Moments and Transformative Possibilities
By the Rev. Dr. Veronice Miles
Ruby Pardue and Shelmer D. Blackburn Assistant Professor of
Homiletics and Christian Education
Wake Forest University School of Divinity
One December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, an unknown
seamstress and civil rights worker in Montgomery, Alabama
was arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance when
she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger.
As a member of the NAACP, Mrs. Parks had worked on numerous
cases in which black people had been murdered and/or brutalized.
In a 1995 interview, Mrs. Parks recalled her work with the
NAACP and the difficulty that they faced in obtaining public
support for their cause. The bus incident, she explained,
gave them the exposure necessary to draw attention to the
ongoing struggles of black people in the U.S. It "was
more a matter of trying to challenge the powers that be, and
to let it be known that we did not wish to continue being
The Women's Political Council established in
1946 by Mary Fair Burks secured Mrs. Parks' approval to use
her arrest as a test case to challenge Montgomery's seating
policies and began planning a bus boycott to take place on
the day of Mrs. Parks' trial. The Montgomery Improvement Association,
under the leadership of the then new pastor of the Dexter
Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., joined
the effort and together they initiated the Montgomery bus
boycott which lasted three hundred and eighty two days. Mrs.
Parks' actions and the resultant bus boycott became defining
symbols of the Civil Rights Movement, a watershed moment in
U.S. history that definitively altered the landscape of our
To suggest that the Civil Rights Movement is
a watershed moment is to evoke exciting yet dangerous memories.
Exciting because we remember the hope and possibility of the
moment and celebrate the progress that we have made toward
becoming a society in which not only our laws, but our attitudes
and dispositions prohibit discrimination of all kinds based
on race, color, religion, national origin and the many other
descriptors that we use to delineate our beautifully diverse
existence. Nonetheless dangerous, because as we celebrate
we also remember the deeply divided society in which this
movement took place and feel compelled to assess the extent
to which that moment continues to inform our ways of being
and relating. I am making a claim here that watershed moments
are not simply cathartic moments that make us feel good at
the time, but defining moments or turning point in the lives
of persons and communities that raise questions about our
perception of the world in which we live and our place in
the larger scheme of things. They invite us to experience
life anew; to reconsider the social arrangements and practices
that shape our world view and our perception of reality.
For better or worse, watershed experiences
set us upon a new course. Some evoke fear and are imbued with
decreating potential. When accepted without critique or analysis
- when, like a dream deferred, they are left to "fester
like a sore and then run" - they rob us of our capacity
to live in loving and just relationship with God, ourselves
and other human persons. Such may be the case of those who
respond to the tragic events of September 11, 2001 in U.S.
history, for example, with a xenophobic disposition toward
all Muslims. The most powerful watershed moments, however,
are filled with transformative and creative potential. They
call into being that which is good and true and invite us
to live therein. These formative experiences deepen our understanding
of our world and of the structures that govern our existence,
peeling back layer after layer and revealing that which prevents
us from living together as human community. Though some may
resist the momentum, such moments nudge us toward justice
and life; toward God and God's best for creation.
In other words, watershed experiences touch
us deeply and invite us to periods of anamnesis - remembering
our formative experiences and discerning the relationship
of these experiences to our lives today. Anamnesis is like
a whiff of apple pie filling our nostrils and suddenly feeling
as though we are standing in grandmother's kitchen once again
tasting the sweet morsel that she has baked just for us. The
memory is so visceral that we know, beyond any shadow of doubting,
that we are her grandchildren and graciously accept the responsibility
that comes with being called by her name. It is the experience
of a mother or father who hears a baby cry and remembers the
joy and delight that the gift of new life brings both in the
immediacy of childbirth and in their ongoing ministry of parenting
their children. Such moments call us back and invite us to
remember who we are and how these experiences continually
give form to our engagement with the many others with whom
we share our lives.
The nascent Christian community in Acts 2:42-47
affords us an opportunity for anamnesis as we recall one of
the most important defining moments in the life of the Christian
Church, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and consider the
significance of this experience for our individual and collective
existence. This powerful memory resonates throughout the sacred
cosmos of the Christian Church, dangerously and delightfully
reminding us of our mission and call. The Holy Spirit greets
us in this moment and, as did Jesus during his post resurrection
sojourn with his followers, wants to buoy our faith and prepare
us to continue the ministry which Jesus began. In other words,
this formative story invites us to discern how our life of
faith might more fully reflect the communal sensibilities
and ethic of care and mutuality evident in this new community.
Our story begins with the life and ministry
of Jesus, his faith and sense of the world and his confidence
that, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, ordinary women and men
could become agents of creation and transformation. You might
recall that Jesus' practice of faith led him to the margins
of society; placed him in the midst of suffering and devastation,
loss and grief, hunger and impoverishment. His persistence
in proclaiming good news to the poor obliged him to respond
to the suffering and marginalization of his time in a manner
that the social and religious gatekeepers considered unseemly
at best and blasphemous at worst - touching untouchable ones,
sitting at table with sinners, standing among the social and
religious outcasts, openly engaging those with whom he should
not speak, standing in dead places and calling physically
and emotionally departed ones back to life, and numerous other
transgressions of the social and religious boundaries of his
time. These practices suggest to us and to our ancient sisters
and brothers patterns for living and relating that move us
outside of our comfort zones and place us right in the center
of Jesus' ongoing ministry of actualizing the kingdom or kin-dom
of God in our midst.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus urged those
with whom he ministered to prepare themselves for the emergence
of God's kin(g)dom. "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom
of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news"
(Mk. 1:15), he proclaimed, beckoning all who heard him to
remorsefully turn away from the ethic that had ordered their
lives and toward a radically new reality in which love of
God and neighbor would become the normative expression of
human existence. Numerous persons experienced Jesus' healing
and delivering touch and rejoiced in the news which he proclaimed,
but his closest companions remained perplexed about his ministry
and the nearness of God's kin(g)dom.
That his companions did not understand is evident in their
conversation with him prior to his ascension. "Lord is
this the time when you will restore the Kingdom of Israel?"
(Acts 1:8), they ask, for they had grown weary of Roman rule
and longed to become a powerful political entity. Jesus' response
did not satisfy their longing and, in all likelihood, they
made the journey from Mount Olivet back to Jerusalem still
trying to reconcile their longing for national restoration
with Jesus' insistence that the Holy Spirit would empower
them to be his witnesses in word and deed "to the ends
of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Nevertheless, they wait, persistent
in prayer and fellowship, and anxiously anticipating the promised
When we lean in to this text, we can almost see them gathered
in the upper room; can hear the excitement in their voices
as they tell stories and recall the miracles which Jesus performed.
I imagine them speaking of the woman at the well and the hemorrhaging
woman who touched him in the crowd, the children crying "Hosanna"
in the temple and his defense of them as those who should
also receive his welcome embrace; the man at the pool who
now walks and the young man raging and cutting himself who,
after his encounter with Jesus, could sit at table with his
family once again. They also share their many personal experiences
of Jesus' gracious embrace and words of encouragement, correction
and restoration, wondering if they would ever feel his touch
again. As they move in and out of their communal space, scarcely
noticing the hustle and bustle of the city, they must have
pondered even the more how their experience of Jesus would
inform their practice of faith going forward.
Outside of their gathering the city was teeming with excitement.
The fiftieth day after Passover was rapidly approaching and
people from throughout the region had already begun to gather
in the city of Jerusalem. The harvest had just begun and everything
was new; livestock, new wine and grain were abundant and the
people brought their gifts with thankful hearts. The aroma
of bread baking in open hearth ovens filled the air and the
sound of children's laugher echoed throughout the city as
they played in the streets and alleyways. The money changers
practiced their trade with precision and a bit of cunning.
The political and religious officials looked on from a distance,
anticipating the profit that they would incur as their many
guests frequented the markets and inns or brought monetary
gifts to the Temple. The secular and the holy converge, as
is often true of such gatherings, as people of faith and those
with no particular concern for faith at all stand at the intersection
of material consumption and the holy intent of the moment.
The priestly writers of Leviticus describe Pentecost as a
time of thanksgiving, proclamation and sharing. Known also
as the Festival of Weeks, Pentecost is a harvest festival
that dates back to the time of Moses in biblical history.
On Pentecost, family leaders brought their offerings of thanksgiving
to the Lord and the entire community assembled for a holy
convocation so that they might proclaim and hear of God's
goodness (Lev. 23:21). Those who were able to bring an offering
were also reminded to leave a portion for persons who were
impoverished and bereft of the basic necessities of life:
"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not
reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings
of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for
the alien: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 23:22).
At first glance, Pentecost appears as little more than an
ancient festival incidentally connected to the Christian tradition
because its calendar date coincided with the outpouring of
the Holy Spirit. Many people today are also unfamiliar with
harvest festivals and agrarian life and have no experiential
referent for the type of festival that would have taken place
on Pentecost. Even more, the discourse about harvests and
permitting the poor to glean from our fields seems anachronistic
in this age of technological advancement and programmatic
models for addressing social concerns. Yet, the practices
and disposition of heart that constitute Pentecost will not
permit us to simply ignore it or deem it contextually insignificant.
The practices of Pentecost are important to this time of anamnesis
because they testify to God's sustaining presence and ongoing
involvement in the everydayness of our lives, calling us to
a disposition of heart that acknowledges our interrelatedness
as human family. Over against ideologies that promote personal
comfort and material gain without consideration of the many
others with whom we share the earths resources and physical
space, the communal nature of Pentecost invites those who
reap bountifully to give thanks to God while leaving/giving/offering
a portion of what we have for the common good. In this respect,
the Pentecostal practices and disposition of heart among our
ancient sisters and brothers resonate with good news for the
poor and evince signs of the kin(g)dom. It seems just and
right, therefore, that the unifying presence of God, the Holy
Spirit, would begin her sojourn with humanity at this precise
moment in time.
The Holy Spirit enters human history with cosmic display and
tongues as of fire, transforming language and imagination,
and making those who had been anxiously waiting free for the
Gospel. Despite the strictures and structures that separated
rich from poor, bond from free, women from men, and youths
from the elders, the Holy Spirit rested upon each person as
though God's justice had consumed the moment and initiated
a cosmic moratorium on oppression. So powerful was this outpouring
that it could not be contained in a room hidden away at the
top of the stairs. No, the people spilled out into the streets,
witnessing to "God's deeds of power" (Acts 2:11)
in languages that all who gathered in the city could understand.
Daughters and sons prophetically proclaimed God's just intent
for creation while elders and youths shared their dream of
a life-affirming reality for all persons. Enslaved women and
men spoke of freedom and those who were free decried the social
and religious bondage that relegated far too many to the margins
of society. Words from God, placed in the mouths of the powerless
ones. Men, women and youths whose lives had been of little
consequence to the larger society in which they lived become,
in this radical moment, a true reflection of God's Spirit
poured out upon human flesh. As they continue to speak and
as we stand with them, we relish this transformative moment.
Our hearts pick-up the rhythm of the Divine heartbeat and
we dance and sing and consider the radical possibility of
life infused by the Holy Spirit.
We sense the Spirit beckoning us "Come!" and, standing
alongside our ancient brothers and sisters, we come. Receiving
the good news like manna from heaven that satisfies longings
so deep and an ache so persistent that we had almost forgotten
that they were there, we come. With heart felt pain as we
sense mournful cries within our human family, not at all certain
that we are capable of responding but knowing that we must,
we come. With longings that had been buried beneath the way
that things are and distorted by the many voices that tell
us that life infused by the Spirit is nothing more than a
dream deferred, we come.
We come to this defining moment as though we were here from
the beginning, remembering what we had almost forgotten; that
the radical possibility of a world in which people are "not
judged by the color of their skin" - or by any other
delimiting factor - "but by the content of their character"
entered human history at this very moment. Even as people
in various spaces and places resist embracing patterns for
living grounded in love of God and neighbor, we hold on to
the possibility that our world might indeed come to reflect
the justice for which we long. All things have become new,
even when we cannot sense it, because God's Spirit fills us
and dwells in the midst of a world crying out for wholeness.
If we would but listen and permit our hearts to maintain the
cadence, we might well discover that we hold in our hands
and in our hearts the potential for making that for which
we hope an actuality.
Our ancient sisters and brothers testify to this reality as
they discern how they might live in the weeks and months after
Pentecost. The festival is complete and many of the almost
three thousand who responded "yes" to Peter's proclamation
had already made the journey home. Others remained in Jerusalem,
gathering with friends and family to reflect upon this spiritual
outpouring; "devot[ing] themselves to the apostles' teaching
and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers"
(Acts 2:42). Their numbers increased daily as people from
all walks of life began to synchronize their heartbeat with
the Divine and commit themselves to becoming the Church.
If Peter's assertion that "this is what was spoken by
the prophet Joel" is an indication of those who comprised
this new community, then the Jerusalem church, in its composition
and commitments, transgressed many of the social and religious
boundaries of their time. Not only were they a diverse community,
but a community radically committed to the common good. As
Dr. King says of the early church, they "were not merely
a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular
[but] a thermostat that transformed the mores
The Jerusalem church expressed its transformative potential
by renegotiating social arrangements and creating a radically
inclusive community grounded in an ethic of care and mutuality.
So deep was there commitment to ways of being and relating
that reflected mutuality that each person, of their own volition,
"sold their possession and distributed the proceeds to
all, as any had need" (Acts 2:45). No doubt some brought
more to their communal coffer than others, but everyone contributed
what they had and received all that they needed. They had
all things common and, though difficult for us to imagine
in an era in which self-sufficiency and individual achievement
are more highly regarded than collective effort, "Day
by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they
broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous
hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people"
(Acts 2:46-467). They lived for the common good.
To live for the common good is to live as an expression of
the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit in our day to day
existence. It is to order our socio-political and religious
lives in ways that evince moral and political action to the
end of a world in which all persons are healthy and well nourished,
have clothing and shelter appropriate to their social and
geographic location, and are regarded with human dignity and
respect. In other words, to live for the common good is to
recognize that our moral commitments have political implications
and to respond accordingly.
This is no easy task. Throughout the world,
people are experiencing the growing ambiguity and painful
realization that what we can expect of the future has reached
a level of uncertainty that evokes more questions than answers.
War and the threat of war looms large, genocidal regimes attack
the most vulnerable in the name of preserving whatever it
is that they hold dear, and division of every kind persists.
These practices and dispositions of heart are undergirded
by the rhetoric of separation and disunity, competition and
individualism, "us" and "them" that flood
the multiple terrains of our existence. Lack and instability
are no longer socio-economic descriptor reserved for persons
and communities, nations and peoples identifiable by rubrics
such as "the have-nots," "the powerless,"
"the poor," or "the colorful ones." No,
they speak to the present reality of many persons and communities
who never imaged that they would feel the sting of social
and economic insecurity.
These feelings of incongruence can easily collapse
into anxiety and fear. Fear that we are not well or safe or
strong enough. Fear that we do not have enough, have not saved
enough, or are about to lose what we have. Fear that we need
to accumulate more or prevent others from accumulating too
much, lest our world collapse and we lose our place in the
larger scheme of things. Yet, even as we share a common distress,
many appear unable or unwilling to recognize that our fates
are inextricably linked, whether we appreciate it or not,
and our individual wellbeing is dependent upon the actions
and dispositions of heart that we collectively share. We will
not be well, truly well, until we clasp each other's hands
and work together.
Now, more than ever, we would do well to heed
the words that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote
a little over forty-seven years ago. In response to criticism
from Christian clergy who called his efforts toward freedom
and justice "unwise and untimely," Dr. King invites
us to consider the danger of ignoring our interrelatedness:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.
Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their
villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord"
far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as
the Apostle Paul left his village in Tarsus and carried the
gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman
world, so I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond
my own home town
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of
all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta
and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice
anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught
in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment
of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
The 2011 Week of Prayer for Christian
Unity reminds us that to live for the common good is not simply
a charitable act that some of us do on the behalf of others
of us. We live for the common good for our own sake and for
the sake of creation; so that we might be complete and so
that God's favor might fill the earth and so that the kin(g)dom
of God might become a reality within the concreteness of human
existence. We are not mere observers peering through the windows
of time with wishful hearts, but those whose lives have been
touched by the Divine, filled to the brim by the Holy Spirit
and awakened to the possibility of life made new each day.
Distractions and distortions are numerous in our world today,
vying for our attention and our commitments. But during times
of anamnesis, those reflective and life-affirming moments,
we remember who we are and sense God's Spirit showering over
us as though we had just begun.
Our liturgical practices and confessions of faith are rife
with possibilities for anamnesis. We break bread together,
offering morsels to our sisters and brothers and receiving
bread in return. As faithful community throughout the land,
we also share our table with the children, women, men who
planted and harvested the grain, crushed the grapes and filtered
the wine. We hold them in our hearts while inquiring about
their wellbeing and asking if they have received a living
wage. We whisper a prayer for them and for the wellbeing all
creation, while also availing ourselves for the work of dismantling
the structures that sustain poverty in our world today.
Our songs, hymns and anthems are also imbued with formative
potential, such that our plea for bread - "bread of heaven,
bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more" - awakens
in us a desire to ensure that all persons have access to a
healthy diet and enough to eat each day. With rich melodies
still ringing in the air, we confess our faith and remember
the One in whose name we have come. Even more, we remain keenly
aware that when we match our gait to his gait our journey
may take us to the hedges and highways or to mountainous villages
and impoverished neighborhoods, at home and abroad.
We place our feet in the baptismal waters or lift our faces
to the sky and feel a cool drizzle flowing over our cheeks.
We give our babies to a trusted pastor and, with words of
blessing or standing before the baptismal font, we welcome
our children into the Christian family; moments that remind
us that we are connected to a community of believing persons
that will hold us in our time of distress. Baptismal waters,
holy waters, drawn from the natural springs and aquifers,
rivers and streams, oceans and seas intended to sustain life
throughout the planet. Cool and refreshing, clean and pure;
these are the waters divinely bequeathed to every human person
and every living thing.
We live for the common good because that is who we are; these
faithful, spirit-filled yet fallible followers of Jesus whose
deepest desire is to live the life of faith in our world today.