Day of Pentecost 2019: Seeing Red

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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.
Happy Pentecost!

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 ponder
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
and healing.
Not everyone
all together
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
about us.

Happy Pentecost.

PS. In many liturgical churches, red is the color for the celebration of Pentecost