A sermon preached on Facebook Live
Sirach 26:10: The Headstrong Daughter
The Feast of Pentecost - May 31, 2020
This sermon can only be described as Pentecostal. It began innocently enough in one place and then, without warning, the wind blew and I swear the earth shook and suddenly, I was in a place I didn’t intend to be but landed right where I should.
It began when a clergy colleague of mine asked an interesting question. If you could be present at any event in scripture – in the Hebrew Scripture or in any of the Gospels, or with the early church in the Book of Acts or with any of the writers of the Epistles – where would you be?
So many choices, right? How about a front-row seat to watch creation come together? Perhaps you prefer being in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born? Or, would you rather have been right by the side of Mary Magdalene when she peered into the empty tomb and spoke with the newly resurrected Jesus?
There are many, many other choices, of course. What are yours?
As I listen to Luke’s account of Pentecost in the Book of ACTS, I didn’t have to wish to have been there. I could see it and feel it and smell it.
“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
Luke goes on to say that there were people in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” and they were “amazed and astonished” because they were all speaking in their native tongue and yet everyone understood.
Some thought everyone had had too much wine, even though it was just nine o’clock in the morning. Others asked, “What does it mean?”
Some scholars see what happened at Pentecost as a reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis11:1-8) in the ancient city of Shinar, which came to be known as Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia, which is now located in present-day Iraq.
It was some 100 years after Noah landed the Ark after the Flood when, we are told, all the people spoke the same language. Noah’s descendants wanted to build a tower so they could “make a shem for themselves”.
“Shem” is Hebrew for ‘name’ but like many words in ancient languages, a “shem” does not just translate as “name”. Shem is not just a means of identification.
In antiquity, a person’s name was their identity. It’s what they stood for. So the Tower was to be a monument to themselves and their skill and their technology. It was an attempt to maintain their legacy and preserve their posterity for generations apart from God.
But, what really distressed God is that “the people were ‘echad’” – which is the Hebrew word for “one”. Yes, that’s right. God was distressed because the people were one. Now, why in heaven’s name would that be distressing to the God who makes such a big deal about being “one”?
Well, if you remember the context of the story, these were the descendants of Noah. If Noah had any one characteristic, it was that he understood his total obedience to and dependency upon God.
And now, here they were, several generations later, and the very people that God had saved from the Flood had lost the understanding of God being at the center of their lives.
Instead, they were building a Tower – a monument, a false idol – to their own name and their own skills and abilities to create something magnificent.
So, God confused their language so they would no longer be united as one people. God confused their language so the people would learn their dependence on God so that they might become united as one people – one nation – under God.
Well, at least, that’s how the ancients understood the reason that, while they had come from the same people who spoke the same language, so many different languages came into being.
The ancient understanding was that, in the Tower of Babel, “the human spirit” was the driving force behind the construction of the Tower. On the day of Pentecost, it was the Holy Spirit calling all people to be one, as God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one. (More on this next week – Trinity Sunday).
As I reflected on the images of these two stories, I came back to my friend’s question: At which story would I prefer to have a front-row seat: The Tower of Babel in ancient Mesopotamia after The Flood or the Upper Room in the City of Jerusalem, fifty days after The resurrection of Jesus?
It was just about the same time that a strange wind began to blow and I began reflecting on the images coming across the screen of my laptop and then my television.
At one point in one of the newscasts, there was a split-screen. On one side were the statistics and images of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and those who have died in the pandemic, in this country, and around the world.
On the other side of the screen were the images of the protests and demonstrations, followed by the riots and looting that were in response to the murder of George Floyd – and, truth be told, the culmination of years of anger and frustration about the violent deaths of Black people and the persistent rise of racism in this country.
I began to wonder if I had a front-row seat to a modern, confusing Tower of Babel with Anarchist groups and White Supremacist groups sewing seeds of destruction and chaos, hatred and division by night with those who, by day, wanted to raise their voices and their concerns in the same sort of peaceful protests that have been and are the mark of a well-functioning democracy.
As I considered the images on the other screen, I wondered if I was witnessing the Spirit of Pentecost, with the blazing winds of change roaring through every nation under heaven, creating a new reality in which we all have to work together and sacrifice for the common good; where words like COVID and virus, quarantine and mask and self-distancing are understood no matter what language is being spoken.
It was the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the ancient church in Corinth which have haunted me all week. In this weeks session of prayer with Anglican Prayer Beads, I used them as the mantra prayer of the seven “weekly” beads:
“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (I Cor 12:13)
It seems to me that we are involved in two simultaneous epidemics in this country – Racism and COVID-19.
One is an ancient disease, one is a brand new virus. Racism is a disease that is the result of the infection of racial superiority.
It grows stronger in the absence of awareness that we are all – each and every one of us, male and female, young and old, of every nation and creed and tongue – created in the image of God.
“And, we are all made to drink of one Spirit”.
When we forget that, we construct our own modern Towers of Babel, false idols to our own cleverness and skill, and thus sew the seeds of our own destruction.
We are also in the midst of a worldwide pandemic which has claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans and approximately – at least – 370, 000 people worldwide.
The Coronavirus has swept through every nation under heaven and has not only taken lives but it has changed our lives forever, exposing the holes and tears in the fabric of our common humanity, leaving the weak and those who are vulnerable, the poor and those who are oppressed, in even more perilous condition.
And, for those on whom the flames of the Spirit have lighted, this Pentecostal wind has inspired insight and awareness, leading them to acts of selflessness and courage, service and generosity, compassion and mercy, and taught us the common language of kindness and care.
Turns out, we don’t have to leave our homes to have a front-row seat to some of the scenes from the Bible. They are happening all over again, right before our very eyes. Santayana was right: Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.
Today is Pentecost, the day we remember and celebrate the gift of the resurrection of Jesus that he named The Holy Spirit.
Today is the day Jesus appeared to the disciples one last time in that Upper Room where they had gathered to share one last common meal with each other. Jesus said to them,
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
May the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples so many years ago be spoken into our hearts today, so that we, like the disciples, may know ourselves to be forgiven and free.
May we be inspired to follow the example of the first disciples and live boldly and hopefully into creating a new world, from every nation under heaven, because we were made to drink of one Spirit.
May we, too, be amazed and astonished by what we are able to achieve when we allow the power of the Spirit of God to work through the power of possibility in the human spirit.