28 May 2023 – Pentecost
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
Who are “they?”
Well, the disciples, obviously, but again…who are they?
The 11 male apostles, to be sure, but verse 14 of the preceding chapter of the Book of Acts says: that upon returning from seeing Jesus ascend, there was a group constantly devoting themselves to prayer which included “certain women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus”…but also, we have to imagine, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany, Joanna, and Susanna, possibly Peter’s mother-in-law, the daughter of Jairus, many of the other women who appear in the Gospels may have been there as well…in other words, we don’t know exactly who these “certain women” were, but we need to imagine that there were plenty. Because verse 15 continues, “In those days …the believers numbered about one hundred and twenty persons.” [Acts 1:14-15] 120 believers…all of whom could all be considered “disciples,”…followers of Jesus… but 120 is not what I immediately think of when I hear the phrase, “the disciples.”
Now, I have a confession to make: I intentionally changed the lectionary reading that we heard. The reading that you’ve probably heard every Pentecost for as long as you can remember, starts, “When the day of Pentecost had come…the disciples…were all together in one place.” But that’s not what the text says. Luke says, “they…were all together.” Now, I get that in terms of a reading you probably only hear once a year, that it’s (possibly) clearer to say “the disciples,” but unless you’ve been carefully reading the previous chapter and verses 14 & 15 in particular…how would you know that “the disciples” (in this case) refers to 120 people?…When I come to church Sunday after Sunday and hear, “the disciples,” with no additional context…the image that comes to my mind is not 120 people, women, men, young, old, rich, poor…no, it’s the same 11 dudes. I fully admit this is me seeing the world through my male lens…but that’s the lens that has shaped way more than its share of theology, and history and biblical interpretation.
So this seemingly small gesture…clarifying one pronoun…has a huge impact on our faith…because it’s one of countless examples of how the compilers of the lectionary texts…and clergy throughout the centuries…have effectively erased entire groups of people from the narrative…from the story of God’s redemption…And that is not only tragic and certainly requires repentance…but it’s especially ironic today, in a narrative that is all about how broadly inclusive the Gospel is supposed to be. Parthians, Medes, Elamites…from Judea to Asia, from Europe to Africa…from literally “every nation under heaven.” All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak…as the Spirit gave them ability. All of them…all 120 not just a handful of guys.
And the breadth of Pentecost…the breadth of God’s all-encompassing grace…is underscored by Peter’s speech where he reaches back and pulls a quote from the 5th century BCE prophet Joel, saying “God will pour out God’s Spirit upon ALL flesh…daughters and sons…old and young…those at the top of the economic spectrum and those at the bottom…and and every race, culture, body shape, ability, sexual identity, and gender expression in between.
Pentecost is more than just the birth of the church…it is the symbolic restoration of the unity that was fractured at the Tower of Babel [Genesis 11]…Pentecost is a vision of God’s dream…where diversity is neither collapsed into homogeneity…(we’re not all the same)…nor is it the cause of unending tribal discord (we can learn to understand and respect each other). At Pentecost the Spirit is poured out on all flesh. And all really does mean all. The gifts that God bestows can be found everywhere.
Paul says as much to the Corinthians…God’s gifts, he says, are not distributed according to rank, privilege, gender, or any other human criteria…instead, he says: “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” All people have gifts, and we all lack gifts that other’s have. That’s one reason why we need each other. The common good is created when gifts are recognized and shared…when they are freely offered and gratefully acknowledged and received…the common good is sabotaged when gifts are misused, under-used, ignored or (in the case today) erased from the story.
Today, we have the joy and honor of baptizing Rosie. Don’t we all want her to grow up in a church and in a world where her gifts…her unique set of God-given manifestations of the Spirit are recognized and honored, and shared and celebrated? Her parents probably already know some of her many gifts…the rest of us need to simply be open to receiving them however they manifest. What a tragedy, if any of her gifts get written out of the narrative…what a tragedy that any of our gifts have been written out…have gone unrecognized…have been dismissed or undervalued…It’s tragic when the flame of anyone’s Spirit is smothered by the demands of a dominant and domineering “normality.”
What are your gifts? How is the Spirit uniquely manifested in you? We don’t live in a culture that is good at recognizing, or appreciating gifts that are outside the dominant narrative…so as a church, as a faith community, we need to be especially attentive to different gifts…differing voices…differing lenses…differing ways of seeing and being in the world … all of the ways the Spirit is active and working in and through everyone who finds their way here.
This Pentecost—and the not-so-ordinary time that follows—may we be enflamed with the Spirits power to not only grow in the knowledge and use of our own God-given gifts, but to also grow in the recognition and celebration of those gifts-differing…so that no one is erased from the narrative, and we can move closer to the world of God’s dream where all really does mean all.