|Minister's Sermon - Sunday 9th June 10.30am|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church|
Sunday 9th June 2019 10.30am
Reading 1: Genesis 11.1-9
Reading 2: Acts 2.1-13
Pentecost conjures up all sorts of ideas and images. The images that accompanied our prayers at the beginning of the service. The sounds of the video. Ideas of life, newness, the birthday of the church. The Spirit empowering the disciples to witness to God’s great deeds. Peter emboldened to preach to a bewildered crowd of sceptics. Three thousand converts in one day. But the word simply means, “fiftieth,” and it’s the Greek word for the Jewish festival of Weeks. Weeks, was a celebration of the end of the spring harvest, when Jews praised God for God’s grace and bounty. And among some Jews, it was also a time for renewing the covenant, between them and God. One of my commentaries calls it, “a pregnant moment in the life of the people of God… Or to put the matter more graphically, but more accurately, Pentecost is the moment when gestation ceases and birthing occurs…” (1) There are as many different ways of reflecting on what Pentecost means for us now, as there are churches, and what I said at the 9am service was very different from what I’m going to say now. Some of that diversity is reflected in the pictures I’ll show you as we go along. Pictures I hope will help make sense of the three themes I want to explore. Diversity. Speaking across boundaries. And surrender.
Before I say more ‘though, I want to say something about the language I’ll use about the Holy Spirit. Some of you have noticed that I don’t talk about God as “he.” That’s because in Genesis, when we read that God created humankind in God’s image, it says we were created, male and female. And even ‘though ‘though Jesus talked to God as “Abba,” or Father, the bible has many words for God. Some are gendered. Some not. But I will almost always call the Holy Spirit “she.” That’s because, in Hebrew the word for spirit is feminine, and in Greek it is neutral or feminine. So, when the word for spirit is translated into English as “he,” it’s almost always is an inaccurate translation!
Here are some pictures of the day of Pentecost. This picture is by a Thai artist, who grew up in the Buddhist tradition, and became a Christian in his teens. He’s painted Pentecost using traditional Thai symbolism to help his people understand the story in their own cultural language. I said that my first theme is diversity. But I wonder if you have the same reaction, as I did, when I first saw this? I couldn’t see the diversity. All I could see were women and men and a child and that’s quite normal! What we don’t see - because we can’t read the cultural signals - is that the artist had painted people from different classes. For a Thai person their clothes would give them away. This is not a normal gathering because there are rich and poor people sharing the same family space. So, he’s illustrated something counter-cultural, in order to teach his people an important lesson about the day of Pentecost.
Some Christians speak of Pentecost as the reversal of Babel. They say that the peoples God scattered and divided by language and culture, became one as the God spoke to them in one language - the one language of the Spirit. But Pentecost didn’t reverse Babel. It perfected and blessed it. When the Holy Spirit came, she didn't restore humanity to a common language, she declared all languages equally worthy of carrying God’s stories. The miracle was not the replacement of many languages by the one. But of the gospel being “translated” so that people from every nation under heaven could understand it. The Spirit wove diversity and inclusiveness into the very fabric of the Church, calling the people of God to be both, the One and the Many. (2) And to my mind, this isn’t a rejection of difference, but an affirmation of all differences! The group who waited for the coming of the Spirit weren’t as diverse as God wanted them to be. So, added to their number were people from every nation under heaven. And as the message spread, the first disciples were joined, by people from many races, religions and philosophies. Luke makes it clear that the church isn’t simply a diverse community because there are people from all over the known world. Diversity is central to its very nature. One church historian says, that in these early years “the one-made-out-of-many was visibly demonstrated as irreconcilables were reconciled. This was not simply a historic episode, but… one to be repeated… again and again… as people separated by language, history and culture recognize each other in Christ.” (3)
I’m not sure that those of us who are only fluent in one language, really grasp just how radical, this is. When I was at WLM, when we had circuit services they were in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. Not just because there were some people who only spoke one of them, but because this allowed everyone to sing or pray, in their mother tongue. For even ‘though prayers, sermons and hymns were translated, it didn’t mean they were fully understood. Language is more than words, grammar and syntax. Debie Thomas reminds us that it carries “the full weight of… our cultures, histories, psychologies, and spiritualities. To speak one language as opposed to another is to orient oneself differently in the world — to see differently, hear differently, process and punctuate reality differently.” (4) If this is the case, what was God doing when the Holy Spirit empowered the first Christians to speak so that “every nation under heaven,” could understand? As I see it, right from the beginning, God wanted the people being drawn into God’s life, to embrace difference, of race, gender, age, and personality. We are “from every nation under heaven.” Among us are a wide variety of gifts, views and perspectives. This has nothing to do with multiculturalism, with being progressive or fashionable, or because it’s politically correct. We’ve been given to each other in all our diversity, and we’re being woven together, so that our shared life might witness to the fact that people who are different can live in unity and share together in God’s mission of reconciliation. And this is so, because the story of God’s life and work, demands a whole diversity of telling. In other words, there is no single language on earth – not even the Queen’s English - that can capture, God’s work!
Here are some more pictures of Pentecost. I haven’t been able to find out who this one is by, but it’s clear that it’s a picture of people from different nations, cultures and traditions. All receiving the Spirit. This is very different from “the people of the whole world” we heard about in our reading from the Book of Genesis.
People who “had only one language,” came from all over the known world, and “settled on a plain in Babylonia.” They decided to build a tower and make a name for themselves so they’d “not be scattered all over the earth.” But when God sees what they’re doing, God decides to confuse their language, and scatter them. This seems odd. You’d have thought God would want them to be able to communicate with each other! But what’s going on here, isn’t about a creative unity, but a destructive one. The community gathered on the plain in Babylonia, wanted to be a cohesive group with the same language, isolating themselves from those, who spoke different languages. They feared being scattered among people who were different. And they built a tower to assert their authority and separate themselves. Traditional readings of this passage say God scattered and divided them to punish them for challenging God. But the Old Testament theologian, Walter Brueggemann, suggests it’s as much to do with the relationship with other people as with God. They haven’t understood God’s vision for humanity and creation. The unity they create, is a unity rooted in everyone being the same, and in being separate from those who are different. Brueggemann says, “the purpose of God is neither self-securing homogeneity… nor a scattering of autonomous - independent groups - as though the elements of humanity did not belong to each other.” (5) So, God scatters them, and confuses their languages until they could value their diversity.
The recent elections have shown just how divided Britain is. We’re now as divided as we were in 2016, when 52% of us voted for Brexit, and 48% voted to remain in the EU. ‘Though it may well be the other way round now! And political commentators see the leave / remain divide as a fault-line within families and between communities all over this country. And those divisions are reflected within the church – within this church - as well. It’s also clear that there are differences within each group. Not everyone voted leave because they’re anti-immigration. Nor was everyone who voted remain rich and from London. So, for me, the most important criteria for who becomes our new PM shouldn’t be who will take us out of the EU, but who has the capacity to bring the country back together to address the issues being ignored – like climate change, the impact of austerity on health care, education, care for vulnerable people and so on. What I see, are two separated and divided groups, each speaking a different language, shouting at each other from our own towers, refusing to believe that there’s anything good about the other. This situation cannot continue among Christians, if we’re to be faithful to God’s purpose of unity, so we need to learn the language of those who voted differently. And by language I also include what lies behind their decision, as well as their vision for the future. Learning another’s language, and crossing barriers of culture, politics, race, gender, age, religion or worship preferences, isn’t easy. I know from my attempts to learn Welsh and from visiting churches in other countries, that if we want to listen, to learn, to really understand, we have to make ourselves vulnerable. It can be disorientating and confusing. And yet when we take the risk, I’ve always found other people to be generous, and welcoming. This is what the Holy Spirit required of Jesus’ frightened disciples at Pentecost. They were to stop huddling in a room, in their sameness, and their safety. They were to open their windows and doors. Go out onto the streets. And speak to the crowds. The surprising thing was that the crowd wasn’t confused by the disciples speaking foreign languages. They were confused that they understood what they were saying in their own languages. And that, in Debie Thomas’ words, “God would condescend to speak to them in their own mother-tongues. That God would welcome them so intimately, with words and expressions hearkening back to their birthplaces, their childhoods, their beloved cities, countries, and cultures of origin. As if to say, ‘This new Body of Christ, is yours. You don’t have to feel like outsiders… we speak your language, too. Come in. Come in and feel at home.’” (4)
Here are some more pictures of Pentecost. This one is called the pure flame of Pentecost. It’s by Angela Ashford. And she’s painted someone being baptised with the Holy Spirit. She says, “the flame is a pure flame. Natural pure flames are always blue & purple. Blue represents God’s presence, purple God’s Royalty, and white is for purity. The gold leaf represents purification of the soul as gold or silver is refined in a fire. His posture represents his total surrender to God.” (6) I want to pick up the word “surrender,” because it’s something I’d not noticed about the story of Pentecost, before I read Debie Thomas’ lectionary essay.
She says that “the Pentecost story required surrender on both sides.” (3) The disciples – who speak foreign languages - had to move beyond their comfort zones. “They had to risk vulnerability in the face of difference, with no guarantee of welcome…They had “to trust that no matter how awkward, inadequate, or silly they felt, the words bubbling up inside of them - new words, strange words, scary words - were nevertheless essential words - for this time and place.” So that was the disciples. The crowds also had to take risks well. “They had to suspend disbelief, drop their … defences, and opt for wonder instead of contempt. They had to widen their circles, and welcome strangers with odd accents into their midst.” (4) They listened, they opened themselves to the disciples’ preaching, and found their lives turned upside down as God breathed fresh life into them. Not all of them were open. Some couldn’t cope with being confused. Couldn't bear being bewildered. And they weren’t willing to risk having their neat categories of belonging and exclusion challenged or over-turned. “Instead… they retreated into the well-worn narrative of denial. ‘Nothing new is happening here. This isn't God. These are idiots who've had too much to drink.’” (4)
When we speak each other’s languages, when we try to understand each other’s perspectives, whether they’re cultural, political, racial or so on, “we experience the limits of our own perspectives… We discover that God’s ‘great deeds’ are far too nuanced for a single tongue…” (4) So, if the church is to tell the many and varied stories of God’s work. If we’re to understand the people we live and work amongst. If the life of the world, the life of the church, if our own lives are to change so that God’s purposes of unity, justice and reconciliation are to be fulfilled, we have to learn that we have to be willing to surrender some of the things we hold dear. That’s not easy. We live in a time when people insist that their principles, traditions, and ideas are right, and others are wrong. We use Twitter, Facebook and other social media, in ways we’d never talk to people face to face. And it’s increasingly easy to express homophobic and misogynist ideas under the guise of religious conviction. And this toxic language – largely from adults - is the context in which children and young people are growing up. It makes me wonder if the Spirit is inviting the people of God - called to be united in our diversity – to engage across barriers. To learn how to speak each other’s languages. To take the risk of being disorientated by the differences we are faced with. To listen to God in the words, the lives, the experience of the other. And to let go – to surrender - our need to be right. To have the last word. To always have our own way.
Pentecost is a moment of birthing. So, what is going to be born in you, today? Or how are you going to be reborn? And what about us – as Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit loosened the disciples’ tongues, and they were compelled to engage with difference. Not to create a united, uniform church, but a church that accept and wrestle with their diversity, in order to show how God wants all humanity and creation to live. “From Day One,” Debie Thomas says, “the call was to press in, linger, listen, and listen some more.” (4) And that call to listen, to listen to God, to listen to each other is central. Because when we listen, even if we disagree passionately with each other’s opinions, ideas or beliefs, the experiences we have spoken and listened to are not up for negotiation. Your experience is yours. Mine is mine. Yet, if we’ve heard each other speak our stories in our own words and we’ve been open to each other, something should have changed. I cannot persist in insisting on my own way if I know it hurts you. And nor can you. And because we can no longer flourish at each other’s expense, we have to try and find a different way. And when we do we can be one and many. We can cross boundaries and learn new languages. And we can surrender. For the Holy Spirit will empower us. As she breathes new life into us. For the healing of the world. Amen.
Sue Keegan von Allmen
June 9th 2019
(1) Texts for preaching Year C, Cousar, Gaventa, McCann and Newsome, 1994, p342
(2) Adapted from Debie Thomas https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay
(3) Andrew Walls, 1996 p25
(5) Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 1982, p99