Monday, May 24, 2010

Pentecost: What a Day!

Scripture for the Day of Pentecost includes Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, 25-27

What’s there not to like about the Day of Pentecost? Streamers and mobiles help us imagine the free flight and sheer grace of the Spirit of God. Music for the festival brings us favorites, old and new. All this red holds our minds and hearts and feet to the fire of the love that binds us to each other, and to God.

All this, and baptism! This 50th day of Eastertide became one of the Church’s chief days for baptism, giving it the nickname Whitsunday, White Sunday, white for baptism.

And our candidate for baptism today is named Sophie. How wonderful is that? From Sophia, wisdom, Sophie’s name reminds us that in both our Jewish and our Christian legacies, special place is given to celebrating God’s Spirit as the spirit of wisdom—and, in places, scripture speaks of this divine attribute and gift in feminine form, speaks of her as a woman.

That strikes a nice balance when the scriptures heard today tell us what happened to those eleven men who were companions in ministry with Jesus, and when our Gospel is interested in how the Holy Spirit relates to God the Father. Sophie’s name will remind us to tell the story of this day so as to include all the women on whose heads the flames of spirit danced, whose hearts became dwelling places of the divine Spirit, and were freed to tell and show God’s deeds of power and astonishing love. Sophie’s name will spark us to learn how to speak of the motherhood of God.

Which is itself an exercise that may test the patience of the saints. I slip in the word Mother in our opening verses this morning, but do it with no authority except my own persuasion (and impatience) that if we don’t take little public steps with our language of faith, we’ll lose our ability to hear the Advocate whom God sends to teach us what we don’t yet know, and to empower us for those “greater works” that Jesus promises his people will do.

I’ll bet that some of you wish I wouldn’t tinker with language that the Prayer Book gives us to say in a certain way. And others of you are more impatient for progress than I am, and wonder why it’s in only one or two dressy places that we get to add language expressing feminine aspects of God.

So isn’t it intriguing that our first reading gives us the story of the tower of Babel, where it is said that God confused (we could say diversified) the language of mortals? This story is timely also because this month the organization that governs Internet domain names began allowing addresses without any characters from the Latin alphabet. Countries using Cyrillic and Arabic characters have been the first to change; more will follow. Will this make the Worldwide Web wider—or will it lead to isolation?

How timely, and how ancient is our first story. The Book of Genesis is like a tapestry woven of stories that explain how things came to be—in this case, how there came to be so many languages on earth. And in this story there’s a bias at work: that human beings cannot be trusted with power. It will corrupt them.

That’s a belief in sharp contrast with the premise of Pentecost, that on this day God fulfills Jesus’s promise, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words,” opens our first story today. And earth’s inhabitants say to one another, more or less, “Come, let us use our one language to build technology.” Well, bricks—but catch the point that this was primitive technology, and advanced the building of cities and towers. With that one language, the best way to make bricks can be passed on. We can become contractors and architects and designers. With more perfect bricks and more experience building, we can erect taller and taller towers. We can open branch offices in Dubai, Shanghai, Chicago, and New York. We can make a name for ourselves. There’s no stopping us!

“This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them…” agrees God. (Notice how, in this story, people are t not talking to God, and God is not talking to people.) They may be one people, one genus, but the seeds of division are sown in those few words, “let us make a name for ourselves…”

And so is born the advertising business. What is that name? Superior… Best…First…Only…One and True… Words in this one language are on their way to being used to isolate, compete, and promote self-preservation.

To derail this train, God resolves to confuse their language, so that mortals may not understand one another. “Come, let us go down and do this!”

Wait: “let us go down?” Is there a touch of confusion in heaven? Is there not one God? Are we dealing with such ancient literature that we hear an echo of belief in gods (plural)? Not quite, say Bible scholars, but this story comes from a layer so old, so primitive, that in those days it was believed that God had a council of advisors in heaven, and in this story they’re all agreed that the earthlings need to be reined-in, punished, for their own good. Otherwise, they’ll destroy the earth.

People are talking among themselves, and God is talking to the divine advisors: but a great gulf has opened between humanity and God. And on the human side, life, isolated from God, becomes all about self-preservation (Come, let us make more bricks, more technology!). Humanity’s isolation from God sows the seed of division on earth: the one people are learning to isolate and promote and compete among themselves, and away from God.

If this story explains why there are many languages, it’s not a pretty picture: it’s not what God intended, not God’s Plan A. It’s Plan B for Babel, the best that could be done, given the facts on the ground. The annoying effect: “they will not understand one another’s speech.” And so is born the need for statesmanship and diplomacy. And so is born their opposite, war.

Those heavenly advisors were right on the money: we do have the capacity to destroy the earth. Has it helped any, the advisors’ choice to confuse language? Not that I’ve noticed. Sounds exactly like what politicians do in every age.

Fortunately for us, another story is told today. It is the more famous one, the story Pentecost is known for. Fast-forward thousands of years from the setting of our first story, and we find ourselves in the great city of Jerusalem where one language holds sway, Hebrew. A small number of men and women are speaking to a growing crowd in a public square, telling everyone about the love of God that has come to them in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, filling them with God’s Spirit that pours out of them as a love like their world has never seen. These men and women who speak are from the fishing villages of Galilee, and have little education—but the story they tell is being heard by people from many different countries (some are there as pilgrims, some as merchants), and each visitor hears the story in his or her native language! You heard the list: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, all those countries from the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean Basin.

God is pouring out the Holy Spirit upon all people, all nations, all social classes, male and female. God is gathering all people: this is just the opposite of our first story, not scattering, but gathering. And in this story of the first Pentecost, it is not a problem that we speak in many languages; it is the very providence of God, who uses what is special to the culture of each nation as a pathway into the community of God.

We hear a different attitude in this story. God’s Plan A requires diversity, humanity’s many languages are intended for God’s use in saving the earth from destruction. In this story, you might say that God has new advisors. One is Jesus Christ, whose public ministry—his life and death and resurrection in Galilee and Judea-- has turned upside down the destructive power of people whose chief desire is to make a name for themselves. From beyond the grave, Jesus Christ, the agent of God, shows the world the power of love that will humbly serve in his name, love that will revere life because it bears the imprint and purposes of God.

The Holy Spirit is God’s other advisor—or, more accurately, the Spirit is our advisor, the Advocate, the one who knows the whole truth about God, and the whole truth about us, is able to represent us to God and God to us so that the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ will play its unique part in saving the earth from destruction.

Sophie, today you are united with Christ in baptism through his Spirit. Yours be his wisdom, yours be his Spirit that holds our minds and hearts and feet to the fire of the love that binds us to each other, and to God, in Jesus Christ. And yours be the courage to love with the love that is our highest privilege and our deepest responsibility.