When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 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.
Now 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? 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.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’
If you’ve been listening,
you have probably heard something like the wind
that has swept through—is sweeping through
many of our cities—many of our communities—
filling, in truth, the entire country,
as a story has been divided among us,
like distinct flames of one fire—
a story we thought we knew, now heard in another language.
Over and over again now, if you’ve been listening,
in the news ever-unfolding, in documentaries,
in conversations at church and in the public square, in books,
in our own relationships with friends, colleagues, and family,
we’ve heard, over and over again, the story of our country,
but not in a tongue many of us recognize.
Not a story of opportunity, but oppression.
Not of freedom, but incarceration.
Not of fairness, but injustice.
Not of bravery, but fear.
Not of achieving on merit, but exploitation.
Not of respect, but prejudice.
Not of a life open to what you make of it,
but a life within the constraints of a fixed system—
rigged to benefit a few.
If you’ve been listening ….
We did not celebrate Pentecost this year.
I think we were in the midst of 1 Peter at the time.
But it occurred to me planning this worship series
on the work of racial and social justice,
that the Acts Pentecost text might just fit.
Not only because of all the different languages,
but also because of all the people
from all the nations under heaven, we read,
and that word we translate “nations”
comes from the same Greek root
from which we get our words “ethnic” and “ethnicity.”
Our text begins, literally, when the day of Pentecost was fulfilled—
not when it had come—when it was fulfilled
(John B. Polhill, Acts in The New American Commentary
[Nashville: Broadman, 1992] 96).
You probably know this, many of you—I’m reminding you,
Pentecost was a Jewish celebration before it was a Christian one.
It’s the Greek name, literally, “the fiftieth day,”
“for a day-long harvest festival more commonly known as the ‘Feast of Weeks’ …
fifty days after Passover. Pentecost was one of three pilgrimage feasts
when the entire household of Israel gathered in Jerusalem”
(Robert, W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles
in The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon, 2002] 53).
Originally, the Feast of Weeks, was celebration of the spring harvest.
Faithful Jews, caring for their crops,
would tie a reed around the first fruit of each species to ripen.
at harvest time, those identified fruits would be picked
placed in baskets and processed to Jerusalem
handed to priests to be presented before the altar.
So celebrating Pentecost involved anticipation,
but also the work toward that which was anticipated.
In the faith story told, we move from Passover’s celebration
of the children of Israel being led out of the Egypt—out of bondage
to, 50 days later, Pentecost’s celebration
of God giving the children of Israel the Torah at Sinai—
in the movement from freedom to covenant—
from the escape of oppression to a mutuality of relationship and expectation.
No one’s real sure how long Pentecost’s connection to Sinai has been around—
whether it goes all the way back to the earliest harvest celebrations,
but it’s interesting, don’t you think?
In terms of agriculture, Pentecost was cyclically experienced,
and so remembered,
and in terms of faith story, cyclically remembered—and so, re-experienced.
If you’ve been listening to what sounds like the wind,
to what divides our story as a nation,
you’ve heard questions about the poisonous fruit harvested from our history—
about how much of our economy (even today)—
how much of even today’s wealth
goes back to the forced labor—
the inhumane exploitation of predominantly African people.
If you’ve been listening, you’ve heard questions
about the principle we claim of freedom—
fundamental questions like freedom for whom—and freedom from what?
On the day Pentecost was fulfilled, what was fulfilled?
Covenantal relationship? Mutuality of expectation?
Trust in the sufficiency of God’s provision and grateful response?
Awareness of and freedom from all forms of bondage and oppression?
It’s like looking at a fire which is always to see—
to be captivated by ever new flickering divided tongues of flame.
They were all together, we read, in one place.
And we’re not sure if we’re talking about the 12 apostles
or the 120 believers—both referenced in Acts, chapter one (Acts 1:15).
Nor do we know if we’re talking about that upper room
also mentioned in Acts, chapter one (Acts 1:13).
Almost as if the story is bigger than who or where.
And from heaven there came something like the sound of the wind.
And the sound of something like the wind, we read,
filled the house where they were sitting.
And they were themselves filled with the Spirit.
And there was something like fire—
like there was something like the sound of wind—
as if our language can but approximate,
but it approximates “various OT theophanies where God comes down
and there is fire on the mountain and Moses or someone
is given a word to speak for the Lord
(Exod. 19:18; 2 Sam. 22:16; Ezek. 13:13)” (Witherington, 132).
And they were, all of a sudden, speaking different languages.
May I read to you an account of Sinai?
The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo,
writing well before the time of Luke,
had this to say about the giving of the Law:
“Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven
there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice,
for the flame became the articulate speech
in the language familiar to the audience’ ” (Witherington, 131).
So important to remember always,
however you understand inspiration,
that Scripture comes out of a wider context.
And they (whoever all they were)
poured out of their house (wherever it was)
overflowing with the story of God.
And a puzzled crowd grew at the sound—
and notice—notice, it’s not the sound of the wind from heaven
that draws and puzzles the crowd.
It’s the sound of a story told by people.
the crowd gathered not in response to God,
but in response to people who responded to God.
Now the crowd consists, we’re told,
of the people from all the nations under heaven
who nonetheless lived in Jerusalem.
Our text is clear. these are not people from other lands
in town for the festival, but people those from all those lands,
who had moved to or retired to Jerusalem.
Sometimes you move away from where you’re from
to be where you want to go.
So we might note, amidst difference,
there is commonality, right?
The people of all nations are here united in their heritage—
their ethnic or their faith heritage—
(those are different, by the way—
born a Jew, Jew by choice)—either way,
they are all gathered together as Jews in Jerusalem
to celebrate Pentecost.
They are all at home in Jerusalem.
If you’ve been listening, you, like I,
have heard in the news—in justifications of hate—in pulpits—
the story of our faith heritage—our faith home,
but not in a tongue I recognize.
Distorted and used to justify abomination:
greed, prejudice, the idolatry of the self-made man,
If you’ve been listening ….
Back then, among these in Jerusalem,
in the land of their faith story—
in the land of the language they learned as part of their heritage,
they heard the language of the streets they grew up on.
How is it that these ignorant Galileans, they wondered,
are speaking the languages of the nations?
That’s kind of a prejudiced thing to say.
You’d picked up on that, right?
If you’ve been listening.
They’re not puzzling about what they heard.
What they heard was familiar.
They couldn’t figure out how it was they were hearing it from these Galileans!
So now I’d also like to invite you to consider this story
from the perspective precisely of those Galileans—
presumably some of whom—maybe most of whom—
had spent years with Jesus.
I invite you to consider the implications of not just a story
being told in another language,
but your story being told in a language not yours.
What happens when your story is told in another language?—
one you don’t understand?
What happens when you have to trust someone else
with the telling of your story—
when their experience—their perspective is different?
If you’re listening, it’s hard.
Because what you’ll hear is the clear assertion:
you don’t get to tell the story in just your language.
And you have to pay attention to how you react when you read
theologian Ben Sanders III’s chapter, “How Did ‘We’ Get ‘Here’?”
in our Trouble the Water book,
in which he writes of our white supremacist country
and our white supremacist society
(Ben Sanders, III, How Did “We” Get “Here”?
in Michael-Ray Mathews, Marie Clare Onwubuariri, Cody J. Sanders, eds.,
Trouble the Water [Macon: Nurturing Faith, Inc., 2017] 11-18)—
which got my hackles up.
Maybe it gets yours up too.
Take a minute though to consider—
to sit with it—think about it.
We proudly name of the high ideals—the lofty principles
of our founding documents—the Declaration of Independence
and the Constitution: “We the people” … “We hold these truths
to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ….”
Of course, there was never anything inclusive
about that use of the word “men,” was there?
It always meant men.
Women were not included.
And the Constitution itself (Article One Section Three to be specific)
counted slaves as three fifths of a person.
We, the white men, hold these truths to be self-evident—
that all white men are created equal.
That 3/5 percentage was not repealed until 1868.
Native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924.
The Indian Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1968.
If we stick to what was meant (in our founding documents),
it doesn’t mean what we need it to,
but if it means what we want it to,
we haven’t lived up to it,
and there is a clear trajectory from the best of who we could be
to the worst of who we are.
I can put that another way:
we can react to the worst we fear,
or we can work for the best we can dream,
and there’s no getting around that there’s an element of choice to this—
do you choose fear, or do you choose hope?
Fear doesn’t require much of you; hope is work.
Now, do we reject the ideology of white supremacy?
The hopes and agenda of white supremacists?
The benefits of racism?
Well, not when you put it that way?
The benefits of a system that is set up with most of us as beneficiaries?
Do we reject the systems?
We reject individual acts of prejudice.
What? Overt acts? Violence? Of course.
What about racist jokes? Racist assumptions?
Do we stand up against those? Speak out against those?
Because if you’re listening, they’re all around us.
I hope we do—reject all that.
But because we don’t say such things—make such jokes,
do we get to reject the idea that we’re racist?
I’ve been challenged not only by the idea that ours is a racist society
(because it is not set up to benefit all—and there’s no question about that),
but also by the idea that no minority group
can be identified as racist in our culture at large—
prejudiced, yes, but not racist—
because racism, I’m learning, is prejudice plus power.
So do we acknowledge our complicity not in individual acts,
but in the system that benefits us and betrays others?
We’ve been confessing it in unison for the past six weeks.
Do we mean it?
As along as we’re facing challenges,
I challenge us to absolutely reject generalities phrased as absolutes.
As Michael Eric Dyson puts it in his book
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,
a brutally beautiful book,
“criticizing police brutality is said to be hating law enforcement.
Sitting during the national anthem is said to be hating America.
This sophomoric approach will remain a roadblock
to genuine racial engagement
until it is replaced by a deeper, more humane,
more sophisticated understanding of the issue of race”
(Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
[New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017] 120).
Oh, if you’ve been listening, even if you’re not into football,
you’ve probably heard a lot of criticism of Colin Kapernaek.
I don’t follow football enough to be able to evaluate his skill as a player.
But the reaction to his kneeling during the singing of our anthem
is a disgrace to our own ideals.
Uncritical worship of—or even respect for—our flag or our national anthem
is nothing but hypocrisy in a culture that does not live up to—
does not commit to live up to—
the best of what they both represent—
or what we like to think they mean until we actually have to live up to it.
There are people who put their lives on the line for what we compromise.
Who is showing disrespect?
Not the one pointing this out.
Remember in our Acts text how they were all Jews in Jerusalem?
It’s easy enough, in theory,
to go back far enough to find a commonality—
the Jewish faith heritage, in the case of our text.
Or, maybe you’ve seen the meme online:
there’s only one race—the human race?
The problem is not finding a commonality,
it’s all the differences that divide us within that commonality.
And we are invested in a binding commonality—
because we think that’s the way to deal with difference.
And I don’t mean to totally discount that.
I remember as a youth visiting a French speaking worship in Paris,
and thinking, “I’m not going to understand a word.”
But then I remembered I knew the French word for God, Dieu,
and the French pronunciation of Jesus, Jesu,
and you’d be surprised how often Dieu and Jesu showed up!
I don’t mean to discount the power of commonality,
but that’s not what we get in our story.
I mean, maybe it seems like we do—
everyone hearing in their own language the stories of God’s deeds of power.
Many languages, but one story, right?
But give our sacred texts some credit.
Give them their depth.
Allow them their nuance.
The story, we read, was told in different languages.
We’ve noted it enough—just in translations from Hebrew to English—
Greek to English, how often a translation is misleading—
how often a translation is flat out wrong.
And sometimes, admittedly, it’s bias.
It’s imposing a certain way of understanding the text on the text.
But sometimes it’s just because it’s a translation.
One of my favorite writers is the German author, Rainer Maria Rilke,
and there are some wonderful translations of his work into English,
but many of the English poems are essentially different poems.
The translators tried to retain some essential image or idea,
but it’s not the same—the rhythm and sound of the words can’t be the same,
and the meaning can’t always either.
It’s a familiar text, our Acts 2 passage—a familiar story—
often construed as the birth of the church—
when the church was defined and unified.
But what if, instead of celebrating something cohesive and defined,
we celebrated the risk of setting—
the trust in setting—something free?
If you’ve been listening to the story of our country,
you’ve heard the weeping—
children weeping for their parents—
parents weeping for their children—
grandparents, friends, neighbors.
If you haven’t, you’re not listening,
you’ve probably heard the disgust, which is disturbing—
the rage, which is scary.
But the point is not to deny it or explain it away,
rather to acknowledge the reasons for it—
and our complicity in those reasons—unintentional maybe, but still.
It doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not we’re good people,
it has to do with the systems in which we live.
In our various spheres of influence, we must stop
invalidating the stories of others
because they don’t tell the story we do.
And we must stop being so damned afraid
(Fear damns. I’m using that theologically!).
Like Scripture, our country gifted us
with a dream to which we have never caught up—
a dream we have never lived into in its fullness.
And those who, long ago, sought words to put to these dreams
conveyed so much more than they knew—
so much more even than they meant.
The dreams of our faith and our country
left us with room to grow—
room to grow into the work of that which we anticipate—
room to grow beyond everything for which we’ve settled—
beyond every compromise that cheapened the possibility of the dream—
that took of its depths and made something shallow—
that tasted its complex richness and chose cheap and easy.
In the winds of change
sweeping through life and culture—
in the fires of discontent and conflict—
in the confessions and in the arguments—
in repentance and defiance—
in the movement from all forms of bondage
to ever greater mutuality and freedom and covenant,
the Spirit of God speaks—
“You are each one of you my child.
In all your beautiful distinctions.
Do you not see,
created in my image,
blessed and loved,
and entrusted to each other,
to deny that is to deny me?
If you’re listening ….”