Moving toward unity while celebrating diversity

A couple were going out for the evening. They called a taxi and put the cat out for the evening.

The taxi arrived, and as the couple walked out the front door, the cat shot back in. They didn’t want the cat shut in the house, so one person went out to the taxi while the other went upstairs to chase the cat out. The passenger, not wanting it known that the house would be empty explained to the taxi driver, “My spouse is just going upstairs to say goodbye to my mother.”

A few minutes later, the spouse climbed into the cab. “Sorry I took so long. Stupid old thing was hiding under the bed and I had to poke her with a coat hanger to get her to come out!”

The ability to communicate constitutes an essential element of being human. As philosopher Michael de Unamuno says, "Language is the blood of the spirit."

Yet, humans often communicate poorly. The Genesis story about the Tower of Babel is an early attempt to explain why, if people supposedly descended from common ancestors, they speak so many languages and are frequently unable to communicate with one another.[1] Today, evolutionary biologists, archaeologists, ethnologists, semanticists and other experts suggest a far more complex process for the development of language and the thousands of human languages. The Genesis reading is important not as history but because of its confident assurance that anything is possible for humans when we cooperate, when we speak a single language and live and work in harmony with one another.

The reading from Acts, heard with different languages spoken simultaneously, may have sounded cacophonic.[2] However, I suspect that most of us could follow the reading in a language we personally know. The Day of Pentecost, when the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit, God with us, is the Day when we celebrate being united by a single language, the language of love manifest in Jesus. Pentecost aims us toward unity in the midst of diversity.

A senior high Sunday school class was studying the Old Testament book of Lamentations. The teacher began by asking his students what kind of book they thought it would be. No answer. Then he asked what “lament” means. Still no answers. Patiently, he tried again. "What does the word `lamentations' mean?" Upon that, one of the teenagers brightened and responded: "I think it means to cover things with plastic."[3]

Some of the personal histories St Clement parishioners have told me recount the story of love between two people, drawn together even though they did not speak a common language. As a chaplain, I heard similar stories from sailors and Marines who married a sweetheart from abroad. Not all such marriages end well, but some do. In those cases, love becomes the common language that unites. Love is God’s plastic which laminates relationships, binding people together.

Ministry as a Navy chaplain also introduced me to clergy and laity from a wide variety of Christian denominations. Pentecostals, as you may know, believe that God gives the Holy Spirit to individual believers as a sign the person is a genuine believer. Proponents of the prosperity gospel teach that God blesses genuine believers with wealth.

Prominent Pentecostal televangelist Kenneth Copeland preaches the prosperity gospel and has recently been in the news. He preaches that if you send him money as an expression of your faith, sometimes described as planting a seed, then God will bless you financially many times over. He is spectacularly successful: he owns three jets and has a net worth of approximately $760 million. On the other hand, his followers do not enjoy the same success, often scrimping on essentials to plant financial seeds with Copeland.

Hopefully, you recognize and reject Copeland’s exploitative pattern of behavior that brazenly ignores three basic theological truths. First, the gospel is not about individuals, the gospel is about us, all of us, all of God's children and all of God's creation. Second, Pentecost is not about individuals but about the community of God's people. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, not of an individual. Third, God's community is characterized by love; Jesus taught that people would recognize his disciples by their love for one another, an idea echoed in today’s gospel reading.[4] Love leads me to share my wealth with the hungry, thirsty and homeless. When the fullness of God's plan for the cosmos is realized, what the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin labelled the Omega point of history,[5] we who are members of one body and drink from one Spirit, will be united with one common language, the language of love.

True prophecy, the prophecy of which Joel spoke in today’s reading from Acts, discerns God at work in the world. The ancient Hebrews recognized that all things were possible when people created in God's image cooperated. The first Christians recognized that God sent the Holy Spirit, God's abiding presence amongst us, to form us into one community of people bound together by the common language of love. In this era of globalization, we see those signs of God at work in the world. So, we gather, hopeful and encouraged, cherishing our unity in Christ's love while celebrating our diversity. Amen.

Sermon preached on Pentecost, June 9, 2019

Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Genesis 11:1-9.
[2] Acts 2:1-21.
[3] The United Church Observer, March 1994, p. 55.
[4] John 13:35; 14:8-17.


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