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Scattering and gathering…

May 23, 2010

Pentecost (Year C)
Texts:  Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

What are the practices of authentic community?  A good question for Pentecost.  Does it depend on speaking a common language?  Having the same political views?   Does authentic community come about through constitutions, laws and power?  Through covenant relationships…love?

In Order to form a more perfect Union…  That is the vision of human society from the Babel project to the American democracy.  But the vision is illusive.  Again and again we see the fabric of human community frayed.  We see tensions, enmity and strife in human relationships at every level.  We experience divisive rhetoric, uncivil discourse in the public square.  We experience tension and pain in family relationships.  Sometimes the vision of a more perfect union is shattered by gun shots ringing into the night outside a night club.  A dispute over a microphone erupts into violence which tragically ends a human life.  We want union. Communion.  But our experience falls short.

So how is authentic community cultivated?

The Babel story

Our scripture texts provide alternative ways of responding to this question.  Both are linguistic events.  The Babel story recollects a time when the whole world spoke a single language.  In the biblical narrative, the Babel story in Genesis 11 is the final event before the beginnings of the people of Israel with Abram in Genesis 12.

In the story, people are migrating to the plain of Shinar in the land of Babylon.  They are talking about construction projects.  They are sure of their own greatness.  They are beginning to think about how to leverage their common language and ideology into a system that will provide political unity.  Eventually the massive construction project begins.  It is about more than form and function.  It is about ideology.  It is about empire.

Our text also presents God’s side of the story.  The LORD sees danger in the Tower project.  Perhaps God sees the pitfalls of hegemony and hubris—the intoxicating brew of ideology.  In other words, the temptation to think that the world would be a better place if everyone would just see things the way I do!    God sees the pride…the presumption to godlike status:  Nothing will be impossible for them.  Mercifully, Yahweh intervenes.

It is a divine project of deconstruction.  We notice that language diversity comes about through divine initiative.  The Divine Community of love (“let us”) comes down and changes the census language statistics in one fell swoop.  All of a sudden the world becomes beautifully complex con los sonidos de muchas palabras diferentes.  Working together becomes more difficult.  Agreeing to disagree in love becomes nigh unto impossible.  People begin to break away and form new groups Left and Right.  There is a scattering across the earth.

Coming to the table story

Sometimes it is things beyond our control that shape our language…our view of the world…

What would you do if you learned that your family owned slaves?  You learn this not because your father ever mentioned it, but by reading newspaper articles about African-American Kilbys living in Virginia near the farm where your father grew up.  You are curious, so you go research old courthouse records — deeds, wills, census documents.  You soon learn that your family owned five slaves.

And then you pick up a book by Betty Kilby and the puzzle falls together.  But how does the descendant of a slave owner reach out?  What do you say to somebody? And how are they going to react to you?

One day you sit down at your computer and send the email.  It is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  “My name is Phoebe Kilby, and I am white,” you type.  “Martin Luther King had ‘a dream that … the sons of former slaves and slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of Brotherhood.’ Perhaps, we as daughters can contribute to fulfilling that dream.”

You wait…and you wait.  Eventually the reply comes:  “Hello cousin.”  In fact, you are invited to the family dinner.  Full of apprehension, you come to the Table.

When I saw this story this week, I thought…this is a Pentecost story.  This is a story of building connections where there’s been so much painful disconnection.  This is a story of communicating across language differences.  This is a story about healing on a personal level, on a family level and on a national level.

The Pentecost story (the practices of Christian community)

The Pentecost story offers an alternate to the Babel story.  God reverses the scattering at Babel with the gathering of a new community at Pentecost.  A community that transcends tribal boundaries and language differences.  It is the Feast of Pentecost—the feast of Feast of Weeks—so the scattered (Diaspora) community has made pilgrimage back to Jerusalem.  The gathering of devout Jews who receive the Spirit are transformed into an authentic community able to communicate across language diversity.  This is a gift.

Back to our opening question:  What are the practices of authentic community? And, how does the Pentecost story shape our response (as SMC)?

1. The practice of gathering together in one place…

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. (2:1)

Pentecost produces a community that is in the practice of gathering together to pray, to share meals, to clean up messes and then do it all over again.  Authentic community is cultivated by the ordinary practice of being together.  It should not surprise us that something significant happens whenever the community gathers together.  This happens whether we are present or not.

Driving across town this week I heard a radio spot on sports radio for Neffsville Mennonite Church.  Went to their FB page to try to find it.  Saw this:  “On Wednesday May 12th 2010 at 7:00 PM Neffsville Mennonite Church will change! Either by being present or by being absent you will help decide the vision of Neffsville Mennonite Church. Either way our future will be different…”

And so we will come together again this evening to talk and pray together about Community and Mission at SMC.  We do this because that is how Pentecost shapes our communal life.

2.  The practice of interpreting our experience through the apostolic witness to the biblical story.

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  These are not drunk.  No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel…

Pentecost community interprets the times through the biblical story.  Peter’s entire speech is in response to the question, “What does this mean?”  Peter finds the answer in an ancient text–the prophet Joel.  This is that…then is now.

Peter’s prophetic message was not about predicting the future.  Peter’s message was prophetic because he was truth-telling.  It was prophetic because Peter is naming the places and ways where God is working in the world—gathering, healing, saving…giving the ability to speak and understand other languages.

Question:  Are we standing with the apostolic community as we interpret our experience through the biblical story?

3.  The practice of learning (new languages)

Peter insists that God’s Spirit is poured out across social boundaries.  The Spirit empowers interpretation that happens communally.  Peter and all those gathered do not receive all the answers along with the Spirit.  Throughout the Acts narrative they must live into God’s future.  Even after the Spirit, they are susceptible to error and dependent on others to make sense of God’s ways.  Remember the Cornelius story.  This is the messy work, the holy work, of all God’s people.

So what does it mean to be a community that practices learning?  Sometimes it means you learn how to dance at wedding receptions.  When the DJ calls all the married couples to the dance floor, you are hesitant because the Mennonite tradition you grew up in did not allow for dancing.  You look at the other Mennonites from your table who are slowly making their way to the dance floor.  You take the risk and join them.

The DJ, who is playing “Through the Years” by Kenny Rogers, now asks those who have been married a year or less to sit down.  Of the 10 couples dancing, one sits down.  Now he asks for those married five years or less to sit down.  10 years.  15 years.  20 years.  Eventually there are two couples still dancing.  Now 40 years or less.  You are the last couple dancing.  “How many years have you been married?” the DJ asks.  51 years.  The whole room erupts in applause and cheers.  Then the DJ hands you the mic and asks you to go to the newlywed couple and offer some advice.  “Take it one day at a time…always be honest with each other,” you say.  “Be quick to forgive.”

Then you sit down.  When you are open to take the risk of stepping out of your comfort zone and learn the language of dance, the Spirit opens up surprising opportunities to give witness.


On this Feast of Pentecost 2010, what is your status?

We live in a world that does not seem to offer much hope at the moment. The continued volatility of our global economy, environmental disasters, growing pressures on our poorest neighbors can easily discourage us and drain our hope and confidence in what God is doing.

The practices of Christian community are not an escape mechanism from this messy reality.  The practices of Christian community call us to embrace Resurrection faith, even in the midst of suffering and death.  This is our Hope.  So it is we will sing these words…full of meaning:

Holy Spirit, come with power, breathe into our aching night.
We expect you this glad hour, waiting for your strength and light.
We are fearful, we are ailing, we are weak and selfish too.
Break upon your congregation, give us vigor life anew.

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