Scriptures: Genesis 11:1-9 & Acts 2:1-21
Given on Pentecost Sunday, 2013 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
In our first reading for the morning, we encounter those who have followed from the flood and who have begun to repopulate the earth. Because they are all from a single source, they all speak the same language. They have a shared culture, a shared value system, a shared community. As they begin to migrate to the east, we are told that they stopped in a place called Shinar and decided to settle there. Because they were planning on settling there for good, they begun the work of building not just lean-to’s and tents but brick buildings that would stand in the same place for a long time. And we are told that they had brick with which to build and bitumen to use for mortar and so they began to build their new settlement. Presumably they started with houses in which to live, then perhaps a marketplace where they could begin to trade their wares with one another, maybe palace for their ruler and all this was fine, and maybe they were feeling pretty good about themselves because next they choose to crown the city with a tall tower, so tall that they envisioned they could reach God up in Heaven. And of course, with a tower to represent their new community, they desired a name under which all people would know them, their fear being that without a central and agreed-upon name, they would run the risk of being scattered around the world and they needed one another for security, for sustenance, and for meaning making. And so they set to begin to build the tower. We are next told that God came down to check on this new community of people, those who had emerged from the ark and their progeny and at that time, God was thought of as walking through the streets, presumably like anyone else and so we are told that God saw what it was that this new community of people was accomplishing and got nervous. With one single language and the ability to communicate with everyone on an equal basis, there is nothing that they will not be able to accomplish if they just put their heads together. And with that, God began to speak with the Divine council in Heaven and together they decided that the best thing to was to “confuse their language” so that one might not be able to easily communicate with another. To make matters worse, God, with the help of the Divine council, decides to make their worst fears come true by scattering them across the world with their various languages so that this group of people for whom little would be impossible might never be able to gather together as a single group again. Language had gone from being their greatest strength to the biggest obstacle humankind would have to overcome.
There is much to be said about this story, this story that seeks to explain why there are so many languages around the world. In one sense, the story reflects a theme that runs through much of Hebrew scripture, that God is a jealous God. That God seeks to be the most important thing in each person’s life. That God wants ultimate trust to be placed in the holy and loving care provided by God and apart from that we begin to trust our own abilities just a little too much. In another sense, the story is a cautionary tale of what happens when humankind seeks to be too ornate. The people of Shinar are fine when they are building houses for themselves, they are fine when presumably they are constructing that which is necessary for the living of their lives. But when they begin to seek to build the biggest tower ever made for no other reason than to draw attention to their city then it becomes necessary for God to step in and remind them of the simplicity of the life to which they are called. But the most important thing we learn about us and our human condition is that in our endeavors to be the people of God, too often we create fears of the unknown future. Because we cannot see for certainty into the next moment we build edifices around us and hope against hope that we are not scattered out into the world, among people of strange language and custom. Hope against hope that our buildings will protect us from the parts of the world that are unknown to us. Hope against hope that we aren’t being sent out there, because out there is scary. And maybe it is that fear that continues to drive the human condition today. We still desire to build up edifices and cultures. To grasp onto whatever we can to give us security to move into the future. But that security is false, and arrogant, and destined to fall away, because in the end, we must, must, must be founded in God.
We Presbyterians don’t always do excitement in church particularly well. We have, over time, become known as the frozen chosen and as harsh as that sounds it does bear some amount of truth. We tend to be more cerebral in our faith, more educated, more reserved. We tend to understand the relationship between God and the world in starkly private terms, I’ll take care of me and you take care of you. And so when we see the story of Pentecost come alive for us in our second reading for the morning its pretty hard to imagine it in our contemporary setting. Because many of us simply don’t have an understanding of faith that can understand the disciples being touched by the spirit and not being able to do anything else but share the news with everyone in the city of Jerusalem and look so silly doing it that folks think they must be drunk. Folks think — sure, this isn’t real.
In the story we see the disciples, waiting patiently in Jerusalem for this gift that Jesus had promised them. Waiting patiently for some sense of security in a deeply insecure time. Waiting to know the presence of God. And then quietly at first but building, they started to hear and then feel a rush of wind as it blew through the house. A rush of wind as if to clear all the bad spirits out of the room, all the doubt and fear, all the sadness, and then fire, like tongues of flames, until each one had a tongue of flame resting on them. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and they could not contain themselves. And you can hear them blurting out in all the languages of the world: Parthian, Median, Elamitian, Mesopotamian, Judean, Cappadocian, Pontian and Asian, Phrygian and Pamphylian, Egyptian and the parts of Libyan belonging to Cyrenian, Roman, Cretan and Arabians. Each with languages heretofore unspoken by any of them, each of them able to bridge that linguistic gap that would have before separated them one from another, each of them able to speak the truth of the love of God, the hope found in God, the peace found in God to a people who were desperate to know it. And of course you had the cynics in the group. Those who believed the disciples had started drinking a little too early this morning and were merely drunkenly rambling. But for most, they knew. And this opened to door for Peter to begin speaking to them and telling them of God in a way they had never heard before. Streams of fire came and touched each disciple and they couldn’t possibly contain it anymore.
And I wonder. I wonder if in our own time if we are more the the residents of Shimar or the disciples in Jerusalem. I wonder if in our own time if we are courageous in our sharing of the love of God, in sharing of the story of God’s love for the world as seen in Jesus, or if we fear being scattered out into the world amongst people of strange language and strange culture. I wonder if what we are called to do in this life is to stand with those who aren’t like us because to be not like the culture in which one find’s herself is to be marginalized, ostracized, stigmatized, and I wonder if those are the folks that Jesus was talking about when he said, “Whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me.” And so I wonder if we are called to stand with poor folks even though our culture tells us they can fend for themselves, tells us they are street urchins living off the largesse of the government. And I wonder if we are called to stand with the immigrant population, if as Christians we can see brothers and sisters in Christ though our appearances may differ and our tongues may speak apart from one another. I wonder if we are supposed to stand with and welcome all persons in community into our fold even though a dominant narrative has for so long defined them as deviant due to gender, sexuality, race, or class. I wonder if we are called to not focus on what separates us, one from another but rather to overcome that separation with the love of God.
A few months ago the session of this church was approached by representatives from the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Continuing Educational Services (BOCES) with an offer to enter into a partnership with BOCES and their staff, who offer English as a Second Language, High School Equivalency, Adult Literacy, and Citizenship classes. While this proposed partnership is in process, I wanted to take a few minutes to share with you the procedure through which the session progressed and the manner in which we thought through this relationship. First, a few details that went into our discernment. We know that the city of Amsterdam is roughly 24% Latina/o and that number is going to continue to rise. It is the fastest growing population within the city. We also know that our city is located in one of the poorest sections of the state, an area left abandoned with the factories that once dotted the landscape, and whose buildings still leave ghostly shells throughout the town and region. In a lot of ways, as a downtown church, United Presbyterian Church rests at the intersection of those two realities. One need only sit at my desk and look out the window for any length of time to confirm that. Residents of our town, primarily Latino and working-class, pass in front of me all day everyday and I have been left wondering how do we become a greater presence in the lives of the people in this community, in this section of town. And so Laurie Bargstedt and I were tasked with the job of studying and determining the feasibility and characteristics of such a partnership with BOCES. What followed were meetings. Many, many meetings. With their staff, with our staff, with their students. Tours of our space to determine if it would meet programming needs while maintaining the church’s autonomy. Conversations about Littlest Angels and the continued efforts to keep the children of that program safe as they have always been under the caring eye of Marie Woodman. Financial questions, what would the relationship be between the two groups and who would bear the additional costs and how. Scheduling questions, could we still maintain our current calendar of events with new programing and who would maintain those calendars, and how would we consider folks who attended the programs during the week and welcome them in the sanctuary on Sundays. And that’s just a sliver of the conversations that have been had over the last few months. Honestly, if I listed all the questions and concerns we tried to cover, Bill Johnson would start looking at his watch and determine that this sermon was too long. The session explored all of these issues, which culminated in a report and a motion. A motion that if the way be clear, we begin the steps of bringing these two groups together to form a covenantal partnership with one another. And it was passed unanimously.
As Pastor and Head of Staff here I could not be more excited by the possibilities that this covenantal relationship could create. Anytime we on the session began to spin out the potential of this arrangement we would immediately become filled with ideas to creatively integrate these new folks into our number in ways great and small and in the end, it is my hope that we do just that. That’s where you come in. If the way be clear, as this endeavor begins, we are going to look for both your support but also that all of us be the welcoming community that I know we are. That we seek to reach out to folks who are often separated by language and skin tone, by class and culture, and help them to find their home here at UPC. Not all of them are going to become attending members on Sunday morning, but some of them might. Not all of them are going to view this relationship as covenantal, choosing instead to see this as a means to an end, a place where a class meets, and nothing else. That’s okay, because some might see the love of God in their very presence here. Not all are always going to do or say the “right” thing, but that’s okay, because here in this place we have always strived to welcome new folks into our midst, whether through church unification or through being the community church that opened its doors to everyone in the community.
When the Holy Spirit touched the disciples they quite literally could not contain the love of God flowing through them and they were immediately able to bridge the gaps that language and culture often places on people. They were able to bridge the gap because God’s love overcame. In our time and in our place, let’s be overcome with love, then lets flow out into the streets, being Christ’s hands and feet for the least of these right in our midsts, regardless of their language or skin color, regardless of their culture or class, regardless of their sexuality or creed. Let’s be Christ’s hands and feet to everyone we meet. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples, Alleluia, Amen.