*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Pentecost Sunday, May 29, 2012.
It is a dangerous prayer that we pray on Pentecost: "Come, Holy Spirit, fill us with fire." The Pulitzer Prize winning writer Annie Dillard tries to awaken the church to the power that we call upon when she says:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so
blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word ofit? The churches are children playing on the floor with their
chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life
preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.
Perhaps we ought not to invoke the power of the heavens if we are not ready for our world to catch fire.
Pentecost is a powerful story that should be read in a hurricane cellar or in an asbestos suit. It is a story that will burn the borders of our minds and blow us out of our familiar surroundings into the wide open world. Pentecost invokes an image in my mind of a quiet gathering of Sunday worshippers sitting in their comfortable pews in silent meditation, waiting upon God. I can almost hear the worship leader glibly praying, "Almighty and Merciful God, we pray that in thy infinite wisdom that thou wouldst bestow upon thy humble servants the grace of thy presence, now and forevermore. Amen." Little Johnny's sleepy head is on mommy's lap. Elder Jones covers a yawn with his hand. Sister Wilma is counting the tiles on the sealing. When all of a sudden the place us hit by the sound of a freight train wind the size of a hurricane. Whoosh! Sister Wilma covers her head in fear of falling tile. Deacon Jones chokes on his yawn. And little Johnny is jumping up and down on the pew wishing he had his kite!
Then a wild Pentecostal meeting breaks out. Tongues of fire fall from the sky and start to dance on the heads of the congregation. That small group begins to sound like the halls of the United Nations. The people are babbling away in sounds that come strangely from their tongues and fall oddly upon their ears. People outside hear these simple country folk speaking in their own native languages: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Guatemalans, Chinese, and Oregonians! Some are dumbfounded. Others mock them saying that they've been drinking cheap wine too early in the morning. That's when Peter preaches a fiery sermon that results in three thousand baptisms! And a church is born, ready to go into the entire world and ignite it with the fire of the Spirit. A missionary church is thrust into the world of different cultures, languages, and nations, drawing all peoples into it. At Pentecost a new community with a new language is born, called the church.
But let's face the facts. We still live in a very pluralistic, divided world. We are not one people. Nations are divided not only by boundaries, but by cultures and languages. This fact is communicated poignantly in the story of the building of the tower of Babel. This story is situated between the table of nations and the genealogy of Shem. It tells of how at one time the whole earth was one society with one language. The peoples gathered, not for a prayer meeting to wait upon God, but to go to work and build a city and a tower of brick. During the 21st and 22nd centuries B.C.E. religious temples, like Inca pyramids called ziggurats, were being built. This was probably the type of tower that the people were going to erect in the land of Shinar, most likely a reference to Babylonia.
Their purpose was not to get a little closer to the God of the heavens. They desired to make a name for themselves, rather than seeking God, who gives people their name. The people were united for their own purposes, one of which was to stay in a tight cluster together and not be spread over the face of the earth. As we will see, this stands in sharp contrast to the missionary image of Pentecost.
It's not that God didn't like tall skyscrapers or metropolitan cities. God's reaction was against the motivation of the people; to be a people unto themselves apart from God. So, God does a linguistic magic trick. Abra cadabra. About then Pedro asks his friend George to pass him a brick. But what George hears is not "brick", but "ladrillo". George scratches his protective helmut. He hasn't the foggiest idea what Pedro is saying. All over the tower the same thing is happening. Gustav can't understand a word Pierre is saying, nor Fong what Adolpho says. Work had to be called off. They all went home. But they had to make new homes. They had to make their homes among those who spoke their own language. So, those who spoke Russian went to Russia. Those who spoke who spoke Tiawanese went to Taiwan. And those who spoke Oregonian went to Oregon! Because when they tried to talk to each other everybody (besides you and me who speak English, of course) sounded like babbling idiots. It was all a bunch of gibberish. They could have called the place Gibberish. But instead, they decided on "Babel". Otherwise I probably would be telling the story of the tower of Gibberish in the land of Gibber!
We live in the world that the story of Babel reflects. It is a pluralistic world. That's nothing new. It has been that way almost since Adam. But lately it seems as if our world is shrinking. The technology of travel, mass media, and the internet has placed other cultures and peoples in our neighborhoods and in our living rooms. Nowadays sociologists, politicians, theologians and missionaries are thinking and writing about the pluralistic world in which we live. Many people are asking how we are to relate to this shrinking world with such a diversity of people; people who eat fish with their eyes still in them; people who you can't understand a "world" your saying; people who bow down before gold statues or people who refuse to bow down to anyone.
Pluralism is a fact. In fact, we could extend our diversity to include even our regional differences or backgrounds, varieties of social or economic level, politics, sex, age, race, and even our personality differences. Sometimes we who live in the same country and speak the same language relate to each other as if we were from Babel. If what I'm saying sounds like gibberish, then try to get a liberal and a conservative together to talk politics or a teenager to talk with a parent about what's most important in life. Diversity and pluralism is not the problem. They've been with us since bricks were invented. The problem is that our differences divide us, as sure as borders divide nations.
Today we do not use bricks as much as to build common towers, but we use them to make walls that divide us or to throw at each other. Even with Perestroika and the toppling of the Berlin wall our divisions still run deep. Even with our presumptuous pledge of allegiance to “one nation under God,” our nation remains divided. Some see our differences as a curse. Even within this plot of land called America, some would still like all the diversity of cultures in our land to placed under the fires of a melting pot. Often we use our particular culture as a club, hoping to force all peoples within our borders to speak our tribe's language. Under this new tribalism our motto becomes "Our tribe, right or wrong" or "One tribe, under God". Citizens begin to worship at the altar of the nation-state. Patriotism becomes a fire that would burn all who stand in its way. Our nation is built up as some kind of tower that would reach the heavens and knock the God of all nations off the throne. Our age old manifesto becomes: We will make a name for ourselves in the world. And the killing begun with Cain grows into tribal conflicts and wars in Ireland, South Africa, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Divisiveness draws its chalk lines on the street just outside the low-rent districts, and even, God forbid, down the middle of diverse churches. And people are given a name, not by God, but one of our own tribe's making. People who are different from us become "them", as opposed to "us". And when we look in the mirror we see reflected the world of Babel.
But, thanks be to God, the Spirit has united us as one people. The wind has blown among the nations creating a new people, a new society, united in Jesus Christ. The story of Pentecost is a reversal of the story of Babel, as if we were watching a movie playing backwards or reading Babel from end to beginning. A new unity has come within the human family. The reason for our warring and divisiveness has lost its common ground. The Spirit has drawn together the dispersed from among the nations into a new community, a holy nation, a people of God's own making. People from different lands, languages, and lifestyles have been moved by the power of the Spirit to come together. The humanity broken apart at Babel is now reconstituted through a baptism of the Spirit into one people. As God's people, we share a common language, the language of God's story in Jesus Christ. This story shapes our common culture without our having to lose our own distinctive differences as diverse people. The language of Christ's life can be lived out just as faithfully among the tribes of Africa as among the city dwellers of America. And still, even with all our diversity, we, who were not a people, are now a people. We, who had no name, have a name, a common name not of our own making. Ours is a name given to us by God: the church.
Pentecost is a story of the birthday of the church. It reminds us of who we are together. It's like looking at an old photo album of a family birthday party. "Remember how Uncle Ned dropped his grudge with Dad as they hung the streamers together?” says Mom. Grandma didn't whine about Suzy being late, as she always seemed to be. Differences melted like ice cream in the sun. There was something there beneath the funny hats and the out-of-tune singing of "Happy Birthday". Something tied them all together. It was the realization that in spite of all their differences, they were still family. That birthday photo continued to remind them that they were who they were because they are family.
Pentecost reminds us that we are family. We have been united by the awesome power of the Spirit. We are a tower built by God with the mortar of Christ's love. All of us who call on the name of the Lord are in God's family photo album. Look. There's sister Cho, who I don't know from Eve. Still, she related. She's family. And that's brother David with his sign, standing in front of the Consulate. And that picture is of sister Wilma, sewing a blanket for the relief sale. She wouldn't be caught dead carrying a protest sign. And over there, that's brother Bob, he's new to the family. He's gung-ho about being a part of the family. In his zeal he sometimes says things that sound a little too harsh or judgmental. With our love and help he'll grow out of it. I hope. Remember when we gathered had the meal in downtown Canby with Frederico and his friends? There's a picture of him, his wife and their new baby. There is no last page to God's family album. It continues to be filled with new and different faces.
There is a saying in the Khosa language of South Africa which, when translated, says, "A person is a person because of other people". We are who we are because of other people. Together we are the church, with all our diverse faces, languages, and personal differences. Pentecost is a birthday photo which reminds that we are who we are because of other people. We are who we are because we are connected to a new family, a new people, a new society, a new nation made up of many peoples born of the one Spirit.
That same Spirit scatters us back into the world to unite all peoples in Christ. Our unity is not to make a name for ourselves, that is, to do our own will. Our unity is cemented together by the will of God. And that will is that all peoples of the earth should know and experience the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Jesus told his disciples to wait for the coming of the Spirit. The coming of the Spirit upon the church was an empowering for a purpose. The Spirit came upon the church in order that his followers might be witnesses of Christ in Hubbard, in Marion County, all over Oregon, and to the ends of the earth. The once-tongue-tied disciples turned the world upside down with their message of God's uniting love in Christ. And they so embodied that message as a distinctive community of people that the world turned its head and remarked, "See how they love one another." The fire of Pentecost continued to burn within them as people responded and they baptized them into their new community. The fire burned as they broke bread together at meals and in worship and prayed for one another and their world. The flame still crackled as they taught one another the doctrine of the Apostles, as they shared in fellowship, koinonia, gemiendshaft.
The church had no time to yawn. This was not business as usual. They worshipped in trembling anticipation, with crash helmets on. They were so moved with compassion for their impoverished brothers and sisters that they sold what they had and shared all their possessions in common. There was a singleness of heart. And people continued to be united in the church. O, for such a fire to fall upon the church today. Dare we pray: Come, Holy Spirit! It's such a dangerous prayer. For God's sake, what might happen among us at Zion, if God responded to that prayer? The mighty Spirit might blow us to who knows where! Our fiery God might just burn up our old, tired, dreary church routines and half-hearted commitments and set our hearts and minds ablaze!
Take heart. The winds of Pentecost are still blowing. The fire of Pentecost still burns. And God continues to speak in a language everyone can understand. That language is the church. We are the tongue with which God speaks. Through God's new people God speaks the word that draws all people together and unites them as one. God speaks in the vowels of our mercy and compassion for the poor, weak, and voiceless of our world. God's voice is in the consonants of gifts of ministry and service. God speaks in the sibilants of truth we voice in the midst of lies and deception. God speaks in the labials of our love for those who are unlovely and unloved. God speaks approval from heaven when we cement together the bricks of peace with justice. God breaths out in the simple telling of the story of Jesus in a Sunday School class, or to a friend in the kitchen over coffee. God speaks in a language that our divided, stuttering world so desperately needs to hear. That language is a church which welcomes with open arms all people in all their wild, worldly, and wonderful differences. God wants to shout a new way to all the people of the earth. God wants to whisper our secret to a divided world through that distinctive tongue called the church. Shall we let God speak?
To let God speak in God's own native tongue will mean being a people whose lives together speak of the power of God's uniting Spirit. It will mean embodying the good news of peace through Christ for all the world. It will mean speaking forth the wall-destroying message that has made us one in Christ Jesus. It will mean allowing God to blow us into those places where our gifts can become instruments of service as signs of God's coming kingdom. It will mean daring to boldly pray, in our time and in our place:
Come, Holy Spirit, fill us with fire!