REVERSE THE CURSE
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability… 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:1-4, 42-47, NRSV)
Earlier this week I named the sermon, “Reverse The Curse.” My intro was going to be a lighthearted look at the greatest rivalry in American sports between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox going back to the “curse of the Bambino.” But as the week went on my heart became heavy—another school shooting, this time in Texas, leaving 10 dead and at least that many wounded. I heard about the plane crash in Cuba that may have killed as many as 100 people. I heard about 60 Palestinians who were killed and more than 1,300 who suffered gunshot wounds for the crime of throwing rocks at the Israeli soldiers. And then again and again white Americans are calling the police on African Americans who have done nothing wrong except fall asleep in a common room at Yale, go for a meal at Waffle House, or wait for a colleague in Starbucks. It’s disgusting. It’s dehumanizing. And it’s got to stop. Then there’s the white lawyer in the city who chewed out 2 deli workers for speaking Spanish. It’s crazy and the guy was out of control. Somebody had a sense of humor though, and paid a Mariachi band to play outside the guy’s building—musical revenge, you gotta love it!
Fortunately, though I woke up Saturday morning feeling down because of the week’s bad news, I found hope and inspiration watching the royal wedding of all things. I hadn’t planned to watch it. I kind of thought I was above being star-struck watching a wedding of so called “royals,” whatever that means. The service was for me a reminder that just as this world is a mess of hunger and racism and violence, it is also a place where a biracial American divorcee can marry an honest to goodness British Prince in something more than a fairytale wedding. Many things broke with tradition in yesterday’s royal wedding, but to me the best things were the prominent roles played by people of color from both America and Britain. The blending of traditional British culture mixed with Black culture from both sides of the pond made me smile. I especially loved the joyous rendition of “Stand By Me” sung by the Kingdom Choir, a British gospel choir. (Yes I said British. After hearing them I assumed they were American but they are Brits!)
Then there was the 19-year-old cellist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who played a gorgeous arrangement of “Ave Maria.” He played with such emotional depth, just watching him was inspiring. Apparently I’m not alone. As he played, fans wrote 28,000 tweets per minute during his performance. That means that more than 450 people around the world published a tweet about the cellist every second of his…Royal Wedding appearance… In 2016, Sheku won the BBC Young Musician of the Year award. He was the first black musician to win the award since its launch 38 years earlier.
You will not be surprised to hear that my favorite part was the wedding homily given by “the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the first African American to preside over the Episcopal Church in America, who focused his sermon…on ‘the redemptive power of love.’”
He was amazing! I told Colleen that the royal wedding was a clergy Super Bowl as I witnessed 3 of my fellow clergy participating in a wedding watched by an estimated 2 billion people worldwide! The only standout though was America’s Rev. Michael Curry. The rest of the clergy, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, were painfully boring. I always stand in awe of African American ministers who can preach with such passion and conviction. Obviously my sermon delivery will never come close to clergy preaching out of the African American tradition. However, I was pleased to note that at least I am not as boring as the British clergy, so there’s some consolation in that.
As much as I enjoy the traditional African American preaching style, it all comes down to content and not surprisingly, Rev. Curry excelled there too. He said in part:
The late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, and I quote: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.”
[He continued,] There’s power in love. Do not underestimate it. Don’t … over-sentimentalize it. There’s power, power in love. If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved. There’s… power in love, not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love. There’s a certain sense in which when you are loved and you know it, when someone cares for you and you know it, when you love and you show it. It actually feels right. There’s something right about it. There’s a reason for it. It has to do with the source.
We were made by a power of love. Our lives were meant and are meant to be lived in that love. That’s why we are here. Ultimately the source of love is God himself—the source of all of our lives.
There’s an old medieval poem that says: “Where true love is found, God…is there.” The New Testament says it this way. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; And those who love are born of God and know God. Those who do not love do not know God. Why? For God is love.”
There’s power in love. There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can. There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will. There’s power in love to show us the way to live. … But love is not only about a young couple. The power of love is demonstrated by the fact that we’re all here. Two young people fell in love, and we all showed up. It’s not just for and about a young couple whom we rejoice with. It’s more than that…..When love is the way — unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive — then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again….When love is the way, poverty would become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty of room for all of God’s children. When love is the way, we actually treat each other, well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters and children of God. Brothers and sisters — that’s a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.
And that ties in perfectly with the scripture lesson for today about the Day of Pentecost. The miracle that day 2,000 years ago was that the Apostles and other believers were empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to speak languages they had never learned to people from near and far. It reversed the curse in the story of The Tower of Babel. Found in the Book of Genesis, the Tower of Babel was to be so tall that it could put people on par with God. None too pleased, God cursed the people with a multitude of languages so that work on the tower stopped forever. In today’s text, we fast forward to the Day of Pentecost when God acts to reverse the curse. For on the Day of Pentecost God unites a diverse people of many languages and cultures into one unified Church.
Here’s the background. On the Day of Pentecost, 120 of Christ’s followers, including 11 of the original disciples, gathered in a room when out of nowhere the Holy Spirit blew in like a twister turning their lives upside down. After that, all bets were off, for the 120 believers would never be the same, and old Jerusalem would never be the same, and the gathered community that became the Church would never be the same either.
As the story goes, it had been 50 days since Christ’s Resurrection, 10 days since his Ascension into heaven. Gathered together in a large room, the disciples must have been startled by what sounded like a mighty rushing wind from heaven. The scriptures tell us that something looking like tongues of fire appeared above each of their heads, that they were filled with the Holy Spirit and that miraculously, they began to speak in languages they had never known. This gift of language allowed them to communicate the good news of Jesus to all of the people from various nations who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. This story was written down by Luke in the New Testament Book of Acts. The miracle of Pentecost came as a fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send God’s Spirit to the disciples. Today’s text tells us that some in the crowd accused the disciples of being drunk due to their linguistic exuberance. Peter corrects them saying that in fact God was doing something new in ancient Israel. Instead of just focusing on an exclusive relationship with the Jewish people, God was now reaching out to all people in a groundbreaking way.
Dan Clendenin writes, “At its best, this new community of the Spirit celebrates, incorporates, and then transcends barriers of race, social stratification, economics, ethnicity, language, and gender. Diversity without division, and unity without uniformity, ought to characterize the Jesus community. Pentecost and the birth of the new unified-but-diverse Jesus community thus reverses the curse of the tower of Babel…In those first pages of the Bible language divided humanity in a cacophony of confusion. In the last pages of the Bible, the new community that began at Pentecost culminates in a linguistic extravaganza”
And the culmination of human history will be just as delightfully diverse. A description of heaven in the Book of Revelation says it will include “a great multitude that no one…[can] count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9). Until then, may our faith inspire us to build a world characterized by diversity without division, and unity without uniformity. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
May 20, 2018
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Eternal God, whose Spirit filled the Apostles at Pentecost, fill us we pray. We give thanks that the faithful of old overflowed with your love and that their love of you spilled over into the lives of others through the centuries until at last it touched each one of us. Fill us with your Spirit that our lives might be poured out in love for you and for our sisters and brothers in need. Challenge us whatever language we speak, to learn the universal language of love, to speak its message in word and deed this day and every day.
In the blessed name of Jesus and through the power of your Spirit we pray. AMEN.