Pentecost Sunday

May 23, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Genesis 11:1-9
Reading 2: 
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Reading 3: 
Acts 2:1-21 or Romans 8:14-17
Reading 4: 
John 14:8-17, (25-27)
By Rick Marshall

Reflecting on preaching
I often start the sermon process early in the week. I will read the texts and then leave them alone as they stew in the back of my mind. I stir the pot occasionally by bringing the texts to the front of my attention. I don’t know what happens, or how it happens, but the texts work their way deeply into my subconscious. Seeds of sermon possibilities will germinate and small connections will begin to form. Themes will arise on their own, images, words, dreams. Large theological arcs emerge as I ruminate on the texts. I am aware that I am purposely feeding my mind with texts, especially narrative texts. The best time to be playful with the texts is just as I am first waking up in the morning. I draw my mind’s eye to the texts and they seem to take other forms, in a natural way, out of the vast expanse of a communal collective memory as if coming in with the tide. Those of you who follow Carl Jung know that there are deeper levels of experiences that are ultimately interconnected. Using the texts in this way depends upon a deeper level of collective experience or the collective unconscious. When the imagination has its way, a literal reading of texts becomes superficial and misleading. It is a process that aims for Sunday, where, in the actual preaching of the sermon, its conclusion is reached. In process-relational terms this means the process has reached “satisfaction.” When I’m finished preaching a sermon, it leaves my conscious mind as I begin the process all over again for the next sermon, and so on. Preparing for sermons is a dynamic playfulness between the texts, my own conscious experience, and some large and deep reservoir of collective memory.

I think it’s fair enough to say that a good sermon is a language event, which is especially apt for Pentecost Sunday. Texts can become vehicles for transformation.

Discussing the texts
One of the strong undercurrents in the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) is the place of language in human life and how language can be used for good purposes, or bad purposes. Words can build up or tear down; they can be used to create or destroy; words can heal or they can harm. Language is a powerful tool in creating human consciousness, in building communities, and giving a relational context for social resilience. Language creates worlds, and that is true for other creatures, as well as humans. Many animals and insects have elaborate ways of communicating. The other assigned texts can be seen as speaking to the use of language to create, as we shall see.

The texts each have their own linguistic context. Some background might help. In the ancient world, some people and cultures described the world as three levels. The earth, where we carry out our lives, is in the middle. Below the earth the ancients had a vague sense of darkness, death and decay. The upper level, the “heavens,” is the divine realm, whether it’s one god or many. The source of light from the sun during the day and the moon and stars at night affirmed the constancy and predictability of the heavens. Stars guided ships; the moon exerted a powerful influence on oceans, and its phases guided times for planting and reaping; the sun was the source of life. The Greeks had Mount Olympus where human fate was worked out or fought over by the gods. The people of Israel had Mount Sinai where their God descended in spectacle: dark clouds, thunder, dire warnings of harshness, judgement, evoking fear in all who witnessed the divine presence engulfing the mountaintop. The dynamics of life and death, health and woe, were described and defined by the language of dependency, divine implacability, and human fate.

At the beginning of the book of Genesis, divine language is the vehicle of creation. God said, “let there be light.” God spoke the world into being. God gave the word of command to Adam and Eve, giving boundary and definition to human life. The Tower of Babel story of Genesis 11 describes the unification of humanity (“the world had one language”) that threatened to breach the boundary between God’s purpose for the earth and the humans’ own pursuit of self-determination and security. They said “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens. Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad.” Out of fear, they wanted to secure their own future without trusting the divine power that promised to lead and guide them into a future together. In fact, having the tower extend beyond the clouds to the divine realm is to trespass the limits between the divine and the human. It is the ultimate attempt to become gods.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis lay out a series of mythic narrative accounts dramatizing the relations between God, the earth, and all that is in it, and human beings and the proper role of each. The mode of communication is metaphor, exaggeration for narrative purposes, and poetry. The story of Babel comes from a world that is very different from our own, yet familiar. It is the last story in a series of paradigmatic stories about the genesis of the world and especially an account of how human beings came to be, what their limitations and freedoms are, and how things went wrong. Divine language creates a future; human language, left to its own devices, destroys the future.

The people of Babel were scattered abroad anyway. Motivated by fear, they worked toward security on their own terms. Being “scattered abroad” became the natural consequence of their hubris. There is nothing new about human beings taking the reins of their own future without regard for, or in direct opposition to, the purposes of God for Creation. Adam and Eve were placed in the garden, and by eating of the fruit of the tree of command, they over-reached the relational boundaries that were the natural limit in their relationship with the Creator. Violating the boundaries between heaven and earth is the root of sin. Such violations lead to coercive power, accumulation of wealth at the expense of the poor, and the use of violence as a means of protecting wealth. The pattern of such violation is not new or recent. Already, when the story of Adam and Eve was created, the problem of violation was old and well understood. It was, and continues to be, a Fall To Violence, which is the title of Marjorie Suchocki’s book and which is subtitled “Original Sin In Relational Theology.”

The Acts text is often seen as a reversal of the Tower of Babel story. Divine language was used to create new possibilities. “Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” Those in the house were paralyzed by the recent death of Jesus. The power of divine language opened up a new future that was not possible in the aftermath of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. The spirit of God, the same spirit that hovered over creation, gives creative expression through language. Now it is possible for the disciples to move forward trusting God’s creative power. The book of Acts could rightfully be called “The Acts of the Divine Spirit.” The Acts text is a description of a  transformative language event, and there are many such stories in the Bible.

The Romans text is about using a different category of language to describe God and our relationship with God. The spirit that creates is now called “Abba Father!” We are called “children” of God. By naming the divine reality in the Bible, new possibilities arise that were not possible without the naming of the divine power and how we relate to that power in ourselves and in our communities. The Christian scriptures open a new door by naming Jesus as the Messiah and his resurrection as an example of creative transformation. There was a paradigm shift moving from the use of one kind of language to describe God to a new language. This new language is relational, familial, and points us, not to the sky or an afterworld, but to a world where we are called, here and now, children of God through adoption. Hence, God can rightfully be called Daddy, or in our context Mommy, too.

My daughter just gave birth to a son and she and her husband struggled to name him. They finally agreed on a name. That name will become a centering identity for him as he grows. Who knows how one grows into the name they were given, and if they were given a different name, would they grow differently into that name? The act of naming is a powerful goad. Recently in the news, one set of parents named their son “Hitler” and in doing so, commit him to a particular life. We name a child in baptism; children can be named for purposes that express hope about the future. Some are named by the language of virtue, for example Grace and Chastity. Others are named in honor of a family member to carry on certain values or traditions. Some parents use biblical names like John, James, Rebecca. Other parents invent entirely new names to go against social expectations. Names often point the named to a hopeful future like Destiny. One man was in the news recently because he had changed his name to Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul was called Saul before his dramatic conversion. Abram became Abraham; Sarai became Sarah, to name but a few. Naming is a powerful act.

The creation story has Adam and Eve naming creatures, and by naming them, bringing order. Jesus was named at his baptism, but the name was unexpected. He was named by the angel who had visited Mary. Jesus was dedicated in the temple and, being the first born son, designated as holy before God. Later followers of Jesus named him Messiah. People struggled with this new named reality. The set of values embodied in Jesus conflicted with their expectations that the Messiah would be like David. Moving from King David to King Jesus was a paradigm shift; it required a different language.

A friend of mine adopted three siblings. After a lengthy legal process, the judge brought down the gavel and created a new family. To mark this new legal reality, my friend renamed all three of the children; they now have a different future open to them. Now the language of family can be used. Language creates alternative futures.

The writer of Gospel of John uses the term “logos” in the beginning of that Gospel. The Word of God is not only a written record or a written accounting, it is the divine intention of bringing order out of chaos, creating life out of death. This divine power has been working dynamically since the beginning of creation and continues into the present moment and will continue to create by using language to evoke and shape the created order. The disciples said to Jesus, “Show us the Father.” Jesus responds, “The words I speak to you are not my own...” The difference in the mode of communication is stark; Philip wanted to be shown. The disciples want to see. Jesus says “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own.” Note the emphasis upon speaking and hearing the creative word rather than seeing a divine display. The Word of God is the creative, transformative power of divine language.

Process Theology and the texts
All of the texts can easily be understood in process-relational terms. It might be fair to say that in the beginning was language and divine language brings forth actuality. If language is the divine tool, then narrative and poetry are the handmaiden of a new future that continually opens to us. Language is highly relational. A.N. Whitehead said that God is the poet of the world.

My daughter recently gave birth to her second child. We now have four grandchildren. We watch as these infants grow and begin to acquire language. It is a very slow process and requires a high level of adult participation. They watch our mouths forming sounds and words. They mimic and practice with sounds. They slowly grow to form words and add to their vocabulary and develop sentence structures. It is quit literally a process. Gaining language empowers growing children as they explore the limits and the rules of communication. Before they could speak, we taught them simple sign language for “more” and “all done.” Adults using language with children helps create their world. We, too, speak worlds into being. In this way, we participate in the divine action of creating. We are co-creators with God.

Language is often used to create abstractions, sometimes distancing us from reality. If God is described as unchanging and unfeeling, remote and disconnected, how can we understand the divine dynamic unfolding in life here and now? Sometimes language can be particular and personal. Jesus often used images from nature to describe how God’s power works in this world. God’s presence is in this moment, quietly working to receive into God’s own experience all of the decisions made by creatures, and then the divine offering of new possibilities for the future as it comes to each emerging experience at the rate of moment by moment. The language of creation is personal, relational, connective. It is the language of love and hope, grace and peace; striving and attaining and striving all over again. Whitehead describes each emerging moment as becoming concrete. To be is to be concrete, actual. So the language of family is most expressive of how God is working in the world. God speaks us into existence as each moment reaches for the divine aim only to be lured into the next moment and the next. God is still actively creating the world in the same way that God has been working all along: speaking the world into existence. If God is the poet of the world, then we can understand how God can speak worlds into existence. If God is luring us into our immediate future with possibilities, then we can understand John’s use of “Word” to describe God’s creating power. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life.” John 1:1-4 There is no reason to think that God is not working in this way in the present moment, right here and right now.

Whitehead had to create neologisms because he offered a different paradigm, describing a new way of understanding the world. Human beings do that quite often, create new languages for new paradigms to bring into existence something that had never been described before. Is it possible to know where human language ends and divine language beings; the two are so intertwined. We embody God’s spirit as we embody the Word of God.

Preaching the texts
Talking about human language is a little like talking to a fish about water. Language is so pervasive and so deeply human that it’s hard to be objective about its creative and destructive powers.

Most of the texts assigned for this Sunday can be used in discussing language as a creative or destructive force in our lives. If the Acts text is used and the preacher has preached on it many times, it might be interesting to use as a counterpoint the James 3:1-12 text about the power of the tongue.

A sermon on the Acts text, which is often interpreted as the beginning of the church, could focus on how this weird linguistic event created the Jesus-as-Messiah movement. The language is visual as well as aural: a sound like the rush of a violent wind. Divided tongues, as of flames of fire, rest on each person in the room, all filled with the Holy Spirit. Speaking in other languages. Everyone amazed and perplexed.

Another approach in a sermon could point out that the worship service is a language event. Some thought could be given to how we consciously shape our world through worship. Hymns, prayers, liturgy, sermons are all intentional and overt attempts to capture in language the human predicament and God’s saving grace. A worship service is a highly relational event. If God is present in every moment for every actuality, then the meaning of words makes a difference. For example, the formal part of a service that is called an “Invocation” is calling upon God to be present. The underlying assumption is that God is not present and needs to be called upon to be present. Yet, a more relational word might be a prayer of “Evocation,” that is calling upon those gathered in worship to be in and to attend to the present moment. God is present in this moment. The language of worship then should lead to an awareness of bringing our whole selves to this worship moment to be explicitly aware of God’s presence in this same moment. Redirecting the focus of worship to the present moment gives room for the conscious awareness of those gathered for worship. It might be a powerful way of being confronted by the divine in the “now”: “today is the day of salvation.” Wordless spaces could be used quite effectively to counter-balance the word-filled service. Leaving room for a time of silence gives added weight to words.

Often religious language can create a world that centers around fear or guilt or hate. Such religious language manipulates and distorts the biblical message of trust in God’s creative transformative power. The preacher can make a conscious effort to let texts of transformation have their way with the listeners.

Children and the texts
Talk about what the children call their parents.

I called my mother “Mom” and my father “Dad.” What do you call your parents? Talk about how some adults in our lives are very important people to us. They are way bigger than us when we were small and they seemed very powerful. Have you heard what Jesus calls God? Yes, Father. He also calls him “daddy.” Did you know that? A lot of people think that God is way far away and that God gets angry and punishes people when they are bad. Jesus says we are all God’s children. So if we are children of God what does that make us all? Yes, all people are one family with God. God’s children argue a lot and try to hurt one another sometimes. But some of God’s children are very nice and helpful. I have four grandchildren now. Can you guess what they call me? “Papa.” They call me Papa. And I have this little thing that I do with them. I hold out my hands a little bit away from each other and I ask, “Does Papa love you this much? No. Moving my hands farther apart. Does Papa love you this much? No. Spreading my hands as far apart as possible I say “Papa loves you way much.” Those are the words “way much.” The leader can go through the same hand motions about God and finally saying with hands far apart, “God loves you way much."

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.