Sunday, June 12, 2011

The power of words / the words of power

One of things that I love about our summer devotional book, An Altar in the World, is its strive towards simplicity. The author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them.” When I read this, I cannot help but think of sunrises. I remember as a youth staying up at an all-nighter that ended with watching the sunrise on the beach in Santa Cruz. It was a beautiful sight. Shafts of light mixed with shots of color. It was static and yet it was ever changing. Concepts like Awareness. The presence of God. Being filled with the Spirit, Concepts that always seemed a bit abstract, started to much sense. You could almost hear singer Nina Simone singing in the background. It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life, for me and I’m feeling good. It was truly an altar in my world.

And to think, this happens every day. Every day the sun creeps over the ocean’s horizon. And it has been doing this for years bringing it with it new dawns and new days. Today I want to talk to you about two very specific sunrises.

Our first sunrise begins long ago in the time of Noah. A few years after the flood the people of the land had settled in a place called Shinar. But God, who in this story is called Yahweh did not want them settling. Yahweh told them to branch out and repopulate the earth.

But they did not listen to Yahweh. Instead they had the brilliant idea to build a tower. “Why go out when we can go up,” they thought. “Why rest here on the land like lowly servants, when we can live like gods. Let us build a tower to the heavens.” They sought power. They sought for their own individual satisfaction, their personal gratification. And so they built bricks. And mortor. And more bricks. And more mortar. Days of labor went into the tower. Countless resources used to build brick after brick. Higher and higher, more and more, bigger and bigger. It could never get large enough. Billions and billions. Trillions and trillions.

Where was Yahweh? Perhaps Yahweh figured that they would grow tired of the endeavor. Maybe they would look around and see all that they were neglecting in building this opulent tower. But finally Yahweh could bear it no longer, and in the dark of night Yahweh made a move.

The sunrise that next morning was probably very similar to the one before it. The sun making its sleepy slow crawl over the horizon shooting burst of awake into the eyes of the sleeping workers. Now, imagine you are one of these tower workers. You get to the job site and begin working. You are making bricks or mixing up mortar and doing your thing. One of your fellow workers walks by and greets you in friendly tone, but you can’t quite make out what they are saying. It seems a bit strange but you think nothing of it and go back to work. Making bricks, mixing mortar. A bit off in the distance you can hear some commotion. Again it is a bit concerning, but you keep working. The commotion seems to be getting louder and happening from multiple directions. Then the foreman comes over frantically pointing and shouting at you. That is nothing new, but what is odd is the words coming out of his mouth. You can’t understand any of them. It all sounds like gibberish. You try to tell him to calm down. You are having trouble understanding him. You speak very slowly and calmly, but this only seems to infuriate him even more. He grabs one of the bricks you just made and smashes it right in front of you. Well, now he has gone too far. You stand up and try to talk some sense into him, but it is no use. The whole situation is senseless. Finally he gives up on you and walks away.

You look around at other stations and see the same thing happening all over. People are arguing. Bricks are being smashed. People are storming off. They don’t even care where they go. They’re just scattering. You can’t say that you blame them. Everyone seems crazy. Well you are certainly not going to sit here and build by yourself. And since there is nothing else going on in Shinar, you head home, find some people that you can understand, get your stuff and leave. As you head off to a foreign land, you and your friends talk about what a bunch of babblers everyone is back there. And that dumb tower. The tower of babblers, you call it. Later people would call it the Tower of Babel and even later Babylon.....Here ends the story of our first sunrise.

The second sunrise story comes many years after the first. There has been great progression. The earth has been filled, cities have sprung up, kings and prophets have come and gone, but the sunrise remains the same. It brings with it signs of new beginnings, new light, and new days. On this particular day, the day of Pentecost, it brings with it something else, the anointing of the Holy Spirit. For on this sunrise, on this day, a promise made by Jesus to his followers was about to be fulfilled.

The scripture starts in the upper room. Acts chapter one gives a roll call which includes the disciples, certain women including Mary, Jesus’ mother, his brothers, and other followers. The scripture does not say why they were there or what they were doing but whatever it is, it does not last long. As promised the heavens begin to rumble. There is a brief moment of anticipation as the rumbling builds. Pretty soon the sound fills the entire room. And with the sound comes fire. Fire that fills the followers with so much passion that it appears as tongues on their heads. This is the Holy Spirit that was promised. And the Spirit brought with it a gift. They begin speaking in other languages. At that moment, it all clicked for Jesus’ followers. They were not meant to sit up in the room. They were meant to go out into the four corners of the world. They were meant to spread good news to all that would hear it. That is why the Spirit blessed them with language.

So they go downstairs and do just that. Some in the crowd recognized this gift. They were amazed. They saw the power of God in these people. Others sneered saying, “They are drunk with wine.” And then Peter gives what is one of my favorite lines in the whole Bible. He stands up in front of the crowds and says, “People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” He might have then said, “The bars are not even open yet. We cannot even get mimosas until brunch which does not start until 11:00. So no, we are not drunk.” No one could argue with his iron clad logic.

Answering the drunk question, Peter continues and tells them what their true mission is his morning. He tells them of the prophet Joel and how Joel spoke of a time when both young and old, man and woman, slave and free would rise up with prophetic voices and proclaim the Lord’s glorious day. This new day has come. They are there to tell them good news. They are there to tell them about Jesus, about resurrection, about new life. They are there to usher in a new kingdom where earthly power has no place. He speaks the words of David who says, “You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.” Peter cannot stop talking. And people cannot stop listening. The crowd gathers and multiplies. It grows ever larger and ever stronger. Three thousand people came to believe that day. They put their old selfish and sinful ways behind them and followed a new path, a path that changed the course of history. Thus ends the second sunrise story.

Here we have two sunrise stories. It is no accident that there are distinct similarities. The author of Acts is clearly making allusions to the well known Tower of Babel story. But the goal of the Pentecost story is not to retell the Tower of Babel story but to reverse it. To tell a new story. For example in the Tower of Babel story, language is a source of confusion. But at Pentecost language leads to miraculous understanding. In Babel Yahweh is on high. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit dwells among the people. In Babel the focus was on the individual. How powerful can I get? At Pentecost the focus was on others. How can we serve our world? At Babel the people are scattered. At Pentecost people come together. Overall what I think that the author of Luke is trying to tell us is that the good news of Jesus is a story that transcends the division of language. Furthermore it transcends many divisions. Since the days of Babel, we have done a good job at dividing and populating the earth. In fact we have gone a bit too far. We have built walls, formed countries, made dividing lines and raised armies to keep those lines divided. Peter’s message about the life of Jesus was given to bring people back together. To break down divisions. The chapter ends with the followers selling their possessions and sharing bread and fellowship with one another.

This is a lesson that speaks to us today as much as it did to the people back then. We still have walls, divisions, and even Towers of Babel. Is not the recent financial crisis an example of a group of individuals building a tower of wealth for themselves no matter the cost to others?

When there is tower building, when there is a desire for power, words become very important. The power that one seeks is directly affected by the words that one speaks. Words are used to control and manipulate. Financial deals are carefully constructed amalgamations of words and legal contracts. Political careers are made and lost on the words that are used in speeches. Leaders rise up by the words that they use to inspire and incite their followers.

By contrast when empathy is sought ahead of power then language becomes less necessary. There is still a need for understanding but intention and care take the place of having the right words. I offer the testimony of Sarah Oughton of the Red Cross. After devastating floods in Pakistan, she went to help. Even though she did not speak the language, she was still able to offer first aid training to many of the local volunteers. As she puts it, first aid transcends any language barrier.

I offer the testimony of Mexico Mission people. On ten different occasions this church has gone to Mexico to aid in the building of a house for a family. Though there are some language difficulties, there is still a great intention to help. That intention is felt by the families. It is greater than any words that we could speak.

I offer one last testimony and that is of the hospital chaplains. I have many friends (Nancy Smith is one of them) who are serving as chaplains doing the very difficult work of meeting people in times of sickness and great weakness. Often there is a language barrier but sometimes they find that words are not even necessary. If there is a sincerity of purpose, a willingness to be present, and genuine empathy, then care can be given. People will feel it. That is the power of the Spirit.

Where does that leave us? As I see it we have two options. We can be Babblers, people that constantly drive for higher and higher places. Better pay grades, more expensive cars, power, control, and the greatest satisfaction of all: to be right. We can fight about words and what they mean. Or we can be people of the Pentecost, filled with the Holy Spirit. If we choose the latter, if we choose to be people of the Pentecost then our intention is not to go up but to go out. To go out into the world to mend what is broken. To give care where there is suffering. To bring hope where there is despair. To find altars in our world. As people of the Pentecost we focus on sharing not accumulation. Words will take a back seat to intentions, which are on the needs of others and not the desires of ourselves.

People of Shell Ridge, today brings a new sunrise. Today brings the power of the Spirit. The fire that cannot be quenched. May it fill you so that you can go out and make the world a better place. Because this world needs outward bound people. This world needs the care and compassion that you can bring. Simply put this world needs a Pentecost people. This world needs you. Amen?

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