June 04, 2017
In a sermon years ago during Advent, I told a congregation that we need not be so purely Protestant that we forget the power of image as an aid to evangelism. So, for Advent, I wanted a powerful symbol for chasuble and altar frontals: a bulldozer. That’s right: a big, yellow bulldozer, representing the coming in judgment of all of God’s power to change the face of the earth, lowering mountains and filling in valleys, making the way level, bringing an equality to all humans regardless of whether they grew up on the safe hills overlooking town or in flood-prone lowlands. If there is one thing the church can easily do, it is to remind us through liturgy and symbol of our call to reconcile one human being to another.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, a principal feast in the life of the church that may also be crying out for even wider ways that we see liturgical symbols in an age in which the idea of evangelism is so fundamentally changing. For example, we no longer see it as our goal to go evangelize the unchurched so that we can help them become more like us. That sort of evangelism, for example, led to the subjugation of Native-Americans in our own country and the destruction of their cultures. And I want us to be able to see the fire of Pentecost day as more than just flames. Subconsciously, flames can play into a narrative of destruction, because fire destroys, and we have destroyed much. Even our sense of fire as purifying agent has resulted in modern purity codes, which have kept so many people away from Christianity’s Holy Tables. We need to be focusing on real issues of everyday hurt.
But I do know that something holy and vital for today’s church is going on in the lesson from the Book of Acts. The amazement and astonishment on Pentecost is when people listen to the many and varied voices. Not tongues of fire, but honest to goodness tongues. Perhaps it is time to look at the outlines of fire on the altar frontal as also representing an oscillogram of sound wave, a remind for us to listen.
I have just returned from a meeting of the House of Bishops theology committee. We had not met in over a year, and as you know, a lot has occurred in this nation in the last twelve months. We were trying to determine exactly what the church can do to help overcome the tension that exists even inside congregations over political loyalties. How can the church address the selfishness of our actions? And then there is the environmental struggle to care for creation, and more broadly, the isolation that results when the only voices we hear are chosen for us by unseen algorithms designed to reinforce what we already believe. Everything I read or listen to mirrors my worldview, and there is something unholy about that fact. What we know is that right now we are in a world of hurt. This world is broken and sin filled. I think the anxiety that almost everyone feels every day is proof enough of the reality of that statement.
The story of Pentecost gives us a chance to change the status quo. The change can come from the admission that it is amazing and astonishing, to use the words of the writer of the Book of Acts, to listen, to open one’s ears to new voices. Good news comes from listening as much as from talking. That is certainly a change from how we have looked at evangelism.
Pentecost is as good a day as any to talk about the mission of the church. After all, we like to say, somewhat truthfully, that the church was born on this day. Any entity needs a mission, or it will soon die. Our mission is no less than the reconciliation of God with humanity and human being with human being. Authentic reconciliation can become reality when we listen, when we converse, when we engage.
When our theology committee started taking a close look at what it means for the body of Christ—and its members—to use the body’s ears to listen, we realized that it is not something that we can do while sitting in church buildings. Churches are fairly quiet places. Come here any weekday and experience the silence. Rather, listening and conversation and engagement take place when the church gets out of its buildings and puts its ear to the ground for a real Pentecost experience. Hear the multiplicity of languages, hear the stories of people who disagree with us, hear the stories of the least and the last who have never been in this room, even hear the story of the earth itself as creation—and the earth’s varied peoples—continue to groan under our poor stewardship.
Active listening will be painful, but if we can so talk about tongues of fire coming down on people, which seems rather painful to me, then we can push through the experience of the pain of listening to stories that make us uncomfortable about our own complicity in the evils—both small and large—that make up so much of life.
This is holy pain, and such holy pain can lead to repentance, and repentance—not simply an apology, but a turning around to a new way to live—starts to make real the hope that we Christians have that ultimately we will be reconciled to one another and in that process be reconciled to God.
The church that is born on Pentecost is not about having as its primary focus bringing more people in to its buildings in order to make them like us. If anything, people coming into our buildings ought to teaching us a few things about what the world is really like. The church that is born on Pentecost is about good news, and good news first and foremost must be presented to people who feel that they have no good news in their lives, whether due to skin color or lack of opportunity or ill health or broken relationships or crushing debt or any accident of birth. We who are inside this church sometimes will find ourselves in one of those groups. And thus we need to listen to each other.
And for all those people outside the church, we have to go stand beside them and listen to their stories and talk with them and engage them so that good news breaks forth even in the midst of a broken and sinful world. It is then that the kingdom of God becomes current reality.
On this Pentecost listen to the writer of the Book of Acts when he tells us that it is amazing and astonishing when we hear the Medes and Elamites and Pamphylians of the 21st century. Whose voices are they? That is exactly why Holy Scripture is still holy; it is still speaking to us right now, the Pentecost story being lived out today.
Whose voices, whose languages, will we hear? If we want to experience the good news, then listen to what the Spirit is saying to God’s people. And when we listen, we will be well on our way to finding eternal life. Amen.