Living in the middle of a bustling city brings many pleasures, but there can be some rough moments. I remember years ago walking our dog down a street on the south side of Chicago and finding myself being furiously yelled at. Another person’s dog was off its leash and went running up to a woman who clearly didn’t like dogs. The woman let loose a cascade of fury, and her friend began to swing a stick at the dog. My dog and I were some distance away, but for some strange reason I decided to try to be helpful and calm things down. Big mistake. It took only a few words out of my mouth to bring down a stream of fury on me too. After a moment or two we all went our separate ways, with her screaming and me seething.
I remember thinking a lot about that woman afterward. Obviously something had made her resent dogs and the people who go with them, and resented enough other things to have her fury just under the surface. What, if anything, could ever be done to bridge the differences between her world and mine?
The philosopher Wittgenstein said that the happy person and the unhappy person inhabit two different worlds. They see and experience different realities. A newly married couple full of hope and eagerness knows a different world from an unhappy, alienated couple drifting toward separation.
It is hard to hear and understand each other across the chasms of our different life experiences. There is now a whole industry of books about the difficulties men and women have understanding each other. Deborah Tannen wrote one called Why Can’t I Hear You about how hard it is for men and women to communicate. They speak different languages, Tannen says. Men may be trying to say, “I need you to help me,” but it doesn’t come out that clearly. And women may be saying, “I need some space for awhile,” but the men just don’t get it. [Thanks to William Willimon for these instances. Pulpit Resources 5.18.97.]
Then throw in the different stories that have shaped us. Growing up black or white, Southern or Midwestern, prosperous or barely making it—all of those shape how we see and relate to the world. Pakistanis see the world differently from Americans, Hindus from Buddhists, Native Americans from European Americans. Many worlds, many languages, and often so little understanding.
You may remember the mythic story of the Tower of Babel in the book of Genesis. Once upon a time, it says, the whole world spoke the same language, and the people in their arrogance decided to build a tower all the way to heaven so that they could be gods themselves. But then God punished them by turning their one language into a profusion of tongues, and as a result human beings became divided by their inability to understand or be understood. Our human differences became a curse as everyone built mental walls to defend their own interests and maintain their own superiority. Our world came to suffer from what philosopher William James called “torn apartness.”
Today we celebrate Pentecost, one of the high feasts of the church year, and the day we call the birthday of the church. Today we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit as God’s answer to the torn apartness of our world and the beginning of a movement called church to spread God’s healing Spirit across the world. A massive, chaotic crowd had gathered for the Jewish festival days from every corner of their world—there were Parthians and Medes, they were from Mesopotamia, Asia, Egypt, Libya, Arabia, you name it. It would have seemed like Times Square in New York City, or the streets of Cairo or Calcutta—crowds pushing against each other, speaking in dozens of languages, jostling, and arguing.
But strange events began erupting. The disciples had been waiting in Jerusalem for nearly two months since their Lord’s death and resurrection, laying low out of fear, and wondering where their lives were going. All of a sudden something strange erupted. It was like a rushing wind, Acts tells us. It was like tongues of fire. And then something even stranger happened.
All of a sudden this timid and frightened group was filled with confidence and clarity, and they began to speak in the languages of the crowds. Everyone marveled that they were hearing of God’s deeds and power in their own familiar words and phrases. Often people have assumed that the miracle of Pentecost was that the disciples, filled with emotion, ran out speaking in incomprehensible tongues, but it’s just the opposite. This was a miracle of communication, of communion, of understanding. People heard. They understood. A Spirit of oneness, of belonging, of mutual comprehension had been unleashed in the human race. “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” they marveled. “And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?”
Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, wants us to see that the torn-apartness of our world was now being healed. This was meant to be the beginning of the reversal of Babel. In the face of all the babbling we do at each other, all the arguing and bickering and misunderstanding we go through—God’s Spirit has been poured out to open our understanding, to draw us into communication, even communion with each other.
Our word “spirit” means breath or wind in Hebrew and Greek. It’s meant to suggest that God is in us like the air we breathe. God’s life is inside our life. Yet it’s easy to miss the reality of God in us. But as the great mystics would say, “We are in God as fish are in water.” We are so immersed in God’s life that like fish we aren’t even aware of the Great Mystery that surrounds and holds us.
But sometimes that Spirit within us starts stirring and moving us in new directions. And sometimes the Spirit begins stirring whole groups and even nations, filling them with energy, giving them visions of what ought to be. Think of the way the Spirit has moved across northern Africa and the Middle East in the last few months that people have called the Arab Spring. The Spirit can move a whole society to a new place, as happened in the civil rights movement and the women’s movement.
This is a time when we sorely need this Spirit of communion and understanding. Our nation is facing many problems and challenges but it seems to be crippled by a spirit of torn-apartness. Partisanship, incivility, and narrow self-interest threaten to undermine the well-being and decency of our nation, even our world.
Our nation still has much to learn, for example, in creating a welcoming spirit for Muslims living in our midst. It has been tragic to see the mean-spiritedness of the burning of the Quran, to follow the angry controversy over plans for a Muslim community center near the site of Ground Zero, to hear of the resistance in some communities to the building of mosques. We need the Holy Spirit to open our American spirits to welcome our fellow children of Abraham as full Americans with us.
And on a larger scale, our nation faces massive threats that can only be met with strong, consistent, courageous public leadership. We Americans continue to stand by and watch as tornados, floods, and droughts rage and the climate of our nation deteriorates. We, the strongest nation in the world, seem incapable of providing leadership in dealing with the largest threat to the well-being of our planet. Meanwhile our nation careens toward a debt crisis that threatens American economic stability for decades to come, but there seems to be little will to make the political compromises necessary to protect our nation.
Just this week I heard a wise senior observer of our national life here in Washington say that there have been few moments in the last half-century when as much has been at stake that required bold moral leadership as now. He recalled the ways that Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan worked with their political adversaries and the two parties were able to hammer out major legislation, something that seems increasingly impossible in these mean-spirited times.
I was reminded that at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, after four months of debate over what appeared to be irreconcilable differences, it looked as if the constitution might be doomed. But at that dark moment Benjamin Franklin took the floor and made an historic appeal for cooperation and compromise, “Let everyone doubt a little of his own infallibility,” he urged. Following his appeal the delegates made the necessary compromises, and that is finally what it took to give us a constitution.
There must be a way beyond the torn-apartness of our time—in our world, in our nation and its politics, in our own lives and homes—and that way is what we celebrate today. Two thousand years ago Christ’s Spirit began to move, first among a small band of disciples, but soon through churches and leaders and events and movements as God has sought to draw this fragmented, ungracious, contentious human race toward deeper life and communion with each other. Christ’s Spirit continues to work in your life and mine, stirring us, opening our eyes, calling us into deeper openness and understanding of the lives and realities outside the bubble of our own self-interest.
“There is a movement, not easily discernible, at the heart of things,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “to reverse the awful centrifugal forces of alienation, brokenness, division, hostility, and disharmony. God has set in motion a centripetal process, a moving toward the center, toward unity, harmony, goodness, peace, and justice, a process that removes barriers.” That is the work the Spirit is doing.
And today as we make new Christians and reaffirm our own baptismal vows, we are agreeing to allow this Spirit to move in us, to heal the torn-apartness in our own hearts, and in our relationships, and to stir us up to be part of healing our fragmented world.
I sometimes think that for all the public challenges we face in our lack of understanding, the challenges are at least as great in our personal communication—our quickness to judge, our inability actually to be quiet and listen to one another, our readiness to come back with a retort. Listening itself is an act of ministry, a work of the Spirit, when we are willing to set aside our agenda and take in without judgment or argument what someone else is saying.
I wonder if some of you were as struck as I was by the words that journalist Steve Roberts closed with in our recent Sunday Forum conversation with him and his wife Cokie Roberts about their interfaith marriage. Responding to an invitation to offer advice to interfaith couples, Roberts almost blurted out, “I think candor is vastly overrated. The person who says ‘I’m going to tell you what I really think…really means ‘I’m going to be hurtful and selfish.’ A certain amount of humility is useful.”
Humility, understanding, openness, patience—those are the qualities this Spirit of healing is seeking to stir up in us. To open ourselves to this Holy Spirit, to open ourselves to the stranger, the other, whether across the breakfast table or across the world, is to be led deeper into communion, deeper into unity with God and each other. It’s the wholeness, the oneness, we were made for.
Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle in us the fire of your love.