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Thursday, May 16, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Acts 2:1-21 OR Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:14-17 OR Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, 25-27

Every year Time magazine publishes an issue featuring those whom they have identified as “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.”  There are twenty each in five different categories:  Titans, Leaders, Artists, Pioneers, Icons.  Titans?  Icons?  A bit grandiose, wouldn’t you say?  There’s a certain arrogance in thinking that one person or group of people can sift humanity down to the most influential 100.  Whether they’re actually among the most influential or not, there are always interesting and noteworthy names included:  Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year old girl shot by a Taliban gunman in Pakistan because she stood up for the education of girls and women, Kate Middleton, both Obamas and Rand Paul, Pope Francis, Chris Chrstie, Shonda Rhimes, Steven Speilberg, Jimmy Kimmel, Gabrielle Giffords, Justin Timberlake, and many others whose names we might or might not immediately recognize.  Another public figure is chosen to write about each of the 100.  I’m often as interested in who’s chosen to do the writing as I am in the actual 100.  Chelsea Clinton, for example, writes about Malala Yousafzai.  Maya Angelou writes about Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey about Shonda Rhimes, Hillary Clinton about Barack Obama, etc.

Tony Kushner, American playwright, writes about Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the role of Lincoln in the film of the same name.  I had in the back of my mind the fact that this coming Sunday is Pentecost, a day set aside for celebrating the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst, when I came across this sentence in what Tony Kushner wrote:  “There’s something in the innermost human heart that our greatest artists connect to and, in making that connection, manage to sublime---the process of causing a substance or a quality to take to the air, to infuse the atmosphere and then to condense, to solidify, attaining greater palpability through the impalpable.”  Okay, so it’s a bit of a complex sentence with a number of big words in it.  Basically it says that there is something in our inner being that makes it possible for human beings to connect with one another, to be moved and inspired by the greatness that may arise in any one of us.  Artists count on that, and, at their best, stir such connections to new life and meaning.

One label we give to that inner connection is Spirit.  The Quakers talk about an “inner light,” believing that a true “meeting” occurs when “that of God which is in me meets that of God which is in you.”  In the Gospel lesson Jesus promises an “Advocate, the Holy Spirit,” “the Spirit of truth.”  (John 14:16-17 & 26)  Prior to that promise he has asked Philip, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?”  (vss. 8-11)  He later tells them, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  (John 15:4)  He then prays for his followers, not just those in his day but those yet to come:  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . . The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me . . . I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”  (John 17:20-26)

Pentecost is a day to celebrate the presence of the Spirit in every human being.  Some have spoken of the “divine spark” (busting forth as tongues of fire at Pentcost?) that is in each of us.  I like the New International Version’s translation of Ecclesiastes 3:11---“He has also set eternity in the human heart.”  I’m skipping lightly over all kinds of nuances of interpretations, the significance of imagery, etc., to make the point that Pentecost calls us to celebrate an identity much deeper than the wrinkles in or the color of our skin, the languages we speak, the political systems we build, etc.

In the reading from Romans the Spirit is the one who is witness to our identity as “children of God.”  “For all who led by the Spirit of God are children of God . . . that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”  (Romans 8:14-16)  God’s list doesn’t include just 100 most influential people.  God’s Spirit within, the identity of the human race as the children of God, means that we are all empowered (whether we recognize and act on it or not) to be influential.  God’s intention is that every one of us make a difference.  The Psalm reminds us that the Spirit (spoken of at one point as “wisdom”) creates and provides, is the source of all that sustains us.  “O Lord, how manifold at your works!  In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures . . . These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up . . . they are filled with good things . . . When you send forth your spirit, they are created . . .” (Psalm 104:24, 27,-28, 30)

That leaves the two stories that are point and counterpoint---from Genesis and Acts---both of which are, among other things, stories of communication.  In the Genesis story communication is disrupted by human ambition which tries to reach into the heavens by building a great tower.  (Genesis 11:2-3)  Is it too much to think that maybe, in their grasping for power, they lost sight of the need around them?  At any rate note the sentence at the beginning of the story.  “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.”  (vs.1)  I’ve never noticed that having the same language and words always led to good communication.  The story is an attempt to explain the fact that human beings speak a great variety of languages.  It is because God is displeased with this symbol of human grasping and “confuses” their language. (vs. 7)  “Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”  (vs. 9)

We now have alternative explanations of the variation in human language, but the effects of that “confusion” still plague us.  We have difficulty reaching across the barriers of language, of listening to one another, of getting to know different customs and cultures and ways of understanding.

Acts gives us a story of a Pentecost gathering where the confusion of languages is overcome.  “Devout Jews from every nations under heaven” (Acts 2:5) were celebrating an old Jewish festival that occurred fifty days after Passover.  What happened gave enough impetus to the early Christian movement that many call it the “birthday of the church,” celebrated fifty days after Easter.  Again, language is at the center of the story, with the Holy Spirit becoming a power that transcends the limits of human language and connects all those present---part of God’s millions.  “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability . . . 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, “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontius 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.”  (vss.4-11)  Could it be that we have the birth of the United Nations?  It is so astounding that some accuse everyone of being drunk, but it’s too early in the morning for that.  (vss. 12-15)

The story is a testimony to the power of that inner light that unites us---still realized imperfectly.  Peter, addressing the crowd, quotes from the prophet Joel about the power of the Spirit at work including and uniting people of all kinds.  “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and you sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit . . .”  (vss. 17-18)  God’s millions, empowered by the Spirit, influencing the world, filled with dreams and visions of possibility.  Let’s celebrate!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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