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Dreaming God’s Dream (a sermon for pentecost)

1st Reading: Genesis 11:1-9  (translated by Theodore Hiebert)

All the earth had one language and the same words. When they traveled toward the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar, and they settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and let us fire them.” The bricks were stones for them, and asphalt was mortar for them. And they said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let us make a name for ourselves, so that we will not be dispersed over the surface of all the earth.” Then God came down to see the city and the tower which the human race built. And God said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let us go down and let us mix there their language, that they will not understand one another’s language.” Then God dispersed them from there over the surface of all the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore, God named it Babel, for there God mixed the language of all the earth, and from there God dispersed them over the surface of all the earth.

2nd Reading: Acts 2:1-18 

When the day of Pentecost (Shavuot) had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’

Sermon: Dreaming God’s Dreams…

So here we are in Jerusalem for another festival. You know It’s a wonder Jesus’ followers would be willing to pile into Jerusalem for another festival after what happened the last time they set foot in the city on a festival day. Don’t you suppose they came through the door of their probably hesitant host with some amount of trepidation? I wonder if the sounds and color of that Palm Sunday parade or the memory of Jesus around that table, or the fear of the guards who arrested him mixed in with the strange experience of the empty tomb washed over them? Did they gather around tables and exchange notes on who had seen Jesus where? What had he said and done in secret rooms and on the beach? Were they excited? Afraid? Triumphant?

When I was little I remember hearing this story and imagining a secret gathering… sort of like a special agent planning kind of meeting where they discussed their Jesus sightings and decided what their next move would be.

That’s what I pictured because most pictures and Sunday school lessons of this day imply or teach that there were just a few straggly disciples hunkered down together that day.  But the story written here in Acts 2 tells us that they all gathered… and earlier in Acts (1:15) we read that all of these early Christ followers have grown in number to “about one hundred and twenty persons”.

And so here they all are. It is the joyful festival of Shavuot… the celebration of first fruits, when the first fruits of harvest are given to God. Can you see them crowding into a house together? Passing the peace and wondering what might happen this time…

And of course, God doesn’t disappoint!

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:2-4)

This all “would have included the women and the men, the Twelve, and the many other unnamed, faithful followers of Jesus. All of these receive the Holy Spirit; all are given the gifts of speaking in other languages. This follows a pattern that will reoccur again and again in Acts, the Holy Spirit has a tendency not to discriminate based on human standards.”[i]

All of this commotion, the loud winds and strange flickering fire and the cacophony of over one hundred voices drew a crowd… can you imagine it? The neighbors poured out of their houses and the street filled with people…

The story describes those “living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5, 14) as devout Jews from every nation – “these were immigrants, not pilgrims as we often imagine, but those who had emigrated from areas of the Roman Empire to the north, east, south, and west of Jerusalem. As subjects of Rome, all of them would have spoken Greek, the language of the Roman military and of commerce for much of the early imperial period. But they were also multilingual, speaking languages of their natal lands also.”[ii]

It’s almost as if God’s holy winds had blown the walls of the house clean off, because suddenly there are throngs of people and there are the disciples right in the midst of them… And as they pour into the streets the disciples are speaking in the natal languages of all of these immigrant peoples; not in the language of the empire, but in the languages of the people. Can you imagine that? Have you ever been lost in a foreign land, unable to communicate and suddenly heard your native tongue? Have you ever gotten lost or confused and then discovered just one familiar landmark or seen just one familiar face in the chaos?

Often times we read this story along side the story we heard this morning from Genesis about the city of Babel and we think oh… this is God putting things back together. At Babel God stirs things up, scattering folks and giving them different languages and here, finally, at Pentecost, God is putting things back together. Some scholars have even called this day a reversal of Babel. But think about it. The Genesis story of Babel explains the creation of multiple languages; and its reversal would be the creation of one unifying language. But that’s not what happens here at all, rather than requiring of all of the people to speak one language, Pentecost gives power to the band of Jesus followers to speak all the languages of the world.

At Babel God leans in and notices that folks are beginning to look and sound an awfully lot alike. And God says aloud (seems like he’s talking to mother wisdom again) “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let us go down and let us mix there their language, that they will not understand one another’s language.” (Genesis 11)

God mixes language and dispersed people at Babel because it’s God’s unfolding dream for the world that the world is filled to the brim with a beautiful collage of diversity, color, language and culture. The story doesn’t tell us God is angry or punishing the people, but it does tell us that God’s spirit will sweep in and stir up some new life and some difference where things are getting stale.

The Spirit blows in and mixes things up… in the city of babel it mixed up the language and sent the people out… out of complacency and safety and into the world.

In Jerusalem it causes confusion, which is pretty hilarious given that everyone actually understood the words coming out of the mouths of the disciples. The confusion of the Jewish community is in trying to piece together what on earth is happening, Suddenly God is speaking in and through this band of Galilean Jesus followers. They’re not in a synagogue or temple. This isn’t a voice of authority. Not a rabbi or temple elite, not a roman official or imperial guard, but in their own voices, in the words of each of their ancestors and in the words of their mothers.

In Jerusalem Peter quotes the prophet Joel, declaring that this Holy Wind will make prophets of our children, infuse us with the dreams and visions of God. If only we can hear them… if only we can see them…

Turning in your Easter Homework – finding evidence of resurrection, of new life…

On Easter Sunday you recieved this homework:

Pay Attention

Look for signs of resurrection – of new life

Report Back – Tell about it

(We did this as a congregation, taking a moment to record signs of resurrection and new life that we’d witnessed over the last 7 weeks. Then we turned and shared these with our neighbors, then we reported back to the larger group.)

Pentecost is another birthing moment… it marks the birth or beginning of the Church but how does this birth continue to happening in us? In the life of our church and in our own lives?

How is God’s dream being born through us?

The Holy Spirit Turns the house inside out… how are we getting outside our own house?

How are we getting outside of our own train station?

What Holy Spirit wind will blow our walls down? What commotion are we creating? Where are we seeking new life?

We too, are the prophets and the dreamers… God’s vision for the world becomes our vision, when we are looking at the world like God does. God’s dream for the world becomes our dream when we see God’s new life springing forth and we become the prophets we are called to be when we witness to what we’ve seen. When we report back and tell our stories to others.

Recently on a Tennessee gas station bathroom wall I saw evidence of our need to connect to one another, to share a common story. The walls were covered with folks penning hello from all over, giving their names and their home states, even their home cities. We have a deep human need to connect, a need to be in common, a need to tell our story and hear from one another. The folks working hard to build the tower in Babel make total sense to me. Of course we want to gather with others like us, how often do you find yourself in conversation trying to find out everything you don’t have in common with another? Never.  Even when we gather with those who are different we begin to come together, with common language, values and ideas, we are changed by one another and we move closer to one another…

It’s not bad or good, the desire for sameness. But our differences are often what create the spaces for growth, in our relationships and in our communities. It’s often, here in our community  around these very tables, that I hear someone say, I just don’t know if I’m the right fit for this work group… I am not all that sure I belong in leadership, what I’m bringing is different than what others bring to the table…

What if, instead of imagining that our differences keep us out or are reason to exclude ourselves…  what if we imagined that our differences were exactly what was needed? What if these differences, our different ideas and perspectives, our different stories and gifts, each given to all of us were the very dreams and prophesies that God is pouring into us? What if the differences we encounter in the world are what we most need to pay attention too? To see God working in all things?

Our biblical stories today in Babel and Jerusalem are not the antithesis of one another… one doesn’t break us and the other fix us.

Instead they invite us into the ebb and flow of the work of the Holy Spirit. Like our breath, inhaling and exhaling, the Spirit moves us into communities of comfort and back out into the world. The Spirit blows through our midst shaping our visions and dreams for the future – sometimes asking us to take dramatic risks and make mighty changes but then… then she reforms and remakes us, comforts and encourages us, moving us ever closer into the new life God’s dreaming for us. Amen.


[i] Aymer, Margaret. Edited by, Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown (2011-06-10). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16) (Kindle Locations 782-784). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[ii] ibid

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Palm Sunday: Take it to the streets.

Sermon: Students of Possibility

Palm Sunday

Luke 19: 28-40

Trying out the human mic… the human mic is a process used by protesters, demonstrators or occupiers… it’s used when a crowd gathers with out permit or permission to use sound equipment in order to be heard. And so they use their voices to amplify the message… let’s try it. I say something and the few people who hear me repeat it – then it gets repeated again until the crowd picks it up.

Mic check… mic check…

Blessed is the king…

Who comes in the name of the Lord…

Peace in heaven…

Glory in the highest heaven…

Blessed is the king…

Who comes in the name of the Lord…

Peace in heaven…

Glory in the highest heaven…

This is the story of Palm Sunday as told by Luke… it’s the story of a community organizer… Jesus, organizing his people and staging a demonstration – This day we’ve come to call Palm Sunday – although no palms appear in our Luke text – is a staged move. It’s intentional and particular, an on-purpose, enactment of the words familiar to his own tradition found in Zechariah chapter 9… Jesus sends his disciples on a mission to get not just any animal but a donkey – and not for just anyone but for the Lord – words echoed in the song of Zechariah:

9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Jesus could have ridden into the city on any day and attracted attention. There was already talk of his arrest, he had been driven into hiding and had just resurface the day before at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha where many had heard of his return and had gathered to see not only him but the resurrected Lazarus as well…

But Jesus chooses this day, this time – this is beyond a public demonstration – this is a particular time set aside for the celebration of Passover – when thousands of Jews from far and wide are entering the gates of Jerusalem – the very home of God – the place in which heaven touches the earth – and they enter in a way that symbolizes the exodus of their people – this a time already steeped in the memory of how God rescued their people from the hands of a powerful oppressor.

This is a time in which emotions are running high. Imagine the atmosphere – the fervor of celebration – and in remembering an exodus of old there is a longing to be free again. Free of the Roman occupation, free of the rules, regulations and taxes, free from poverty, free from the violence they’ve encountered each time they’ve risen up – for generations they had been conquered, oppressed and even exiled by Babylon, Assyria, Persia, the Greeks, and finally Rome. It was the Persians that allowed the Jews to return to their homeland after so many years of exile; but freedom had never arrived; just a new kind of exile.

So even in the midst of this ‘celebration’ there is an ingrained hope that a “new exodus” would free God’s people from the “oppressive weight of empire.”

Imagine the hope of celebration mixed in with the fear and discontent. Imagine this swelling crowd pushing it’s way into the city. Imagine the fear in the hearts of the temple officials and the Pharisees that had been forced to collaborate with Rome and were now expected to control this crowd.

And here comes Jesus and his multitude of disciples… (cue the human mic)

Blessed is the king…

Who comes in the name of the Lord…

Peace in heaven…

Glory in the highest heaven…

It’s a movement… a street theatre and a political action… Jesus touches on the crowds longing for deep change, for something to hope for, for the promise of a revolution.

But what kind of change is Jesus really offering?

A regime change? Just a change in political party? A hostile take over?

Some who were gathered there – some of Jesus’ own disciples truly did believe Jesus was there to execute a hostile take-over of the Temple, even of all of Jerusalem, that he would in fact become their King on earth

There were also some who were just thrilled to finally see this Jesus in person… the one who crosses all kinds of boundaries… they have heard the stories of teaching and helping, of Lazarus’ Resurrection, the blind man’s tale, the mothers’ whose children were healed and the teaching about a God who has come near to hear, see and feel the pain of the people.

And this is the key– all kinds of boundaries – remember at the beginning of Luke when Jesus first claims his role in fulfilling the prophecies? Remember when his hometown nearly throws him over the cliff because he suggests that God’s dream for the world includes more than just the folks sitting in the temple? Jesus doesn’t just touch the lepers and feed the hungry… he also sits at table with tax collectors, Pharisees and other collaborators of Rome. Jesus offers a vision… a possibility greater than the multitude of disciples, the crowd, the Jewish or the Roman officials, and even we… all these generations later can quite imagine.

Jesus takes it to the streets as an agitator for peace… Yes – to offer an alternative to Roman Rule and Rome’s collaborators… but not an alternative that simply means flipping the power structure – it’s an alternative that means abolishing it completely.

And yet, again and again it is so difficult – almost impossible to see another way – a truly new way. So the crowd – while some of them might say yes! Here comes the one who will make for peace! Others might be saying, hooray! Here comes the one who will not simply save us but will cut down our enemies…

 And how often do our cries for peace turn to cries for revenge?

How often do our cries for justice (getting what we need, what is enough and sustains us, what gives us meaning and preserves our integrity, our humanity) turn to cries for retributive ‘justice’ instead (a desire for punishment, eye-for-an-eye, by any means necessary ‘equal treatment’ and violence)?

Let’s go back to Zechariah for a moment, after he sings about one who will enter both triumphant and humble he sings this:

  and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. 

Jesus takes steps on this day that mean no going back – he offers a possibility that he know will not be understood – that continues to be so very difficult for us to hear, to embody.

Just after our scripture reading for today ends Jesus stops at the edge of the city, takes a long look at Jerusalem and then weeps. He says aloud, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43  The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides. 44  They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.”

Jesus is telling the people – all of them, his disciples and the Jews gathered from near and far, the Pharisees and officials, the Roman guards… your thirst for power, your anger, your desire to push another down and to trample those whom you hate will destroy you.

 How hard this must have been to hear for the most oppressed? Where was their ruler and King? Where was their savior? What do we do when our leadership disappoints us?

How often is that our salvation doesn’t come in the way we are looking for? How often do we confuse success… and coming out on top with being rescued by God?

As I was finishing my sermon yesterday I kept thinking about how we took to the streets for the CROSSwalk on Friday night (protest and solidarity with those who are being overwhelmed and oppressed by gun violence in chicago’s streets)…

There were several things the crowd heard chanted and chanted back in return… We walk… Let justice roll down…

Many people, parents, siblings, community members spoke that had lost a loved one – often a child to gun violence. I imagine – like the community of folks who couldn’t escape the oppression of the Roman empire they were tired, and angry and sad – and yet the gathering gave them hope – the people who were willing to take to the streets created a sense, however small, of possibility.

But really it wasn’t enough… I think of how many folks turned out into the very same streets to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day last weekend… and I don’t mean that in a judgmental way at all – celebration is good. But what does it mean when we turn out in the millions for celebration but only a in the hundreds to stand for peace? To offer solidarity to those that are suffering so immensely?

As we walked another member of my church asked me, “You’re queen for a day, how would you fix it?”

And I really don’t know. I know there are deep and troubling issues at the intersection of poverty, racism and cycles and cycles of violence and hopelessness… but I don’t know and this unknowing makes me angry… how I wonder can we make for peace in the streets? How is it fair that at my kids school every third grader has an ipad and in other neighborhoods students don’t have notepads? How is it that we build things like Trump Towers downtown where we walked and there are kids without homes to go to in neighborhoods all over the city? I encountered an artist this week who each year recreates the stations of cross around the story of a different marginalized people. She suggests that the face of the crucified Jesus is their face. If these communities are where Christ Crucified lives then how do we respond?

I’d certainly like a Jesus figure to come in and lay down the law… I’d like a powerful Jesus person to come in and redistribute the wealth… and yet here comes Jesus and he says yes, of course you’re right Shawna. Every single one of these kids, the ones who are getting shot and the ones carrying guns, and their folks and their families, they are welcome at the table. But then so are you Shawna and right next to you is going to sit Donald Trump, and I’ll give you Anne Lamott (I mean as long as we’re dreaming) across the way but then you can’t just talk to her,  you’ve got to make friends with Donald too. You’ve got to lay down all the prejudice and anger and assumptions and pull up to the table and work out your plan for peace together.

What are the things that make for peace?

Luke tells us that the crowd laid down their cloaks in order to make way for Jesus… to clear the path and make his way down the Mount of Olives and across the valley towards the gates of Jerusalem easy –

What will we lay down in order to make a way for peace?

Can we lay down our own coats? Our own protective garments – the ones that we wear to protect us from strangers? The ones built of armor to protect us from being hurt or broken-hearted? The ones that cover our heads and faces, keeping us from seeing the how systems of poverty and oppression continue to flourish when our eyes our covered?

How far are we willing to go to make for peace?

Most of the crowd that gathered this day couldn’t stay with him all the way to the cross, the journey became too dangerous, too fearful, too painful – some even turned against him.

In my pastoral care training I encountered the phrase, lead from behind… it always stuck with me. I like the idea that a person can lead the way to their own wholeness, to their own recovery. That one-way of ministering to another is to listen to their story and their cues. To lead them by following them… to stay with them. And as holy week unfolds, we are charged with staying awake – staying with Jesus.

But Luke’s Jesus is a prophet and prophecy is all about getting out front not following behind, and that’s what Jesus teaches us on this Palm Sunday. He gets out front and cast a vision that more than a thousand years later we’re still catching on and catching up to.

What is Jesus’ vision? Is it a hostile take-over? Is it a revenge or retribution? No… no it’s not. It’s this crazy idea that every single person… the tax collector who collaborates with the enemy and the crazy folks possessed by demons and the unclean folks and the blind folks and the once dead folks are all welcome to participate… they are all a part of this kin-dom vision…this heaven meets earth, and peace engulfs them both vision.

Can you imagine it? It sounds risky and foolish really…  Can you imagine the possibilities if we took to the streets and invited them all in? Every person we encountered? If we continue to take our tables out to the streets and feed all kinds of people, even the ones you don’t think deserve it?  If we truly welcomed not only the poor but the rich? The really smart and the ones that seem a little crazy? The kind and the unkind? The lost kids like that prodigal son and the know-it-all been around forever folks like that annoying older brother? Argh…. Don’t you hate this vision?

And yet we’re invited to follow – to follow in Jesus’ prophetic footsteps. What will make for peace? What will bring us to the streets? How will we agitate for peace?

It could get us in trouble… it certainly did Jesus. This is the time of year you really start questioning the choice of following him isn’t? I mean all the way to the cross? It could get you killed –

But… it might also get you resurrected.

AMEN

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Lent 3.16.11

Be Nourished

I’m a week late but have finally settled on a Lenten practice — I’m going to post a drawing each day from now till Easter. It’s been a rough winter and my soul was so in need of the extra hour of sunlight we gained this week with the time change. Today’s drawing is a meditation on the sense of renewal that I feel as the days grow longer and ever so slightly warmer. It also reminds me of the way these quiet days of Lent make space for me to grieve what has been lost, to listen for signs of new life and to prepare room in my heart and my imagination for God to do a new thing.

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