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SUNDAY SERVICE (SUMMER): 9:30 A.M.
"Together in One Place"
Scripture – Acts 2:1-21
Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, May 31, 2020
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The very first line of today's passage gives me pause. "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place." As I preach to an empty sanctuary, I so wish that were true today – that we were all together in this beautiful sacred space.
However, for fear of catching and spreading Covid-19, we are in dozens and dozens of different places. In just three months, our nation has seen more than 100,000 deaths due to this raging virus, so we are not packed into the pews next to one another.
And, yet in another sense, we are together in one place, aren't we? We are together in a surreal place; an anxious place; a challenging place. A colleague says, "We are together in our uncertainty...we are bound together as one people, one humanity, one planet, facing a common threat that knows no borders."1 Like the disciples in our passage, we are together in an uncertain place, an unpredictable place. We are in-between the world we knew and a new world that has not yet been revealed.
To understand the context of the classic Pentecost passage, seven weeks have passed since the first Easter. The disciples were gathered in Jerusalem, along with thousands of others, who poured into the city to celebrate Pentecost. This was the holy festival that focused on God giving Moses the Ten Commandments. The disciples spent the past seven weeks trying to assemble the pieces of the puzzle. How are they supposed to carry on now that Jesus is no longer with them? What will be their next move? Their old world died when their master was crucified and they cannot yet construe their new world.
In this in-between place, consumed by questions about the next chapter in their lives, they were likely debating their options. Surely they were grappling with what Jesus would expect of them. Then, something strange happened; something mysterious, something holy happened that changed history.
Our passage says "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 were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability."
It was not a "Please raise your hand and wait to be recognized" kind of moment. Each one began to jabber at the same time and the noise spilled out into the streets. Passersby wondered what the ruckus was about and were drawn closer to the house to see if they could decipher this cacophony.
To the untrained ear it sounded like babble. But then, one foreigner who had traveled a great distance to come to Jerusalem said, "Wait a minute. These men are Galileans, but this one is speaking my language." Someone from another country said, "Hey, this one over here is speaking Greek, my native tongue!" Someone else shouted, "I can understand this man perfectly."
This passage sounds so foreign to anything I have ever experienced; it is tempting to write it off, or to leave it to those for whom religion is an ecstatic experience.
Luke, writing 50 years later, was not recording history. It was his way of saying that the disciples received their marching orders and their mission was astonishing. The disciples spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, yet they were to take the gospel to the Parthians, the Medes, the Elamites, the residents of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome and on and on. Their devotion to Jesus, which filled them with the love of God, was not something to hold to themselves, but to share with the entire world.
Theologian Debi Thomas reminds us that "Languages carry the full weight of their respective cultures, histories, and spiritualties. To speak one language as opposed to another is to orient oneself differently in the world — to see differently, to hear differently, to process and punctuate reality differently."2
Within our own nation, I think of the wide differences in speaking Boston or Birmingham, Chicago or Seattle. It is not only that people from these regions have different accents, but they see, hear, and process experiences differently.
Even more, think of the differences between those who speak the language of Christianity and those who speak the language of Judaism or Islam or Hinduism. The disciples were not only speaking other languages, they were communicating across barriers of race, culture and ethnicity.
Most of the bystanders were baffled and wondered what it all meant, but a few cynical people in the crowd sneered and said, "They are just full of wine!"
Peter heard the accusation and clarified what was happening. The disciples were indeed filled – filled with God's Spirit. The disciples were inspired and becoming passionate about their faith.
Following this event, the disciples no longer closed their doors on the outside world. They did not simply sit around and share with each other how good it felt to have God's Spirit in them. Neither did they return to their former jobs, picking up where they had left off a few years earlier. Instead, God's Spirit blew them out into the world where they picked up the ministry that Jesus had begun and carried it forward. God's Spirit propelled them out into people's lives with a divine mission to fulfill. And these previously timid followers became energetic and courageous leaders determined to spread the way of Jesus, which is the way of love, justice and peace.
They taught the importance of loving God and loving others. They were motivated by the first sermon Jesus preached, when he said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free." (Luke 4:18)
This global pandemic is screaming at us to recognize the interdependence of the world. Even though we have often drawn lines to distinguish our tribe from others, we are all connected. What happens there, impacts what goes on here. And as Debi Thomas says, "If we don't learn the art of speaking across the borders that currently separate us, we will burn ourselves down to ash."
Can we live into God's dream of a just world? A world where white men will not track down a black jogger and shoot him? A world where white police officers do not suffocate a black man for a minor offense?
Can we live into God's dream of a sane world? A world in which differences are not feared but embraced. A world in which individualism does not triumph over the common good. A world in which we recognize that all are created equal and should enjoy equal rights. A world in which we treat our neighbor as our responsibility. Since this global pandemic has put us all together in one place, perhaps we could learn to speak the universal language of love which manifests itself in kindness and respect and dignity.
My hope and prayer is that we will open our hearts to the needs around us, open our minds to new possibilities, and open our souls to the Holy Wind that seeks to blow us in a new direction.
Prayers of the People ~ Jan Patrick
"Oh, Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth. When we behold the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have set in place, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them. Oh, Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth."
In the wonders of your creation, in the magnificence of the earth, we see your handiwork. Creator God, we thank you for the very life you breathed into us!
And all around us this spring, you breathe new life into your creation. Azaleas and rhododendron dazzle us with an array of vivid colors while barren flower beds give way to hostas, as seemingly overnight, they burst through the soil to display their grace and elegance. Soon, tiny seeds planted in the soil will produce vine ripened, plump and juicy red tomatoes.
As we breathe in the sweet scents of the garden, we are mindful of you, our Creator.
And every morning, birds instinctively celebrate the dawn of each new day with song, as if to announce, "This is the day that the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it."
Oh, Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
And yet we ask, what are human beings that you are mindful of them? Loving God, help us to bend the arc of the universe more towards justice, that black men no longer die senselessly, without mercy, at the hands of police on our city streets.
And...what are mortals that you care for them? It is you, after all, who is the first to cry, it is your heart that is the first to break, as sickness and death from coronavirus plague our cities, our country and the entire world. It is you alone who knows the unbearable depth of pain now being endured throughout all of humanity.
We desperately pray for all who suffer from the virus, for all of those who have lost loved ones to the virus, for the medical workers who treat the virus, the first responders and the care givers who protect the vulnerable against the virus.
How cruel a disease that robs humanity of community and connection. How excruciating to know that the disease forces people to die alone, without family and loved ones to embrace them. But you, Loving God, you are with them, your spirit descends upon them. May they know your presence and may they be at peace.
In these difficult times, we are confronted with voices that beckon us to choose the economy over saving the lives of the vulnerable; self-indulgence and pleasure over genuine care and compassion for others; selfishness over generosity. Forgive us when we go astray; persuade us, guide us, inspire us to do your will.
In these days of social distancing and separation, we find ourselves coming to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses. May it be your voice we hear falling on our ear; may we recognize your very presence, and feel your spirit descend upon us – even to the very depths of our soul.
Oh, Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
And now, we lift this prayer in the name of Jesus, who taught us to pray together, saying:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
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