Monday, May 12, 2008


We had a Pentecost worship yesterday that was so good I decided, on the fly, not to preach the sermon I'd prepared. The spirit moved me to keep my mouth shut, because sometimes what has come before needs no more words. If I had preached, I would like to have begun with this cartoon! Then I might have said something like this:

Gathered in an upper room, huddled in fear, not knowing what to do next – when suddenly like the rush of a mighty wind, the Spirit blows through their midst and the disciples get pulled and pushed through fear and grief into the world to testify to the truth they have experienced in Jesus. And, you know, when the Spirit says speak, you’ve gotta talk right out loud. And so they do.

It is, it seems to me, only a small miracle that the disciples received the gift of such speech. The much larger miracle on Pentecost is that the people – at least many of them – were given ears to hear, such that each one heard the truth as if it were spoken directly into his or her experience, in his or her own language.

We have Peter’s speech, but we don’t really know exactly what else was said and heard, what truth was proclaimed and why it was understood. We had our own little Pentecost moment just now, and I don’t know why our readers chose the passages they did to share this morning. Would any of you care to share that?

What strikes me as authentically “Pentecostal” in this is that the words that were shared this morning were all written down at least two thousand years ago. It would seem quite obvious that they were not written with any of us in mind, yet they have been received as particularly meaningful, important truths in our lives. That is a gift of the Spirit; and it is a gift sorely lacking these days.

It seems particularly absent in our public life, although certainly not exclusively there. Like most of you, I have been following this year’s presidential primary season with a mix of deep interest and mind-numbing exhaustion.

This quadrennial opportunity for the nation to step back, take stock and consider the immediate future has, in this historic year, provided an unprecedented opportunity for our daughters to prophesy and our young men to see visions and even our old men to dream dreams, what with Senators Clinton, Obama and McCain. It’s kind of a “Joel” election moment.

Not to be confused with a “Joel Osteen – our best nation now” election moment, but rather a moment that the prophet Joel might have recognized as full of potential.

Alas, we seem dead set on missing what might have been a Pentecost moment in this election year.

One need not be a partisan to recognize the opportunity presented to the nation in this election, and one need not be a partisan to recognize the distinct and ancient patterns by which we continue to miss the opportunity. I’m not talking about the victory or defeat of any particular candidate, but rather the jointly missed opportunity to talk about the continuing legacy of America’s original sin of racism, the continuing stain of patriarchy, and the deferred dreams of immigrants who still stream to our shores.

With a black candidate, a woman candidate and a border-state candidate who has historically avoided xenophobia, the moment seemed right either for a “bar joke,” or for Pentecost, for some deeply held truths to be spoken and understood. Instead, our fear-filled politics-as-usual undermines the moment and, sadly, seem to be giving rise to ancient and ugly bigotry that is spilling over in all kinds of unexpected ways. We’re not even getting good jokes!

For example, I was reading an on-line commentary on the police investigation of a football player, the Indianapolis Colts’ receiver Marvin Harrison. The writer was suggesting that perhaps Harrison had made an error in judgment in owning a particularly rare and deadly firearm. The comments to the article were filled with the kind of ugly racism – Harrison happens to be African-American – that one rarely encounters in public places any more. The number of references to Sen. Obama and Jeremiah Wright in the comments on a sports story that had made no reference to anything remotely related to politics just jumped out at me.

I find it incredibly sad that a moment in our history that could be Pentecostal and filled with the hope and promise of reaching across historic barriers to open new avenues of understanding, is becoming instead, just another chance to beat one another over the head with our differences.

Why think of our politics in such terms?

Well, let’s consider the Pentecost story. What happens when the Spirit descends upon the disciples? The story tells us that “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”

Now, as often happens in public readings of this text, we left out the next couple of verses in our reading this morning because they include some tongue-twisters. But these place names, so foreign to our ears, are important.

“Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power.’”

First of all, it’s clear that the author of Acts is deeply concerned with the politics of his moment, for the list of localities reads like a who’s who or where’s where of the Roman empire in the Holy Land. All of the significant players whose actions would determine the political fate of Israel are named. The story’s original audience could not have missed the implication: the first disciples were determined to speak the truth to power in all of its guises.

But here’s where the story gets interesting, and where our present moment so sadly misses the mark. The people were empowered to hear the truth, to hear the good news of the gospel, in their own language. The truth was not the private possession of a privileged few, but rather the gift of a generous spirit of compassion and love.

Sadly, in our particular moment, the public discourse is so degraded that no one is willing to give ear to the truth should anyone be brave enough to utter it in public. It’s gotten so that one might mistake this recent report in The Onion for something other than satire:

Dateline: NEW YORK—After Sen. Barack Obama's comments last week about what he typically eats for dinner were criticized by Sen. Hillary Clinton as being offensive to both herself and the American voters, the number of acceptable phrases presidential candidates can now say are officially down to four. "At the beginning of 2007 there were 38 things candidates could mention in public that wouldn't be considered damaging to their campaigns, but now they are mostly limited to 'Thank you all for coming,' and 'God bless America,'" ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos said on Sunday's episode of This Week. "There would still be five phrases available to the candidates if the Obama camp hadn't accused Clinton of saying 'Glad to be here' with a little tinge of sarcasm during a stump speech in North Carolina." As of press time, the two additional phrases still considered appropriate for candidates are the often-quoted "These pancakes are great," and "Death to the infidels."[1]

Imagine, instead, that it was possible to speak the truth that we have just heard proclaimed, for example, “hear, O Israel …” and the subsequent reminders to that people that they had been delivered from captivity in Egypt by the mighty hand of God, and that, as a people themselves once foreigners in a foreign land that they should deal justly and generously with foreigners in their midst. Would not such a word, spoken in our context, be perhaps, at the very least, be suggestive with respect to the burning question of immigration?

Imagine that it was possible to encourage people, for example, “to consider the lilies of the field,” instead of urging folks to shop at Fields or Macys or Target or Wall Mart. Imagine that we might participate in some deeper economy than the consumer economy by which we have come to measure our worth.

Imagine that it was possible to say, “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my strength,” instead of promising a “strong America,” by which we must understand an empire which remains, as Martin Luther King said 40 years ago, the largest purveyor of violence in the world.

Instead, our would-be leaders say, “these pancakes are great!” and then their spin-meisters try to convince the rest of us that their candidate prefers all-American pancakes while the opposition probably dines on Belgian waffles or, worse yet, those un-American French crepes.

The miracle of Pentecost was not that the disciples were suddenly endowed with the gift of tongues with which to speak in many languages, but rather that the people were suddenly endowed with the capacity to hear the truth in their own language. Pentecost, thus, is about listening. About being still, and being open to the Spirit that we might hear the truth.

It is a moment that invites us to let go of the false distinctions between public and private truth, between political and personal, and to listen for truth in whatever context we find ourselves – especially, as was the case at Pentecost, when it is being spoken from unexpected quarters.

No powerfully placed member of the imperial establishment in Jerusalem would have expected to hear truth from poor Galileans. But the Spirit opened some of their hearts to hear just as it inspired the disciples to speak.

The same possibility must exist for us, now, if we will but let go of our rigid grip on the way things are in order to hear a word from God about the way things might be. This word, this truth, will come only from outside of the gates of power, for the powerful have deeply vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Of course, if we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we are the powerful ones; we are the ones in need of transformation; we are the ones to whom the transformative good news comes first with the command, “repent.”

This is true whether we are talking about matters we think of as “political” or issues we think of as “personal.” This truth often requires of us that we listen with great care to those with whom we disagree.

One of the great pieces of wisdom I have learned over the years in community organizing circles is this: “opposition is information.”

Opposition is information. It does not mean that you are wrong, but it does mean you are not in possession of the whole truth.

In the church we miss this all the time over issues great and small. Opposition to simple changes of scenery or schedule mask much deeper fears of losing the past, of being forgotten, of dying. Opposition to larger changes – for example, ordination issues – often masks some of the same deep fears, and we do ourselves, our causes, our communities, and ourselves deep disservice when we continue to fight onward in the same old terms rather than listen for and tend to the deep personal fear and pain that are often at the root of opposition. Opposition is information, but we are too often so busy engaging the fight that we lose sight of the humanity of those who are opposing us – whether we’re talking about the sexual orientation of a candidate for ministry or the orientation of the pews in the sanctuary.

The miracle of Pentecost is that some folks were open to the gift of a generous Spirit offering them the opportunity to listen, to hear and to understand simple truth even when it was coming from the mouths of those who would have been perceived as opponents. May we open our hearts to receive that same gift today, and listen with generous spirits to those with whom we may disagree – whether our negotiations are with loved ones, with colleagues, with neighbors, or in the public square on the issues of the day. May the generous Spirit of Pentecost find a home in our hearts that we, too, might be generous with its love and justice.

[1] “Number Of Acceptable Things Candidates Can Say Now Down To Four,” The Onion, May 8, 2008, Issue 44•19

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