Courage to Understand

A sermon preached on Pentecost at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

June 8, 2014

Acts 2:1-21

Today we celebrate the birthday of the church, as we remember the day the Spirit descended and helped a bunch of disparate Jesus followers coalesce and come together with one purpose—to proclaim the good news of God, regardless of language difficulty, regardless of geographic differences, regardless of political affiliation.
The Spirit brings them together.

With one purpose.

And the church is born.

We celebrate that. We give thanks all these years later, we can mark an anniversary, remember the beginning, when we were united in one purpose to proclaim the good news, and to be witnesses to the end of the earth, even to Boise.

But it is also appropriate for us to mark this almost 2,000th birthday of the church with an open assessment of where we are today.

Because no matter how healthy this particular congregation is, and I think we’re actually doing pretty well, we acknowledge there is no longer one purpose around which all of Christ’s followers come together despite their differences.

I don’t see many instances of Judeans gathering together with conservative evangelicals, or Cappodicians in the same room with Lutherans from the part of Libya belonging to Cyrene when I look around at the church at large.

We fracture along lines of politics, theology, doctrine, culture, race, class, and geography.

It is the tension inherent in Pentecost. The Spirit brings us together, but doesn’t make us all the same. I think we continually need the Spirit, however, as we struggle to seek understanding through our differences.

I was trying to think of the last time I was in a room like the one described at Pentecost, where everyone was speaking different languages. The closest thing I could think of, and it isn’t very close, was General Assembly two years ago in Pittsburgh. This is the biennial meeting of our denomination and I was the clergy representative for Boise Presbytery. This is where Presbyterians gather together to do the work of the church. I’ll be headed back to GA this next weekend as support staff.

But we speak a lot of different languages in the church nowadays. People who read the Bible literally sitting next to people who take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.

People who seek an ever expanding understanding of who is invited to God’s table with people who seek to keep the table pure.

I realize I can’t even overcome my own biases about the experience to describe the differences among us without judgment.

There was a lot of mistrust in the room. There was a sense that the people who spoke differently were wrong.

Rather than praying for a sense of understanding to come among us, despite our different languages, it seemed that many people were praying the other side would start speaking the RIGHT language, would have the CORRECT understanding.

There was a fear of diversity, a fear of difference, a distrust of other viewpoints. There was more “if you don’t see it the way we do, we’ll leave the denomination” and there was less “I’m thankful for your different perspective on this issue”.

We wanted to gather where we were safe, in smaller groups of like minded people because it is no fun being called a blasphemer.

And even if you’ve never been to General Assembly, I know you’ve experienced this too. We seek sameness and understanding and safety.

I don’t see it happening much in the world at large either.

Just this past week, after the rescue of Bowe Bergdahl—America’s only Prisoner of the Afghan war and Hailey, Idaho native—we saw this trouble with people speaking different languages with no understanding also.

Some people celebrated the rescue of a soldier. Others denounced him as traitor. The way people are interpreting his rescue is so widely different, it seems hard to imagine they are talking about the same event.

And I know it is complicated. And I know it will take some time before we know what happened and what the response should be. I think, however, we need to resist our culture’s tendency to reduce everything to absolutisms and to sound bites.

We don’t need sound bites. We need understanding.

It occurred to me, though, the very act of surrounding ourselves with people who speak our own languages, whether literally or metaphorically, means we are ruling out an experience of the Spirit as we saw at Pentecost.

Because there isn’t a need for the Spirit to come bring understanding to a room full of people who already understand each other.

Is there?

This isn’t a modern problem only. Almost as soon as the church came together, we started to divide. Gentiles and jews. Circumcised and uncircumcised. Rome and Antioch. Orthodox and Catholic and Protestant.

Listen to the sentence that follows the description of Pentecost.
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

They didn’t even make it one verse before there were different interpretations of what had just happened. Not even one verse. The experience of Pentecost wasn’t long lasting for everyone, it seems.

Do we want an experience of Pentecost Spirit, short lived as it might be, or are we content to spend all our time seeking sameness, even as it pushes us into smaller and smaller gatherings?

This Pentecost story reminds us to be thankful for our differences and to resist the cultural pressure to ever fracture into smaller groups seeking sameness. Because it is in our willingness to allow difference that the Spirit shows up to create understanding.

The miracle of Pentecost wasn’t the Spirit showing up, pointing to the one person with the right doctrine and theology and language and saying, “okay, everyone, now you’re going to speak his language and be just like him”.

The miracle of Pentecost maintained diversity and the sources of our disagreement and misunderstandings and prejudices. But it overcame those with understanding.

Here’s a poem by Jan Richardson that has been speaking to me all week.

When We Breathe Together


A Blessing for Pentecost Day

This is the blessing
we cannot speak
by ourselves.

This is the blessing
we cannot summon
by our own devices,
cannot shape
to our purpose,
cannot bend
to our will.

This is the blessing
that comes
when we leave behind
our aloneness
when we gather
together
when we turn
toward one another.

This is the blessing
that blazes among us
when we speak
the words
strange to our ears
when we finally listen
into the chaos
when we breathe together
at last.

And this has me wondering if the miracle of Pentecost wasn’t primarily in the moment where they understood each other. Maybe it was the blessing of being together with different and interesting people, and not having to try to all be exactly the same.

What would happen if we were open to that kind of blessing?

What if we were willing to gather with Cappodocians and Mesopotamians and Oregonians and whoever else the Spirit put in the room with us and to just let each other be, trusting that God will give us understanding if we take the time to have the conversation?

This is the blessing
that comes
when we leave behind
our aloneness
when we gather
together
when we turn
toward one another.

For me, today, the gift of the Pentecost story is understanding. On Pentecost, the Spirit of God was poured out on all flesh, but it didn’t make them all the same.

It is one of the many things I so appreciate about you. You have fun together. You seek to welcome people without expecting them to pass a litmus test. You seek to be your authentic selves too, trying to allow individual expression and not let differences get in the way of loving each other.

Catherine of Sienna is quoted as saying:
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

It takes courage to be who you were meant to be.

It takes courage to allow others to live into who they were meant to be too.

It takes courage to open yourself to understanding someone else’s perspective.

So pray for the Spirit to come, to bring us together, to give us understanding in our differences, and to set the world on fire.

Amen.

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6 thoughts on “Courage to Understand

  1. General Assembly two years ago in Pittsburg – “we” were there, that whole week – agree with sentiment.

  2. Oh, thank you! Thank you for speaking these words that have needed to be said. I feel this same way and I’m Lutheran! The poem is wonderful and says the important words “to speak AND to listen into the chaos”……we all need to listen with ears that can hear, not with closed ears and minds made up. It’s so difficult to speak a different message than people are used to hearing, with just a little twist in the message and a different meaning to the familiar words. Here we are, two thousand years later and still as entrenched in our own beliefs as ever.

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