Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pentecost 2014 - The God of And - Lutheran Church of the Cross, Berkeley, CA

We do like this reading from Acts, don’t we? Peter, speaking words that come from the Israelite prophet Joel, proclaims that God’s Spirit comes to those outside of the central community: the daughters, the young, the slaves. And Peter and the apostles proclaim this message with languages that come from the margins. The long list of hard-to-pronounce languages come from the Jewish Diaspora community - they are secular languages from outside of the officially recognized religious community - they are languages of the margins. The apostles themselves are on the margins. They are from Galilee - a place on the geographic margins of Israel: provincial, unsophisticated, laboring class, laid-back, very California when compared to the New York of Jerusalem. Yet here these are Galileans from the margins, on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, receiving God’s Spirit and proclaiming God’s words, and we like these people. They’re a lot like us.

In this community, we like marginal people. We see a few of them in the first reading, too. In Numbers, we hear about those men outside of the tent of the Lord - Eldad and Medad. The tent of the Lord is the place where the Spirit of God comes down and speaks to Moses and the seventy elders of the people - the respected, central, pillars of the community. And one day the Spirit of God comes upon Eldad and Medad, who aren’t elders, who aren’t part of the religious leadership, and who are outside the tent. We feel for the marginalized Eldad and Medad when Joshua, a central figure in the community, complains that these men are outside of the tent, and outside of the proper religious community and shouldn’t be speaking God’s words and need to be stopped. We know what it’s like to have people tell us that we aren’t quite the people to be speaking God’s words, or that the Holy Spirit can’t really be talking through us. Eldad and Medad are our kind of people - outside of the center, on the margins, but preaching God’s words anyway. They are people like us.

Because Lutheran Church of the Cross is a little on the margins, right?  A little odd - a little Berkeley - unusual and on the edge. We wouldn’t be described as mainstream. We’re on the edge of mainstream, even outside of it a little. So we’re quite at home with those in the reading today from Acts, and in the reading from Numbers. We identify with those outside their community, because they’re a lot like us. Here, the Spirit speaks God’s words through the languages of people on the margins. Through the marginalized languages of addiction and recovery. Through the marginalized languages of people who have no fixed address and people who are barely paying their rent. In this place, we hear the languages of people who have been abused and of people who can’t read. We hear the Spirit speaking God’s words in the language of undocumented workers and in the language of boys who wear dresses. 
I’m proud to have been part of this Pentecost community - where God’s Spirit is recognized as coming amongst people like us - among the marginalized and among those outside of the socially acknowledged community, among people on the edges and people who have been pushed out by the center. I hope that wherever my family goes next, we bring with us this community, and the Spirit of this community, and the words of God that are spoken here, words that tell us that the love of God comes to people like us. 

But even as I recognize God’s Spirit among us, I see a challenge. For myself, and for people like us - a challenge for communities made up of the marginalized, and empowered with God’s Spirit. And the challenge for us is hearing God’s words when they come from people not like us. The challenge comes in recognizing God’s Spirit when it comes upon those who do not come from a place of marginalization. The challenge comes in recognizing that we are not meant to replace the mainstream community, but to add to it. Which, I realize is counter-intuitive. Even as I say it, I hesitate. Am I really saying that God’s Spirit and God’s community includes those in the center - those who aren’t like us, those who don’t want to be like us, those who would argue that God’s Spirit isn’t here among us?

Pentecost is a day that we celebrate the renewal of God’s community. God’s Spirit among a new people. But one of the ugly parts of our history, a rotten thread that has been a nasty part of God’s Christian community from the beginning, is that we too often think that renewal means replacement. And so we fall into the trap of thinking that because God’s word has come to us on the edges, that we are meant to replace the center. That God’s words are now coming to people like us, instead of those people not like us. Christians have, for centuries, believed that the renewal of God’s covenant in Jesus means the replacement of God’s old covenant through Abraham. For instance, the Christian church no longer thinks of Pentecost as a Jewish festival. But when the apostles gathered in Jerusalem, and the Holy Spirit fell on them, they were celebrating God’s covenant with the Jews, beginning with the covenant with Noah. Us Christians, who were originally on the margins of God’s people no longer remember this meaning of Pentecost. Instead, have replaced the Jewish celebration of God’s covenant with the celebration of God’s Spirit coming to Christians like us and call ourselves the new people of God.

As Lutherans, we have a nasty undertone in our history that interprets us as replacing the Roman Catholics as God’s blessed Christian community in the Reformation. I fully admit: before I came to the GTU and studied with Jesuits, and Franciscans, and Dominicans, and dedicated Roman Catholic lay people, I thought that Catholics had old-fashioned, restrictive understandings of God, and that the Pope did not speak God’s words and was just making things up. My spiritual disdain for Catholics was pretty strong - they were old and traditional and God’s Spirit just wasn’t working among them anymore. The Spirit had started speaking God’s Words among the Lutherans instead - among people like us.

Even in this congregation, I wonder if we secretly nurture the belief that we are the new community of Christ, and that we are the new vision of the church, a church that will grow if only there were more people like us, and we would take the place of the old church. Those churches that are traditional, and conservative, and old, and historically mainstream, that are completely unlike us, I wonder if sometimes we secretly think that maybe they are dying and that we are called to be the church instead. After all, the passages for today are quite clear that God’s Spirit comes to those on the margins - to people like us. Isn’t God’s Spirit moving among us here because God is setting up people like us to replace those communities? That God’s words are now found being spoken by people like us, instead of them?

Well, as appealing as that might sound, that is not what the texts for today are saying. And this is our challenge. The texts for today tell us that God’s Spirit comes upon people like us and upon people unlike us. God’s Spirit comes to augment, not to replace. God’s Spirit brings an and, not an instead.
In Numbers, for instance, while we might focus on God’s Spirit coming to those outside of the tent, the text also says that God’s Spirit came upon Moses and the elders inside the tent, and we know that God’s Spirit even came to rest strongly upon Joshua, who complained about Eldad and Medad, but came to be one of the great God-blessed leaders of Israel. Joshua may have not been like us when he scorned God’s Spirit coming upon those outside of the community, but the Spirit still came upon him. It wasn’t Eldad and Medad instead of Joshua, it was Eldad and Medad and Joshua.

In Acts, while we might focus on God’s Spirit coming on those outside of the traditional religious community - the Jews who were marginalized for following Jesus - the text also says that the Spirit came upon the devout Jews, blessing them to hear Peter’s proclamation of Joel’s words. While we might focus on God’s Spirit coming upon the daughters and the young, the text also says that God’s Spirit will come upon the sons and the old men, privileged figures in the community. The marginalized daughters aren’t blessed instead of the privileged sons, and the marginalized young aren’t blessed instead of the privileged old. Devout Jews and sons and old men of patriarchal cultures may not be like us, but it isn’t us instead of them. The Spirit comes on them and on us, both.

So this is challenging, right? That the Spirit comes upon people like us, and that the Spirit comes upon people completely unlike us. It is a challenge to hear that God’s Spirit also comes upon those in the center - upon Tea Party Republicans, upon conservative Catholics, upon the elite 1%, upon traditional, mainstream Christians. It’s a challenge to hear that while the new church may very well be made up of people like us, it isn’t us instead of them. It isn’t others like us instead of those not like us. 

Yet this is what a Pentecost people looks like, and this is what the Holy Spirit does.  The message of Pentecost is that God is the God of and. Moses wished “that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.” Peter proclaimed the words of Joel that God “would pour out God’s Spirit upon all flesh.” God’s Spirit comes to those inside the holy space and outside of it. God’s Spirit comes to the sons and the daughters, to the young and the old, to men and women. God’s Spirit comes to those in the recognized community and those outside it. To those on the margins and those in the center.  Yes, this and is messy, and chaotic, and contradictory, and even sometimes tense and scary, and always challenging, but it is the work of the Spirit. This is what we celebrate on Pentecost - the broadening of God’s people beyond its own boundaries, to have the Spirit come upon more and more people, those like us and those unlike us. We are blessed to be included in this and and to include others in this and. We are blessed to receive God’s Spirit as we sit here on the margins, and to hear God’s Spirit speaking in the center, too. I am blessed to have experienced God’s Spirit in this community, and my prayer for you is that you continue to live in God’s holy and and to hear God’s words in those like you, and those unlike you. May God’s Spirit be upon you now and always. Amen.