Delivered at Ames UCC
on June 4, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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heard rather than read.
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THANKS, BUT NO THANKS
Sometimes this passage feels like a bait and switch. It lures us in with this marvelous moment of human unity and a prediction of even more, only to tell us it won’t really happen until after an apocalyptic encounter between the realms of Earth and those of heaven. I want a direct experience of God, for sure. But who would want the great and glorious day of the Lord if it must be preceded by blood, fire, smoky mist, a blacked sun, and a red moon?
Why does Peter interpret this joyous symphony of speech as a sign of some frightening end of time? Why does God’s presence require apocalypse?
The Bible is quite self-referential. Books of the Bible quote each other constantly, either to retell stories in slightly different ways or to prove a point. The Gospels in the Christian Testament, for example, draw heavily on the prophets of the Hebrew Bible to credential Jesus. So when we hear Peter respond to this theophany, it is not his original speech. He is quoting the prophet Joel.
JOEL AND PETER
Joel’s prophecy is in a book of his name, in a section of the Hebrew Bible known as the Nevi’im, or the Prophets. Like Lamentations, which I referenced last week, Joel’s book is about destruction and loss. But unlike Lamentations, Joel makes a case for God’s coming redemption from suffering in the form of equality among all people. However, that can only happen, Joel says, after an apocalypse.
So here Peter is, with the other disciples of Jesus, in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, also known as the Festival of Weeks, also known as Pentecost. In Judaism, to this day, Pentecost is a celebration of the spring harvest and of God’s gift of the Ten Commandments to the people.
Pentecost is always fifty days after Passover (the pente- in Pentecost is for 50). This means that the Pentecost in our scripture, then, is also not quite two months since Jesus’ death and the Easter mystery. It also means that Peter and the other followers of Jesus are still very raw from the collapse of the movement they built with the living Jesus and no doubt still in awe from learning that they are to build a new movement with a still-living Christ.
When, in the wake of all of that, they then have yet another collective experience of the divine, Peter makes use of his tradition to interpret what is happening. This must be it! This must be what Joel said would happen! These are the daughters with prophecy! This is the young man having visions! But hold onto your hats, because some real ugliness is about to come down on us before we are united with God once and for all.
To answer one of my questions from before: The apocalypse may not be what Peter wanted, but it is what he believes he is experiencing.
What are we experiencing? The world has not come to an end, yet, but some days we can feel it is pretty close.
In the story, part of the miracle was that people from different nations and with different languages could understand each other. In our time, this is less unusual. Thanks to global travel and apps and education and migration, successful communication between foreigners does not rank as the work of the Holy Spirit. It is somewhat ordinary.
At the same time, in our time, news of terroristic and political and interpersonal violence has become somewhat ordinary. Recall my list from last week and the news of the morning.
It turns out that being able to break the boundaries of language has not brought humanity closer together. Maybe Joel and Peter were right: Maybe the ability to understand each other’s speech, something which we might assume is an instrument of peace, really is the precursor to a day of reckoning.
DON’T BUY IT
I don’t buy that, and I hope you won’t, either. The problem with studying the Bible as we do here in worship—piecemeal—is that we can forget in this hour of ritual and reification, what scripture is, in total.
Sometimes scripture is directive. Sometimes it is descriptive. Sometimes it is poetic. Sometimes it is fantastic. It describes the human condition very accurately. Its descriptions of God vary wildly. Our Bible is an eternal well of wisdom and guidance, but one that must be tempered by our ongoing experience of God.
That’s what Peter did. He took what he knew in order to understand what he was experiencing. That’s no different than what you’ve called me to do up here every week. But I have the benefit, as we all do, of many more years with the God of Joel and Peter, Moses and Abraham, Deborah and Mary. And many more years of understanding and genuine, lasting relationships across human difference.
So despite the slightly spooky similarities between Peter’s interpretation of Joel’s prediction and what we are living through right now, I don’t have faith that the apocalypse he describes is the one that that God wants for us.
At its root the word apocalypse means uncovered or revealed.
On the Pentecost in scripture, diverse peoples had made a pilgrimage to celebrate God’s gift of creation and God’s gift of the Ten Commandments. This was a moment to give thanks for all the ways the Earth sustains our life. It was a recommitment to God’s guidance for respectfully living those lives (the Ten Commandments really are more teachings or invitations than restrictions). It was in that atmosphere that the Holy Spirit went to work.
The apocalypse isn’t yet coming, it already happened. God revealed that, when we give thanks and care, we are one with each other and with God. God uncovered what we need to redeem the world with God: being present in humility and good will.
The terroristic violence we are seeing in so many nations and from so many different religious and nationalistic ideologies is a desperate backlash against substantial and lasting interfaith and intercultural bonds, not a disaster ordained or required by God.
God and God’s unifying redemption of the world are ours to experience right now. All we have to do is show up and let the Holy Spirit help us do the rest: speak clearly and listen carefully.
It’s not as dramatic a way of interpreting the state of the world as the pending upending of the cosmos, but it might ask more of us, and so be more frightening. If we can’t just shrug our shoulders and say it’s all up to God, if we can by our own action initiate a direct encounter with God, then we have to ask ourselves if we really want a direct encounter with God. Do we want it enough to make pilgrimage from our daily lives and into conversation with anyone else who might show up? Do we have enough faith in God to believe that doing so will save the planet?
Every day, of course, we have the chance to answer those questions by our actions. But I’m grateful that today a group of our fellow Pentecost pilgrims are giving us the opportunity to do so in a concentrated and coordinated way this summer.
AMOS team (Janet Binder, Diane Birt, Jim Coppoc, Christy Oxendine, Amanda Petefish-Schrag, Ben Schrag, Allen Trenkle, and Jean Watts), would you please come forward?
WALKING AND TALKING
Diane Birt: A Mid Iowa Organizing Strategy (AMOS) builds relational power to create a community where all can succeed. For over 20 years, AMOS institutions have used relational organizing practices to change their communities. AMOS is committed to: “NEVER DO FOR OTHERS WHAT THEY CAN DO FOR THEMSELVES.” Through face-to-face, one-on-one meetings, AMOS members build relationships and identify priorities within their communities. In the process, they cut through divisions such as race, religion, and socioeconomic status, and develop their agenda based on the passions and concerns that unite us all.
AMOS then acts publicly, bringing the power of organized people to decision-makers to implement the AMOS agenda. Through this process, hundreds of people re-enter public life and reclaim responsibility for their future here in central Iowa.
Some of AMOS’ successes include that AMOS:
- brought the first Federally Qualified Health Clinic to Story County in 2014, Primary Health Care;
- secured access to free pre-natal care for hundreds of uninsured pregnant women in Story County;
- saved hundreds of Iowans from bankruptcy through the expanded charity by Central Iowa hospitals; and
- created Project IOWA, a workforce intermediary that has trained and placed over 250 formerly impoverished central Iowa resident.
Jean Watts: For our Walking Together Talking Together summer campaign we will be holding several house meetings throughout the summer. Our goal is to talk at least 100 of you. A house meeting is a small group gathering of 8–10 people, with one or two AMOS representatives. It will take one hour of your time. Our purpose for holding these meetings is to identify stressors in your life. These are not complaint sessions. Rather they are a way that we can identify common themes and potentially build an action plan with AMOS.
Ben Schrag: So, how do I participate, what do I need to do now? Please sign up—the sooner the better (today even, if you can). Find the sign-ups in the fellowship hall after the service. We are also putting together a Sign-Up Genius. And then, we just need you to show up! We are all very excited to be a part of this effort—but it only works if you’re a part of it too. So thank you in advance for giving us an hour of your time, thank you for walking with us and talking with us as fellow humans in the United Church of Christ.
The risk in a church like ours is that we will get so focused on the work of faith that we simply become a social justice club or get so overwhelmed by that that we just retreat into disengaged spirituality. In order to remind ourselves that following Jesus is a blend of both, we will bless and commission this team of leaders.
One: When asked which commandment in the law is greatest, Jesus replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” As you embark on this time of walking and talking, these twin statements converge as one. As you gather with other members of this part of the body of Christ, you express a love of God with your whole self. As you hold our stories in care and confidence, as you discern the broad theme to share back with us, all of our lives become more entwined and so the body is strengthened. You are inviting us to enter, with our whole selves and each other, into a love from and of God and creation that will not let us go.
Team: We go to be fully present with one another and God.
One: Love God. Love Neighbor.
Team: We walk and talk to make a change for good in our own lives and in the lives of others.
One: Love God. Love Neighbor.
Team: We walk and talk to experience God and God’s people in new and powerful ways.
One: Love God. Love Neighbor.
Team: We walk and talk so that we may all be empowered to work for a just world for all.
All: As you walk and talk, so do we, awed by God’s power in every day moments present with our time and our honesty changed by your commitment and excited to be together. Amen.