Fabulous altar setup for Pentecost. Image by FatherRon2011.
Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org
You folks know how I’m pretty weird, right? For those of you who don’t know me yet: there’s probably not a normal bone in my body. I say this in order to prepare you for my opening story today, because it’s another weird one.
Way back during my sophomore year of college, I thought it would be pretty cool to wear a long black cloak around campus instead of a winter jacket. I was really into wizards, Jedi Knights, and other “science-fictiony” things like that. So, I decided to make a cloak. I went to the store and got some black felt, found a pattern on the internet, and set to work with the sewing help of my friend, Julie. When it was done, I wore it proudly around campus, to my classes, and even to church.
One day, I was approached by two young freshmen girls, both nervously holding Bibles in their trembling hands. “We saw your cloak,” they said, “and we thought you were a devil-worshiper. But then we saw your cross [around your neck] and now we don’t know what to think! What are you?”
I politely informed them that I was actually a Christian who was active in my church and a Christian student fellowship on campus. “Oh,” they said, “that’s nice.” And then they went on their way.
That’s the story about how I found myself becoming a victim of “spiritual profiling” when I was 19 years old. I call it “spiritual profiling” because these girls figured that a “good Christian” would only dress and look a certain way. Anyone else was obviously an agent of the devil (or so they thought).
People do all kinds of profiling these days. We tend to categorize and even judge people according to certain qualities that have nothing to do with the content of their character. Many people in our society are often made to feel less than worthy (and sometimes less than human) because of the color of their skin, their gender, the way they dress, the music they listen to, who they love, how they worship, where they’re from, or what language they speak.
During the past fifty years, people in our society, inspired by modern-day prophets like Martin Luther King, have begun attempts to overcome these superficial divisions, but we’ve still got a long way to go in this uphill battle against prejudice. In fact, there are those who might argue that we’ll never get to the top of that hill because we’re fighting against something that is endemic to human nature itself.
We can even see all kinds of prejudice and profiling taking place within the pages of the Bible itself. During the lifetime of Jesus, the Roman governors occupying the holy land looked down on the native Jewish inhabitants. Within Jewish society at that time, the pious Pharisees excluded and ostracized those “tax collectors and sinners” who, for whatever reason, couldn’t observe the commandments of the Torah. Going back even farther, to the legends of the very beginning of civilization in the book of Genesis, we read about the tower of Babel, where humanity was first divided into multiple language groups and scattered across the face of the Earth.
The differences between us are there. That much is obvious. The question for each of us to answer is: How will we relate to one another in the midst of these differences?
We already know how Jesus answered that question. His hands of compassion reached out across the dividing lines of his society to embrace the hurting and welcome the outcast. We his followers, in our better moments, have tried to follow suit. The book of Acts in the New Testament chronicles some of our ancestors’ early efforts in this regard.
One of the major themes of the book of Acts is the ever-widening circle of the community of faith. The book begins with Jesus leaving the earthly scene and promising his gathered followers that they would carry his message all the way “to the ends of the earth.” As the story progresses, more and more people come into the church from various pedigrees and backgrounds. The early Christians wrestle with the challenges posed by such sudden diversity, consistently conclude that God is guiding them to be an inclusive community that makes room for all people.
One of the most significant moments in this process comes near the beginning of the book, in the story of Pentecost, which we listened to in our New Testament reading this morning. “Pentecost”, a word that basically means “fifty”, is the name of a Jewish holiday that comes fifty days after Passover. It’s a spring harvest festival that celebrates the first ingathering of certain crops. This “first ingathering” is important because it relates to the new meaning that Pentecost takes on as a Christian holiday.
On the particular Pentecost that we read about in the book of Acts, it’s not crops but people that are gathered together. As Jewish pilgrims were making their way into the city of Jerusalem for the celebration, the story tells us that Jesus’ followers (still huddled together in hiding) suddenly experienced a “violent wind” blowing through the house where they were staying. They saw “tongues of fire” floating over their heads and, suddenly, everyone started spontaneously speaking in foreign languages.
This scenario is also similar, in many respects, to the story of the tower of Babel, which we also heard this morning in our Old Testament reading. In both stories, God’s people were huddled together in one place but were then “scattered” into the wide world by the divine gift of diverse languages.
In the book of Acts, Jesus’ disciples go out to bring Christ’s message to the world. By the end of that day, according to the text, three thousand people had joined their community. Their initial “scattering” became an “ingathering” or “harvest” of people.
My favorite detail of the Pentecost story has to do with the diverse languages. As the people are gathered together, they don’t lose their separate identities. Christ’s message comes to them in their own languages. The Christian church, from its earliest days, is meant to be a diverse and multi-cultural community. The people are gathered together in unity without uniformity. They’re all different. They’re meant to be. That’s how God likes it.
We humans have a hard time with that. We think that “birds of a feather should flock together.” So we identify our differences and then make value judgments about them, ranking people into a hierarchy of dignity. We don’t just do it with language either. As I said before, we do it according to race, gender, music, dress, religion, political affiliation, and sexual orientation. We identify some people as “us” and others as “them”. We pick sides. We want to be with people like us, but we have to be careful about that. God does not want us to rob ourselves of the opportunity to participate in the Pentecostal ingathering of people from many different languages and cultures.
The beauty of Pentecost is that, even though there were many languages being spoken that day, the message was inspired by the one Holy Spirit. In addition to the linguistic differences, those gathered pilgrims probably looked, dressed, ate, and smelled very different from one another. However, they found the presence of God in each other. The Spirit in my heart is the same as the Spirit in your heart. In spite of our differences, we are one.
This revelation forms the bedrock for the rest of the book of Acts and beyond. It continues to shape our lives today, if we’re open to it. When we stretch ourselves to nurture the ties of affection and understanding between ourselves and those who are different from us, we experience another little Pentecost. The moments when this happens are truly sacred moments infused with divine blessing.
We live in a world that remains bitterly divided by the differences between people. We too often fail to honor one another as fully human and, in so doing, fail to recognize the presence of God in our own lives. We demand uniformity when God desires unity.
I heard some news this week that drove this point home for me in a profound way. Many of you will probably remember Josh, a high school student who attended this church about a year and a half ago. He sang in our choir and played with our kids.
Josh came to Boonville during his senior year of high school through the foster care system. This alone would have set him apart from his classmates, many of whom had known each other since kindergarten. But that wasn’t the only thing that set him apart. He was also one of the only African American students at Adirondack High. Finally, Josh is also openly gay.
It’s a wonderful testimony to us as a church that we went out of our way to welcome him into our midst for the short time that he was here. Our mission statement says that we are a church that is “open to all and reaching out to the world in love.” I think we put those words into action in the way we loved Josh. That’s a precious thing in this world where people who are different often get ostracized and cast aside by the majority.
Last week in Syracuse, Josh, this same young man who we came to know and love, was beaten in the street. I found out about it when I saw a picture of him in an Emergency Room, wearing a neck-brace. This wasn’t gang or drug related, nor was it an act of random violence. Josh was targeted for this assault because he is gay. A group of guys started verbally harassing him and his boyfriend as they walked down the street together. Josh stood up for himself and they beat him so badly that he landed in a hospital. Afterward, he said, “I’m sick of people making fun of me and the person I’m with.”
I’m thankful to be able to tell you that Josh is now out of the hospital and on the mend. His foster mother and I have been in touch with him. He even gave me permission to share this story with you this morning. It looks like he’s going to be okay. Thanks be to God.
I tell you this because I want you to know how high the stakes are. We hear a lot about respecting diversity in this politically correct culture, but I don’t give a rip about political correctness. I give a rip about Josh. The consequences of exclusion have a real effect on us and the people we know and love. People like the one who sat right over there and sang in our choir last year. This stuff is for real, folks.
If we really want to be a dynamic, growing, and Spirit-filled church, then we need to let stories like this one blow through our lives like a violent wind. We need to let our love for those involved burn like tongues of fire in our hearts. It’s not enough for us to gather together each week and know within ourselves that we’re nice people and a welcoming church. We need to throw open these doors and pour out into the streets like they did on that first Pentecost. We need to shout our welcome out loud in terms that everyone in this community can hear and understand. We need to get so fired up about it that they call us drunk or crazy, just like they did to the Christians on Pentecost. We can’t afford to keep quiet or polite about it. The future of this church and the safety of those we love depends on it.
Deeper than the many things that divide us, there is one Spirit that unites us. May we be filled and empowered by that Spirit to love like Jesus did and bring his message to the ends of the earth.