Win Some, Lose Some

(sermon 6/28/20)

Offered the morning after the killing of Tyler Gerth in downtown Louisville KY

rembrandt sacrifice of isaac
The Sacrifice of Isaac, Rembrandt, 1635

Genesis 22:1-18

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

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The past few weeks, we’ve heard parts of the story of the life of Abraham. Today, we’ve heard probably the most well-known of those stories, the one of him almost sacrificing his son Isaac, before God stops Abraham from carrying it out.

There’s no question that Abraham was a person of deep faith and trust in God; that comes through in a number of ways in the various stories about his life. But it’s also clear that he was capable of real human failures, as I suggested when we looked at the less-than compassionate way he treated Hagar and his firstborn son, Ishmael. And now we have to consider his actions in today’s story, too.

I mentioned in this week’s email that this particular story has traditionally been interpreted as an illustration of Abraham’s great faith; as one of his most defining, successful moments. But I really don’t buy that. I think the traditional understanding of this story is a load of BS, and it’s led to a lot of harmful theology and ways of thinking about the nature of God.

The very beginning of the story says that God decided to test Abraham’s trust by telling him to do this horrible thing. I’ll say right now that I don’t believe that God actually does this kind of thing – to test people like that, to intentionally put us in situations of trial or temptation, setting people up in horrible or painful situations, just to see if they’ll fail the test. As if God was just bored and decided to jerk people around just for sport. I think that for God to act like that would be evidence of a terrible, abusive, uncaring God; a God unworthy of our praise, our gratitude, and certainly our worship; a God completely at odds with what we’re taught about God through Jesus, and through the overarching totality of the scriptures. In the Presbyterian tradition, we have a several principles to use to try to understand scripture. Three of those principles are: the rule of Christ – is it consistent with what Christ taught? The rule of scripture – is it consistent with the overwhelming witness of scripture? And the rule of love – is it the most loving interpretation? The idea of a God who plays with the lives of human beings like that fails on all three of those counts. So no, I don’t think that God tests people like that.

But whether I do or not, the writer of this story did. They lived in a time, and in a social and religious context, in which people did believe gods acted that way with us puny mortals. So for the sake of understanding this story a bit better, at least for the moment let’s assume that God does test people like that. Even if that’s true, when God tested Abraham by telling him to kill his son, I believe that for Abraham to have passed the test, he wouldn’t have had to say yes, but no. If this was a test of Abraham, it was to see if he would use his God-given critical thinking skills to question what he’d been told. If this was a test of Abraham, it wasn’t one that he passed; it was one that he failed.

We know that Abraham had the backbone to stand up to God when he wanted to. We saw it in the say he stood up to, and haggled with, God in the form of the three travelers that we heard in previous weeks, when Abraham was upset over the idea of the loss of innocent lives. So why was he silent here? Why didn’t he put up more of an argument when more innocent life was at stake and in this case, it was the life of his own beloved son?

I don’t have an answer for that. But whatever the reason, he didn’t. He just blindly trusted in God’s authority and accepted what God said without questioning whether it was right or not. The truth is that when Abraham went through with getting ready to kill Isaac, and God had to step in to stop him just before he did, God wasn’t pleased with Abraham; he was appalled.

Clearly, Abraham was an imperfect, very human, soul. The story of his life shows that when it came to getting things right, his overall record was win some, lose some, and contrary to the traditional interpretations, and contrary to even the intent of the original writer of this story, locked in their own historical context, I think this story is an account of Abraham’s biggest failure.

So it seemed to me as I read this story again this week, that as we hear this story now, in our own context, that there are two particular takeaways for me.

First, we need to understand the great danger, the terrible things that are possible, by uncritically accepting what we’re told, particularly by authority figures, simply accepting the truth or the acceptability or the goodness or rightness of the thing just because of who’s saying it. God has given us, as a terribly important part of our having been created in the divine image, the ability to critically think and to question and not to simply accept what we’re told, automatically taking it at face value. This means that we not only can, but we’re called to, we must, question and challenge what we’re told, regardless of whoever and wherever the information is coming from. This is especially important in our own time. We need to be a concerned with the harm and loss of innocent life as sons and daughters, children, men, and women, continue to be sacrificed in our neighborhoods and on our streets, every bit as much as Abraham was about the loss of innocent lives in Sodom and Gomorrah. We have to critically question the narratives, the explanations we’re offered to explain or justify these sacrifices in our own time. As a matter of our faith, we need to hold up what we’re told and to weigh it against those same three principles mentioned earlier: does the situation, and what we’re being told about it, square with the rule of Christ; the rule of scripture; and most importantly, with the rule of love? Using our critical thinking skills is one of the most important things we can do as people of the kingdom of God.

The second takeaway to me is one of extreme grace, one of good news. Because even though Abraham failed this test miserably, God still remained with Abraham. Provided for him. Blessed him. God kept covenant with him, even in spite of the fact that his faith was imperfect, to put it mildly – just as my own faith, and your own faith, our society’s faith, is less than perfect, too.

To consider just how badly Abraham could screw up, and still be forgiven and not abandoned by God, is a story of the amazing breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy and graciousness – it’s a story that affirms to me that given my own ability to get things wrong, and given my own mediocre record of win some, lose some, I, and you, will also remain within that full breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy and graciousness, just as Abraham did. I consider that the best news ever, and to that, I can only say

Amen.

 

Where Do You Draw the Line?

crowd-of-protesters-holding-signs-and-kneeling-4614141 - pexels - copyright free

(sermon 6/14/20)

Genesis 18:1-8, 16-33

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. …

Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.

Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

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In Islam, Jews and Christians are called “People of the Book” – people of the holy scriptures, the sacred texts, that were the forerunner to, and that laid the groundwork for, their own sacred texts. It might be even more accurate to call us “People of the Story,” since so many of our sacred texts are actually stories. The power of story is immense. These stories are usually powerful in themselves, and carry important messages in their own, individual rite. But we also need to see that the individual stories are strung together to convey some larger, even more important, message.

That’s certainly the case with the portion of Genesis that today’s scripture readings are part of. Today, we heard two connected stories about Abraham, just two parts of the overall story of his life that point to a larger message being conveyed. In today’s first reading, we hear about three travelers who stop to visit with Abraham. It isn’t really explained in the story exactly how Abraham knows this, but somehow he just knows that he’s being visited by God – maybe it’s God accompanied by two angels, or maybe all three of the travelers are collectively God – maybe an Old Testament precursor to understanding God as Trinity. We don’t really know which is the case, but suffice it to say that somehow, when these travelers arrive Abraham understands he’s in the presence of the divine.

And when they arrive, Abraham extends them great hospitality – he invites them to sit and relax, he brings them water to clean up with, and he asks if they’re hungry – “Oh, let me get you a little snack” he says – and then, he goes to Sarah and tells her to get some flour and bake up something special for the visitors – and apparently, plenty of it; he tells her to get three measures of flour, which is about a five gallon bucket full of flour; more than they could possibly eat.

This degree of how far overboard Abraham goes – almost to cartoonish levels – is intentional, and important. It’s meant to drive home how important it is, and to what lengths we should go, to show hospitality to, and to offer help and support to, others who are in need. Part of the message of this story is to teach us that we need to think in terms of this kind of extravagance when considering people’s needs, and to have this level of care and compassion for others. We need to think beyond just helping to fulfill a person’s basic, minimal needs, and to make sure that, as much as it’s within our ability to do so, to care for them and to help meet their needs abundantly.

But the story continues. After Abraham and the three travelers have eaten this feast, they’re sitting in the shade of a tree, letting the meal settle in. Maybe God’s sucking on a toothpick and offers a polite little belch of contentment as they’re relaxing and enjoying the beautiful day.  But as they’re getting ready to get back on the road, there’s something on God’s mind, something disturbing the contentedness of the moment. And finally, God comes clean and tells Abraham the purpose of their travels. They’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah, and they’re going to destroy the cities because of their evil and their unrighteousness. That’s all that we’re told here; God doesn’t offer any more detail about what that unrighteousness is – but we get clarification from the prophet Ezekiel, in the 16th chapter of his Book, when he explains that the “sin of Sodom” was that they were arrogant, full of self-pride; they were overfed, taking up more than their fair share of things, and they were unconcerned with the needs and suffering of others. They didn’t help the poor and needy. In other words, their attitude was the exact opposite of the extravagant consideration that Abraham had just extended to the travelers, and that point was meant to be seen by readers of this story.

And as you heard, when God tells Abraham what’s about to happen, Abraham is perplexed. Upset. Surely, he’s been to these two nearby cities many times. His brother Lot and his family live there, and he surely knew others who lived there, too. And he knows that they aren’t all bad – there are some good people there, too, at least in Abraham’s estimation, and so he has the audacity to enter into a bargaining session with God. Surely, you wouldn’t destroy the whole city if it meant killing, say, fifty innocent people as “collateral damage” in the process, would you? And God says No, I wouldn’t kill fifty innocent people. And Abraham presses his case: “You wouldn’t permit the unjust killing of forty-five people in your larger pursuit of justice, would you? And God say No, not forty-five, either. Well then, Abraham says, how about forty innocent lives? Would you consider that an unfortunate but unavoidable trade-off to achieve your bigger plans? And again, God say no, not forty. And it went on and on, all the way down to ten, when God says that even if the rest of the two cities deserved destruction, still, God wouldn’t go through with the plan if even as few as ten righteous, innocent people would be killed in the process.

Among other things, this story is an expansion on the issue of where God’s mind is with regard to extending consideration, and hospitality, to people.

In our lives, so much of our existence deals with trade-offs. Grey areas. Compromises, choosing the lesser of two evils. Living on this side of the gates of Eden means we’ll always end up having to deal in those kinds of compromises. We end up drawing lines of acceptable death somewhere all the time. When a bridge is built, it’s assumed that, say, two construction workers will get killed during the work. But the bridge still gets built; the legal and insurance costs related to that are just factored into the cost of construction. It’s the same with skyscrapers, and on and on all the way down to the most mundane of our consumer items. Sometimes, we’re conscious of the trade-off, and other times we aren’t, but whether we are or not, we’re still drawing those lines in our choices.

Of course, right now, as a society we’re caught up in two different questions of compromise – two different kinds of the calculus of death”: first, considering what number of people who will die as a result of reopening our economy and resuming large gatherings in the midst of the ongoing pandemic would be an acceptable trade-off for the sake of the economy and getting back to normal – normal, at least, if you aren’t one of the dead ones. And second, in a situation maybe more directly  like the Abraham/God bargaining session, how many deaths of innocent people are an acceptable trade-off in the pursuit of justice, in this case, the pursuit of having a safe community by way of policing – and again, “safe” assuming you aren’t one of the innocent ones who gets killed.

So where do we draw the line?

Wherever we draw it, I suspect that God would want us to draw it in a different place. I think it’s pretty clear that when it comes to where we “People of the Book,” we “People of the Story” have currently drawn those lines, the God who we profess faith in – the God who calls us to exhibit the same extravagant compassion and hospitality as Abraham; the God who would destroy entire cities for not extending that kind of compassion and hospitality to people; the God who nonetheless would call off those plans for destruction if it would result in the death of as few as ten innocent people – that God would be disappointed, even appalled, where our current society has drawn its lines.

It’s so hard to know what to think, she thought to herself as she sat in her kitchen. All those protestors yelling and chanting and blocking the streets, and certainly there had been some violence and vandalism, and that was terrible. But still, the protestors had a point, and it just turns your stomach to see the videos of those people being killed by police officers. Police officers! What in the world is going on in this world? Police officers are supposed to protect and serve, and why all of these terrible killings? Lord knows the police have a difficult and dangerous job. Like that nice young man whose family had moved into the neighborhood this past year. Dan was his name; he’s a police officer. He and his family had actually started going to the same church as she did, and she’d had a chance to get to know him as she spoke with him there a number of times. He was a nice man, a friendly man – a good man. And he was definitely having a hard time right now, working long hours as all the protests went on, every day, all day, and every night.

Just then, her oven timer beeped. She went over to the oven and pulled out the cookies she’d been baking. After they’d cooled a bit, she carefully stacked them in a plastic container, and on a piece of tape on the lid she neatly wrote the name of Dan, the police officer. Inside, she’d written a note that said “You have a difficult and dangerous job. I hope that as you carry out your important work, you’ll  do it with care and compassion for the people you are trying to protect. May you have a blessed and safe day.” That should be a nice gesture, she thought. I hope he’ll appreciate it, and it will give him a little boost, and let him know he’s appreciated.

As she thought about having gotten to know Dan at church, she also thought about Simone, a young African-American woman who went to the same church. Simone had grown up in the church, actually; she was baptized there as an infant and had been there ever since, through all the years. The woman had known and loved Simone almost since the day she was born. Now, Simone was a young woman in her twenties, and now she was one of the protestors, out in the street every day demanding justice for the innocent people who have been killed by police – victims of individuals, to be sure, but even more importantly, victims of an entire policing system that was inherently plagued by systemic racism. In fact, Simone’s own 14-year old cousin was an innocent victim of one of those killings.

It’s just so hard to know what to think, she thought. Yes, there are many good police officers out there – people like Dan – but there are many who aren’t too, way too many who aren’t, and the policing system is obviously terribly flawed. She didn’t have all the answers to how to fix things, , but still, she knew that the current situation had to change – this just isn’t right. Too many innocent people are being killed.

Just then, the oven timer beeped again, and she pulled more cookies out of the oven. These went into a container, too – this one with Simone’s name on it. And inside, she’d written a note: “You’ve suffered terribly, and for way too long. This situation is wrong and has to change. I hope that you can achieve that. May you have a blessed and safe day.”

And so may we all.

Amen.

The Eighth Day

(sermon 6/7/20 – Trinity Sunday)

trinity

Lectionary texts: Matthew 28:11-16    Genesis 1:1-2:4a

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So today is Trinity Sunday, and because of that, we hear scriptures that point in some way to this understanding of God being triune yet still one; this way of understanding God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was a way conceived of in the first few centuries of the church in order to try to synthesize all the various things that the church fathers understood about God through the life of Jesus, and the scriptures, and their own experience. It was an attempt at coming up with a way of understanding the totality of God that encompassed all of that. So today, we heard this short text from Matthew where Jesus is quoted as referring to baptizing in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – even though, to be honest, many if not most biblical scholars now feel that this was a later addition to the original text, made by well-intentioned scribes after the doctrine of the Trinity had been fleshed out.

And we hear also hear today’s first reading. Why is this text – the first account of creation, found at the beginning of Genesis, a reading for Trinity Sunday? Well, I suppose because in this, the first of two different creations accounts in Genesis, God is referred to by the Hebrew word “Elohim.” In the second creation account, the Hebrew word used to refer to God is YHWH, but in this first account, it’s Elohim. Elohim is actually a plural noun, literally meaning “gods,” or translated in other places in the scriptures, “angels” or others of the heavenly host. So throughout this account, the Creator is somehow a plural Creator, and of course in this story we hear that beautiful “Let us create humankind in our image…” giving support to the idea of understanding the divine One in some kind of underlying plural way, understanding God as somehow a unitary plural,  that provides some undergirding for imagining God as Trinity.

Even though this is Trinity Sunday, I’m not going to dwell much more today on the concept or the doctrine. I’m not going to try to explain it or come up with analogies to show what the Trinity is like, because every single one of them that people have come up with over the last two thousand years fails. As well intentioned as they are, and as much as they might get right, they end up getting at least as much wrong, sliding into any one of countless heresies that orthodox Christianity says the Trinity is not. Three leaf clover, ice/water/gas, God being a single actor playing three different roles in a play, every single one that’s been thought of ends up falling short. So I’m not going to spend any more time trying to get into the details of the Trinity, other than to say that it was the best way the early church fathers came up with as they tried to describe and explain and categorize a God who is indescribable, inexplicable, and impossible to categorize.

Don’t misunderstand me. I still believe firmly in the nature and attributes of God that the Trinity tries to pull together into one comprehensive, “theory-of-everything” concept. And of course, we’ll continue to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Spirit; and we’ll recite the Apostles’ Creed outlining believing in the Father, Son, and Spirit, and mean it all. But I just believe that when it comes to the Trinity, it’s more valuable to consider what the implications of this somehow unitary, somehow plural divine Being might be.

And I think one of those things to consider springs out of this creation story that we heard today.  In this story, we follow along through the six allegorical days, the six movements of the divine symphony of creation. We hear about the creation of the cosmos, and of the earth, and then all of the plant and animal life on earth, and finally, of human beings ourselves, and we’re told that we were created in the very image of the divine Creator. All of us, in our seemingly infinite diversity and variety, all of us being a reflection of the totality of the divine image, which itself also points in an important way toward that unitary/plural concept of God. And then, after those six days, those six movements, we follow along through God’s seventh day, the seventh movement, maybe the John Cage 4’33” movement of creation – the time of Sabbath.

Some people think that it all stopped there. But the story doesn’t tell us that God quit; that creation was all over at that point. On the contrary, Sabbath is a time of rest, a time of  renewal, of being refreshed, in preparation of something yet to come. And what was yet to come in this case was the “eighth day”, the eighth movement, of creation. It’s scientific fact that creation is continuing. All across the galaxy and beyond, throughout the universe, new stars, new planets, are continuing to be created, gases cooling and condensing and giving cosmic birth of whole new worlds. And on a smaller scale, here on earth, creation continues here, too. Yes, on this eight day, God continues to create, but now not alone – now, we’re part of the picture. God created us in God’s own image, including the creative impulse, and has called us to be co-creators.

Back in my undergraduate architecture days, my favorite professor was Arthur K. Anderson. I had Art for several different classes. He was a truly, genuinely good person. He was a gifted architect, a gifted academic. He truly cared about his students, and it showed. One of the things that Art would do, as a class would start, whether it was a design studio or a more traditional classroom, he’d convene the class, drawing us together, rubbing his hands together like this, probably without even consciously thinking about it, and with a big inviting smile and an almost conspiratorial look on his face, he’d say, not literally but in so many words, What great things are we going to do today? What are we going to create today? Every so often even now, I’ll be in a similar setting, and I’ll catch myself rubbing my hands together just like he used to do, and I’ll laugh thinking about that kind of unconscious tribute that I was offering to him even all these years later.

So in this eighth day, in that same spirit, what shall we create? It’s pretty clear just thinking of these most immediate times, we’re creating new ways of understanding the church, and how it lives out its purpose. It also seems that in this eighth day, we have an opportunity to create new ways of being a society, more just and equitable ways; ways more consistent with valuing all human life as being precious in the eyes of God, and all deserving of equity and justice. I pray that we don’t lose the opportunity that we have in this moment to achieve that new creation; I’m hopeful that we won’t lose it.

We also realize that every morning, every day, God is creating something new in us, ourselves. Through the very nature of our creation, we have the opportunity and the ability, with God’s help, to create, and re-create, our own personal ways of living as a person of God; keeping the good, erasing the bad and recreating new, better replacements for the bad.

So on this Trinity Sunday, as you think about the truly inexplicable nature of this unitary, plural God who is the source of all love, and mercy, and justice, and compassion, I invite you to look in the mirror and ask yourself: What will I create today?

Amen.

 

 

Hearing in Tongues

(sermon 5/31/20 – Pentecost Sunday)

pentecost mosaic-409427_1920
Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

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Acts 2:1-21

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 portents in the heaven above and signs 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.’

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It’s often helpful when hearing a passage of scripture to place ourselves within the story that’s unfolding – and not just doing that once, experiencing the story from just one vantage point, but to move around within it – imagining the story and thinking about the different ways that different people in the story would experience it from their vantage point. What were they seeing in that moment; what were they hearing; what were they even smelling? What were they feeling/ how did they understand what was playing out in front of them?

When we hear this familiar passage from Acts – the story of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus’ disciples and their going out into the street proclaiming the gospel, speaking its words of prophetic truth in all the languages of the people of the city and all the religious pilgrims who had come there from countless different places – I suspect that most of the time, we hear the story, and imagine it, through the eyes of the disciples. I suspect it’s normal for us to first see ourselves in this story as the ones doing the speaking.

But what if we changed that? What if we changed places? What if we experienced this story from the vantage point of the people who were out in the street, and who were hearing the message from the disciples? There they were, hearing this message from people they didn’t know, people different from them, and even though they were speaking a familiar language, the message they were offering was a discomforting one. One that they didn’t necessarily want to hear. One said they needed to repent and turn away from their current ways.

It isn’t always easy to hear challenging, prophetic words like the ones spoken by the disciples that day; in fact, it usually isn’t. And it’s even harder when those prophetic voices are coming from people who are different from us, and who are conveying their message in a way that we wouldn’t normally expect. We saw that in today’s first reading, from the Book of Numbers, when Moses’ hand-picked 70 elders, the select leadership of the Israelites, had gathered, and the Holy Spirit descended upon them as it had on MOses himself, and as it did on Jesus’ disciples, and the seventy all started to prophesy. But then, two others began to prophesy, too – Eldad and Medad, two men who weren’t part of the leadership, the inner circle – they were just part of the common folk, out in the midst of the people, began to prophesy, and some in the leaders didn’t like it and wanted them to stop. But Moses said no – that the Holy Spirit will move wherever it will, and will speak through whomever it will, and when they speak, they should be listened to.

Today, on this Pentecost Sunday in the year 2020, I have to think that we’re in the midst of a similar moment. A moment where important, prophetic words are being spoken by people who are different from most of us, and they’re conveying their message in ways different from what we might typically prefer. They’re speaking words of truth that can sometimes be discomforting, and that can stretch us into places that might sometimes be hard to accept.

A big part of the Pentecost story is the part about the disciples speaking in tongues. But this Pentecost, I think that we white people should be less concerned with speaking in tongues, and more concerned with hearing in tongues. Truly prophetic words are coming to us in the past weeks from members of the black community, who are feeling pain. Hurt. Grief, frustration, anger, and yes, rage, and all of it is absolutely justified. We all have hearts; most of us feel those same emotions over the recent tragic news stories about the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and others. But in a sense, we can’t really feel those emotions in the same depth, in the same way that they can, not fully anyway, because not only are they feeling those base emotions, they’re experiencing them through the lens, the filter, of the more than 400 years of abuse and injustice that they’ve endured on this continent at the hands of white people and white power structures – a 400-year history of injustice that Mayor Fisher very properly referred to in his press conference yesterday morning.

The blunt prophetic words coming from black mouths now and landing harshly on white ears are telling us that our governmental and social systems are broken. They have utterly failed people of color. They’re structured in a way that creates privilege for whites and injustices for people of color, and that makes true racial equity impossible. Right now, people are going out into the streets here in Louisville, and Minneapolis, and Atlanta, and countless other cities, speaking words every bit as prophetic and true as the ones spoken by Jesus’ disciples when they went out into the streets of Jerusalem on that day of Pentecost. These prophetic voices of our black brothers and sisters, like the voices of Eldad and Medad, and like the voices of Jesus’ disciples, can’t be ignored. We dare not ignore them. They are demanding – and through them, the Holy Spirit is demanding – that these things have to change. Racism is sin, and the structures in our society that perpetuate racial injustice is just as much sin. As a matter of our faith – as a matter of our hearing and responding to the moving of the Holy Spirit through all of those demanding change now – we have to stand in solidarity with them, and walk alongside them, and work together with them, to dismantle racism and racist structures in our society.

And as we hear those voices, we can’t allow acts of vandalism and property damage, which is virtually inevitable in times of frustration and rage, to distract us from our commitment to anti-racism. As bad as vandalism is, there is no equivalency in it; there is no negating the more life-threatening injustice going on. I heard one store owner whose windows were broken downtown being interviewed. He was saddened by the damage to his store, but still, in a show of support for the protestors and their cause, he said, “my window can be replaced; Breonna Taylor can’t.” To be blunt, if we allow ourselves to get more upset, more enraged, more drawn to action by vandalism than we get over the unjust killing of human beings, we need to be asking ourselves some very serious questions.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that violence is not the answer, that rioting is not the answer, but that still, a riot is “the language of the unheard” – meaning that while violence and vandalism is wrong in the abstract, when pushed beyond a certain threshold, a certain intolerable point of injustice and powerlessness, it is an all but inevitable and understandable reaction from anyone, whoever they are. So the real solution to the problem of people rioting, of engaging in the “language of the unheard,” is to actually *hear* them, and to actually do something about the injustices and powerlessness they face. This time, in the name of Jesus, and literally, for the love of God, let’s really hear them, and working together, and with God’s help, let’s fix this ungodly, unjust, and evil situation.

Amen.