This is my fourth Pentecost at Trinity,
I can’t believe it.
For those who weren’t here then,
I was taller and had a full head of hair.
We have come a long way:
navigated radical changes with resiliency,
held hands along the way,
and we have a future.
The Bible: This is how it works,
and how it routinely reveals our relative unfamiliarity with it –
because it is not truly our text
or our story
in the way it was for those who wrote or edited
the books that make up the Bible.
So, for example, we hear the Book of Acts story
in all its whacko exuberance
and are either:
1) Wowed and amazed by it
2) In immediate disbelief before it, or
3) Left wondering about whether they were drunk or not
The punch line of the story, though,
if we were hearing it within generations of its telling
and were steeped in the stories of ancient Israel,
would be that God had made all of those people
speaking in different languages,
understand one another.
That was the point of the story:
God made them understand each other.
Think about what a miracle that is –
we rarely understand each other
when we are speaking the same language!
So that is a heck of a punch line.
Here is why we can tell that was the punch line:
The Tower of Babel story.
We almost used the Babel story today
instead of this one from Acts.
We are given the choice for either one in the lectionary
but I have never heard the Tower of Babel story
told on Pentecost.
Yet it is the counterpoint to Pentecost,
the other bookend, which we don’t realize
because it is not truly our story.
As you might recall the Tower of Babel
from the Book of Genesis,
God a sundered humankind
by causing us to have different languages
so that we could no longer communicate with one another.
It was not exactly a punishment
but rather, a tactical maneuver on God’s part
because our rascally capacity for engineering and technology
had succeeded in building a tower too high into the sky.
God showed a bit of fear
about human encroachment
upon the divine habitat.
That story comes early in Genesis
and well before monotheism is in place,
since it hosts a conversation between the gods
about what to do in response to human encroachment.
The decision was to divide us
with a variety of languages
so that it would be difficult for us to collaborate.
We can see that this Pentecost story from Acts
is an intentional contrast to Genesis and Babel –
a story that comes to Luke, the author of Acts,
from at least five-hundred years before him.
Where God once separated us with language,
God now unifies us with a Spirit
that enables all understanding
and so overcomes human division.
Like I said,
if the Bible were truly our story
in the way that it was their narrative
so long ago,
we would be able to hear these stories in context,
and understand them
within the rich historical and literary soil
in which they are rooted.
That is not a criticism,
just the acknowledgement of a fact.
Even those Christians that proclaim Biblical literalism
and the inerrancy of the Bible,
more often than not,
know the Bible through a doctrinal lens
that makes every punch line about Jesus and Christianity
when they just are not.
For years and years,
since seminary basically, I thought
my task as a preacher and teacher
was to be an ombudsman for the Bible,
to help make it our story –
at least in those congregations where I served.
Now I can see
that that effort was part of an essential denial
of human cultural and institutional reality
in the modern and post-modern age.
The Bible cannot be our story,
it is the story of an ancient people
whose reality was far, far from ours.
Theirs is not our story, BUT…
their story can inform ours.
In their story or stories,
we can see ourselves in a clearer light.
It is what a good therapist can do for us.
What a therapist does is help us hear ourselves
and see ourselves
with fewer blinders on.
We need someone else to do that
because we stew in our own juices
and are limited by our own prejudices and assumptions
that color what we see.
In other words, we generally see
what we expect to see,
and so we need someone to help us
dig around in our assumptions
and poke through the ashes of our history
and allow us to look around our blinders
to see what we have been missing.
It is not the therapist’s job
to tell us what we do not see,
but he or she allows us to do the work we need to do
to see it ourselves.
Likewise, the biblical story
offers us spectacular insights into ourselves
and inklings about interactions of God with humankind.
What the Bible offers is not confined to the exact words
because the Bible is not a motion picture
or even a stage play
in which the action and dialogue
tell us exactly what we need to know.
Rather, the Bible is more like a painting or music,
it is an artistic rendering of human experience
we must stare at
and open ourselves to
and see and hear and imagine
our way into the message of the rendering.
The Bible cannot tell us what we need to know,
it helps and allows us to encounter the unveiling.
The biblical story
is poetry and prose
rather than memoir or biography.
We often have it sold to us
as something it is not,
and when that happens,
it makes the biblical story inaccessible for some
and toxic for many.
We have many stories, of course.
D-Day is one of our stories.
Slavery is one of our stories.
My Lai is one of our stories.
The achievements and failures of human and civil rights
is one of our stories.
The arc that moves from the landing at Plymouth Rock
to Voyager 1 leaving the solar system
is one of our stories.
The healing of once incurable disease and trauma
as well as those we still can do nothing to cure
is one of our stories.
On top of all of those stories are our personal stories –
who we came from,
how we got here,
the alcoholic or abuser who defined our family,
the saint that was our mother or father or grandmother,
the rags to riches we evolved through,
the limitation overcome,
the fortunes lost,
the mid-life transition…
So many stories and
so many of them without texts
with which to follow.
I see now
that the Bible is not one of our stories
but a lens through which we can read and re-read
the stories of our lives.
It is one of the tools we have
that enables us to see more clearly,
understand more keenly,
and imagine more broadly.
Here is what I see
through the lens of the Babel-Acts continuum,
from a communal spiritual perspective.
There is a kind of moment,
an experience between people,
in which we know without words
that we are connected.
I have witnessed it
once or twice
around tables in here –
at book discussions
when we landed on such a moment.
It begins with someone unveiling a tender piece
of their own story, and
without words or warning
everyone else is occupying the exact same space
at the exact same moment
with the exact same experience.
It might remain a wordless moment
of unspoken looks,
or it might rise up in a crescendo of laughter,
or it may appear in watery eyes.
It happens every once in a while in worship too.
I think I witness such a moment
the first time we sang Louis Armstrong’s,
“It’s a wonderful world.”
We wandered into it with uncertainty
and then at some point, verse three maybe,
we heard ourselves singing sweetly,
and we heard the song,
and we had a collective moment of,
“yes, it is a wonderful world.”
There are such moments
between individuals that happen because of pain.
It may require many slow, arduous conversations to get there
but when two people land on such a moment,
oh, there is a healing.
Even where there is not a cure
there can be a healing,
which is what allows us to keep going
and even to thrive in the midst of struggle.
That may be its own kind of miracle.
Here’s my point.
That Babel story describes the more prevalent experience
of human beings unable to connect
no matter how much they try.
In addition to the problem of language
we have a problem with self-interest, pride, competition,
and just downright beligerance.
Acts describes a different kind of moment,
when something happens,
either that we have worked towards
or that comes as a gift of serendipitiy,
and we touch one another.
In that touch
words can flow or stay silent
and still we understand.
Such connecting may be
in the midst of joy or pain or struggle,
it is that kind of gift.
So that is what I see and here in this story
and how I would use it to tell our own story.
I do not have the very long Trinity perspective
that some of you have,
and it may simply be my being a late arrival,
but I sense we are closer together as a community of faith
than we were four Pentecosts ago.
I think it is because of Pentecostal moments
in which we have touched one another
and experienced both understanding
all of the time,
but enough people
and enough times
to be leaven for the deepening of community.
That is the story I hear
and the story I have experienced
and the story I am telling
PS. In many liturgical churches, red is the color for the celebration of Pentecost
Text for Liturgical Poem: Briefly it enters and briefly speaks by Jane Kenyon
This is a strange sermon
but it is not my fault – let’s hang it
on the readings and the occasion.
On the one hand,
we have tongues of fire
landing on the noggin of unsuspecting folks,
suddenly provoked and endowed
with multilingual heads and hearts.
On the other hand,
we have Jesus giving a speech
about sending some spook from “the other side”
as an advocate for the truth.
In the middle we have poetry
we know for certain is meant as metaphor,
and so for me, is easier to digest the poem.
“I am the one whose love
already with you
when you think to call my name…” – that is God,
the sustainer, always present and never leaving.
“I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden…” – that is God,
present no matter how horrendously
we muck up the world around us,
steadfastly with us even if not saving us from ourselves.
“I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . .
I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills. . .” – that is God,
who modeled for us a love so exquisite
as to extinguish itself on our behalf.
You get the point.
The Book of Acts tells us a story,
The Gospel of John delivers a speech,
and Jane Kenyon’s poem points and maybe even evokes,
the same thing Acts and John proclaim.
Pentecost is our origin story,
or at least that is how it has been used by the Church.
It harkens to an experience
more widely encountered than the empty tomb.
It marks a moment when people who knew Jesus
and those who didn’t,
stumbled into a strange and whacky
communal, mystical experience.
It was strange, bizarre, weird, and just plain odd.
But look, we are so preoccupied
with the basket of mundane things we believe
are important and amazing and spectacular,
while the genuinely astounding in our midst
does not even register with us.
LIFE is so outrageously astounding
and yet we stand around so accustomed to it
that we do not
stutter with amazement the way we should.
We just came through a nasty winter,
one that just about everyone complained was long
Then spring hit, literally, overnight.
Perhaps we took notice at first,
of the green popping out, followed
by pink and white and blue pedals
of blossoms that stayed too briefly among us.
Now we’re into cutting grass
and we may already be close to losing
that sense of savoring
the sensual blessing of warmth,
the incomparable kaleidoscope of greens,
and the increasingly orchestral songs
of birds returning from faraway places.
We just do not have whatever superpower is required
for us to sustain raw sensitivity
and acute awareness of LIFE.
As the wonderful Polynesian saying goes,
we are riding a whale while fishing for minnows.
Poetry aims to be that flame,
to ignite us in its blossom of fire
so that we too, suddenly and inexplicably,
are consumed in the experienceof LIFE.
It aims to capture us just for a moment, take us up
in a shirt of flame, consumed
but not perishing, babbling but not speaking,
gushing with awe and amazement
over not merely our Life, but LIFE itself.
And doesn’t all art
hope to give us a moment like that –
whether with music, dance, sculpture,
words, or paint?
Art aims to take us up,
as if in a tongue of fire, into
an experientialmoment that captures us
and suddenly our awareness is more wide-eyed,
and we know something
we did not know before or had been asleep to.
In the end, art is revelatory – a sacrament
of ordinary materials
render in such a way as to
point toward something we cannot speak about
with words that make sense.
Once I sat in front of a huge Willem de Kooning
abstract painting in a nearly empty museum gallery,
just staring at it in hopes of understanding it.
Then, suddenly, it came to life.
It was as if the colors had a heartbeat
and for just a second, I was taken inside it,
overwhelmed by the experience of its substance.
Now maybe, any object could deliver such an experience.
Maybe it had nothing to do with being great art.
And indeed, I have stared at an ant colony
and been similarly mesmerized into awe;
and tried to count the varieties of green while
staring at a summer landscape;
and other such strange acts of meditation
I might even call…prayer.
All of which is to say,
the Bible is full of mystical and revelatory experiences
like the Pentecost one we read about today,
but no-more-so than LIFE itself.
Our routine, silly, mundane lives
driving up and down Route 14
or Exchange Street,
or bending over and picking dandelions from the grass,
hold within them the opportunity
for exquisite, mind-boggling,
render-us-stupid kind of moments.
And really, this worship thing we do
is the practice of opening ourselves to such moments.
I would even go so far as to say,
that is the difference between highly ritualized traditions
like Episcopal and Roman Catholic worship
and those of a more Protestant kind of sparseness.
Ritual is the practice of opening ourselves to the holy,
the holy that is in our midst at every moment.
Of course, we get confused and think the ritual
is the holy itself instead of the practice.
But ritual, when we do not become obsessive-compulsive
about making it always just the same;
and we do not mistake it for the thing it points to;
then ritual can sensitize us
and open us
and enhance our awareness
to the holy that is in every moment within
and around us.
So on this day,
on the Day of Pentecost,
that first generation was consumed
in its grief for the tortured and executed messiah
they had hoped would bring them home;
and they were ripped from that grief
and taken up into a hot moment of communal ecstasy.
On this day, when we remember that moment
of bewildering mystical fire,
all I really know to do
If I were a really wonderful poet,
I could write something that might deliver the experience.
But I am only a priest, and
all I can do is point and invite us to remember
the times that flame ignited
in us or around us or through us.
And then, because I am a priest,
I can point to the table
and remind us what Jesus did
when he was still alive,
and invite us to gather our desires
and practice our gratitude
and enter into a ritual
that has lighted the fire for thousands of years –
even, on occasion, in times of total darkness.
So if, as many people do with poetry,
you have listened to this sermon and wondered,
“what the heck is he talking about?” –
all I can tell you
is that strange things are afoot
and have been
ever since the beginning of human consciousness.
If we are lucky,
and we practice our grand variety of rituals,
and we try really hard to be amazed
even by the ordinariness of LIFE all around us,
we might just be taken up
into the strangeness.
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