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.
Swanson, John August. Story of Ruth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56561 [retrieved June 28, 2022]. Original source: Estate of John August Swanson, https://www.johnaugustswanson.com/.
So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die--
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ She said to them,
‘Call me no longer Naomi,
call me Mara,
for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
I went away full,
but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’
So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Your People Shall Be My People: Ruth 1:15-22
A pivotal scene in the film Fried Green Tomatoes features our reading for today. Tough-talking, pants-wearing Idgie Threadgoode receives a letter from straight-laced preacher’s daughter Ruth Jamison. They had known each other a long time. Ruth had been Idgie’s brother’s girlfriend before he tragically died. A few years later, when Idgie struggled in adolescence, her mother had asked Ruth to spend time with her one summer, hoping Ruth’s good behavior would rub off on the half-wild Idgie. They grew close. Idgie was heartbroken when Ruth moved back to Georgia at the end of the summer to marry a man named Frank.
We, and Idgie, learned that Frank was abusive when she made up an excuse to go see Ruth. Idgie was ready to take on Frank that very day, but Ruth wouldn’t let her. Idgie left, knowing that things were not safe but not knowing what to do to help. The proper steps become clear when Ruth sends Idgie the letter. It contains a copy of Ruth’s mother’s obituary, to let Idgie know that Ruth no longer had ties that mattered in Valdosta, and a page from a King James Bible. The page is from the book of Ruth. These words were underlined: “for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:” Idgie realizes that this was Ruth telling Idgie to come get her. Idgie gathered up two men, Julian and Big George, and they drove all the way to Valdosta to get Ruth and bring her back home to Whistle Stop, Alabama.
The movie, which is set between World War I and II and released in 1991, lets Ruth and Idgie’s relationship status remain... ambiguous, but those with eyes can see and ears can hear. They build a life together, caring for each other, running a diner together, and raising a son. The words of Ruth to Naomi... where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people and your God, my God... become the bridge that brings them back together.
I think the first place I ever heard any part of the book of Ruth was watching that movie on VHS with my Granny at her home in Tennessee, which seems to be an odd way to encounter part of the Bible for the first time. Our Jewish neighbors read Ruth during the festival of Shavuot. It’s a vital part of their traditions. Christians might notice that figure of Ruth shows up as one of the few women in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew. The book of Ruth also comes up a few times in one year for those preachers who follow the scripture suggestions in the 3-year reading cycle called the Revised Common Lectionary. We’re gonna spend some time with Ruth and Naomi and Boaz this summer, at the suggestion of Dr. Wil Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary. In her introduction to this text, Mary Joan Winn Leith, describes Ruth as a story of loyalty, generosity to strangers, and love. Those are all values that seems utterly necessary in these troubled times. Let’s shift our attention to the troubled times that brought Ruth and Naomi together.
Ruth and Naomi might have never met had there not been a famine. Naomi and her husband Elimilech are what we might today call climate refugees. They had to leave their homeland because of a natural disaster related to the climate. A scholar named Elizabeth Siwo-Okundi gave this helpful definition of a famine in her commentary on this passage. A famine is a particular kind of large-scale food shortage that may due to a variety of factors that can stack up together to impact food availability. Weather patterns, styles of farming, the presences of pests and blights, as well as human exploitation can work together to compound the damage of a famine.
We don’t know what caused the famine that drove Naomi and Elimelech from the home. But we do know that they were hungry enough and desperate enough that a long voyage to a foreign country seemed to be the better option to staying in Bethlehem and starving. They decided to move to Moab. If you have read other parts of the Bible, you might remember that people from Judah didn’t always like people from Moab very much. Scholar Cameron Howard, in her commentary on this text, reminds us that in Genesis, the people of Moab are described as descendants of an inappropriate relationship between Noah and his daughter. In Deuteronomy, the Moabites are forbidden from being a part of the assembly of God, in part, because they did not show hospitality to the Hebrews when they were migrants escaping from Egypt. Was it great hunger that inspired Elimilech and Naomi to move to Moab or great open-mindedness to new possibilities? Maybe both?
At some point after they arrive in Moab, with two sons in tow, Elimilech dies. In her commentary on this text, Patricia Tull reminds us that, in a world where a woman's livelihood often depended on the whims and fortunes of the men to whom she was attached, Elimilech's death was a tragedy in a few different ways. Not only would Naomi mourn her husband, she might have also struggled to physically survive without him. Fortunately, she had two sons old enough to help out. These sons would eventually marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi, her sons, and daughters-in-law seem to make a life together in Moab, despite any traditions of animosity that they could have inherited. For ten years, in fact, they build this life together. Tragically, Naomi’s sons die, too, leaving Orpah and Ruth widows with no children to care for them.
I was reminded while reading Ruth Sohn’s commentary on this text that Naomi was from Bethlehem and Bethlehem means “city of bread.” Sohn says that Naomi remembered her homeland, the city of bread, and hearing that food was once more growing in Judah and remembering the times God provided bread, food, for the people in the wilderness, she decided to go home to the city of bread. Ruth and Orpah accompanied her part of the way. But, she stops them. She tells them to go back to their mother’s homes. She can’t see a future where she can provide for them, so despite the care they obviously have for one another, she tells them to go back home. They both argue with her, but Orpah, seeing Naomi’s wisdom, kisses her cheek goodbye and leaves, weeping. Ruth, though, Ruth stays.
There are layers of intent that a reader could inscribe on Ruth’s words. Put mostly simply, Ruth loved Naomi too much to leave, so she defies her and stays. Ruth looks at an uncertain future and decides to fully invest herself in the one relationship that feels life-giving... as life-giving as bread to a starving person. Naomi may not feel like she has much hope. She tells the women who recognize her that God has dealt harshly with her... that she is so grief-filled that she can no longer be called her own name, which means pleasant, but should instead be called Mara, which means bitter. But, Ruth is there, quietly off to the side, steadfast her hope that new life, renewed life, is possible with Naomi.
Perhaps you are feeling like you should be called Mara, bitter, because your grief and fear for the future is shaking you. But, notice that even in grief, there is a choice to turn towards that which promises nourishment. And, even in grief, there are relationships that, against all odds, have proven to be life-giving in their own right. These relationships... the networks of life that we cultivate... can help us get to the just and loving future the Holy Spirit can build with us. Your people will be my people. And, we will all help each other survive. May we each have this Ruth spirit with us, cleaving us to one another, as we walk towards the sustenance that we know God can provide.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Cameron B. R. Howard: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3884
Elizabeth J.A. Siwo-Okundi, "Proper 26 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Patricia Tull: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-ruth-11-18
Wil Gafney, "Proper 1" and "Proper 2," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
The entry on Moabites from the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, general ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (et. al) (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996)
Mary Joan Winn Leith, "Ruth," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford 2001)
Ruth H. Sohn, "Verse by Verse: A Modern Commentary," Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim A Sacred Story, ed. Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (New York: Ballentine Books, 1994)
Teacher with plaid shirt: Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash Kid on computer with pink note: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash Kids on track: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash Theater: Photo by Javad Esmaeili on Unsplash Kids in masks playing: Photo by Atoms on Unsplash Hand playing trumpet: Photo by Lucas Alexander on Unsplash
1Thessalonians 5:12-24 Final Exhortations, Greetings, and Benediction
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
I learned from a commentary by Dr. Carla Works that 1st Thessalonians is probably the first of the Apostle Paul’s letters. That makes it also probably the first book to be written out of all the New Testament. When we read it in our church today, we are reading a letter written to another church 1,973 years ago. I think that’s pretty cool. Also, today’s reading is from end of the letter where he is saying goodbye and offering some final words of wisdom. Given that we are celebrating the end of the school year and the beginning of the summer break for the choir, it seems appropriate to read a letter that offers closing words.
In her commentary on this text, Dr. Works says, that she feels like this part of the letter sounds like the kind of thing she’d say to her kids “before dropping them off at a friend’s house.” She also lists some of the things that she reminds her kids: “Always be respectful. Listen closely. Pick up after yourself. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Call me if you need anything. In fact, just call me period.” Has anyone here ever been reminded to make sure to do something by the grown-ups who take care of you? What kind of things did they say? (Don’t forget your lunch. Sit up straight. Tie your shoes. I love you.)
Here are some of the things Paul tells his friends in Thessalonica: Be nice to the people who run things and support the church; don’t pick fights with each other; admonish those who aren’t helping out; offer encouragement to those who are discouraged; support those who are weak; and be patient with everyone. Ok. Let’s stop there for a moment. It seems like good advice not to pick fights with each other. But, it is always easy not to pick fights with each other? What about being nice to the people who are running things? Have you ever tried to talk to people who aren’t helping and try to get them to help? Are you able to be patient with everyone? So, we all can agree, this list is full of ways to be kind to each other but it’s not always easy to do. Paul finishes the first couple lines with these words: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” That means, don’t try to get people back when they do something wrong. Who here has ever wanted to get someone back when they do something wrong? See! This isn’t an easy list of stuff to remember!
Dr. Works reminds us that that list of good things to do isn’t even the whole list of things that Paul hopes the church in Thessalonica will. There are two more sections of behaviors that Paul asks them to remember to do! This good-bye list is both kinda long and also kinda hard. But, Paul knows that Jesus can help us do hard things and do the right things. That first part of our reading is about how to treat each other. The second part is about how to connect with God together as a church. I had forgotten this, but I was reminded in Dr. Works’ commentary that this church was mourning the death of some church members. So, it seems like Paul was trying to help them remember how being a church could help them when they were sad. He says that some regular practices of the church... finding joy, praying, offering thanksgiving... will help you be strong and stay connected when things are hard.
And, the third part of his hope-filled to-do list is the part where Paul reminds his friends that God is still at work in their lives. He said the Spirit was still moving in them and they should listen to Her! If the Spirit was leading them in a direction, they should follow! Don’t allow fear or despair to cut you off from the Holy Spirit. God will speak. These words from God might be called prophecies and the people who share them may be called prophets. In a world that is in despair, it can be difficult to hear new words leading you to follow God in a different way or return to an old way. Some might ignore anyone who seems to offer a new word from God. Paul says that we’ll miss out if we do that. So, he offers guidance to listen to prophets and examine what they offer. The Spirit will guide you and help you tell what good and worth holding onto and what is worth letting go. Hold fast to what is good. That means hold on to it real tight.
The last part of today’s reading is a blessing that Paul offers his friends. Dr. Wil Gafney translates it this way, “May the very God of Peace sanctify you all wholly, and may your spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Redeemer Jesus Christ. The one who calls you and is faithful will do this.” I think this is a reminder that God will take care of every single part of your: your whole spirit... your whole soul... your whole body. Sometimes we need the reminder that God loves every part of us. Paul wanted to make sure his friends remembered that, too.
As we finish up our school year, Sunday school year, and choir season, I hope you can hear these same blessings as we look towards summer. Hold fast to the good that you learned this year. Know that the Spirit is still moving within you, even when you are sad or scared or mad. Take care of the people who need it. Ask the people who aren’t helping to help. And, know that God loves every part of you. I hope in this summer season, you get some respite and also have the chance to pay attention to what the prophets of our day are calling you to right now. May the Spirit guide your rest, your discernment, and your action.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Carla Works: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-1-thessalonians-516-24-4
Wil Gafney, "Proper 1, " Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Matthew 28:16-20 The Commissioning of the Disciples
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Just for today, pretend that it’s Easter. Pretend that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have just met the lightning angel and run into Jesus on the road. Imagine that you’ve heard that there are some people who are spreading the story that Jesus' disciples have taken his body from the tomb. Remember that the last time the eleven remaining disciples had seen Jesus, he was on the cross. Know that they got the message from Mary Magdalene and Mary: Go to Galilee. There you will meet Jesus. And they have gone to Galilee.
Jesus appears to the eleven disciples, just as he has already appeared to the two Marys. They worship him but, as the scholar Eric Barreto notes in his commentary on this text, some have doubts. I love that the worship and the doubts are right next to one another... reminding us that to follow Jesus is often to both worship and have doubts. The ones who doubt aren't chastised for the doubts. The doubts are simply noted. To follow Jesus does not always mean you know exactly what to do or what to believe. As Barreto says, even when Jesus is right in front of your face, you may still have doubts. That doesn’t stop Jesus from giving all of them, doubters and doubtless, a job.
Throughout the book of Matthew, people have been struggling to understand how to fit Jesus into their lives as their teacher. Jesus was a simple man, a former refugee, knowledgeable in the law but likely lacking formal education. He was a carpenter's son, so he was probably trained in building, not in interpreting Scripture and the law. And, yet, he became a wise teacher familiar with the law and confident in his understanding. Parts of Matthew, like the end of the Sermon on the Mount, confirm his good pedagogy for us. It says that as Jesus finished preaching, the crowds were astounded. They said that he preached as one having authority, as one who knew something deeper. This is why people believed him.
In her commentary on this text, Susan Hylen notes that there is a through line in the Gospel of people recognizing Jesus’ surprising authority. When he healed people, they recognized his authority. When the disciples healed people, the people recognized Jesus’ authority. When he stood toe to toe with the most powerful members of his community, challenging oppressive practices, he did so with a deep authority that others could readily identify, even if they could not explain from where it came. Here, in the third line of today's reading, we get a little more explanation of what he was meant to do with this authority. He tells his followers that he has been granted all authority in heaven and on earth. And, this authority wasn't limited. Jesus could share this authority with the people he loved. And he loved and trusted these disciples.
Jesus didn’t only empower them here, at the end, before he ascended into heaven. Working through the same Holy Spirit as he had, they had already been preaching and healing in his name. But this work was mostly in the communities from which they hailed. Now, after the resurrection, Jesus saw much greater potential for their shared ministry. Even though he would no longer be with them, they should continue to do the Gospel. But they would no longer be limited to the communities of their origin. God's love and mercy should be made clear much more broadly. Jesus tells them to take his authority and spread it around. He tells them to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing people in a formula that we still use today, and teaching people lessons that are familiar to us.
We should take a moment and be clear. Jesus never said to go coercing people into conversion. Somewhere along the line, that part got lost on some of his followers, and a lot of damage has been done and is being done right now under the auspices of making more disciples for Jesus. Jesus did not spend his time threatening people into conversion or destroying communities that didn't follow him. Whenever we Christians do those things, we're not following Christ, we're following our own ego and feelings of cultural superiority. When Jesus said to make disciples, baptize people, and teach them, he wasn’t talking about siccing CPS on parents who affirm their transgender kids or requiring hungry people to listen to Christian sermons before they are fed.
So, when we are teaching about Jesus, what should we be teaching? I’d suggest that the Sermon on the Mount isn’t a bad place to start. That’s back in Matthew 5-7. Imagine what good could be done if we shared that the poor and meek are particularly beloved by God, and those who hunger, for both food and righteousness, will be filled. Imagine comforting those who mourn and offering mercy to those who need it and sharing that you’re doing it because it is what Jesus offered you. Right now, in a culture that seems hellbent on forcing many people to live according to a narrow understanding of Christian ideals, imagine choosing instead to embody purity in heart and become peacemakers in a culture too often bent on war.
It is extraordinarily dangerous when privileged people begin to paint themselves as victims of culture wars. Right now, people are saying that their Christian faith is “under attack” when they are not allowed to call LGBTQ folks slurs in public or when LBGTQ folks are portrayed in media as regular people and not monsters. Just to be clear: that is not an attack on Christian faith. That is a false sense of persecution. In Matthew, Jesus warned his disciples that they might be persecuted for their faith. He was speaking to a minority within a minority in an Empire that regularly killed people to maintain power. He was warning them that siding with the oppressed would put them on the wrong side of the powerful. If you claim to be doing the Gospel in order to political power and not to love the people Jesus loved, you are not actually taking part in the Great Commission. You’re behaving more like Rome than Jesus.
But, when you side with the hungry and imprisoned and mournful, you are acting like Jesus. Jesus says when you do so, you become like salt, preserving and heightening the sense of the Holy, and you become a light that could not be extinguished by the powerful and the violent. Jesus' own authority came with his willingness to be loyal to God's mission, even through the humiliation of the cross. Jesus needed his followers to show others that power could come from mercy, and not always from destruction. This is what he taught his disciples and what he hoped they would teach other people.
The final verse of today’s reading assures the disciples that they can live and teach in this mercy because Jesus will be with them, through the Holy Spirit, to the end of the age. This man, who was once a child known as Emmanuel, “God is with us,” will still be with them, and us, through the end of each age. In each healing, feeding, long conversation, and welcoming meal, both the disciples and the people to whom they preached would have the opportunity to meet Jesus again and again and again. When you start to worry about the ways that it feels like we are living at the end of an age right, remember that Jesus is with us, right now, like he promised. And, we can still do the work he commissioned. And that work, the salty, merciful, healing work is exactly what the world needs right now.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2422
I Love to Tell the Story: https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=613
Susan Hylen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3268
Stanley Saunders: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2097
Acts 2:1-21 The Coming of the Holy Spirit
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.’
Peter Addresses the Crowd
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.”
I always like a story with a good ruckus. Our reading for today, the day we call Pentecost, is certainly a reading with a ruckus. Let's walk through the story again to remind ourselves how wild it is. About 120 of Jesus' followers are gathered in one place in Jerusalem. It is the time of year when they celebrated Shavuot, or Pentecost, a festival that follows 40 days after Pentecost. What this means is that a lot of Jewish people from across the diaspora were in Jerusalem, including Jesus’ followers. The religious pilgrims spoke a variety of languages. The 120 followers of Jesus were all smooshed together in one space when, all of the sudden, a terrible wind kicked up. It is wise for us to remember that the wind described here probably wasn't all that fun. If we were in a room, say, like this sanctuary, and a forceful, violent wind suddenly blew open our doors, rattled these stained-glass windows, made our papers fly everywhere, and knocked over the zoom camera, we'd more likely be frightened than amused. These disciples, all 120 of them, are probably more frightened than amused by what was happening.
The next part of the story probably only adds to their confusion. You see, the people thought they saw fire... inside the room... in the air... leaping across their bodies. They knew the ancient stories. Scholars remind us was the disciples likely knew: in their religious tradition, fire in unexpected or strange places was often a sign of God. God once spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Their people once followed a pillar of fire through the desert, trusting that God was leading the way. While seeing fire in a building is frightening, this fire is awe-inspiring because it is more like those Holy Fires than a forest fire. As the wind whipped around them, the fire was on top of them, maybe even inside of them, and filling them up with the presence of God through the Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit would soon spill out and do something none of them expected.
We should remember that these 120 disciples are all Galileans. In their everyday life, scholars remind us that they likely spoke Aramaic or Greek. They probably understood a little Hebrew for religious purposes. They might know a smattering of Latin because Rome had conquered their home. I note the languages they likely spoke because the Holy Spirit would help this crowd of Galileans communicate in new and fantastical ways. In the story it says that a crowd of other people gathered around this group of Galileans when they heard the wind and fire. We don't know exactly who was in the crowd, whether it was Jewish pilgrims from across the Mediterranean who had settled in Jerusalem or Jewish pilgrims who had traveled to the city for religious observance. Whomever it was, the crowd suddenly realized they were hearing words in their own mother tongues. More than a dozen regions are named in the reading, and the scripture tells us that people from each of those dozen places understood the words the disciples were saying. And, the crowd was astonished... the confused and surprised and suspicious kind of astonished. Some even wondered if they weren’t really hearing their language and instead were the words just the almost-coherent ramblings of a bunch of morning drunks.
Isn't this an arresting image of the church: people from wide ranges of regional identities, genders, social classes, and ages, all hearing something new and moving about God in a language that they could understand. Even if they didn't understand how it was happening (and it's pretty clear, no one understood how it was happening, at that moment), they heard and could understand something new about God. What an incredible story about God being so generous as to make sure that each one of them could hear something familiar, even as they would miles and miles away from home. They were bewildered, though, because none of this was expected. And, yet, it seems like this situation is just exactly what God intends. At least that's how Peter later explains what is going on.
The book of Acts is the sequel to the book of Luke. So, themes and storytelling devices are carried from one work to the other. In Luke, Jesus rooted his own ministry in the works of the prophet Isaiah. In Acts, Peter explains this Pentecost moment as being an expression of the work of the prophet Joel. He tells the bewildered crowd that they will know that God has come close to them when the differences within humanity are no longer excuses for people to avoid coming together in community. Peter heard all these people speaking different languages and immediately understood that God will empower all kinds of people and bring them together across their differences. Peter said that God will allow people of all genders to prophecy, erasing the notion at women were not able to speak through the Holy Spirit. Peter said that youth will not be seen as incompatible with wisdom and also that advanced age will be linked with creativity. The enslaved with share a place of righteousness with the free and they will speak truth to all. Peter saw, through the prophecies of Joel, that our differences won’t stop us from being able to speak of God and that God will work through them to draw us together.
I believe this Pentecost story sets a foundation for us to understand the differences in our life experiences and religious experiences as a gift from God, and as an asset to our faith. Without these varying testimonies of God... the variety of faith languages we speak... our faith becomes static and closed-off, just the opposite of this wild, rowdy, holy gathering presented in this part of Acts. This unruly and unexpected testimony is what allows faith in Jesus to spread, first through a diverse diaspora of Jewish people, and then through Gentile communities. And, all of the future mission is set in motion right here, by the Holy Spirit making sure everyone could hear a word of God that moved them and inspired them to live differently.
A while ago, I read a commentary by the scholar Margaret Aymer who reminds we who have heard this story a million times and think of it as celebratory, that it was intended to be bewildering and confusing. That is a helpful reminder: the church is born, and likely reborn, in disruption and confusion. When we think about our own church life, we can’t always view disruption as a bad thing... even if it does feel bad and weird in the moment. The church was born in the midst of that which is unexpected and confounding and maybe frightening. And yet, even though there is chaos in this story, Aymer also says, "in the midst of the chaos of Pentecost rests an anchor...." That anchor is the legacy and ministry of Jesus Christ and his first followers. This story shows the disciples demonstrating the fact that anyone who calls upon Jesus’ name, from whatever language, in whatever age or gender or social class, can be saved.
We know that Jesus continues to invite us to hear the Gospel through our own experience and listen to our neighbors interpret God through theirs. And, we know that this experience can be disconcerting and disruptive, like a wind whipping through a quiet room. But, this story reminds us that the Body of Christ will be strengthened by the varieties of gifts people bring when they feel truly welcomed into Jesus' community. We can be empowered by the testimonies we have heard so that, we, too, can dream dreams and serve our neighbors. May we be willing to be moved by what we learn from testimonies that surprise and rattle us. And, may the Holy Spirit still move within us in new and surprising ways.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Margaret Aymer: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3282
Mitzi Smith: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=823
Would you like to hear a recording of a bunch of people speaking different languages and reading the story of Pentecost? Here's a great one: http://alivenow.upperroom.org/2011/06/06/pentecost/
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.