A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
June 4, 2017
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 nearly 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. We continually need the Spirit, however, as we struggle to seek understanding through our differences.
I haven’t really spent much time in a room like the one described on Pentecost, where the sound of a violent wind knocked everything off the shelves and singed people’s hair, leaving them able to understand the others in the room, the people who, moments before, were unintelligible because of language differences.
We speak a lot of different languages in the church still.
Often, we want to pray the other side will start speaking the RIGHT language, would have the CORRECT understanding, rather than praying for a sense of understanding to come among us, despite our different languages.
Often, we fear diversity, we fear difference, we distrust those who hold other viewpoints.
I wonder if the Pentecost story could even happen today in our country, as we surround ourselves only with people who speak our own languages, whether literally or metaphorically. Do we rule out an experience of the Spirit as we saw at Pentecost by our refusal to tolerate difference?
Because there isn’t a need for the Spirit to come bring understanding to a room full of people who already understand each other.
The miracle of Pentecost wasn’t unity or fancy new languages. It was not a miracle of 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 that guy”.
The miracle of Pentecost is one of understanding. It maintained diversity and the sources of our disagreement and misunderstandings and prejudices. It overcame those with understanding.
After Pentecost, we all still get to remain our unique and different selves.
After Pentecost, we are reminded that understanding is possible, and it is up to us to seek out and demand that blessing from the Spirit.
We also heard a passage this morning from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, about how we are adopted into the family of God.
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”
This isn’t a Pentecost story, exactly. It doesn’t refer to a particular anniversary in the life of the church. Paul reminds us the Holy Spirit didn’t only show up that one day, when the early church was gathered in a room. The Spirit arrives again, and again, and again.
In Galatians, the miracle of the Spirit is to make us family, heirs of God. As many of you know, adoption is a big part of my life story. The idea of people becoming adopted into God’s family is something I understand very well, and something for which I am very grateful.
Adoption, though, always requires people to learn new languages. My adopted family loves me deeply. They always have. Their love doesn’t make us similar in all ways.
I’m a morning person. The rest of them would sleep until noon if schedules allowed. That’s just one of many illustrations, but living together in a family of adoption requires you to learn the language, the habits, the traits of the other people in your family. I have always felt like I was on a somewhat different wavelength than they were all on, somehow often a step off from them.
My family had the shared language of experience, of life lived together, and that helped the translation issues a bit. I started to see that more clearly as I met people from my birth family. There are so many things about my birth family that seem familiar and comfortable, but without a life lived together, there is translation required there too.
Even if your family doesn’t have adoption as part of it, you have likely also experienced the challenge of loving people who may see the world very differently than you do. Even biological families can have great difference within them, as adopted families always do.
And so the miracle of being made part of God’s family is one I appreciate more and more each year. To be loved enough to be made family is a sacred gift.
Our experiences with our earthly families are each different, and all are complicated in their own ways. God sent the Son, that we might be adopted into God’s family, and God sent the Spirit into our hearts, to give us new language through which we understand our relationship to God and to each other.
Yesterday, the session of the church spent the whole day on a planning retreat for the coming year. I’m grateful for the leadership of these people, whom we will be ordaining and installing in a bit. In all of our conversation, it was clear that our relationships with other people at church are a crucial part to our experience of church. Like adoption, we are made family by choice, by coming together from our different origins, to be church family together.
And it is shared experiences that help us overcome our translation issues. Time spent together—at coffee hour, dancing with kids at VBS, raking leaves, in prayer and bible study, standing in line to order from food trucks, at PRIDE, or around a table at a potluck—that time spent together makes us like the Acts story, when we gather together so the Holy Spirit can blow through and bring us the understanding that can help us remember God has made us family for each other.
Over the coming year, the session is going to invite you into some new ways of coming together in the life of the church. We’re excited about how that might look and hope you will be too.
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
This is the blessing
we cannot summon
by our own devices,
to our purpose,
to our will.
This is the blessing
when we leave behind
when we gather
when we turn
toward one another.
This is the blessing
that blazes among us
when we speak
strange to our ears
when we finally listen
into the chaos
when we breathe together
The miracle of Pentecost wasn’t only in the moment where they understood each other. 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?
For me, today, the gift of the Pentecost story is adoption. The creation of a new family, made up of different, disparate people. 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:
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, to remind us we’re family, and to set the world on fire.