Sunday, May 19, 2013

One Voice

One Voice
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 19, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 11: 1-9
Acts 2: 1-12

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” [1]  

So today, in the church is the Holy Day where we celebrate Pentecost, the commemoration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and as such the birth of the church. Our New Testament Lesson for today is the account of what happened on that day. It is strange to say the least. Divided tongues, "as of fire", appearing among them, the disciples, tongues resting on each of them, and then them beginning to speak in other languages, given the ability, immediately, without years of study, nor using the latest Rosetta Stone language learning software. That is the strange side of it, but then the useful side you get next, because people could understand. Barriers are broken down because every one hears what is being said in their own language, their own voice. Then the list of peoples from all over the known world is given and they all get it, they all get to hear anew the amazing "deeds of power" performed by God. But they are not sure, what does all this mean? And the conclusion most come to is, "they must be drunk on some new wine." That event marks the birth of the church.
The Holy Spirit is difficult to talk about. Have you ever thought so. By its very nature it doesn't lend itself well to words. The Word Ruach in Hebrew is the word for Spirit, it's the same word for Breath and Wind. In Greek the word is Pneuma, spirit, wind, breath as well, especially breath, pneumonia comes from that same root. So even by its nature it's intangible like air, but also like air indispensable and organically essential and necessary to life. I've heard so many of the metaphors. Since you can't see wind, how do you see it? You see it by its effects. In other words you don't see the wind, but you see the tree move and the leaves shake. Christina Rosetti has a poem in one of Coralee's poetry books about never seeing wind.  . .

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

To me poetry is a testament to the Holy Spirit's work in the world. In the statement of faith poem I wrote, I didn't include the Holy Spirit directly, thinking of it in a similar way, that though the Holy Spirit wasn't mentioned, the poem itself was a testament to exactly what the Holy Spirit is and what it does. The footnote dealing with that idea is as follows:

The format of this statement of faith is nineteen, seven lined stanzas each consisting of a complete idea, and building from the previous stanzas. These explanatory notes are provided to give further depth into my intentions for the meanings in and behind my choices of words. Each word, phrase, and line is intentionally chosen to convey meaning beyond the words themselves, as poetry can do more effectively than prose. I have been asked why the figure of the Holy Spirit seems to get short shrift in the text. This is also intentional. The Holy Spirit flows throughout the text through many small references, but is also present in the reading, and in the inspiration that these words may share. The Holy Spirit is present throughout this work in my own inspiration, and therefore poetically lives within. To give a more concrete defining  would lessen the communicated truth of a being, which we all feel and experience beyond what mere words can express.

That the poem could not have been structured without the Holy Spirit, and so it's influence like the moving trees was enough definition, in someways better definition because it was unfettered by the finitude of words, the limitations of words, the chains of literal meaning. But on Pentecost I feel called to try to speak more. Try to put it into words somehow. So we go through this day once a year where we try to put the Holy Spirit into words, but are wholly dependent thereupon to do so.
I'm going to take the Lectionary's lead today because I think it is a good and interesting take they have. They decided to pair this strange Pentecost occurrence, the tongues and fire and languages, with the Tower of Babel Story from Genesis, which ___________ read for us. The tower of Babel fits into the fall story genre. In fall stories there is a beginning situation, which in this case is that there was one language in the world and all people could understand each other. Then there is the end result, where the languages are confused, and the peoples are divided. In the middle we get a glimpse of human, maybe arrogance is the word, maybe misguided piety, maybe unchecked ambition, but the people in the story work together to try to build a bridge to heaven themselves, for their own glory. In a preemptive act, God decides to stop them and to  confuse their languages. . . God says:

“Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”[2]  

There are a couple of interesting pieces to this story that when put in the perspective of Pentecost bring some ideas to light. For instance, look at what the people are trying to do when they build the Tower of Babel. They are trying to build a bridge to heaven themselves, to build a tower so high that they can literally find their way to heaven. If we look at this in terms of the Pentecost story, we seem to take this as not a literal tower, but a figurative one. A tower representing the ways that we have been trying on our own to produce our own communion with God, our own salvation, and each time we fail, but now, Christ has become that bridge for us, so we are no longer in need to make our own way, our own bridge, our own towers, Christ has become the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and now we have the advent of the Holy Spirit.  Is the gift of the Holy Spirit, then part of the undoing of Tower Babel damage. That no longer is trying to make it to God on our own an issue because God is with us in a new way with Christ, and in a new way again here with the Holy Spirit, that God built the bridge our way to us instead. Does this make all the difference?
Now if we go further down that path, look at what the Holy Spirit does for human beings when it descends. People come from all over, all nations, all over the known world at that time, and they can understand. There is one voice that is going out, but it is understood differently by each. One person speaks, but his voice is not his own, it is the tongue of the Holy Spirit, but there is understanding from all different people. The words somehow transform uniquely for each set of ears. There is one voice, and one voice only is speaking, but it is heard uniquely by many, by all, by each. Each person there hears the words on their own terms, in their own language.
There was a danger that human beings were going to be united around the tower of Babel, and that there were things that would be done that would be cosmically bad if that were the case, but not it would seem with this new leadership of the Holy Spirit; those barriers are coming down. Those aspects of life that have divided us for years are beginning to disappear. Christ has broken down barriers and built for us a bridge, and the Holy Spirit helps us see that bridge together. Look at what is universally heard because though the language is unique to each, the message is universal. It describes the "deeds of power" done by God, the amazing wonders of God, made known to all, transcending barriers, not just to Jews, but to Gentiles, and Gentiles of all walks of life, from all over the world, with a message personally translated to each and every soul. All, one and all, come to know God, come and take part in the deeds of Power that the Lord is doing, has done, and will do, they are amazing.
So if we think of what the Holy Spirit does in this story, it shows for us new marks. If the wind is seen when the leaves move, and the trees bow down in reverence. If the Holy Spirit is seen when inspiration in poetry, or music, or art, or ideas are made known. The other mark of the Holy Spirit is when truth and understanding become known by people, all people transcending perceived traditional barriers that have divided us. We must ask ourselves because the church found its birth with the coming of the Holy Spirit, do we have this mark upon us. Is the church breaking down barriers, or does it build them up. The history of the church certainly does not have a clean record in this area, despite its inspired birth that celebrate today. Let us anew seek to be a spirit led church, that the barrier breaking down, truth inspiring, tree blowing over Spirit is at the center of what we do, moving us in way of truth and love. Let us not be intimidated by the intangibleness of the spirit, seeking the concrete, planned path instead.
Without the Holy Spirit, we are left like our ancestors of Babel seeking our own destruction and confusion, by attempting to build our Babel church, bridge to Heaven, on our own. Christ is what makes the difference, the spirit is what makes the difference, the only difference. Time, evolution do not do it. We are not magically in a better place than those people of Genesis, simply because time has evolved, and our species is now somehow capable, no, rather we are because of Christ and because of the Holy Spirit. May we remember, as we build. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ac 2:1-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 11:6-7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.