Happy Pentecost, or should I say, the day after the Royal Wedding. Yesterday was the Royal Wedding, but you already knew that. Americans seem to have a particular kind of adoration for the Royal Family that honestly puzzles me a bit. And I don’t mean for that to sound judgmental, I was actually the one in our house that turned on NBC bright and early Saturday morning. Perhaps our fixation is rooted in the beauty and pageantry, but the Royals aren’t unique in their flare for the dramatic and elegant. Perhaps we’re just sad that Downton Abbey is off the air, and now unable to get our Lady Mary fix or hear Maggie Smith begin every sentence by saying “ohhh myyy”, the Royal Family will simply have to do. Courtney and I are expecting our first child in a few months and my mother-in-law is expecting her first grandchild. So, she’s trying to decide what she wants to go by. The other day she told us that she would like to go by Grand-momma…with a British accent…
But I have another idea why we’re so fixated on the Royals. You see, we have royalty, or our version of it, right here in America; the Obamas, the Bushes, the Kennedys, the Reagans. Lebron James actually goes by the nickname King James. Tom Brady, Elvis Pressley, just to name a few. But for every one of these people I’ve just listed, there seem to be equal numbers of worshippers and haters amongst us. As Americans, we have to choose sides, and our political and athletic royalty make careers out of tearing down the opposition that the other half of us were venerating. The Royal Family on the other hand has no opposition…in theory. I think that it’s this idea of unity and universal belovedness that we’re so attracted to. We love it as Americans because we long for it as people.
In our reading today from Acts it’s the day of Pentecost, the festival celebrating fifty days since Passover. The disciples are in Jerusalem, and it’s only been weeks since their friend and leader Jesus Christ rose again from the dead, only to leave them once more when he ascended up to Heaven. They’re in Jerusalem on this busy festival day, surrounded by thousands of different people from every corner of the earth, feeling invigorated by the reality of their risen savior, but with heavy hearts because they simply miss their friend.
And then, with the rush of a violent wind, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and they immediately began to speak in languages they themselves never knew. In the center of a city divided by culture, politics and language, think New York City with its 19th century tribalism separating the Italians from the Irish and the Chinese and the Polish, into a city equally segregated, the Holy Spirit came and empowered the disciples to proclaim the Gospel to everyone, unifying those who believed into one body.
Notice how all of these people, Jews from every nation under heaven, different languages, different cultures, notice how they are spoken to in their native tongue. That which divides them is not erased by erasing their differences and molding them into one homogenous people. Luke, who is the author of Acts, isn’t simply affirming the beauty of diversity, or embracing it as the solution to division, the solution it turns out is so much more beautiful. What unites this divided people is that they are spoken to, as they are, in their own language, in their differences and brokenness, they are spoken to and given the Word of God, the word of God’s deeds for them. They aren’t asked or required to change, to heal themselves or to learn a new language, because the Holy Spirit comes to them exactly as they are, speaking the word of God’s grace for broken people, not those who have already fixed themselves. Through the power of mercy, divisions are healed.
We live in a divided world. Politically, economically, socially, you name it and we experience division between ourselves and our neighbor, unable to speak or to listen to them either because their way of thinking and living is so foreign to us or because we feel like we’re on the outside looking in at a group we long to belong to. In the words of Michael Scott, “I love inside jokes…I’d love to be a part of one someday.” But we’re also divided amongst ourselves, even within ourselves.
William Faulkner said the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. Walker Percy wrote novel after novel about the divided self, and what he called the San Andreas Fault—the fateful rift in the modern mind. St Paul summed up the human condition in Romans 7 as one in which we do the things we wish that we didn’t do, and we don’t do the things that we wish we did do.
We’re divided over the image we have in our minds of who we’d like to be and to present to the world. We’re divided by our pride, the idea of our own strength and self-sufficiency, and the harsh reality of our brokenness, our incompleteness and dependence on mercy. We’re in need, and yet when we fall, and our very essence is revealed to us as beings in need of mercy, even then we’re divided against ourselves by our inability to forgive ourselves.
Everywhere we turn we’re divided. And so we watch royal weddings, just for a glimpse at something beautiful that doesn’t polarize. But the weddings and carriage rides end, we’re still in our pajamas, and the only thing left to do is turn on another episode of the Crown, or the Great British Baking Show, or a gardening show, really anything with a British accent will do the trick to distract us from the fateful rift in our own families, hearts and minds.
Today is Pentecost and our reading from Acts is traditionally read as the birthday of the Christian Church. It’s a day celebrating the beginning of the Church and the Holy Spirit’s loving, unifying presence among us. And I hate to say this on the Church’s birthday, but the church hasn’t always been a loving unifying place.
Dr. Martin Luther King once said that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. The Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation literally put a wall up here between the Altar and the congregation, called a rood screen, because only a select few were worthy to see what goes on up here. The church puts up walls by coming across as exclusive and judgmental, and others respond by putting up walls. I’m an atheist, I can’t date a Christian. I’m never going back in that church after the way they made me feel about myself.
But the Holy Spirit doesn’t create walls, it doesn’t work in ultimatums or preconditions of discipleship. The Holy Spirit doesn’t create a system in which we work our way on to the right side of things with God, able to speak God’s language, and only then finding ourselves in the presence of God. They Holy Spirit acknowledges the divide between us and God, He is creator, we are creature, but it’s right there, in our present reality, descending upon us in the midst of our divisiveness, that the Holy Spirit makes us whole with the fire of the Gospel—reconciles us to ourselves, to God and to each other, forgives us our sins, and divided as we are, loves us in the heart of our disorder.
Our jail minister Ethan Richardson recently sent an article to me from the New York Times about a California Prison. Prisons and jails are places where divisions are amplified, but this article focused on a Hospice unit, where fellow prisoners care for the dying who will never make it out alive, and where the Holy Spirit seems to be at work.
“The workers make a point not to find out what the patients have done. They worry that knowing too much could affect the quality of care. When a patient’s past sins cross over into the realm of the horrific, it can be hard to keep creeping judgments and questions at bay. How do you reconcile the dissonance between the serial killer and the elderly patient, bedridden, incontinent and lost in the fog of dementia? The workers are also in prison for crimes, but that doesn’t make them immune to judgment. “Death can be an equalizer,” [one of the hospice workers] said. The past falls aside. Time is grounded in the shifting demands of the body as it begins its decay.
Saephanh is the hospice’s self-appointed barber, and on a sunny, cloudless day, he promised to give Ralph Martinez, a patient with cirrhosis of the liver, a haircut. Martinez sat in a rust-red barber chair outside in the dog run. He tipped his head back and closed his eyes, letting the noon sun graze his sallow skin. Saephanh got to work with the clippers, sending snippets of black hair skittering onto the pavement beneath their feet. According to Saephanh, in most other prisons, a Latino would never get a haircut from an Asian barber, or vice versa. Invisible boundaries carve up the cellblocks, and consorting with the “wrong kind,” especially for gang members like Martinez, who belonged to Nuestra Familia, can get you “got.” But within the walls of the hospice, these unspoken rules don’t seem to matter as much. Black men give meal trays to white men with swastika tattoos on their faces, Crips play cards with Bloods and everyone here — regardless of creed, race or politics — gets his hair cut by Saephanh.”
As these men die, the labels and divisions that have followed them their entire lives fall to the ground like Martinez’ hair. On Pentecost the same can be said about us. Not because we’re in the right church, or we’ve conformed ourselves to truly look and act as we should. The same can be said about us because our divisions crumble under the loving weight of the Holy Spirit, fallen upon us, speaking to us in a clear voice saying, “you are my broken, imperfect beloved child, you are forgiven, and with you I am well pleased.”