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The Gift of Understanding

June 6, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017

Genesis 11: 1-9             Acts 2: 1-21


I consider it a privilege to have once had the opportunity to hear the late Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes address a gathering of Presbyterians. Peter Gomes was, for nearly forty years, the Pusey Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church and Professor of Christian Morals as Harvard Divinity School. He has been described by Harvard’s president “one of the great preachers of our generation, and a living symbol of courage and conviction.” The theme of his address was Presbyterians and Pentecost. During his presentation, Gomes chided Presbyterians for being Trinitarians who only spend two-thirds of their energy focused on only two-thirds of the Trinity, that is, the first two members, God and Jesus.

As an openly gay, self-proclaimed and practicing Baptist, Gomes was used to pushing against easy categories. He embodies the Caribbean heritage of his father with the African-American heritage of his mother. He was ordained in the First Baptist Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts which today is a multi-racial, multi-cultural congregation much like our own, but draws upon the same white-Anglo-Saxon-protestant origins as our more than 300 year-old congregation.

Gomes noted that talk of the Spirit makes most Presbyterians — world-famous for our concern with decency and order — frankly, nervous. For many Presbyterian churches, still mostly white, Pentecost is an annual and anemic nod toward the work of the Spirit. These Presbyterians tend on Pentecost to make a big deal about the chaotic, unsettling, foundation shaking work of the Spirit. They tend to notice the crowds and the urban disorder which Gomes likens to Harvard Square on a busy Saturday afternoon, or New York City, or Calcutta. And they notice the spirit-filled preaching of Peter that was confused with public drunkenness, which makes them think of contemporary Pentecostalism. Worship and music on Pentecost Sunday calls attention to the unpredicted and uncontained enthusiasm of God’s fear-overcoming and foundation shattering Spirit:

“Come Holy Spirit, rattle the rooms in which we are hiding;
shake the tired foundations until the institution crumbles;
break the rules that keep you out of our sacred spaces.”

That’s all interesting, Gomes told us, but then he said that if that were the message of a sermon delivered in his preaching class, he would only give it a ‘B’ not an ‘A’ – that they had only reached a ‘B’ point, not a ‘A’ point.

The ‘A’ point to make about the Spirit’s work at Pentecost, he says, is not so much the ecstasy of the moment, the spirit-filled experience of believers, but the spirit-induced understanding in community. “That,” he said,

was the thing that the Spirit did, and that was how the people could say that they each heard in their own language the wonderful works of God. The work of the Spirit is designed to foster understanding and ultimate reconciliation.

In other words, Pentecost is about the gift of understanding, understanding fostered by the creation of a new kind of community.

What Peter Gomes called the ‘A’ point connects the story of Pentecost with our reading today from Genesis. In Genesis, the scattering and confusion of language was God’s response to human efforts to consolidate power (in the hands of a few) and so become (or so they thought) like God. Unified language led to unified political power and the attempt to storm heaven and reach the house of God by force. Unity, or the attempt to impose unity, is a form of domination and control we find throughout our Bible. Think of the unity of Egypt, Greece, or Rome. The authors of the Genesis story, by naming the tower Babel, overtly invite us to recall the domination of the Babylonian Empire. God’s response to this kind of uniform unity is to create diversity as a way of limiting the effects of human sinfulness. But diversity, which is received as curse against sinful humankind, will become a gift in God’s plan of salvation.

In this way, the story of Pentecost has traditionally been understood as a reversal of Babel, as nations are brought back together at the birth of the church. But if diversity was God’s gift to counter the effects of sin, surely it is not something to be reversed or overcome. I want to notice particularly that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost did not erase the differences between the people in the room, not in language or ethnicity, or particular way of hearing and understanding the story of Jesus. They were still Parthians, Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia who danced around with flames on their head. Rather, each was able to hear as if in their own language, becoming one new body of Christ, the church, while retaining all their differences.

This is what we have attempted during our Easter Season this year. Inspired by our study of Paul during Lent, I tried to portray what Paul says about the Spirit: there are a variety of gifts but it is same spirit who calls us, draws us, and is served by all. A spirit of understanding.

  • On Emmaus Sunday we lifted of the gift-giving our volunteers who give time and talent to run everything from the church school to the tag sale, from our church finances to church picnics, and we stood to recognize one another’s contributions.
  • On May Day/International Labor Day we talked about the gift of having good work to do, work through which we serve God not just in worship and evangelism but through contributing to the good of our community and building a better world that allows for self-expression, fosters communal life and heals our relationship with the earth.
  • During Older Adult Week we spoke about the particular gifts older adults have to share in a truly intergenerational community, gifts of maturity that come with an honest coming-to-terms with failure and loss, that provide grace-filled guidance for younger generations. And we were anointed with prayers for healing and wholeness.
  • On Mother’s Day we explored the many ways we can mother and nurture one another, starting right here at the font where God mothers us all.
  • And on Heritage Sunday we treasured the gift of having a rich and useable past through which, and from which, the church can be a gift to the world.
  • Last week, on Disability Inclusion Sunday, we pushed at the edges of our image of inclusion to talk about the variety of physical and mental limits and abilities we embody as a congregation and what it would mean to listen to one another and truly welcome one another across these differences.

Through all this we were attending to the work of God’s Spirit in our midst. These conversations may not be ecstatic or seem as exciting as speaking in tongues, but if you can discern in our handling of these topics the work of God’s Spirit fostering understanding among a diverse people, then you can understand just how God truly shakes the foundations of this broken and fearful world and prepares us for another world that is coming.

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