During parts of the Acts reading, four voices read from Psalms 104 and 113, and Isaiah 49 and 61 in French, Italian, German, and Haitian Creole
It’s always a little surprising to me how much weird stuff we have in our tradition that we haven’t somehow managed to sanitize and tone down. Despite all our impulses to line things up neatly, categorized by color and type and size, Pentecost (the very beginning of the church!) is a joyful and extravagant breaking of all those boundaries. God pours Spirit into our world with such abandon that “regular” people think the prophets are drunk. Because decent people don’t cry out in the streets, don’t proclaim God’s goodness in many languages, don’t sing for joy of God’s good works in our world of brokenness. And yet these are our spiritual ancestors! This is the birth of church as we know it – the very first Christian sermons written off as the rantings of people who had gotten carried away at their Shavuot celebrations, the sort of white-noise of city streets that is barely worth our attention.
“They are filled with new wine,” some said. I love that they specify new wine, as if someone had heard Jesus’ parable of pouring new wine into old wineskins – they’re not just drunk on any old wine, they’re drunk on the possibilities for the future! They are intoxicated by visions and dreams and prophecy of the new reality God has promised. Because what is sobriety, normalcy, if not simply acceptance of the way things are? The way of sin and separation from God, all the things we see in our world that we know are not the way God means them to be, all that is to be tolerated for the sake of not stirring things up. Because “the way things are” usually works pretty well for people in the mainstream.
There’s a reason that so many prophets and apostles and heroes (from the biblical era to the modern day) have come from the margins of society – when you’re on the edges or the bottom, you almost have to have a vision of something different in order to have any hope at all. Because the present order offers very little possibility. But the new order in which God’s way rules – that one can become fleshed out and dreamed, fervently, into reality. And it is not just other-wordly dreaming; when it is most keenly realized, it becomes hope for the present world, and motivation to change the present world. When that hope becomes tangible, we are filled with the poured-out Spirit of God and we cannot contain that vision – it spills from our lips in languages we barely understand, because the new vision of what we hope for in God cannot be contained by any one language or limited to any one people.
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The story of Babel was told for centuries to explain why there were so many different people in the world, with different languages that sometimes have very little in common. It’s so funny to me that somehow that became a story of divine punishment, as if somehow human diversity couldn’t be anything else except a punishment. Our human urge, always, has been for unity and sameness, but that is clearly not God’s urge. God continues to create people in an infinite variety of shapes and colors and genders and nationalities and languages and sexualities and talents and passions and skills, despite all the laws and restrictions we might put in place to try and tame this wildness. Over and over again, we build monuments to human power and to human sameness – sameness which would make itself divine – and over and over God shatters the towers of homogeneity and scatters us into little rainbows of difference, separated only by our fears and our ignorance of one another.
But in Pentecost, God affirms not just that these many languages and many ways of being are of God’s own creation, but also that we can still speak to one another. God’s Spirit poured out does not erase our difference, but it does mean that God’s people from every corner of the earth can dream together about God’s promised future. Because the future vision is not one of sameness – but it is one in which our difference does not divide us. The scattered peoples of Babel are brought back together – not to be the same but, filled with God’s Spirit, to speak one another’s languages and live together in the very wildness and unpredictability of the poured-out Spirit.
There is a quote that’s usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that describes the ways movements for justice start out on the margins, treated like the drunken prophets on street corners, before finally people start to pay attention. I like it better in the words of labor activist Nicholas Klein in his speech to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”
Jesus might substitute, “and then they crucify you,” whereas Martin Luther King, Jr. might specify “and then they shoot you outside your motel,” although in his case it looks like the line about monuments is truly accurate. Speaking words of hope and newness is by definition nonconformist. Because what is conformity besides accepting reality as it is – and yet, that is not the gospel we follow. The good news that continues to grab our attention is that even though this world is full of broken people and unjust systems and inexplicable tragedy and inhuman greed, this is not the end.
But this message is not always popular, because hoping and yearning and striving for a new order means first admitting that this current world order is not all it’s cracked up to be. And for some people that’s easier than others. But the thing is, as soon as you point out that this world needs fixing – suddenly you’re some kind of radical, best ignored or quieted in the interest of “not making a fuss.” Even though, of course, most people when pressed will admit that, no, things aren’t really perfect, but what can you do?? It is only when things get to a certain intolerable point – say, a beloved church is threatened with closing its doors – that we can dare to hope for something better. There is no more insisting that, really, we’re fine just the way we are, thank you very much; and so we are finally free to imagine all the things that are possible! Because why not! The visions of new days, new heavens and new earth, sung out by prophets for generations, as beautiful and extravagant and colorful as they are, those visions can only really take hold when the current day has lost its sheen.
But, there is a long line of prophets that go before us, painting pictures and dreaming dreams of a future in which God’s way rules. Before he proclaims the coming of God’s spirit, Joel spends a chapter and a half lamenting the destruction he sees around him, which is as much spiritual destruction as it is literal military occupation. He says, “They have divided my land, and cast lots for my people, and traded boys for prostitutes, and sold girls for wine, and drunk it down…. You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks”! But in those days, says Joel, those days we hope for that are almost within grasping distance, in those days the armies of sin and the invading warriors of injustice have been driven off by God’s mercy and love for God’s people. In those days “the Spirit shall be poured out on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and the young ones shall see visions and the old ones dream dreams,” and you will be saved! The day when God’s Spirit is poured out is a day when the occupying power has been overthrown, and the oppression of the people is ended, and God has restored the people to health and abundance and they “shall never again be put to shame.”
Now, we may not resonate today with the sense of being invaded – oppressed – by a foreign power (our country is more often the occupier than the occupied) but we certainly can recognize that God’s way does not rule this country or any other. That millions go without their daily bread, no debtors are ever forgiven, and neighbors are rarely truly loved. That we cannot truly follow our creed, Jesus is Lord, when so many idols and laws and charismatic leaders get in the way, other lords clamoring for our attention. It is impossibly difficult for us to live as if God’s Kingdom has come, on earth as in heaven, when we are citizens of so many different other kingdoms (or democracies) which divide the people of God through fear and distrust and ignorance of one another.
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But Pentecost changes all that. Our God drives away those who would enslave us, and pours out God’s Spirit abundantly on all people, and breaks down the things that divide us. We do not suddenly become the same – no, because our difference is not the problem. It is our fear that changes – suddenly we can praise God in every language on earth! We can sing of God’s boundless love and saving grace and works of power with every single person from every nation, because we need them and they need us, because only together can we be a little piece of the Kingdom of God.
Inspired by God’s Spirit, we dare to envision a world in which all people have enough to eat, where even the poor are healed, where peacemakers are blessed, where no person is bought or sold. We dare to take Jesus at his word. We dare to believe that each one of us is loved for exactly who we are. We dare to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and we dare to love our neighbors as ourselves. We dare, even though we know that proclaiming this gospel will get us written off as drunk or crazy or both; we dare because we will be in very good company.