Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
The country singer and song writer Mel Tillis was trying to write a new song and it just wasn’t going anywhere. He’d been trying to write a follow-up to a song of his about Tupelo, Mississippi, but when he played it for a colleague, the other man said he needed to try something else. Said that he needed to write about a new city. As he kept working with the tune he’d started and some of the lyrics, he began a second conversation, this time with Danny Dill, another song writer friend. Danny related something that he’d noticed when he’d been playing small shows and sets in bars in Detroit. This conversation would have been happening in the early 1960’s. A lot of people had been moving to Detroit. Danny Dill noticed that some of them were having a really hard time of it.
For some people who moved, like Black Americans who were leaving racial violence in southern states, while not perfect, the city of Detroit was still a place where a better life could be built and good wages found. The move was grounded in hopefulness. For others, like impoverished southern white people from both the Deep South and the Southern Highlands, the move to the North was more complicated. They were drawn by the same jobs as Black Americans but, with more reservations. Many would have preferred to stay where they had been raised, but, found it too hard to make a living. For many of these migrants, Detroit was a place they worked. It would never really feel like home.
Some folks would come home to Kentucky and Tennessee every weekend they had free and during every lay-off at the plant. Others would go to Detroit for a while, save some money, and then move back south. Some would be so miserable that they could never build a life for themselves in their new city. Mel Tillis and Danny Dill ended up writing a song about one of those people. The first verse of the song, known as Detroit City is:
I wanna go home/ I wanna go home/ oh how I wanna go home
Last night I went to sleep in Detroit City
And I dreamed about those cottonfields and home
I dreamed about my mother, dear old papa, sister, and brother
I dreamed about that girl who's been waiting for so long
I wanna go home/ I wanna go home oh /how I wanna go home
This is a song of lament and lonesomeness. It is a song about someone completely displaced and out of place, regretting the decision he made to follow the jobs north. He eventually says that he’s going to swallow his pride, admit that he hasn’t been able to find what he was looking for, and just go home.
I wonder what this guy would have done had he received a letter like the one the exiles received from Jeremiah in today’s scripture. Because, they were singing a similar refrain: I wanna go home/I wanna go home/I wanna go home. And, they hadn’t made the choice to move to Babylon. Sure, poverty drove some white southerners to seek jobs away from home, but, it was still a choice they made and were allowed to make. The Israelites had been forced into exile by a conquering army. They didn’t want to leave Judah and they didn’t want to stay in Babylon. They were people twice traumatized, first by the terrors of war in their homes and then by the forced removal of their leadership to Babylon. They would have said that they wanted to go home and the last thing they wanted to hear was that they would have to stay. And, that’s just what Jeremiah told them. They would have to stay.
To put this part of Jeremiah in context, Dr. Wil Gafney describes it this way: She said imagine that a foreign army has beaten our army in a war that is in our country. Now, imagine that our government has been dismantled and key religious and cultural artifacts have been stolen and carted away to sit in someone else’s palaces and museums. The president and their family, plus the cabinet, plus all of Congress and the remaining military leaders have all been forced to move to the foreign country, along with our most celebrated artists and most skilled craftspeople. There is great famine back home and great isolation and fear in the other place. It would be almost impossible to rebuild and recover. That’s how complete the devastation is. This is the kind of situation that Jeremiah was responding to.
I think the letter the exiled leaders were hoping for was from someone who was going to tell them that whatever this exile is, it would be short-lived... That they wouldn’t have to figure out how to change their lives anymore to fit Babylon. They had lost enough. They wanted someone to tell them when God would come save them and let them go home. In her commentary on this passage, Dr. Alphonetta Wines noted that some prophets, like Hananiah, had predicted as little as a two year stay in exile. That might not have been great, but it might have been manageable. Many hard things are manageable if there is an end date. It’s too bad that Jeremiah didn’t think there was going to be an end date any time soon.
Jeremiah had not been sent into exile. He was so much on the margins of religious and political leadership that the Babylonians did not think it was worth it to send him in exile. You see, the exile was a way to disrupt the leadership capacity of the Israelites. You kill or steal capable leaders. That makes it very hard to organize a resistance or rebuild. The Babylonians didn’t see Jeremiah as a threat. He was able to remain in Judah, where he experienced the trauma and post-war deprivations firsthand. It is in this destruction that Jeremiah finds his call. And, his call is to help the exiled leaders survive. Dr. Wines puts in this way, he writes a letter to the exiles to help them adjust to their current situation, rather than escape it.
As one who has been having to do a lot of adjusting in the midst of COVID-19, an event that isn’t exile but is disruptive, I can understand this yearning for news that the disruption is over and that things can get back to normal. Jeremiah’s letter is more like the direction we’re getting from scientists... we don’t know how long this is going to last, some of the changes we’re making are long-term if not permanent. But, just because we don’t know when it will be over, that doesn’t mean you can’t find blessing right where you are. Jeremiah says to the exiled that they will find blessing in actually making a life in Babylon: plant gardens, marry partners, have children. He says to them, you will feel the impulse to shrink and decline and isolate. But, don’t do that. He says build and grow and connect. This is going to take a long time and that is how you will survive.
Dr. Gafney points out that Jeremiah’s instruction to seek the welfare of the city in which they have been exiled does not rely on some kind of amend-making on the part of Babylon. It is unlikely that Babylon would have apologized for what they had done. However, Babylon and Israel were inextricably connected at this point. Anything the Israelites did to make their city more livable would only help them to survive the captivity. And, that should be their main concern: finding a way to cultivate as good a life as possible. Those who were not deported will not have this luxury. This will continue to live in great deprivation. The ones in Babylon must take advantage of whatever goodness they can find right where they were. When they are finally able to return, their people will need them to be in as good a shape as possible.
I am grateful that this scripture reminds us that beauty and life can be wrought from terrible circumstances. In some cases, the beauty is in the haunting songs that help us lament, even if we’ve never lived in Detroit City. In other cases, the beauty is in the ways communities can be reorganized by their response to disasters. Dr. Wines reminds us that much of the Hebrew Bible was collected and organized during the exile. Also, this is when synagogues became vital parts of Jewish community. Even the style of faith that developed in this era, a wrestling with questions about God’s provision and God’s relationship to human flourishing and suffering, came about in part because of people’s responses to making a life in Babylon until that time when they could return to Judah, some 60 years later. When Jewish people didn’t have a temple, they developed ways to continue their traditions. I don’t wish terrible circumstances on people, but I’m grateful to be reminded of the life that can rise up in spite of them.
When we are tempted to be Babylon, may we turn away from destruction, so that we no longer ask people to survive the unlivable. And, when we are in exile, may we remember that God is still with us, helping us create the legacies that allow us and our descendants to survive.
Sources referenced in today’s sermon:
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’
There is a beautiful song called “Ring of Keys” in a Broadway show called Fun Home that I thought of when I reread today’s scripture. The show is based on the graphic novel of the same name, written and illustrated by Alison Bechdel. In the song, she recounts a transformational moment from her childhood. She was eating in a diner with her dad. This would have been in the mid- to late 1960’s in Pennsylvania. And, this woman walked in, delivering something. What she was delivering wasn’t as important as how she looked while she did it. She looked strong.
In the song, young Alison sings:
Your swagger and your bearing
And the just right clothes you're wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots
And your keys, oh
Your ring of keys
Alison isn’t simply enamored by the keys. She is amazed to see a woman presenting a different idea of how to move through the world than Alison has ever seen before. This woman takes up space. She does a sweaty job where she has to carry heavy things. She has a short haircut... not a pixie cut, but a haircut that looks more like the haircuts the men that Alison knew would wear. Even her clothes were a revelation. She wore practical things, work pants and boots, but this was more than her uniform. It was also intentional, chosen to tell people who were paying attention something about who she was. And, Alison was paying attention. In that moment, when she saw this adult she didn’t know, she saw something true that she recognized in herself and also something to aspire to. She sings, “I think we’re alike in a certain way” and “why am I the only one who sees you’re beautiful/ no, I mean/ handsome.” The last lines of the song are “I know you./I know you./I know you.” I read somewhere that this revelatory moment in the diner, where she said “that’s who I am and want to be” is one of Alison Bechdel’s earliest memories. She lived her life a little differently from that moment on.
I must admit, it can be a little tricky to compare Alison’s revelation to Paul’s revelation. Alison’s revelation seems like a relief. A transformation, to be sure, but also a relief. She sees a vision of an adult version of her that bring her hope. If you haven’t read the book or seen the show, Bechdel's home life was difficult. Seeing this woman and her dungarees and boots was a bright spot in a life that could be hard. Paul, well, Saul, who would become Paul, he was pretty happy with his life. He was doing just what he thought he needed to be doing. His transformative moment was terrifying. I’m going to argue, though, that, once he got past the fear, this revelation also made his life more hope-filled. Because, before that flash of light on the road, Saul of Tarsus was going down a path ruled by fear and destruction. By the look of things, he would need something like an act of God to change him. The story tells us that God’s action did.
Saul appears to be one of those people who is very sure that God needs defending by the faithful. He is introduced in chapter 9 as one so zealous in his faith that he is willing to participate in violence to protect it. When you are brought up in the violence of the Empire, it can be tempting to replicate that violence. It’s like last week, when we were reading in Exodus, and Moses, who was raised by the Pharaoh, lost his temper and killed an Egyptian man whom he saw abusing an Israelite. Saul, likely fearful of the fate of his own faith under Roman domination, turned that fear into violence against those whom he saw as threatening his faith, particularly, the followers of the radical teacher, Jesus. Jesus, who had been killed by the state. Jesus, whose followers, like Stephen, were willing to face death even as they shared the good news of his message. Saul had no patience for those who defamed God and drew unnecessary and dangerous attention to their people.
Dr. Mitzi Smith, when writing about this passage, says “God reveals God’s self to whomever God chooses and when God chooses.” And, Saul, who had already believed in God fiercely, was the recipient of this revelation. Saul, who was well-educated and well-connected, a Pharisee who was a son of Pharisee, a Roman citizen when many weren’t, could not use all his political or social connections to work his way out of the startling encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus. A light from heaven flashed and he fell to the ground, the world that he thought he saw so clearly, becoming nothing before his eyes. Jesus, long gone from this world, but moving through the Holy Spirit, speaks to him and sets him on the journey to a new life and a new mission.
First, Saul will have to rely on his friends to lead him safely into the city. You see, following Christ is rarely done alone. Then, a disciple named Ananias will come and lay hands on him, preparing him for the work of the Gospel, and offering him the chance to make amends for all he had done wrong in the world. When Saul, whom we know as Paul, accepts this blessing and is baptized, we know, from this vantage point in history, that we are seeing a world changing ministry begin. Whatever had been preventing him from seeing a hopeful future fell away, and he was able to begin anew.
Now I don’t know if your transformation story is more like that little girl who sees herself in an adult for the first time or more like Saul, who had his hurt turned from fear and anger into hope and love. But, I bet you have a transformation story. Maybe you’re having a transformation story right now, moved by the protests and testimonies offered up to us over the last two weeks about what it is to be black and live in this country. However you come to see the thing that changes you, I hope are able to get up and go do whatever Christ is calling you to do. Your life and this world can change. This stories reminds us that great transformation is possible. I pray that you have found your part of it.
Resources consulted in this sermon:
Exodus 5:1-2, 7:8-23
Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” ’ But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.’
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘When Pharaoh says to you, “Perform a wonder”, then you shall say to Aaron, “Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.” ’ So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs. Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; stand by at the river bank to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that was turned into a snake. Say to him, “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.’ But until now you have not listened. Thus says the Lord, ‘By this you shall know that I am the Lord.’ See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron, “Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water—so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.” ’
Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart.
Pharaoh had a plan.
Pharaoh had a plan. It is reasonable for us to expect leaders to have a plan. We have confidence and trust that good leaders have their best interest at heart, and that those interests coincide with our best interests. Pharaoh was a powerful leader. Whether or not he was a good leader is another question. Someone was certainly benefiting from his choices. Now, this Pharaoh comes many years after Joseph and the Israelites had a plan that saved Egypt from a famine. The time has lapsed such that he does not really know these Jewish people; certainly not with the intimacy of his ancestors or the Pharaohs before him. He has long stopped viewing the Israelites as welcome refugees in his land. Instead he has grown frightened of them, not because they did anything wrong, just because Pharaoh was afraid. So, he oppressed them, enslaving them, in order to shore up his power. He was willing to do terrible things to stay in power. His plan was to keep the Israelites in bondage and hurt them in order to keep them in line.
Moses had a plan.
Moses had a plan. And, his plan was mostly to get the heck out of Dodge and stay out of Dodge. It was already a miracle that Moses was alive. Pharaoh’s plan included genocide and every Israelite boy was to die. But, there were two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who made a plan and saved the boys. And, then, a woman named Jochebed made a plan and saved her own son. That’s Moses. He survived in a time when he wasn’t supposed to and even ended up living in the household of the one who ordered his death. That story would be miracle enough on its own. But, the story didn’t end there. So many more signs and wonders will happen.
Even though he grew up with Egyptians, Moses was an Israelite and he knew it. When he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, a slave who might have been one of his relatives, and he snapped. He killed the abusive man. And, even though he had grown up as a grandson to the Pharaoh, he knew his place in the world was tenuous. A descendant of refugees and a survivor of one genocide, this son of a mother with plan, makes his own plan. He gets out of town, gets to Midian, and tries to make a life there. He marries Zipporah. They have a kid. His plan is to stay in Midian, have a family, and stay alive.
God had a plan.
God had a plan and the first part of that plan was to get Moses to go back to Egypt and help his people. Back in chapter 3, God appears to Moses and says, “I’ve heard the people. I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” Moses was not at all sure that this was a good plan. “Who am I,” he says, “that I should go to Pharaoh?” Well, if God was a little snarkier, God might have said you’re the Pharaoh’s grandson. Why wouldn’t I send you? Instead, God is patient and insistent. Every time that Moses tries to work his way out of this whole liberation fight, God promises to give him what he’ll need to succeed.
Moses says what if I say that their God has sent me and they don’t believe me. God says, tell them my true name and that I sent you to help me save them. Also, I’m going to send signs and wonders, so they will see that I am with you. Moses says, but what if they don’t believe that you actually came to me? God says, I’m going to show you how to do something with that staff and your cloak that only God could help you do. Moses says, I’m not eloquent or quick with words. I will not be able to charm or convince them. God promises to be with Moses’ mouth, teaching him what to say. Moses even pleads with God to send someone else and God agrees to send Moses’ brother Aaron to help, but Moses still has to go. Moses is integral to this plan. Left without excuses, Moses agrees to go.
Part 2 of God’s plan comes when Moses goes to see his adopted grandfather, the Pharaoh. This is when we see God’s plan and Pharaoh’s plan collide. Like many things we do, Pharaoh has a formula for his plan. His method is to agree with whatever is asked of him, but then to go back on his promise once he gets what he wants. We might think that is awful, and it is, but this Pharaoh’s Modus operandi worked well. It got him out of nine plagues. It worked like this: God sent Moses and Aaron to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so they could worship God or God was sending a plague. Here’s how it goes down: Pharaoh says “No.” Plague comes. Pharaoh gets Moses and Aaron and tells them to ask their God to forgive him and he will let them go. God removes plague. Pharaoh doesn’t let them go. So, the snakes come and Moses’ snake eats all of the snakes of Pharaoh’s magicians. Then here we go. Our reading only goes through one plague. There are so many more: frogs, gnats, flies, dead animals, boils, hail, locusts and darkness. Even a terrible reproduction of the sin of Pharaoh’s original plan: the death of innocents. In all of this, here’s what Pharaoh didn’t have: A Plan B. Sound familiar? How many of us have a plan and we keep working it with the confidence and arrogance that it will continue to work. Who needs a Plan B? Well, those whose arrogance will not allow them to remember whose plan is really in charge... those people need a plan B.
God knew the Pharaoh’s plan. God used the arrogance and deceitfulness of Pharaoh to assure that the Egyptians and the Israelites know that God is “in this Land.” Remember, Pharaoh was considered a God. This story is a story of God making sure people knew that the Pharaoh was a human, not a God. God utilizes the predictability of Pharaoh’s character and his one-plan-negotiating-strategy to punish the Egyptians for enslaving the Jews and to distinguish the Egyptians from the Jewish people, further identifying the Israelites as His people. I don’t know about you, but I would never have made it to boils. I would have changed plans. But Pharaoh was unwilling to choose a different path, setting God’s plan in place. God knew that this Pharaoh was a leopard who would not change his spots. He also knew that Pharaoh had used this very same tactic against the Jews to kill all of their male children, yet it backfired. Pharaoh’s own undoing, Moses, was raised in his very own home.
I know that we’re missing organized sports, so let’s go with a football metaphor here: God’s game plan is for us is to be identified as God’s people. God’s game plan was to demonstrate that God was the only God and the most powerful god, and that God was in their homeland, calling the plays. When you enslave God’s people, you must be prepared for the consequences. The Israelites, slaves of the Egyptians, would be set free from their captors, clearly identifying them as His people. Many of those Egyptians would suffer and die because of Pharaoh and his stubborn attachment to his very bad plan.
Do you have a Plan B? Or, are you still banging your head against the wall, keeping to your plan like Pharaoh? When you stop trying to run your play without God being your quarterback, how do you know what to do? Just like football, you need to get in the huddle. You need to spend time with God. Reading the Word, talking about the Word, living the Word in community, and praying that God will clearly reveal your position in the play.
We are accustomed to thinking about ourselves first. There is truth in the statement that you must take care of yourself before you can care for others. There is also truth in the fact that God provides us with what we need to play our position on the team. Our goal is cultivate and nurture the community of God’s kin-dom. Our individual rights and privileges are only worthwhile if they enrich the entire team (if we’re sticking with the football metaphor). God’s plan includes all of God’s people, working together in love for the glory of God. Get on the Team! Get in the huddle! God's got a plan!
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
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.”
*All art is from the Art in the Christian Tradition collection at Vanderbilt University
Note before our sermon: This week was filled with the news of incidents of racist violence in the United States. In this sermon, which was initially envisioned as a joyful activity for the kids at our church, I also discuss some of the history our denomination has in supporting protest as a holy act. Let me be clear: Pentecost is about a holy ruckus that turns people’s lives toward God. The protests in our country are a part of Pentecost.
How can you be a part of this Pentecost protest movement, even if you are practicing social distancing?
Tithe some of your time during the stay at home order to learning more about anti-racism. Here is a good list of resources, both for kids and adults, to help us continue the holy work of dismantling racism. You could read them on your own or, if you’re feeling like connecting with others at church about this, develop a long-distance study group to talk about what you’re learning: https://tinyurl.com/antiracismresourcelist
Share your money: If you have some money to share, these programs in Minneapolis are doing great work and could use our support right now:
Become involved in local government. Ask questions about the kinds of training your town and county’s police force has received in de-escalation, implicit bias, and anti-racism. Ask about funds the department has been given for military-grade equipment. Ask about what community policing measures they are putting in place.
On to the sermon:
OK, we are going to do a quick scavenger hunt. I need help from everyone who is in elementary or middle school. High schoolers and adults can help if you want. Ok, the rules are: First, the thing has to be inside your house. Second: You can walk fast but do not run. Third, if you can’t find it in 12 seconds, you have to come back and get another assignment. Grown-ups in the house, I will need your help counting. Fourth, it has to be small enough that you can safely carry it. If it is sharp or made of glass, you have to have a grown up help you. Alright, here’s the list of things we are going to try to find:
Alright, real quick, somebody show me your ribbon, your bird, your fan, your wind-chime, your red, yellow, and orange things, your thing that reminds you of fire. Now, if you had to guess, why do you think I asked you to find this list of things? What do they all have in common? (We left some room for their guesses.) Those are all good guesses. I picked all of these things because they remind me of the story of Pentecost. The fan, wind-chimes, and ribbon all help me see, feel, and hear the wind. In the story, the Holy Spirit rushes into a room like a strong burst of wind. And, what about the red, yellow, and orange stuff: Yes, it’s the color of fire. And, you may have brought something that reminded you of fire. The story says that the Holy Spirit looked like a fire over people’s heads. What did the Holy Spirit help the people do? It helped them speak a bunch of languages. Does anyone know why it was important that they speak a bunch of different languages?
This story took place in Jerusalem, a city where people spoke a bunch of different languages. This is the fun part about living in a big city. There are many people there from all over the world. And, they speak the languages that they learned in those places. They would also know one common language so they could talk to each other. The People in Jerusalem probably understood Greek. They spoke Greek at the grocery store and when they talked to neighbors and strangers, maybe even at the synagogue. They spoke their languages at home. That’s how they sang lullabies to their babies and argued with their siblings. While you might assume that people could speak the common language, you wouldn’t necessarily think that someone who wasn’t from your country could speak the language of your home.
Were the people surprised to be hearing the other languages? Yes. They definitely were. They heard the big noise of the rush of Holy Spirit wind and they heard all the shouting and they came running to hear what was going on. You see, I don’t think this Pentecost event was quiet. We know that the Holy Spirit was loud. I can’t imagine the people who were speaking spoke quietly after that. I bet they shouted. That’s why the big group of people could hear them. There were 120 people in the room where the Holy Spirit wooshed. There is no way that 120 people, all talking at the same time, would have been quiet. I don’t think the 3000 people who came to hear them would have been quiet, either.
I bet a lot of us who are on this call today were raised to believe that most of the time holy things are quiet things. For the grown-ups especially, you might remember you parents or grandparents making you sit very still at church. If you spoke even one little bit, you got shushed and maybe got your arm pinched. You were taught that you showed respect by being quiet. That’s how I experience your quietness when I preach. This is how you learned to be respectful. So many of us learned how to recognize God in still and quiet places. Quiet walks in the woods, quiet meditations on your porch, quiet trips around a labyrinth. We are good at it because we’ve had a lot of practice doing it.
The story of Pentecost reminds us that God is found in loud and raucous places, too. And, I think this story, especially this weekend where there are people loudly protesting for racial equality all over our country, it is good for those of us used to Holy Stillness to remember this Holy Ruckus. And, to look for God at work in these protests. Let’s go back to the stuff you found in your scavenger hunt. Who all found something that reminded them of the Holy Spirit? What did you find? (they shared) Those things are all so good.
Here’s what I found. I look at it every time I write a sermon and whenever I lead worship at home. It’s a sign, that you could use as a protest sign, from one of my schools. It says, “Be a revolutionary. Question authority. Challenge the status quo. That’s not what Jesus would do. That’s what he did.” It even has a little flame on it. That’s the symbol for my school, Chicago Theological Seminary. Even though I need to find still and quiet places, this sign reminds me that that isn’t the only place to find God.
Did you know that in 1966, our denomination, the United Church of Christ worked to help make sure that TV stations run by racist people couldn’t refuse to show the protests that were happening across the South. They were trying to hide the protests to make them less effective and didn’t want people to see that the people who were protesting had a right to be angry. The people who owned the TV stations didn’t want the people in other places to see how badly the protesters were being treated. Pastors in the South, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., asked our denomination to help. They asked us because there was a Pastor named Everett Parker who worked in journalism before he became a pastor. He knew how to help them.
Together, they went all the way to the Supreme Court and won! The court said that TV stations couldn’t have the license they needed to show TV shows and the news if they weren’t going to be fair in how they did it. If they wanted to be able to keep working, they had to stop keeping the protests off their shows. After that, the protests were able to do more good because more people knew they were happening and they would help the protesters, even if they lived far away. The protesters were inspired by God to make the world better. They could do what God was asking them to do after they found someone who knew how to help them.
The people in our Bible story were willing to follow Jesus when they saw and heard the loud miracle on Pentecost. People in our country were willing to follow Jesus better, too, and change unfair laws once they saw, on their TV screens, the truth about what was happening in the South. It’s like they finally heard words they understood, but it was images on their screens. I think this weekend is another Pentecost season, where people are telling the truth about their lives and we are seeing and hearing it, maybe for the first time. The question is, will we be like our ancestors and change because of it? Or will we be too afraid of the ruckus and miss God working in the wind?
Resources mentioned in this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.