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Spirit of Unity in Diversity

Pentecost 2017

Acts 2:1-21: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

There are any number of striking aspects to the story of the first Pentecost of the church, but this year I was particularly struck by one half of one verse:

“Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” (Acts 2:6b)

I have to admit, I didn’t really understand what that meant for the first 34 years of my life. I mean, I understood the factual meaning. In understand that different people speak different languages, and the people who were gathered in Jerusalem from many different lands each heard their own native language being spoken. I don’t get how that works, but I understand the Idea.

What I did not understand was the emotional meaning – not until I experienced for myself what it is like to be surrounded by people who do not speak my language. As many of you know, Tyler and the kids and I lived in Milan, Italy for about three years when the kids were very young.

This was wonderful on many levels. The food was just amazing. We had a chance to travel around Italy and much or Southern Europe. We made dear, dear friends. And I had the chance to be home with the kids during precious years of their early development. I don’t regret one minute of those years.

But they were also crazy hard!

We did not know how to navigate the complicated bureaucracy that manages immigration, and parking permits, and satellite TV.

(For the record, anyone who thinks US government is inefficient… there is no comparison.)

We had to learn social mores on the fly, often by breaking them.

(Hostess gifts are expected for 4-year old playdates. Seriously – bring food or a present.)

But hardest of all was the language. Everything, from the most banal tasks like buying stamps to the most important tasks like scheduling follow-up medical tests were incredibly stressful.

When I broke my foot, 9-days after arrival, the ER doctor and I communicated using my children’s Italian-English picture dictionary (It was not very effective).

Pretty much every day of my three years in Italy I had at least one encounter that left me feeling like an idiot, because I could not understand what was being said, or figure out how to say something in the language I was working SO HARD to try to learn.

Which is why I understand what it means to be in a foreign land, constantly made to feel like an outsider just by the sounds of casual conversation all around me… and then to hear my native tongue.

It’s like an affirmation of identity. A welcome sign, saying “you belong.” The language that shapes the way you see and interact with the world is spoken here. You can participate.

It’s an amazing experience, as I am sure some of you know. Whether you came to the US as an immigrant, or have just spent time in a non-English-speaking country, I expect you know what it means to hear your mother tongue, and feel like “here I am safe. Here I will be understood. Here I belong.”

That belonging can transcend differences that in other circumstances would make community VERY UNLIKELY. I learned that particular lesson at church – a church I never would have gone to if I had any other choice.

You see, as English-speaking Protestants, we had very few options for churches in Milan. None were Lutheran, and only one had a functional option for our kids. So, we attended a church led by a pastor whose theology was wildly frustrating to me.

A theology that focused on differentiating sinners and saints, rather that recognizing that we all belong in BOTH camps;

A theology that said God could not have possibly called me to lead or teach in the church, because I am a woman;

A theology that condemned anyone who read the Bible differently as damned for their “false beliefs,” because they could not possibly be “real Christians.”

We agreed on the basic claims of the creeds – although even those claims we sometimes interpreted differently – and that was about it.

In any other circumstances, I would have run from such a church. My walk of faith had lead me out of a fundamentalist church culture and I knew from personal experience the way this kind of theology can damage souls and twist God’s Word. I never imagined that I would voluntarily join such a community again.

But they spoke English, and we needed a worshipping community, so this fundamentalist, patriarchal, heresy-hunting community became our church.

And I found God there!

I didn’t just bring God with me, and exercise my personal connection in worship, and prayer, and the consistent, irritated internal dialogue God and I would hold during pretty much every sermon …

I also got to see God living and working within and through the people with whom I so deeply disagreed about God.

Working to bring hope, and faith, and community to people who would probably never listen to one of my sermons.

Apparently, God did not share my hang-ups. Apparently, God understands that we are ALL both sinners and saints, and God can use us all.

To be clear, I did not conform or submit to my pastor’s understanding of God, or scripture, or Christianity. He did not change my mind about ANYTHING about my faith … except, ironically, for helping me to recognize my own inclination for heresy-hunting, when it comes to fundamentalist Christianity.

In that community with whom I shared a language and God…and almost nothing else … God’s Spirit opened my eyes to recognize that that is enough!

To my mind, that is the power of the Pentecost story for this moment in the life of the Christian church – the power of unity even in our deep diversity and sometimes painful disagreements – the power to work and move in ALL of US. That unity and power is possible, because it is God’s Spirit that moves us.

And that Spirit is unified even as she divides herself.

The translation we read today describes “divided tongues, as of fire”, but it is also possible to translate this text as the Spirit-wind dividing into tongues of fire.[1] The One Spirit divides, in order to rest on each believer, and in that division, creates a breath-taking unity that speaks to each hearer in his or her own mother-tongue. Because we don’t have to be the same to be united by God’s Spirit.

This is Good News – especially in our broken, divided world.

It is also challenging – in our broken, divided world – because it means we have to be open to God moving in places we do not expect. It means we don’t get to impose our expectations about how God works, or whom God chooses. Much like in our reading from Numbers,[2] God’s Spirit does not only show up with the appointed leaders. Sometimes God shows up beyond the borders of the sacred place: out in the community, with the people who did not show up to our idea of church.

And we might find ourselves wanting to say “stop them!” (Num. 11:28) Instead of “would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Num. 11:29)

Or, maybe, the biggest challenge is to pray “would that I were a prophet, and that the Lord would put the Spirit on ME.”

That’s the other edge to the Pentecost story, isn’t it? The recognition that the whole world shifted when the promised Spirit came. No longer do we wait in the camp while the appointed leaders seek God in the sacred place.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus invited “let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink…out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:37-38)

It is an invitation, but it is also a proclamation of what the church looks like in a Pentecost reality.

It looks like tongues of fire resting on us, forever changing our identity.

It looks like rivers of living water flowing out of us, because we cannot retain this Spirit that meets our deepest needs and then drags us into the current to be part of the work of quenching the thirst of the other – no matter how different they are.

One of my favorite Lutheran pastors likes to say that “faith is not a spectator sport; it’s a team sport.”

We don’t get to just sit and watch;

And we all have to work together;

But what a Coach we have!

And what a goal: “that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved!” (Acts 2:21)

Saved from the divisions that tear us apart, because God is the source of our deepest identity;

Saved from the expectations that restrict our vision of how and through whom God can work;

Saved from the soul-deep thirst that nothing but God can meet.

This is the Spirit’s work in the church, and we are all part of that work.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Rev. Sally Hanson – commentary in ELCA World Hunger Sermon Starters, June 4.

[2] Numbers 11:24-30.

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