Tell the people you love them…
June 4, 2017
Scriptures: Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2: 1-21
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
When the day of Pentecost 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, “Men 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 slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show signs in the heaven above and on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
There is something terribly amiss when out in Oregon a young man named after our Lord and Christ becomes so misguided as to believe that others who are different than himself either in skin color or in faith practice should be abused to the point of murdering two who sought to stop his abusive behavior and nearly killing a third…something is missing whenever this happens and whenever such thought or action is allowed to go unchallenged or unchecked. Now truthfully it is not easy and in fact can be extremely difficult to follow in the footsteps of our God of love and to serve witness that the call upon all of us is to stand for truth and justice as taught by that same God.
However, there is no room in the kingdom of God’s love for behavior such as what happened on that train in Portland last week, and whenever such behavior masquerades as being of religious origin it must be vehemently opposed. There is no room for this type of behavior or for the ignoring of it either in hopes that it will somehow pass by once again or at least not come close enough to us to force us to take a stand.
Do any of you have dear friends who do not believe exactly as you do? I have many, and they are still the dearest of friends.
I think that the world situation as it currently is spinning, and I would add close to spinning out of control on many fronts, leaves room for a brief history lesson in order to make sure our facts are straight when it comes to faith.
Our Christian faith is one of three religious understandings originating with Abraham, one of three faith systems that hold that there is only one true God. Spanning some fifty five centuries, the development of these three understandings which are followed by over 54 per cent of the world population all had their start with a nomadic herdsman from the region currently known as northern Syria or southern Turkey. Called out from the land of his birth, Abraham chose to follow after this one God who told him he would make of him a great nation and that he would do so in order that that nation might be a blessing to all others.
The promise however seemed to take an extremely long time to fulfil as it appeared that Abraham and his wife Sarah were unable to conceive and bear a single child let alone ‘father a nation’. Impatient with the progress of God’s promise and ashamed for her husband, Sarah encouraged Abraham to sleep with her slave Hagar in order that he might perhaps secure an offspring in this manner. Abraham did so and in fact Hagar did conceive at which point Sarah had a change of heart and despising Hagar secured Abraham’s permission to drive her away out into the harshness of the desert.
Hagar was found by an angel of the Lord there weeping in the desert and was told to go back to Abraham’s house and that the son she would bear would indeed himself become the forefather of a great nation. Hagar did as she was told and bore to Abraham a son she named Ishmael who is the forbearer of all who proclaim themselves as followers of Islam.
Sarah, Abraham’s wife did conceive at an age well past normal child-bearing age and named her son Isaac, setting in motion the chain of descendants who would become the ancestral line of the Jewish faith as well as the line from which Christianity took its own origins. So it is clear that all three Abrahamic faith expressions had their beginning not only in one man, but in a solemn promise made by God to bless that one man’s descendants greatly that they might bless all others.
Bringing that biblical story forward to today however, we see that something has gone terribly wrong in the fulfillment of the nature of that divine promise even though the descendants of Abraham are undeniably vast and countless in number. All three branches of faith following after the one God who first revealed himself to Abraham are indeed great nations unto themselves…however it seems as though the living out of God’s call to ‘be a blessing unto all others’ has somehow been lost along the way. In fact the case is easily made that the primary source of strife, warring, and indeed evil present in the world today can be found in the inability of these three expressions of faith in the same God to accept that call and to act as brothers and sisters in faith…to truly be a blessing to others rather than the deepest of sworn enemies.
However that case can only be made and sustained if…and only if you view each of these three faiths solely through the lens of their most extreme interpretation. In other words, I believe and have experienced, that at the very heart of each of these three faiths is the practice which most closely recognizes and adheres to the truth that there is one God and that the nature of that God is love. And within that space there is room for, and in fact acceptance of all three faiths, one with another. And acceptance as well of the truth that they have together been called to seek and to be the universal blessing which was God’s original promise. For you see, there is no God who views only Jewish followers as worthy of his love…there is no God who views only Christians as worthy of his love…there is no God who views only Muslims as worthy of his love…no there is only one God, whose followers have all been called and equipped to be a blessing to all others.
Now surely some may feel dismay hearing me speak of or seem to place Christianity and Judaism in the same category as Islam given the amount of focus there seems to be on radical strains of a very small segment of those who falsely claim to be following Islam. Surely many feel that nothing can compare with the brutality of ISIS or the genocide that has been perpetrated in the name of Allah over the past quarter century or so.
However history is filled with accounts of equally dreadful accounts of inhumanity against humanity, of murderous genocidal acts committed by adherents of all three faiths claiming the one God of Abraham, some of which are documented in the bible, in the history of Medieval Christianity, or in seemingly endless daily news accounts. In short, any and all radicalized and extremist interpretations of a faith that speak, teach, or act contrary to the loving nature of God are wrong and evil-intentioned…from Christians who murder doctors at clinics, or innocent bystanders on a train, to Jews who knowingly and forcibly displace Palestinians who have lived on family-owned land for generations in order to build settlements in violation of international law and sanctions, to radicalized Islamists who propagate their own brand of terror and jihad…all these are equally abhorrent in the eyes of our Lord…that same God of love who calls all to lay down such extreme views, to set aside weapons and practices of war and to join as one in reverencing all life and all of Creation, joining as one in true Godly community. No one can boast that their faith understanding or history is sinless or free of radical tendencies which have at times been fully and directly opposed to the will of our God of love.
All that said…it is Pentecost Sunday today…the day in which we read the accounts of the Holy Spirit’s descent onto the early church in Jerusalem. And not only that reading but the passage that was shared regarding the ancient story of the Tower of Babel surely may have you wondering how any of this discussion of three faiths ties in together. And in truth, this whole idea started with one of our members sharing with me last week that he had had occasion to converse via Facebook with the mother of one of those killed on the train in Portland last week. He had asked me if it was possible to somehow speak of the tragedy and to focus in on the incredible degree of love shown by those who had laid down their lives for another in need. I heard from another source that the last words of one of those slain was to, ‘Tell those on the train that I love them.’ …words not different at all from those last uttered by Jesus on the cross at Calvary.
And that request, tied in with the notion that I wanted to look at Pentecost just a bit differently this year led me to see the words the Apostle Peter quoted from the Prophet Joel in a new light. Truly I feel that the words of Joel seem to speak in many ways to our current times and circumstances. There is a great need to seek out and to listen to those who are able to see visions of a brighter future and for others to continue to dream of how our Lord would have us reimagine life through the eyes of love and justice. And truly the signs we see all around can be very troubling.
But the words at the very beginning of Joel’s prophecy, where it says that God ‘will pour out his Spirit upon all flesh’ really caught my attention as have other passages from time to time that seem to be saying that our God truly is a God of all humanity and guardian of all souls who seek after him in truth. That notion coupled with the picture in Acts of people of all nations somehow conversing one with another, and hearing the truth of God’s great love in their own native language, both Jews and Greeks, seemed to shout out that our God is one who delights in and initiates diversity.
And that idea brought me back to the story of Babel where God clearly expressed his displeasure with the idea of a single world-wide people of one language and one purpose living solely unto themselves and their own self-interests. Truly this story as well can be seen as a celebration of the holiness and the grace to be found within the diversity of the human family as it was created. And it was there in the midst of all those thoughts that I was able to return to that tragic day in Portland last week. It was there that I was able to find some hope in the face of such violent and senseless hatred. It was there that I was able to see evidence of the triumph of God’s love even in the midst of such tragic loss.
It was there, in the midst of celebrating the goodness and ‘God-ness’ of diversity, and the notion that God truly loves all humanity fully and equally, that I realized that Pentecost must be as much about celebrating our diversity as the family of God as it is about giving thanks that God chose to pour out his Spirit upon all peoples. That all who follow after our God of love, by whatever name they call him, might rise up and move together in pursuit of a new order of love without condition, and of justice without exception as together we seek to usher in the Day of our Lord and the ‘blessing’ he promised at the very start of it all.
I have a dear friend Amirah. She is the assistant farmer at a farm across the river and over the past several years I have had occasion to get to know her just a bit. She is a beautiful soul, filled with grace and love and one I would surely stand in defense of no matter what. And Amirah is a follower of Islam, a devout believer in the third strand of the teaching first handed down to Abraham. And of this I am sure, she is filled with grace and has the Spirit of God within her.
And one of my dearest friends ever, one who has now gone on to live with the Lord in glory, was born a Jew. And true to many of her faith, her relationship with God was very personal and could be very vocal, particularly as it was when she felt abandoned by the Christian version of God during the horrors of Nazi Germany and its effect on her Polish homeland. Karin hired me over 30 years ago and from the outset treated me like a son, challenging me, questioning my faith, and loving me fiercely even when we did not agree. But with time and over the course of countless conversations we were able to hear each other and come to respect one another profoundly. And somewhere along the line she confided in me that the God she had rejected in anger was somehow less and less troubling to her as she saw him reflected in the living out of my life. And I must confess that the love she showed to me and to my wife and kids was so genuine and so deeply rooted in goodness that I knew without a doubt that its origin was in the same God we both believed in. Karin as well as Amirah was touched profoundly by the Spirit of grace and love and by that same grace shared it with me.
And so I wonder how many of us know and love others whose faith experience and heritage might just be different than our own. I wonder how many of us would ever consider a ‘faith-test’ before offering our love or assistance to another in need, even in the deepest of need…and somehow I don’t think any of us would. And I wonder if we realize that the call to love as expressed in the greatest commandment, and as lived and died for on that Portland train is a call that can only be answered in the power of and by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
And so on this day of Pentecost let us never forget that we worship the one God of love…that we are one vast and glorious human family, that the Spirit of God seeks to find and secure a home within all flesh, and that diversity is truly a wondrous gift from God. For it is there that we will find ourselves truly living into the message and the miracle of Pentecost.