This past Memorial Day, my family and I traveled to my brother-in-law’s house nearby for what one of my friends joking calls a “get apart.” (You know, a physically distanced “get together.”)
Our conversation covered a broad range of topics–as it usually does–including our common situation of global pandemic. My brother-in-law, who works as a federal prosecutor, noted that New Zealand and some European countries (like Germany) were able to much more effectively contain the virus because, in his opinion, in general their citizens have much more trust in their federal governments than, for example, the U.S. does.
While trust is only one factor affecting a government’s coronavirus response, it reminds me how critical trust is to human flourishing. In many cases, it is literally a matter of life and death.
Trust is also a critical factor in congregational life. One of the foundational tasks of transitional ministry is building and maintaining trust among congregation members and between congregation and leadership. Steven Covey in his book The Eighth Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness writes about “the speed of trust.” High trust levels in organizations allows them to move quickly to adapt and address problems. If we had higher trust levels in the U.S., would we have been able to move more quickly to prevent infections and deaths? It is a sobering question. This is a critical question for maintaining our national health. It also illustrates why high trust levels are so important to congregational health.
How does one build trust in a congregation? Three tasks: competence, compassion, common mission. Competence: leadership has to prove to the congregation that they can do the job in a consistently competent fashion. Show up for meetings, do your homework, strive for excellence. If you don’t know something, get training or ask for help. Compassion: people have to know that you have their best interest at heart. You need to demonstrate that you see your role as promoting the health and well-being of the congregation as a whole, not your personal needs for power and control. Common mission: this is illustrated by a Scripture text for this coming Sunday–Pentecost Sunday.
The Old Testament reading is from Numbers 11:24-30. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro tells Moses that he can’t lead God’s people on his own. Jethro recommends Moses appoint 70 “elders” to share the leadership burden. Moses follows his father-in-law’s advice. Moses gathers the 70 elders around the tent that served as the holy space for the people as they may their wilderness journey. God’s spirit “rested upon [the elders] and they prophesied.”
Here’s the part I love: a couple of the elders didn’t make it to the tent for the ceremony. For some reason they had stayed in the main camp with the rest of the 600,000 or so Israelites. Nevertheless, God’s spirit had gone out to them as well causing them to prophesy among the people in the camp even though they hadn’t gone through the formal authorization the others had. Joshua, Moses’ right hand man, said, “Moses, stop them!” Moses responded, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”
Moses was clear about his role as leader among the Israelites. It wasn’t about him, his status, his ego, his power. His role was to work with God to create circumstances in which God’s people could flourish. His job wasn’t to control the process but to bless, notice, and name God’s spirit wherever and however it shows up.
On the church calendar this is the first week of the Easter Season: 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. Pentecost is the Sunday we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers. Jesus had ascended to heaven following his resurrection, but had promised his followers the Holy Spirit, who would empower them to carry on his mission even though the physcial form of the historical Jesus would no longer be present in the world. The 50 days of the Easter Season was an intense time during which Jesus prepared his followers to be his hands and heart for the world.
This preparation begins with appearances of the resurrected Christ. This week’s Scripture, John 20:18-31, recounts two appearances of Jesus to the disciples who had gathered the week before to celebrate Passover with Jesus in the “upper room” they had rented for the occasion. The text–like all of the stories of Jesus’ appearances–raises two big questions: “Who is this resurrected Jesus?” And “How should we respond to him?”
The John 20 account is famous for the story of a disciple named Thomas. As I mentioned above, Jesus appears twice in John 20. The first time Thomas is absent. His fellow disciples tell Thomas that they saw Jesus, but he doesn’t believe them. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Jesus appears to the disciples a second time. This time Thomas is among them. Jesus invites Thomas to examine and touch his wounds–just as Thomas had demanded–and Thomas believes. The scene ends with Jesus saying to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
If you were in Thomas’ shoes, how would you respond to reports that Jesus was alive? I grew up in a very conservative Christian community that understood faith to be a kind of “belief without proof,” a kind of “take my word for it.” The Bible says God raised Jesus from the dead, so we should accept it as fact even if it seems like a fairytale. To doubt or question was understood to be antithetical to faith. While I definitely had my questions and even as a young child asked them, more than that, I wanted to be a good Christian, so I accepted what my parents and Sunday school teachers and pastors said even if not everything made sense.
As a young adult I studied at a divinity school where we learned to question and critique Biblical texts and church doctrines. As an middle-aged adult I have pastored more liberal churches in which folks tend to wear doubt as a badge of pride–a sign of intellectual rigor and freedom of conscience. And as I have gone deeper in my studies I have noticed yet another turn: a practice of doubting one’s doubts. A comedian once put it this way: “You say there is no God. Are you sure? Have you looked everywhere?”
I invite us to consider stepping beyond faith and doubt as intellectual exercise. The significance of Christ’s resurrection for me is the reality it points to: following Christ’s way moment to moment makes new and abundant life possible for me, for you, for all of creation. Try it yourself and see!
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon for Pentecost
9 June 2019
Text: Acts 2:1-21
The Advent of this Noise
Scripture says, “And on the Advent of this noise the multitude gathered and were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” I chose this translation of the text because the phrase “Advent of this noise” made me smile. The word advent means the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. I associate the word advent with the Christian season of Advent during which we prepare for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas. Putting the word “advent,” which for me has a positive connotation with the word “noise,” which has a more negative connotation, is a humorous and provocative turn of phrase. The miracle of Pentecost is a celebration of noise, a blessing of cacophony with salvific power on the same level as the birth of Christ. Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church. The Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples and a new spiritual movement is born. Jesus is born in a stable. The church is born in noise.
But what kind of noise is this? First there was “a noise like a turbulent wind borne out of the sky” that “filled the house where they were sitting.” What does this noise make you think of? A storm? A hurricane? Some powerful natural force. In the Old Testament God often appears in storms and clouds. Psa. 29:9 says, “The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
On Mount Sinai God appears to a ragtag group of former slaves in clouds and thunder and fire. Out of that theophany God creates a new spiritual community called the people of Israel. God promises to be their God and they promise to do what God wants them to do. We are spiritual inheritors of those promises made in the midst of thunder and wind and deafening noise. And don’t forget the fire. The tongues of fire that rest on each of the disciples are reminders of the fire on Mount Sinai. In the new Christian community each of us is a mini Mount Sinai. Each of us is meant to be a place where others can encounter God. This is where the other noise comes in.
Scripture says, “And they were all filled with a Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them to utter.” It was at the sound of this noise–the noise of hundreds of people speaking dozens of different languages–that caused confusion among the Jewish people gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration. (Yes, Pentecost is another holiday we have inherited from Judaism.) But why were they confused? You might assume that it was difficult to understand what the disciples were saying because of the jumble of languages all happening at the same time. Some churches do dramatic readings of Acts 2 by having folks read the text in different languages at the same time. That experience is indeed one of cacophony. But Scripture doesn’t say that the confusion of the multitude is the result of cacophony. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. The multitude is confused “because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” The multitude was confused because they actually understood what was going on. Why would that be confusing?
Here’s where the church so often gets Pentecost so wrong. The miracle of Pentecost is NOT that the world learned the language and adopted the culture of the church. It’s that the church learned the languages and adopted the cultures of the world. It’s not that the Holy Spirit suddenly changed non-church-goers and brought them into the church. The Holy Spirit changed church people and sent them out into the world.
This is where you have to understand the context of the situation. Scripture says that the multitude gathered in the house at Pentecost were Jews from all over the Roman Empire: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs,” to be precise. And when there is a public gathering in the context of empire you speak the language of empire. For the folks gathered at that first Pentecost it would have been Greek, because Greek empire preceded the Roman one, or Latin, because that was the language of Rome.
One of the expectations of empire is that you learn the language of empire and you conform to the language of empire. But that’s not how the gospel comes to people. Jesus is trying to teach us something so important here: the good news always comes to people in their mother tongue. In our churches we’ve got that completely backwards. We expect everyone else to learn our language. We expect them to learn our hymns and sing our songs and stand up when we say and bow their heads the way we do. We expect them to know who Cousin Becky is and that she has colon cancer and that they should sign up for TGIF even though they’re brand new and don’t know a soul. We expect them to entrust their children to our childcare even though it’s in the basement and they don’t know where that is. We expect them to appreciate choral music even though when they get in the car there’s hip hop on the radio. We expect them to come to this building to encounter God even though they live much of their lives online. But that’s the opposite of Christianity. That’s not the language of freedom. Those are the expectations of oppressors and empire builders. It’s not for others to learn our language and culture but for us to learn theirs.
We want to discern our future so what do we do? We survey ourselves because Christianity is all about what I want right? I suspect that people aren’t as interested in us as they might be because we say we are about justice but then we speak the language of empire. Empire is primarily concerned about itself. Jesus is primarily concerned about others. If we truly want a future, the next survey needs to be in person, and it needs to be of the town of Granby and what our neighbors want. When we do that, they might start to believe that we are Christians.
Everything communicates. Everything is a language: from our building to our bulletins to our staffing to our worship to our food to our programs. Everything tells the public what our mission is and who we value. And often there is a gap between what we think we are communicating and what we actually are communicating. For example we may think we are communicating inclusion, but are we? What could we let go of to make space for those who don’t feel like they have a place here? For me, personally, this is the most exhilarating part of being a Christian. I love the vast diversity of people and cultures and I want to connect with all of them. Remember the little Holy Spirit-Mount Sinai fires above people’s heads at Pentecost? Jesus doesn’t expect people to encounter God in church. He expects them to encounter God in you. Then, and only then, might they consider attending your church. There’s a theological word for this: incarnation. Jesus gave up everything to become God incarnate for us. We in turn are called to give up what’s most precious to us: the way we do our worship? The coziness with which we can assume people will recognize our faces and know our personal stories? The worship the town of Granby needs may sound like noise to you. But the advent of that noise might just be this town’s salvation, and ours. This is the true incarnation.
It is my experience that the more deeply and sincerely I follow Jesus, the more effectively and respectfully I’m able to connect with people across cultures, generations, languages, and worldviews. Humbly following Jesus is a pathway to connection to God’s great universe and connection is the pathway to healing and wholeness for me personally and for our planet. It could be for us as a church as well. It could be for you.
Leader: O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
People: Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.
Leader: I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
People: May my meditation be pleasing to the LORD, for I rejoice in my God.
Holy God, where can we go from your Spirit? Where can we flee from your presence? The advent of your Spirit is this very moment. Our only home is this very place. All that is required to rest in you is simply to rest. Draw our hearts here. Fill our hearts now with this breath and the next. Amen.