1911 working in Illinois, a car hit Cashire and in surgery after the accident it was discovered that he was a she, Albert was an Irish immigrant named Jennie Hodgers.  She was eventually sent to a mental institution and forced to wear women’s clothing.  She died in the asylum in 1915. Over 400 women fought in the war disguised as men.

Ironically, Vicksburg was one of only two towns in Mississippi to vote against secession (the other was Natchez).

Princeton and Trenton are 10 miles apart.  Graduation rates from the two high schools are a thousand miles apart.  Both are stately historic school structures but Princeton is in top shape with amazing performance and sports facilities and Trenton Central is an unholy mess.  Now why is that? 

We give tax breaks to the wealthy.  We reward companies for sending manufacturing overseas.  We bail out banks.  We treat Wall Street as if it were a sacred workplace needing insulation and protection from the regulation of evil and intrusive “big government.”  In truth it is more like a den of gamblers and speculators who play with money, who package debt and sell it over and over again like the unfortunate gift destined for eternal re-gifting.  Wall Street is walled off from the prying eyes of We the people, it is the princely province of American royalty—oligarchs. Yes, a small group of people has control of our government.  That is why no comprehensive immigration bill, or a bill to raise the minimum wage has even been introduced for a vote in the House of Representatives. 

We deregulate commerce and trade, our laws privilege profit over people, multinational monopolies over Main Street and neighborhood, village and town, ghetto and group home.  We re-segregate and redline.  Our redrawn congressional districts look like the scribblings of crack addicts.  We build walls to keep them out while exploiting their labor, deporting and separating families—recalling the days of slavery. 

We pollute our water and air; we rape the earth plundering its precious irreplaceable resources and ignore the wind and the sun.  We put a price tag on everything, water, air…space, time, people, so everything is a commodity, a thing to be sold.  Pillows on airplanes, parking spaces, patient care.  It’s cost a dime now to bag your groceries if you don’t bring your store bought bag with you.   

We make it harder for them to vote: old folks, people of color, students. We sell our democracy to corporations that are not people and give voice to money even though it can’t really speak.  When’s the last time a ten-dollar bill asked how you were doing?  Our elections aren’t the substance of real debate about values and governance.  They are dueling dollars, clever slogans that belie their underlying aim: character assassinations on primetime television.  Our constitution has been prostituted by partisan manipulation in the highest court in the land doing the bidding of extremists whose interests do not seem to include millions of our people living under the most difficult circumstances.

Don’t mess with corporate bonuses, boss to worker ratios of 231 to one, CEO salaries in the tens of millions, stock options, dividends, perks, golden parachutes and soft landings after even mismanagement and outright failure.  But outsourcing, misclassification, a workforce of part-timers who can’t afford healthcare, don’t get paid sick days or vacations, are forced to depend on government services and castigated when they do—we seem to have no problem exploiting them.

I’ll tell you what I’d like to see when the spirit comes…

 People sitting in pews and on porches all across America who think it ordinary to speak up, march up, stand up and with our sons daughters seniors strangers who serve our burgers and wait our tables on poverty wages demanding they get fair and just pay and benefits, not welfare.  They do the work that makes McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wal-Mart rich and ought to share in the abundance they create as if they matter and are more than interchangeable part-time throwaways parts in an economic scheme that isn’t the free market at its best but a financial system rigged to make and keep people poor, to rob them of their dignity them blame them for their sorry condition.  People aren’t poor; they are made poor.  We’re not talking about poverty but about income inequality.  It’s not just a byproduct of our system, it is its centerpiece, it is it’s inevitable outcome, it is the fulfillment of its design. 

Pentecost, the day, the season, can never become simply a birthday party for the church.  We can’t let ourselves think of it as an annual celebration and not much more—not in our world.  Pentecost is a reminder that we’re all prophets, that the Spirit is democratic and biased. “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.”  And it has deep and compassionate roots in structured benevolence. 

         The deep root of this season is a harvest festival and the requirement that not all of the land be harvested.  The edges were to be left un-harvested so that the poor could have this food for themselves.  Built right into the structure of the festival that is the cause for the gathering that became the first Pentecost is this movement from thanksgiving to justice.  Joy at the harvest and care for the have-nots.  We can only be truly thankful when we remember our connection to those who do not have what we have; those who suffer in the very midst of the abundance we enjoy.  The harvest is from God.  It is not ours alone.

When the Spirit comes to New Jersey we’ll look like North Carolina.  Are you paying attention to what is happening in North Carolina—the Forward Together, Not One Step Back, Moral Mondays movement?  It is Pentecost every Monday down there.   Rev. Barber calls it “fusion politics.”  It’s multi-race, multi-ethnic, and multi-issue.  It’s young and old, men and women, and LGBTQ.  It’s people of every faith and people of no professed faith.  It large statewide organizations and small local non-profits.  It’s doctors and nurses and small business owners, it’s progressives for choice and rednecks who want unemployment insurance extended and new jobs. 

White folks in Madison County, that’s Klan country in NC have asked Rev. Barber if they could start a chapter of the NAACP.  It’s people from all over the state singing and marching on the steps of the Capitol every Monday, growing numbers of them willing to be arrested for what they believe.  It’s about labor rights, voting rights, women’s rights, comprehensive immigration better public schools, international relief and development, health care, income inequality.  It’s not democrat or republican it’s for all, not left versus right—it’s about going deeper, beyond the superficial to the place where the truth sets the table and the whole of the people are fed and sustained and enjoy the fellowship of a beloved community.  They march so that the state is a banquet for the community not a feeding trough for those already wealthy beyond measure.

When they came back after a season of Sabbath following the massive march on Raleigh February 8th, (80 thousand people were there—it was remarkable, they learned about the new rules imposed by a commission of the State Legislature that hadn’t met for years:  in NC it is no longer legal to sing, march, pray, or gather more than 200 people on the steps of the Capitol.  The governor and the majority party in power think they can coral the spirit, silence the spirit of God.  Know what they did that first Monday back?  They marched in silence their mouths covered with tape. 

Will we ever truly get to we the people?  Not us versus them, north vs south, red state vs blue state, progressives liberals conservatives tea parties, haves and have nots, right color wrong color, male over female—she gets $.76 on the dollar and abused to boot?  Will we ever break the grip of this science denying false Christianity that is ascendant in our politics at the expense of the rich religious traditions that inhabit our land? Jesus would have nothing to do with this soulless political Christianity that would cut food stamps  and early childhood education and end unemployment insurance for 2 million people , the number growing by the thousands every week. Boomers, the greatest generation, millennial, x-gens, are these divisions real?  In the beauty of the diversity that is God given, not human made will we ever get to we the people?

When the spirit comes, when the spirit comes, when the spirit comes: there will be no them.  Despite our differences we are one.  Our very differences, languages, lands, cultures, religions are causes for wonder and awe.  We are the art of God—all of us, everywhere.  When poverty is done, when clean water and daily bread are facts of life for all, when beyond the jangling sounds of our differing accents what we hear is “peace.”  What a day, what a season of celebration that will be!  AMEN.