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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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Students of Life (a sermon for easter sunday)

Students of Life

“Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.” 

~Mary Oliver

Luke 24:1-12
24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they [women who followed him from galilee] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.
24:2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
24:3 but when they went in, they did not find the body.
24:4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.
24:5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.

24:6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,
24:7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”
24:8 Then they remembered his words,
24:9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
24:10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.
24:11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
24:12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.             

Who are these crazy women?

We’ve got some unlikely witnesses here… today’s scripture tells us that it is “Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James”, and then adds “and other women”. Earlier in chapter 23 Luke tells us that these women are the ones who followed Jesus from galilee (Luke 23:55) and earlier in chapter 8 he describes them in this way, “there were women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: [that was] Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. (Luke 8:2-4)

These women from Galilee, have been with Jesus for the long haul, they fed and followed him, sat like students at his feet and prepared for his death.  They witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 23:49) – and remained at Jesus’ side when everyone else had fled, Among the “other women” I imagine Martha and her sister Mary walking together and Mary, Jesus’ own mother who ushered him into the world at birth and sat at the foot of the cross when he was crucified, surely, she was there too… All of them climbing the hill to the tomb – a community of women, ready to do the burial work, the grief work – ready with their spices and their oils – to lovingly say goodbye.

But when they arrived at the tomb it was open… can’t you imagine them peering in – too many to all look in at once, they crowd the opening and take turns gaping at what appears to be an empty tomb. But their confusion turns quickly to fear when two men appear… dazzling white like that messenger Mary must remember from so many years ago who brought the first rumor of incarnation…

Can you imagine them dropping together to the ground – in terror and amazement…

And this is my favorite part – according to Luke, these men don’t even bother with trying to calm them, there’s no “don’t be afraid” or “do not fear” like we’ve heard from such gospel messengers before. Instead they ask the women whose heads are on the floor,

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.

Now, all the gospel accounts of these days are rich in their variety and each offers a unique interpretation of the events leading to Jesus death and resurrection but one detail they share is utter silence on the part of the disciples and followers of Jesus in those hours and days between his death and sunrise on the third day… its almost as if the whole community dies with Christ on the cross… after a blow by blow account of the days and hours from Palm Sunday till Jesus last breath and final word from the cross the silence of the following hours and days is deafening.

The gospel of Luke tells us these same women saw his body from the cross to the tomb. and then we get nothing until the sound of their footsteps fall on the sunlit path to the tomb. There is not one account – not in Luke or any other gospel – of a disciple, man or woman, who said “wait a minute, Jesus said this would happen, Jesus is not dead, I know it!” There was silence and there was sorrow, there was disappointment and disbelief – in the face of such trauma, such violence and loss how could they possibly remember…  how could they even think straight, they must have been overwhelmed with such grief. How could they have thought to look for Christ anywhere but the grave?

But when the dazzling men said to them,

Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

They remembered his words and turned back towards Jerusalem at once to tell the others.

This is what a witness does – they see or experience something – something that moves them or marks them or terrifies them and they can’t help but tell about it.
Can you imagine how their sorrow began to ebb making space for curiosity? For joy as they moved, in mass, back to Jerusalem? Can you imagine how what had been a quiet moving vigil towards the tomb transformed into a noisy procession as this crazy news bubbled up from inside them on their way back?

When they return to the disciples still huddled in grief they all crowd in and tell them everything they had seen. I imagine them all speaking at once, telling one another, confirming and affirming their stories – an unlikely bunch of witnesses, chosen to be the bearers of terrifying and exhilarating news.

The gospel of Luke tells us that the story fell on deaf ears, that these words seemed, to the apostles gathered there, an idle tale, and they did not believe them. The words: idle tale are a kind translation, “the greek word here is lēros, (it’s only appearance in the New Testament), is usually reserved to describe the ranting of a person suffering from delirium.”[i]

Which is ironic given that for many of these women such as Mary Magdalene, this is just what Jesus rescued them from in the midst of his ministry and now as the witnesses of his resurrection our thought to be mad. Once again Jesus turns everything we think we understand upside down…

Martin Marty says that “Sometimes stories are too weird to be taken seriously, and sometimes the tellers of the stories are weirder yet.” And this is a weird story – really the whole story of Jesus from beginning to end – like an sixth grader I met recently said, “first God gets born to this random woman and then grows up and does all kinds of weird stuff, healing folks and loving folks… how does that work?” And then instead of loving him back he gets rejected, then  he ends up dying a scandalous death of an outlaw, crucified on the cross… and now… and now, he’s not dead? He’s alive? It’s an unbelievable story told by this crazy community of women,

The tomb is empty – Jesus is not there, Jesus has risen – he is among the living.

Don’t look for him among the dead.

This news the community of women bring is perplexing, and disconcerting… if there’s anything we can count on in the human experience it’s that generally dead people stay dead… we face these losses and we struggle with the grief and we turn to our memories for comfort – but it’s a story we know how to do. We know how to gather together for comfort and burial preparations. We know how to tell stories and reach back into the past to canonize and eulogize…

But Jesus is restless in the grave… Can’t you imagine that skin and boned Christ digging his feet into the ground and getting ready to rise? Thinking, “I’m not leaving this world yet…” I love that the incarnation doesn’t end on Good Friday, no, this is just the beginning – Life wins, love wins… it stubbornly pushes up out of the dirty ground of our grief and says,

The tomb is empty – Jesus is not there, Jesus has risen – he is among the living.

Don’t look for him among the dead.

My dear students of God, resurrection insists on three things:

Resurrection insists that we turn our attention from death to life…

Where are you holding onto that which is no longer life giving? What do you cling to that keeps you from knowing amazement? From experiencing joy? What makes you surge with energy and what fills you to the brim? Have you noticed how much better we do death than life? How much more comfortable we are there?

Jennie and I are getting married in June and it’s gonna be a rockin party – almost everyone we love is genuinely excited. We’ve gotten tons of support, great response from friends, family, communities… so much love. There have been just a few folks who have responded in the negative, and wow how I lived into their rejection. Gone days worrying and despairing over an unkind word. Why? Why do we do that? Why are we so easily overcome with despair when God is pouring delight into our lives?

God is present in our pain but is ever inviting us into the open spaces where the light will nurture in us the story of resurrection… the story of new life.

Resurrection insists that we remember…

Just like the messengers remind the women to remember, we too are invited to remember the ancient story of one who would not be moved, who would not be swayed from the path of love. The one who insisted that a trip to the cross would wound him but could not defeat him, this is not a static put it in a keepsake box kind of remembering, no this is a dig it out and wear it – let it change you again and again memory made new each time we tell it, it is a embodied and reimagined re-membering that will put us back together each time we fall apart.

Resurrection insists that we turn back with joy… this isn’t new we can simply sit on… resurrection insists that we too witness to the this amazing news… that we tell this weird story of love and life winning out over death… of God showing up in human flesh, vulnerable and tiny, the story of how God gets good and dirty, digging into the hardest things that humans face:

Greed, loss, suffering, illness, rejection, insecurity, poverty, relinquishing their power when we really really want to hang onto it.

Again and again offering love in the face of our fears and grace every time we fall short.

Resurrection insists we tell this story even though it makes us sound crazy… just like those women who found the empty tomb… delirious with delight.

Mary Oliver writes this poem: “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” 

And this is your Easter homework friends. We’ve been students of God all through Lent but we haven’t had a lot of homework… but this is your takehome assignment for the Easter season that begins today and doesn’t end till Pentecost Sunday (you get awhile).

Pay attention – seek out the resurrection… look for signs of life!

Be astonished and amazed… even terrified!

Then report back… tell about it. Tell me. Tell one another. Tell everyone you meet.

Amen


[i]
Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2011-06-10). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 12519-12523). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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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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