No Longer Scattered (2019-0609)

. 9 min read

Thanks to Joel Shuman for speaking on Pentecost Sunday when I was visiting with my parents. Unfortunately, we did not get any video from the day.
A sermon for
Pentecost Sunday
Christ United
Methodist Church
June 9, 2019
2:1-21 (MSG)
When the Feast of
Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was
a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It
filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through
their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as
the Spirit prompted them.
There were many Jews
staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When
they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after
another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They
couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying,
“Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various
mother tongues?
Medes, and Elamites;
Visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia,
    Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
    Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene;
Immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes;
Even Cretans and Arabs!
“They’re speaking our
languages, describing God’s mighty works!”
Their heads were
spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and
forth, confused: “What’s going on here?” Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap

That’s when Peter stood
up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: “Fellow Jews,
all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story
straight. These people aren’t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven’t had
time to get drunk—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. This is what the
prophet Joel announced would happen:
the Last Days,” God says,
“I will pour out my Spirit
    on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
    also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions,
    your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes,
    I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
    and they’ll prophesy.
I’ll set wonders in the sky above
    and signs on the earth below,
Blood and fire and billowing smoke,
    the sun turning black and the moon blood-red,
Before the Day of the Lord arrives,
    the Day tremendous and marvelous;
And whoever calls out for help
    to me, God, will be saved.”
Anarchy: Unity or Chaos?
            Three years ago next month, our son Amos
was married. The wedding took place on the stairs and yard of a restored barn
in the North Carolina mountains that Amos has called home off and on since he
was 18. Amos has always been the most “free spirited” of our children – an
elite whitewater kayaker who worked a variety of odd jobs until he was around
30, and then, after he became a nurse, lived for a time with his girlfriend (who
is now his wife) in a van in the western United States. His wedding reflected
the relatively bohemian lives that he, his wife, and many of their friends had
          I was enjoying the occasion immensely, partly because I
wasn’t paying for it and my responsibilities were few, but also because of the
setting and atmosphere. The one job I did have was to escort my mother down the
center aisle to her seat in the front row of the gathering, so a few minutes
before the 2:00 starting time, I went and got her and walked with her to a
large boulder overlooking the venue that was serving as a kind of impromptu staging
area for the wedding party. It was a nice vantage point from which to watch the
guests, as they milled around, set up their lawn chairs, and exchanged hugs,
handshakes, and gossip while sipping the various adult beverages that had been available
since we had arrived more than an hour before.
          I was enjoying the scene; my mom, in spite of her love for
Amos and her longstanding admiration of his way of life, was not. Around 2:15,
she said, “When are things going to start? It’s already 2:15, and people are
just milling around as if there’s nothing important going on.” I tried to
assure her that things were perfectly fine: “It’s ok, mom. The wedding will
begin when people are ready for it to begin.” But she was having none of it.
“Well,” she said, “if I were in charge…” I interrupted her: “Mom, you’re
not in charge. No one is in charge. Think of it as wedding anarchy.” She
responded by rolling her eyes and giving a little horse-like snort.
spite of her skepticism, though, things turned out just fine. The wedding
proceeded, virtually drama-free. Our daughter Jessie, who presided, preached an
awesome homily. And whether for a couple hours after the ceremony or into the
wee hours of the next morning (so I’ve been told), pretty much everyone who
attended had a great time – even with no one in charge.
Order? Which Unity?
            It’s probably safe to say that my mother would
not have been amused by the goings on at Pentecost—at least not at the
beginning—because at first glance, it was chaos, with no one in charge.  But I suspect she wouldn’t be alone in her
disapproval; there’s more than a little of my mom in most of us, and we, too,
would have found Pentecost disquieting, if not downright frightening.  There are plenty of reasons for this, but probably
none is greater than our affinity for order and the security and control we believe
it affords.
          Please understand, order is not always nor rarely
altogether a bad thing – God knows how much I crave order in my personal life.
But even on a purely personal level, too great an insistence on order can be
stifling, and become a form of enslavement. When that insistence is writ large
and becomes socially and politically normative, it becomes a justification for
often call social and political order “peace,” or “unity,” but when we do so,
we deceive ourselves, because such order is almost always predicated upon
violence or the threat of violence. It is intolerant of all sorts of difference,
insisting at its best upon the suppression of difference and at its worst upon eliminating
or banishing difference in favor of homogeneity, or sameness. It preys upon our
fears, and encourages our basest instincts, like bigotry and greed. Its many
faces have become fixtures in our “news cycle,” and too often in our daily
lives: incivility, racism, nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, and classism, all
insisting that those unlike us are stupid, dirty, poor, dangerous threats who
need to be watched, policed, reeducated, detained, incarcerated, expelled, or
          To the extent this shoe fits us, it indicates that we have
more in common with Babel than with Pentecost. The two stories have been linked
in the Christian imagination at least since the early fourth century,
understood as bookends suggesting the nature, scope, and aim of God’s saving
work. At first glance, the reasons for the pairing seem obvious: both texts
have to do with the interconnections of language, sociality, and the purposes
of God. But a closer look at the stories suggest that language, be it the
singularity of Babel or the miraculous plurality of Pentecost, is only one part
of these stories.
          Genesis chapter eleven tells us that Babel was “in the land
of Shinar,” an ancient name for the region of Mesopotamia, later known as
Babylon. Biblical scholars believe that the many ancient stories making up the
book of Genesis were brought together as a single written text during the ascendancy
of the Babylonian Empire, when Judah was in exile there in the early sixth
century BCE. These scholars argue convincingly that the probably ancient story
of Babel was deployed during that time as a critique of Babylon and its
imperial ideology. Judah was not the only nation under the thumb of the
Babylonians; by 550 BCE Babylon ruled most of the known world, having
assimilated the nations into a single united empire. It was a place where
someone most definitely was in
          But the unity of the Babylonian Empire, not unlike the
widely acclaimed order of our own time, was false, because it was based upon
the tyrannical and often ruthless exercise of power. The historical Babylonians
made significant advancements in science and agriculture, but these
advancements were implemented carelessly, in the service of empire, and
eventually proved part of Babylon’s undoing. In the biblical story, this is
depicted as hubris, unrestrained ambition that despises the limits of
creatureliness or propriety. “Come,” they said, “let us build ourselves a
city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for
ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole
earth.” The people of the earth were united, as indicated by their common
language, but their unity was ersatz, for it was in service to self-love and
the quest for what Saint Augustine would later call libido dominandi – the lust for power.
          God, of course, was having none of it; the text portrays
him as very nearly alarmed by what he saw:
he declared, “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.” Perhaps concerned with the prospect of that much
selfish ambition concentrated in one place, the LORD confused their speech and
scattered them to the four winds, maybe thinking that a concupiscent humanity
so scattered might do less harm to themselves and to Creation than one
singularly focused. 
by One Love
story of Babel stands in stark contrast to Luke’s account of Pentecost in the
second chapter of Acts, where Jesus’s gospel – his message of “good news to the
poor… freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind,” and the
liberty from oppression that the prophets called “the year of the Lord’s favor”
– was made real in a new way. Jesus’s followers were doing what he had told
them to do, waiting in Jerusalem for “further instructions” from the Spirit of
God. They were far from alone in the city; it was the Jewish festival of shavout, an occasion for Jews to make pilgrimage
to Jerusalem to celebrate the beginning, or “first fruits,” of the harvest.
Jews from throughout the Mediterranean basin and Middle East filled the city,
and when the Spirit descended they marveled that the disciples, provincial
Galileans all, were speaking the several languages of the Jewish diaspora – the
pilgrims’ own native languages. It was a chaotic scene; no one appeared to be
in charge, and no one seemed fully to know what was happening until Peter had
an apparent moment of clarity, recognizing the events as the fulfillment, both
of the oracle of the prophet Joel and of Jesus’s promise to the disciples. As
it turned out, someone was in charge, and that someone was God, who leads not
by coercion or threat of force, but by a love that functions best in moments of
complete freedom. The disciples speaking all those strange languages were
proclaiming the gospel, the creation of a new humanity, one where there is, as
Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor
free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.”
new humanity is one who is, in spite of the wild diversity represented by the
many languages of Pentecost, truly united; not by a common language, or an
uncritical insistence upon conformity, or an idolatrous desire for control and
security, or a prideful disregard for creaturely limits, but by love of
God and neighbor. In City of God,
Augustine said that the new humanity created at Pentecost was the world’s only
true commonwealth, because its foundation and reason for being was this one
love, made possible by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, given to each of us at
first fruits of this new humanity is the church, the called and gathered
community of all women, men, and children, without respect to nationality,
language, ethnicity, pigmentation, custom, gender, or class. You and I are the
church, as are our sisters and brothers down the road at Saint Jude parish, as
are the folks at New Creation United Methodist Church in Durham. All of them
are members of the “great multitude that,” as the book of Revelation says, “no
one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and
languages.” These are not enemies or strangers, but sisters and brothers,
friends we have yet to meet. Many of them, whether present or future members of
the multitude of God’s people, are among the poor, the imprisoned, the sick,
and the oppressed to whom Jesus’s gospel was and is directed. It is our job,
and our privilege, to care about them and come to their aid. A good friend is
fond of saying that “if you care about the poor, you’ll know their name,” which
is but another way of saying that those in need of help are waiting for you and
I to step across the differences that separate them from us, to extend our
hands, to learn their names, to hear their stories, and to be for them the
gospel of the kingdom.
in Charge
            Our son’s wedding was a blessed event.
There was no one in charge, but there didn’t need to be, because those of us
there were united by our common love for Amos and Jennifer. At Pentecost, the
church was born, and this in spite of no one, save God, being in charge. The
gospel will be proclaimed and the kingdom will come, not because of “strong
leadership,” meticulous planning, or precise execution, but because God’s
people will be content to listen to the gentle prompting of God’s Spirit, who
empowers us to love across our differences.
In the name of the
Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.