Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost

Today is the Feast of Pentecost, when the Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit. If you do not know the story, you can read about it here. I am celebrating this Feast Day at St. Andrew's Church in North Grafton - my second of four weeks in June there as the rector begins a sabbatical. 

The Feast of Pentecost is the third great feast day of the liturgical year, after Christmas and Easter. Yet its meaning may seem more elusive to us than those other two feast days, and its observance is definitely a distant third. In all my years as the rector of St. Francis in Holden, I don’t ever recall needing to set up chairs in the narthex for Pentecost like we did for Easter and Christmas, even when we had a lot of baptisms.

But here we are! Even if this is not your third largest attendance of the year at St. Andrew’s, I think that the Feast of Pentecost is a great celebration without all the cultural “hoopla” to sort through, and an opportunity for us to reflect on the sending of the Holy Spirit and what that means for our lives as we seek to open ourselves to the work of that same Spirit.

In today’s reading from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke is suggesting that we encounter God’s Holy Spirit when we encounter the other – the one who is different from us. Today marks the beginning of that theme but it’s a thread that runs all the way through Acts, in stories we’ve been hearing throughout the fifty days of Easter: that initial group of Jews from Galilee reach out to Gentiles and centurions, eunuchs and persecutors of the community, and ultimately to the ends of the earth.

What is amazing is that all of these people are speaking different languages, but hearing in their own native tongues. They are in Jerusalem for the Jewish Festival of Booths. But this story isn’t limited to Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; or even by extension to Germans and Mexicans and Zulus. As a metaphor, I think this day reminds us how difficult communication is: and how even people who speak the same “mother tongue” can face challenges in communicating. Sometimes that’s because we come from different generations. Other times it’s because we’re shaped by different socio-economic and cultural values. Other times it’s because some of us are from Mars and others are from Venus. But no matter how you slice it, communication is hard work! And without communication, community is impossible.

If you aren’t sure about that, then try putting a group of randomly selected Episcopalians together from across our diocese to discuss casinos or gun violence or public education. Even if all are speaking in English, many factors will influence that conversation.  It will matter whether they come from and live in a small town, or in the suburbs, or in the city. It will matter what they know or think they know and who they trust for information and who they are willing to listen to, and who they don’t hear. We literally inhabit different worlds! And all of these factors impact what we believe (and think we know) and therefore what we say and don’t say.

Our reading from Acts says that “they were all together in Jerusalem.” So if it’s complicated with Episcopalians, add in some Lutherans and Methodists and Roman Catholics and evangelicals and some Pentecostals as well and start having those same conversations. And since we live in a pluralistic world why not invite some Jews, and Buddhists, and Muslims and Hindus and some “spiritual but not religious” and some of the “nones?”

Now you don’t have to imagine that conversation, because it’s the world we live in every day. It’s where we work, it’s our neighborhoods. It’s in the signs you see out on people’s lawns – “no” and “yes.”  We inhabit different worlds even when we are all speaking English—worlds as different as those from which those gathered in Jerusalem came from. “Hearing” requires listening and most of us are not particularly good at deep listening.

It is not a natural instinct to see “the other” as a gift who can lead us into truth, but rather as someone who stands in our way—and in my experience so-called liberals are as guilty of this as so-called conservatives. We tend to see “the other” as a barrier to our getting what we want, or what we think we want. When we fear the other, very often our bodies tense up and that influences both what we can say but even more importantly, what we are able to hear. And far too often this is where conflict potentially escalates and authentic communication is hindered.

The Pentecost story makes the bold claim that “the other” is a gift who helps us to discern a deeper wisdom than we are able to discover on our own. That it is how God changes hearts and minds. So as you can tell, I don’t think the Pentecost story is just about what happened one day a long time ago in Jerusalem. I think it is a never-ending story about how the Holy Spirit continues to work even now, so that, by the grace of God sometimes people do listen to and even hear one another—and when that happens, community becomes possible. Nelle Morton, a twentieth-century Christian educator at my seminary (Drew) used the phrase “hearing another to speech.” That is to suggest that when we really listen to another person, it is not a passive exercise.

The greeting “Namaste” also captures, I think, what this kind of deep-Spirit listening is about.  Literally it means “I bow to you.” It also means that I honor the divine spark in you. Do we really believe that about each other? Can we honor the Spirit of God that is in the person whom we initially feels stands in the way of what we want?  The Baptismal Covenant points to this same truth when we promise, with God’s help, that we will respect the dignity of every human being. When we treat others as holy and beloved children of God, there is nothing passive about it. We really do, quite literally, hear the other to speech as we empower one another to speak the truth in love. And where that happens, whether in first-century Jerusalem or twenty-first century Grafton, the Holy Spirit is unleashed and at work and all are enriched and amazed in the process.

Truth—the whole truth and nothing but the truth—is never something that any one of us can possess on our own. It requires community and discernment. It requires of us that we be present to the Spirit. “In Christ,” St. Paul insisted, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female.” That is true. But not because they are the same. Males need females and Greeks need Jews – and the other way around, to see and hear what we may otherwise be blind and deaf to. On the great questions, one side never possesses the whole truth; and I believe that it is the Spirit that pushes us into acknowledging that hard reality—until we are able to hear one another to speech, each in his or her own native tongue.

So as it is empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Church becomes an icon of what is possible in this world: an image of abundant life animated by God’s Holy Spirit. I think that is what we glimpse in the second chapter of Acts but we also see it from time to time in our own context as well. When we truly love our neighbor, we build up the neighborhood. And that is at the very heart of what Pentecost is all about, Charlie Brown: the Church as the Church, showing the world what is possible when the Spirit of God is trusted for guidance, and wisdom, and comfort.

Lord knows, this does not mean there will be no conflict. The rest of Acts is filled with brutal honesty about just how difficult it is to be the Church. Luke wants to make sure that we don’t fall into a false kind of idealism that any of this is easy. Acts is not at all na├»ve about the work we are called to. But it does insist that with the Holy Spirit, infinitely more than we can ask or imagine is possible. Trusting that the Spirit is sent to guide us into all truth, we dare to ask: what is God’s preferred future? Where is God luring us, and sometimes prodding us to go?

Let me share with you two very practical experiences I’ve had in the past two weeks of Church that involved what I am trying to talk about with you today and where I saw the Holy Spirit at work, and then I’ll sit down. Two weeks ago I was at the Seminary of the Southwest for a program sponsored by Lutherans on Spanish Language and Hispanic Culture. So did you hear that: Lutherans and Episcopalians were “all together” and learning how to reach out to the Spanish-speaking population in this nation. Part of the week included a presentation by a thirty-two year old Mexican American who came to this country without papers. Her mother fled Mexico because she was being abused by her husband with her two daughters; our speaker was ten at the time. She excelled in school and her mother worked in Austin as a nanny and told her that someday if she worked hard she could go the University of Texas. Well guess what? She did just that! And she is a U.S. citizen today. But it was not a straight-line journey, as you can imagine.  She told us about being scared and how difficult that path was. Whatever you may think about immigration reform, here is the point I want to make with you: it’s not an abstract question. Listening to the stories and experiences of Dreamers like my amiga, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is part of the work God gives us to do.

And then this past week I was at the cathedral in Kansas City as a follow-up to our last General Convention and as preparation for the next one – to discuss what we are learning as a Church that offers blessings to same-sex couples. There were literally people from around the world there – from Africa, South America, Britain and Europe and New Zealand. And there were ecumenical guests there – Presbyterian and Lutheran and Moravian and United Church of Christ. As well as our Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies and members of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. We used what is sometimes called the "continuing indaba" approach to listening that strengthens relationships for mission which comes out of South Africa.

There is lots to say but let me just say this: I was exhausted by Friday when I returned home, because listening is far more tiring than speaking, and because these are challenging conversations. But let me be really clear about this: it was a holy and life-giving experience and a visible and outward sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence.  

So here is the last thing I want to say: I don’t think the Spirit is done with any of us yet. I think that day in Jerusalem was just a grand entrance, but that the Spirit continues to show up, sometimes in loud ways and other times in quieter ways. And we need to cultivate the practice of paying attention. We do that by listening to each other and for that same Spirit. And as we do that we embrace a way of life that recognizes that we do not all speak the same language, but through the Spirit we can become more multilingual and more culturally aware. We can, with God’s help, become an intentional listening community that practices hearing one another to speech. 

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