Confused language

It’s been almost 15 years since I started posting the text of my sermons on a blog. It’s been more than 5 years since the congregations I’ve served have had the ability to record audio. We’re still ironing out the kinks in video recording at Christ Church. The intent of each has been to allow those not able to attend Sunday services to be a part of it. In my tradition, at least theologically, the sermon isn’t the pinnacle of the service, but in survey after survey, we hear that what keeps people coming back to church and what they look for in their clergy is good preaching. So, since we can’t have the Eucharist celebrated in every living room every Sunday, we share what we can.

With each successive technological advancement, we’ve gotten closer to sharing the fullness of the sermon experience. With just the text, we lose all kinds of cues that the person in the pew can use to interpret what’s being said. [This is especially true of blog posts which raise hackles like yesterday’s did. Many of y’all were not on board with any kind of critical reflection on the practice of wearing red on Pentecost.] With audio recording, one can at least hear some of the nuances of delivery, but so much of communication is non-verbal a lot is still missing. With video, we can see those non-verbal cues, but even so, we miss the energy in the room and the shared experience of the homiletical event. Even those who are sitting in the nave in a Sunday morning can interpret the sermon in vastly different ways.

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The confused nature of communication that we experience on a daily basis has its origin story in the Tower of Babel, which is an optional lesson for the Day of Pentecost.  One need not believe that this myth is the actual story of how various languages came to be to understand the truth that the confused nature of language has been a challenge to the human condition since we first began to communicate in something other than tonal grunts.  In fact, one could argue that the source of much of the interpersonal strife in our world, outside of larger fights over power, money, and privilege, is based in our inability to communicate clearly with one another.

Part of the task as Christians who aren’t readily gifted with the Spirit-fueled ability to speak clearly in any language is to work to speak and hear one another with clarity so as to avoid, as best we can, those moments of misunderstanding that lead to hard feelings, anger, broken relationships, and sin.  As a writer, a preacher, a husband, and a father, I can tell you, this work is a full-time job.  So, dear reader, in a variation on the words attributed to Saint Francis, let us seek to understand and to be understood, for such is the way of love, dignity, and respect.

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Pentecost Kitch

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I recall a discussion once held in one of my liturgics classes.  We were talking about manual actions and the celebration of the Eucharist and the difference between anamnesis, the active remembrance of an event in the past, and mimicry, the acting out of that remembrance.  For example, as we remember the death of Jesus in Rite II, Prayer A (Expansive Language Version), the Celebrant says, “Jesus stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  It is unhelpful, yet, unfortunately not uncommon, for the celebrant, standing behind the altar, likely within sight lines of a cross, to also extend his (let’s be honest, it’s often dudes doing this) arms in a kind of pantomime of words being said.

 

These kinds of things tend to happen when we are either a) uncomfortable with the power of our words, or b) unsure what to do with them.  When talking about Jesus offering himself on the cross, these words have deep theological impact, and they can make us really uncomfortable.  So, we take the attention away from the words and put it on ourselves.  A similar thing happens at the fraction, when, in language that is foreign even too many priests, we talk of Jesus as the Passover, but often deflect it by way of a huge fraction motion.

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This is an ad from a Community Church. So, it isn’t just Episcopalians who are guilty.

There is no place that this tendency to pantomime away our discomfort is more apparent than on the Principal Feast which we will celebrate on Sunday, the Day of Pentecost.  Now, I’m not here to be a buzzkill over the wearing of red or the decorating of your nave with doves and flames.  I get that we need to make worship available to all of our senses, and I don’t want to suggest otherwise.  I would, however, caution clergy and their worship committees to be careful in making those choices, and to think theologically about why they are being made.  Are the dove kites going to enhance worship that day, or make it easier for us to avoid how little we [want to] understand the power of the Spirit.  Is encouraging folks to wear red a symbol of our unity in the Body of Christ or simply a photo opp for the congregation’s Instagram account?  Is the tradition of having the Acts lesson poorly read in many languages in any way edifying, or is it meant to keep us distracted so the preacher can preach yet another sermon on Jesus’ commandment that we love one another?

The active remembrance of the foundational stories of our faith is vitally important.  Too important, in fact, to be reduced to kitchy reenactments.  So, feel free to wear red this Sunday to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, but as inheritors of that same Spirit, also be ready to hear the powerful story of the Advocate’s arrival with power and might upon the disciples gathered in prayer.

Before Pentecost

The story of the Day of Pentecost is a spectacular one.  It is ready made for Hollywood special effects masters to do their work.  If Mel Gibson ever got his hands on it, we’d see the face-melting fire of Indiana Jones mixed with the cow lifting wind of Twister all culminating in Peter offering a wildly out of context antisemitic rant.  I’m on vacation this week, so I hope to have a chance to rescue the actual content of the Pentecost story from the overly dramatic 21st century image I’ve just given you, but in the meantime, as you ponder cows flying on Pentecost, I want to think for a moment about what happened before the coming of the Holy Spirit.

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On Thursday of last week, the Church celebrated the Feast of the Ascension.  It is the day, 40 days after the Resurrection, when Jesus returns to his Father.  As the story goes in Acts, just before his departure, Jesus reiterates to his disciples that they should wait for the Spirit.  This makes sense, given both their impulsiveness and their lack of faith.  One can easily imagine that within minutes of Jesus’ ascension, 6 of the disciples would head home, ready to return to normal life, while the remaining 5 set out to preach the Gospel without any help from the Spirit.  Instead, Jesus says, “wait.”

How often does the Church take that advice?  How often do we forget that it is actually a pattern in the course of salvation history.  Remember how the Hebrews, having fled Egypt on the Day of the Passover, get to the banks of the Red Sea and God tells them to wait there.  He commands them to set up camp while the Egyptians pursue them.  The Hebrews, like many of us, have no desire to wait.  They want to get out of town as quickly as possible, but God demands that they hold fast.

Waiting is often a test to our faith.  It is in those moments when we are doing nothing that we have to come to grips with whether or not we actually trust God to do what God has promised.  The Hebrew’s panicked, offering one of the best lines in Scripture, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”  The Disciples, this time at least, were obedient to the call to wait.  They elected Matthias to round out the 12, they prayed, they went to the Temple, and they waited.  Faithfully, they waited.

It is easy to just keep busy: to go about the business of ministry and never slow down long enough to listen for God, but sometimes, the will of God is for us to stop, set up camp, and abide for a while.  In waiting, we give the Spirit a chance to meet us.  In waiting, we slow down enough to hear the call of God.  In waiting, we are blessed.

The Spirit of Truth

I am a big fan of the Seasonal Blessings that are published in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Occasional Services.  As one who prefers simple over the often unnecessarily complex when it comes to worship, I tend to prefer the single sentence blessings over the four-fold ones, but all of them are good, even if some are easier to say than other.  (See “your eternal inheritance” in the third part of the four-fold Easter Season blessing).  Of all the blessings published there, one of my favorites has to be the single sentence blessing for the Day of Pentecost.  I like to use it all season long, and while the Aaronic Blessing works well for Trinity Sunday, the Gospel appointed for Year C begs the Celebrant to use the Pentecost Day blessing this week as well.

May the Spirit of truth lead you into all truth, giving you grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and to proclaim the wonderful works of God; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always.  Amen. (BOS 2003, 27)

As Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure, he promises them in John 14:15, another advocate, the Paraclete, to be with them forever.  Immediately, in the very next verse, Jesus describes the work of the Paraclete as the “Spirit of truth,” or in Greek to pneuma tas alatheias – a spirit which Jesus says world cannot receive because they do not know the truth.  When he reprises the theme later in chapter 16, a portion of which is appointed for Trinity Sunday C, Jesus uses the exact same phrase to describe the Spirit of truth who will come to help the disciples come to grips with the fullness of the truth that even they can not handle at this point.

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Holy Spirit by Colleen Shay

The fullness of the truth of God’s love is impossible for the world to understand, to be sure, but here Jesus seems to indicate that it is even too much for those who are following Jesus.  They won’t understand his death.  They’ll miss the fullness of joy that should follow his resurrection.  They’ll struggle with their call to feed his lambs, to preach the Gospel, to baptize, to teach, to be one, and, most especially, the commandment to love one another.  They will consistently fall short of the truth of God’s love, and so do I.

The Spirit of truth has to be revealed slowly, over a lifetime, otherwise it is too much even for Jesus’ closest followers to handle.  That’s why I love the blessing for the Day of Pentecost so much.  Inviting the Spirit of truth to lead us into all truth is part of that lifelong process of discipleship and sanctification.  It is the blessing of joining the journey of revelation that God is constantly inviting us into.  It is a blessing we could hear everyday, and it wouldn’t be too often.

Amazed and Perplexed

Imagine the Pentecost scene.  The city of Jerusalem is teeming with tourists in town to offer the first fruits of the spring wheat harvest.  Certainly there is still a bit of a buzz over this Jesus character who 50 days earlier was said to have risen from the dead after being crucified at the hands of Rome.  His disciples, dutifully following the directions Jesus gave them, are waiting and praying for the Advocate to come and guide them in what is coming next, when all of a sudden, the room is filled with noise and light and heat and flame.  The disciples, about 120 of them, begin to speak in a cacophony of voices that fill blocks upon blocks of the city with sound.  To everyone’s amazement, amidst all this noise, they are able to hear the testimony of God’s deeds of power – presumably in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – in their own native language.  Luke tells us that the crowds response was to be “amazed and perplexed.”

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The Greek literally says that they were “beside themselves” with amazement and “wholly at a loss” for what to make of what was happening right in front of them.  In the midst of this nearly out of body experience of awe and confusion, some were led to assume that the disciples were merely drunk.  This wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.  According to my HarperCollins Study Bible, wine was viewed in the Oracles at Delphi as an enhancement to prophetic speech.  While this response is humorous, and probably grabs our attention, the more important reaction comes from the majority of the crowd as the wonder:

“What does this mean?”

What does it mean that devout Jews from the diaspora, all in Jerusalem to take part in one of the less popular Jewish feasts, were given the privilege to hear a word about a subversive Rabbi who was put to death for claiming to be the Messiah?  What was God doing in that moment? Looking back, it makes sense that the coming of the Holy Spirit would coincide with a Jewish festival as it seems certain that in that moment, God was using the law to set people free from the corrupt Temple system and invite them into a new covenant with him through the resurrected Messiah.

What does this mean?  It means that it is God’s deepest desire that the whole world be restored to right relationship through the saving power of Jesus Christ.  It means that beginning in Jerusalem, with faithful Jews, the Good News of Jesus would spread to the whole world.  It means that God has a plan for salvation history, and that no matter when we come to faith, we have a role to play in that plan.  The Pentecost event is amazing and perplexing, but it is by design, for the sake of the whole world.

The end is near!

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The Pentecost story is a long one.  Peter’s speech wanders dangerously close to Antisemitism and is vaguely Supercessionist.  Rather than having to deal with the fullness of the story, we instead only get half of it in the RCL.  This is much better than the quarter of it that we got in the old BCP lectionary, but it still leaves us wanting: not just because we don’t get to hear the climax of the story – “they were cut to the quick” – but also because the focus of the early part of Peter’s sermon is so strongly eschatological is to be difficult to deal with 2,000 years later.

The end is near!

Peter fully expects that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the beginning of the end of days.  His sermon begins by paraphrasing the prophet Joel’s prophecy of the coming of a new age when the Spirit of God will be poured out on all people: young and old, slave and free, men and women.  What Peter and the rest of the 120 were experiencing was, at least to Peter’s mind, the fulfillment of that prophecy: a harbinger of the end.  Jesus was coming back to finish what he had started in his life, death, and resurrection.  Peter’s word is Joel’s word:

The end is near!
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Two thousand years later, Jesus is still seated at the right hand of the Father.  The Spirit continues to be at work in men and women, young and old, slave and free, but the apocalyptic fervor has waned.  The realized eschatology of Peter has faded into 25 lifetimes of the Spirit helping disciples figure out life in the meantime when prophesy is hard to discern, visions are hard to come by, and dreams are often fuzzy at best.  The gift of the Spirit on Pentecost ultimately wasn’t that Jesus was going to return immediately, but that God wouldn’t leave us comfortless while we waited.  We aren’t left here rudderless, but in the Holy Spirit, we have a guide for the long, often difficult, journey of discipleship.  This gift is promised, as Peter goes on to say, to “everyone whom the Lord God calls” (2:39).

The folly of [hu]man[ity]

It is upon us.  May has arrived with all its fury.  Graduations.  Dance recitals.  Band performances.  Warm weather.  In the midst of a flurry of activity, things begin to wind down.  Summer vacation is near!  Before we get there, however, we have to mark the changing season in the life of the Church as well.  The 50 days of Easter are nearly over.  The Day of Pentecost is near.  Churches will celebrate with balloons, cakes, and polyglotenous readings of the Acts of the Apostles.  Preachers will most likely steer clear of the lesson from Genesis, but they do so at their own peril.

I will readily admit that the story of the Tower of Babel is a fascinating tale, rife with theological difficulties.  It reads more like Greek mythology than it does Christian Scriptures.  It makes God sound vindictive, coercive, paranoid, and mean-spirited.  It is a dense story that requires a lot of unpacking, which is all the more reason to tackle it, even on the Day of Pentecost.  The story of the Tower of Babel serves as a helpful reminder of the unending folly of humanity.

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Again and again, humans attempt to place themselves on par with God, and again and again, we are reminded that only God is God.  The story of the Tower of Babel is a story of human pride.  “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…” is the cry of a people who have forgotten that their very breath is a gift from God.  The desire to “make a name for ourselves” or to find fame or to be remembered through history is the ongoing struggle between the will of human flesh and the will of God who gives us all things as gift.  To forget that is to succumb to the same temptation that cause Satan to fall.

Pride.  The folly of [hu]man[ity]

You don’t need to spend a full 12 minutes on the text, but I think it will be helpful for your congregations to be invited into the story, to look at the ways in which pride tries to place us on par with God, and to see how the Pentecost miracle essentially undoes the confusion of the people.  The confusion that came from humanity speaking of its own deeds of power is made whole as the 120 proclaim God’s deeds of power in languages that the whole world could understand.  The pride of humanity is replaced by the glory of God, in the Pentecost miracle, and that, I think, is worth at least a brief mention.

Of course, I’m not preaching this week, so it is very easy for me to tell you what to do.  No matter what, your words this Sunday will be important.  May you be like Peter, and boldly proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.