by Christine Sine
It’s Pentecost Sunday and I am preaching at our church, St Andrew’s Episcopal here in Seattle. It is also the beginning of our new theme “Read Life Differently” and as Pentecost is for me an invitation to do just that, I wanted thought I wold share my Sunday sermon with you. Enjoy!
Preaching for Pentecost – St Andrews.
It’s Pentecost Sunday, and those of us that remembered are dressed in red! But Pentecost Sunday is about far more than that. For some it is about celebrating the beginning of the church, for others it is about praying for peace, but for me it is an invitation to see the world differently.
Preparing for today’s sermon brought back wonderful memories of a gathering Tom and I attended in England several years ago. It was the 200th anniversary of the British Bible Society and we joined 2,000 others in the magnificent St Paul’s cathedral for an inspiring celebration.
At the beginning Genesis 11:1-9 was read while a group of liturgical dancers all dressed in black swirled around the stage, reenacting the story of the Tower of Babel. They ended by dancing out through the congregation in different directions symbolizing the dispersal of the people. About half way through the service Archbishop Rowan Williams read out the Lord’s prayer, first in English and then in Welsh. It was very moving. The service ended with the reading of Acts 2:1-11. The dancers, now dressed in white returned to the stage in a joyous dance of reconciliation, and renewed understanding.
It was particularly impacting because just a few weeks before that I had met a Welsh theologian, Dewi Hughes who struggled with the traditional interpretation of the Babel story. He was very aware that the English had tried to annihilate his culture and language by forbidding Welsh speaking and celebrations.
He believed that it was God’s intention for human kind to spread out throughout the whole earth carrying their ethnic diversity into all the corners of our world and enriching it with the plethora of languages and cultures that God created.
Dewi believed the building of the Tower of Babel interrupted the story of the scattering of humanity. He saw its building as the first proclamation of empire in human history with, in this case, one city seeking to dominate the rest of humanity and keep people from moving apart from each other and filling the earth as God intended. Seeing that a united humanity with one language would have an endless capacity for rebellion, God confused their language, thus hindering their ability to communicate freely and to cooperate with each other in opposition to God’s will.
The final outcome was precisely what God originally intended for the human race, that is, for the whole earth to be filled with people of ethnic diversity.
I don’t think we realize what an incredible miracle Pentecost was. People didn’t come together as a homogenous mass that spoke the same language and expressed the same culture wanting to dominate those around them. Each person understood the other in their own language and culture. The diversity God desired was preserved. Collaboration was once more possible. And I think in today’s world we can appreciate that this is not just about acceptance of ethnic diversity. It is about acceptance of all the different cultures of sexual orientation, as well as those of different age groups, disabilities and marginalized communities. It is about seeking to understand and accept other faiths and other perspectives within the Christian faith too. It is accepting that creation too has a voice that needs to be heard and understood.
Wow that’s a big order, that stretches all of us well beyond our comfort zones if we take it seriously. It will indeed take a miracle to accomplish, a miracle that requires us to see the story of God and the people that fill our world, differently.
Who remembers Father Rich’s Easter sermon – how the children taught us to see things differently. I would love to see their take on Babel and Pentecost. I know we need their eyes to truly understand how we should view diversity.
When I was writing my book The Gift of Wonder someone sent me a link to a delightful video in which a kid is paired with a friend and asked “What makes you different from each other” Their answers are completely different from what any adult might say. To our adult eyes each kid is very different from their friend. Some are Caucasian, some Asian, some Afro-Caribbean. Some in wheelchairs. Their replies have nothing to do with wheelchairs, or race however. “She never stops talking! Says one white boy of his Asian friend. “I have smaller toes than Artie says another athletic child of her wheel-chair bound companion.The best of all is two little boys the video cuts back and forth to. One is Indian, the other Caucasian, though they are in matching school uniforms. They look at each other in puzzlement, unable to observe any differences. Finally with many sighs they decide they like different games.
Jesus saw people differently too, maybe because he never lost his childlike eyes. He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes as well as synagogue leaders. And he didn’t just heal on the Sabbath but he touched outcasts and unclean women in the process. He even healed gentiles. Talk about different.
I think that some of this ability to look at life differently brushed off on Jesus disciples, otherwise I am not sure that they would have coped with the amazing and miraculous gathering of Pentecost and their ability to suddenly understand, appreciate and therefore collaborate with all the cultures gathered together.
Do we really get the message? Or do we still look at those who are different with the spirit of Babel and want to control them?
It’s not easy to accept and appreciate other cultures. Growing up in Australia with one Scottish and one Greek parent, I was often confused by the acceptance or lack there of I experienced. It was a little like my Big Fat Greek wedding only more so. The Greeks were noisier and the Scots were quieter. Yet behind it all there was the Australian cultural dynamic. In the 1960s Scottish was good, Greek was bad. So I hid my Greek identity. It was not until I was in my 30s and visited Greece that I learned to appreciate this rich culture which is so much a part of who I am.
During my 12 years working as a physician on board the mercy ship Anastasis my cross cultural understanding was stretched out of shape again and I saw how easily we move towards the tower of Babel model rather than the Pentecost one.
Sometimes we would have 20 different nationalities on our medical team and it is amazing what we found to argue about and try to assert our authority over. How strong do we make the coffee? Do we stop for coffee break? Do we read temperature in centigrade or Fahrenheit? All of these created major conflict, making me realize what a miracle it was that we were ever able to work together in any sort of collaborative way. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Now as an Australian living in the U.S. I am still very aware of the challenges of being from another culture. I have had to change my language, my diet and even the way I dress. My love of Vegemite fills most Americans with horror. G”yday mate how’d ya be” gets me blank stares. And calling someone “a silly galah” makes them think I am bonkers.
The great British theologian, missionary and author Lesslie Newbigin said “The fact that Jesus is much more than, much great than our culture bound vision of him can only come home to us through the witness of those who see him through other eyes.”
We need cultural diversity to fully understand who Jesus is, but how do we get beyond our culture bound vision of Jesus and of those who inhabit our world? How do we learn to collaborate with those who are different?
Only with a miracle and that miracle is the coming of the “Advocate that will be with us forever” that Jesus promises. The Spirit of God that sweeps through that diverse gathering at Pentecost and makes it possible for them to collaborate and communicate across their diversity of cultures.
I wonder however if part of God’s intention we still don’t do well at is taking that new found spirit of understanding and collaboration between cultures manifested at Pentecost and scattering it out across all the cultures of the world. My Indian friends still resent the fact that Paul’s journeys around the Mediterranean made it into the New Testament but Thomas’s to India didn’t. Chinese friends grieve that the early spread of the gospel into China is almost entirely unknown. And of course we are all well aware of the cultural tensions and misunderstandings that exist throughout our world today.
It’s hard but the Spirit still calls us to work for understanding and I think we need a fresh “Pentecost” in every generation.
One of the keys for me has been sitting down with people from other cultures and listening intently to what they say, then being prepared to change. My perspectives were disrupted by Native American and African American friends who have challenged me in life changing ways.
I still remember sitting in a tee-pee with Native American evangelist Richard Twiss not long before he died. I was the only white person in the circle. The others were leaders from African American, Asian and Native American backgrounds all frustrated because white people invited them to speak at their conferences but never really wanted their input on how to plan the event. I still grapple with his words: “We don’t want to come and sit at your table. We want to sit down and build a new table together.”
African American leader Leroy Barber made me aware of how white my images of Jesus are and the Interfaith gatherings we have held here at the church make us all aware of how we need to move across barriers to understand the cultures of other faiths.
There are however things that we can do to make us receptive to the building of that new table, just as Jesus actions made his disciples receptive to the “new table that Pentecost built in their midst.
So as we leave today here are a few things I want to encourage you to do:
Diversify your images of Jesus. I deliberately look for African, Asian, and Native American images of Jesus to enrich my understanding of him. I particularly love those by Chinese artist He Qi and the African group Jesus Mafa from the Cameroons. Mafa Christians in North Cameroon wanted pictures of the gospel in their own culture. They acted out Bible stories in their villages photographed them and enlisted French artists to create sketches. The resulting images are probably closer to what Jesus culture looked like than anything Western artists produce.
Some of the most powerful cross cultural Gospel paintings I have seen were created to help us understand Jesus journey to the cross from different perspectives. Gwyneth Leech used refugees from Iraq and the Sudan as spectators in her paintings and Karel Stadnik in Prague uses contemporary images of human suffering to make the journey of Jesus more real.
Second, diversify your music. Listen to gospel music from other cultures. I love the way we have been introduced that this here at St Andrews. It helps all of us shape new joy filled images of God’s worldwide community and opens us to collaboration.
Diversify your traditions. One simple way to explore other culture is to ask your friends about the traditions they grew up with. St Andrews is such a great place of hospitality and welcome that I would love to see us host a multicultural Pentecost feast, maybe a potluck, where we could all share about our cultures of origin. I am sure it would bring new appreciation for who we are and the wealth of diversity that is here in our midst.
The coming of the spirit at Pentecost, that Advocate that Jesus promises in our gospel reading, was a miracle that makes it possible for all of us to understand each other and collaborate together just as those gathered at Pentecost did. May we continue to allow the spirit to draw us together not so that we become one big homogenous mass, but so that we continue to seek to build a new table together based on understanding and collaboration across ethnic differences.
So let us end with a prayer adapted from my book The Gift of Wonder
Let us go forth today,
In the joy of our Creator,
In the love of our Redeemer,
In the wisdom of our Advocate,
In the company of family
From every tribe and nation and culture.
Let us go forth today,
United in the Sacred Three,
In the image of the Holy One,
Made in diversity,
Proclaiming with enthusiasm
All people matter,
All lives are extraordinary.