Pentecost – Sun June 9, 2019
Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 14
“Timesup”… It’s a “metoo” moment. GSA’s are for friendship between cis-gender and LGBTQ+ people. Are you woke to micro-aggressions? Land acknowledgements are one aspect of the TRC report. This week some of our neighbours celebrated the end of Ramadan with Eid al Fitr. The increasing diversity of our world, our country, our city… is reflected in our language. Our language shifts and expands, sometimes at a dizzying pace. It can be hard to keep up… to understand what’s going on… to just understand the words people around us might use. Social media has, of course, contributed to the process, with twitter hashtags becoming part of everyday conversation. Whatever the source, language reflects our society, and language creates it.
In the beginning, a mere 10 chapters in to the story of God’s people in Genesis, human society had already settled in one place. “The whole earth had one language and the same words.” They decided to “build… a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens…” to make a name for themselves. God saw what the people were doing… and God understood the desires of their hearts… and God knew that empire-building was not the Divine vision for the world. “Look,” God said, “they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do…” The unanimity built around one language meant that much could be accomplished… great things could be done. But instead of supporting or celebrating such possibility, God chose a different path for humanity. The Lord confused their language and “scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth…” Unanimity… city-building… empire-building… is not the way of God.
Over the past several months, more and more it seems, I have heard expressions of fear, of lament, or of uncertainty about the loss of a sense of commonality. We miss having one language and the same words. I have heard people express confusion and concern about changing neighborhoods as old friends leave and new neighbours of different ethnic and religious backgrounds move in. The end of the era when everyone went to church, and when the church held a powerful role in society, the end of Christendom, is experienced as a great and fearful loss. In centuries past, every boat that left England had a priest on it… and thus was born the worldwide Anglican Communion. Our history is closely tied to the former British Empire. Canada as we have known it, exists for a similar reason, though I realize that is a significant historical simplification. Even as the American Empire replaced the British one, or as it has lived side-by-side with it, the Christian church retained its place next to, or with an office in, the halls of power. We know too that the world has changed, and is changing, greatly. We don’t yet know how to be a church without such cultural power. We don’t yet know how to function well without one language and the same words.
Rachel Held Evans was the voice of a new generation of North American Christians until she recently met her maker, all too soon. Among many aspects of Christianity, she talked about the challenge of the loss of cultural power in the contemporary Christian church. In a short video called “creating something new,” she talks about the death and resurrection of the church, saying… “… Maybe… for Christians in North America, we’re learning that Christianity isn’t about empire. Maybe our empire-building days are over. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the church isn’t about power and money and numbers. Maybe being the church is about something else…” The question is, of course, what that something else might be. How do we respond to the new languages around us?
The good news is that our ancestors in faith figured it out in their own time and place and they left us their stories from which to draw encouragement and inspiration. From Adam & Eve being kicked out of their first home, to Noah and his family starting over, and the people who sought to build a tower in the land of Shinar who we hear about today, God has always found a way. And more than finding a way to hold on, to survive, each of the key moments in the story of God and God’s people sees God’s love expanding beyond its earlier boundaries. In Genesis chapter 11, God intentionally spreads the people out over the face of all the earth, by ending their empire-building with confused speech. It happens again in the restoration after the Babylonian exile, when community boundaries change and membership shifts from hereditary entitlement to everyday practice.
With Jesus, everything changes again… everything except God’s love affair with humanity. The love of God once more expands to include more people, who had formerly been excluded. Jesus healed foreigners and Gentiles and told stories that made heroes of outsiders and sinners. As the story of Jesus shifts today to focus on the people of God as the body of Christ, we hear again about how confusion, confusion of language, helps the Good News of God’s love spread further, beyond its original boundaries. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of [the disciples] were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages…” I wonder what new and previously foreign language, the Holy Spirit might inspire you to speak this year? For our story today tells us that the Spirit of God blows where it will. We can catch it, move with it, and let it blow us to new and different places… or stay right where we are… whatever we choose, we are never outside of God’s love. And neither is anyone else.
And that is the crux of learning to be church without the power of empire. Being church is about living in the love of God and drawing confidence from that truth to be open to others… particularly others who are not like us… others who don’t look like us, or eat like us, or dress like us, or speak like us, or even worship like us. We are not the same but we share a common humanity, even if we no longer have one language and the same words. The good news of Pentecost is that with many languages, more people can hear of God’s deeds of power.
We come to worship week by week to be reminded about God’s love for us and for everyone… and we come to remember that we are created in the image of God, just like our neighbours are created in the image of God. It is only together that we can see more of the fullness of God. We are imperfect, just as our unfamiliar neighbours are imperfect. We do our best to love, so much like all those who no longer attend church or participate in formal Christianity. I once had a colleague in a training program explain, “I decided I could serve God better outside the church…” and I knew that she and I could find common ground from which to contribute to Calgary. The loss of cultural power… the end of Christian empire in Canada… might be uncomfortable. It might be sad and scary. It might be dislocating to hear new and unfamiliar languages, but it also might mean that something new is being born that we can be a part of.
Instead of worrying or fretting, we can choose to listen… to listen for God, even if the words sound strange. We can suspend our judgement and engage our curiosity… we can learn to see through the eyes of another and develop greater compassion… we can have courage to let go of our desire for empire. We listen and who knows what we might find God doing in ourselves and in our community?
In Jesus’ farewell speech in John’s Gospel, Jesus assures the disciples, Jesus assures us, that the Holy Spirit would come to remind us of Jesus’ love and teaching. Today is the day for this promise of God to be fulfilled, so “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Peace I leave with you.