Becoming a good Christian made me a bad listener. Where I used to be unsure of myself and my ideas about the world, I suddenly felt like I had a platform, a right, even an obligation to share my ideas with everyone. I was a child of God, after all, and the vision was becoming clearer day by day. There was a sense of urgency to communicate truth before we “ran out” of time.
Instead of listening to people and their stories, I ran right over the top of them. I took my words and ideas and even my intellect and used it like a blunt object I could smack over the top of their heads. God had given me the authority, I assumed, now that I was a part of his club. I thought I was doing everyone a favor.
What I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t my responsibility to save anyone.
Waking up early on a Monday to do lecture prep for my Ethics course.
I found this image on Facebook. For me, it’s not only cute, it’s also a little nostalgic. My pastor in Vancouver, Rev. Dr. Sylvia Cleland at West Point Grey Presbyterian Church, used to have this photo up on her office door.
That was the last church I attended where I was not either the pastor or the pastor’s spouse.
I often call it “Vancouver’s Best Kept Secret” for several reasons:
It’s the only Presbyterian church I knew of where Koreans and Anglos worshiped together (they have separate presbyteries and usually keep apart).
It’s the only church I knew of where students from Regent College and Vancouver School of Theology would worship and serve their internships together. In spite of the fact that they are only two blocks away from each other, these two seminaries usually keep separate. The Regent folks generally assume that the VST folks are godless heretics while the VST folks assume that the Regent folks are fundamentalist fanatics. They’re both wrong.
The church’s small size made it possible for ministerial interns to actually do real ministry, like preaching, pastoral care, and education. At the bigger, more popular churches in town, student interns would end up answering phones and making coffee. We actually got to find out what being a pastor was really like.
So, if you’re thinking of going to seminary in Vancouver, BC (at Regent College or Vancouver School of Theology), check out West Point Grey Presbyterian Church at the corner of 11th & Trimble. Thank me later.
Time magazine named author and pastor Brian McLaren one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.
McLaren has written more than 20 books, and he is a principal figure in the Emerging Church, a Christian movement that rejects the organized and institutional church in favor of a more modern, accepting community.
McLaren’s new book is called Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.
You folks know how I’m pretty weird, right? For those of you who don’t know me yet: there’s probably not a normal bone in my body. I say this in order to prepare you for my opening story today, because it’s another weird one.
Way back during my sophomore year of college, I thought it would be pretty cool to wear a long black cloak around campus instead of a winter jacket. I was really into wizards, Jedi Knights, and other “science-fictiony” things like that. So, I decided to make a cloak. I went to the store and got some black felt, found a pattern on the internet, and set to work with the sewing help of my friend, Julie. When it was done, I wore it proudly around campus, to my classes, and even to church.
One day, I was approached by two young freshmen girls, both nervously holding Bibles in their trembling hands. “We saw your cloak,” they said, “and we thought you were a devil-worshiper. But then we saw your cross [around your neck] and now we don’t know what to think! What are you?”
I politely informed them that I was actually a Christian who was active in my church and a Christian student fellowship on campus. “Oh,” they said, “that’s nice.” And then they went on their way.
That’s the story about how I found myself becoming a victim of “spiritual profiling” when I was 19 years old. I call it “spiritual profiling” because these girls figured that a “good Christian” would only dress and look a certain way. Anyone else was obviously an agent of the devil (or so they thought).
People do all kinds of profiling these days. We tend to categorize and even judge people according to certain qualities that have nothing to do with the content of their character. Many people in our society are often made to feel less than worthy (and sometimes less than human) because of the color of their skin, their gender, the way they dress, the music they listen to, who they love, how they worship, where they’re from, or what language they speak.
During the past fifty years, people in our society, inspired by modern-day prophets like Martin Luther King, have begun attempts to overcome these superficial divisions, but we’ve still got a long way to go in this uphill battle against prejudice. In fact, there are those who might argue that we’ll never get to the top of that hill because we’re fighting against something that is endemic to human nature itself.
We can even see all kinds of prejudice and profiling taking place within the pages of the Bible itself. During the lifetime of Jesus, the Roman governors occupying the holy land looked down on the native Jewish inhabitants. Within Jewish society at that time, the pious Pharisees excluded and ostracized those “tax collectors and sinners” who, for whatever reason, couldn’t observe the commandments of the Torah. Going back even farther, to the legends of the very beginning of civilization in the book of Genesis, we read about the tower of Babel, where humanity was first divided into multiple language groups and scattered across the face of the Earth.
The differences between us are there. That much is obvious. The question for each of us to answer is: How will we relate to one another in the midst of these differences?
We already know how Jesus answered that question. His hands of compassion reached out across the dividing lines of his society to embrace the hurting and welcome the outcast. We his followers, in our better moments, have tried to follow suit. The book of Acts in the New Testament chronicles some of our ancestors’ early efforts in this regard.
One of the major themes of the book of Acts is the ever-widening circle of the community of faith. The book begins with Jesus leaving the earthly scene and promising his gathered followers that they would carry his message all the way “to the ends of the earth.” As the story progresses, more and more people come into the church from various pedigrees and backgrounds. The early Christians wrestle with the challenges posed by such sudden diversity, consistently conclude that God is guiding them to be an inclusive community that makes room for all people.
One of the most significant moments in this process comes near the beginning of the book, in the story of Pentecost, which we listened to in our New Testament reading this morning. “Pentecost”, a word that basically means “fifty”, is the name of a Jewish holiday that comes fifty days after Passover. It’s a spring harvest festival that celebrates the first ingathering of certain crops. This “first ingathering” is important because it relates to the new meaning that Pentecost takes on as a Christian holiday.
On the particular Pentecost that we read about in the book of Acts, it’s not crops but people that are gathered together. As Jewish pilgrims were making their way into the city of Jerusalem for the celebration, the story tells us that Jesus’ followers (still huddled together in hiding) suddenly experienced a “violent wind” blowing through the house where they were staying. They saw “tongues of fire” floating over their heads and, suddenly, everyone started spontaneously speaking in foreign languages.
This scenario is also similar, in many respects, to the story of the tower of Babel, which we also heard this morning in our Old Testament reading. In both stories, God’s people were huddled together in one place but were then “scattered” into the wide world by the divine gift of diverse languages.
In the book of Acts, Jesus’ disciples go out to bring Christ’s message to the world. By the end of that day, according to the text, three thousand people had joined their community. Their initial “scattering” became an “ingathering” or “harvest” of people.
My favorite detail of the Pentecost story has to do with the diverse languages. As the people are gathered together, they don’t lose their separate identities. Christ’s message comes to them in their own languages. The Christian church, from its earliest days, is meant to be a diverse and multi-cultural community. The people are gathered together in unity without uniformity. They’re all different. They’re meant to be. That’s how God likes it.
We humans have a hard time with that. We think that “birds of a feather should flock together.” So we identify our differences and then make value judgments about them, ranking people into a hierarchy of dignity. We don’t just do it with language either. As I said before, we do it according to race, gender, music, dress, religion, political affiliation, and sexual orientation. We identify some people as “us” and others as “them”. We pick sides. We want to be with people like us, but we have to be careful about that. God does not want us to rob ourselves of the opportunity to participate in the Pentecostal ingathering of people from many different languages and cultures.
The beauty of Pentecost is that, even though there were many languages being spoken that day, the message was inspired by the one Holy Spirit. In addition to the linguistic differences, those gathered pilgrims probably looked, dressed, ate, and smelled very different from one another. However, they found the presence of God in each other. The Spirit in my heart is the same as the Spirit in your heart. In spite of our differences, we are one.
This revelation forms the bedrock for the rest of the book of Acts and beyond. It continues to shape our lives today, if we’re open to it. When we stretch ourselves to nurture the ties of affection and understanding between ourselves and those who are different from us, we experience another little Pentecost. The moments when this happens are truly sacred moments infused with divine blessing.
We live in a world that remains bitterly divided by the differences between people. We too often fail to honor one another as fully human and, in so doing, fail to recognize the presence of God in our own lives. We demand uniformity when God desires unity.
I heard some news this week that drove this point home for me in a profound way. Many of you will probably remember Josh, a high school student who attended this church about a year and a half ago. He sang in our choir and played with our kids.
Josh came to Boonville during his senior year of high school through the foster care system. This alone would have set him apart from his classmates, many of whom had known each other since kindergarten. But that wasn’t the only thing that set him apart. He was also one of the only African American students at Adirondack High. Finally, Josh is also openly gay.
It’s a wonderful testimony to us as a church that we went out of our way to welcome him into our midst for the short time that he was here. Our mission statement says that we are a church that is “open to all and reaching out to the world in love.” I think we put those words into action in the way we loved Josh. That’s a precious thing in this world where people who are different often get ostracized and cast aside by the majority.
Last week in Syracuse, Josh, this same young man who we came to know and love, was beaten in the street. I found out about it when I saw a picture of him in an Emergency Room, wearing a neck-brace. This wasn’t gang or drug related, nor was it an act of random violence. Josh was targeted for this assault because he is gay. A group of guys started verbally harassing him and his boyfriend as they walked down the street together. Josh stood up for himself and they beat him so badly that he landed in a hospital. Afterward, he said, “I’m sick of people making fun of me and the person I’m with.”
I’m thankful to be able to tell you that Josh is now out of the hospital and on the mend. His foster mother and I have been in touch with him. He even gave me permission to share this story with you this morning. It looks like he’s going to be okay. Thanks be to God.
I tell you this because I want you to know how high the stakes are. We hear a lot about respecting diversity in this politically correct culture, but I don’t give a rip about political correctness. I give a rip about Josh. The consequences of exclusion have a real effect on us and the people we know and love. People like the one who sat right over there and sang in our choir last year. This stuff is for real, folks.
If we really want to be a dynamic, growing, and Spirit-filled church, then we need to let stories like this one blow through our lives like a violent wind. We need to let our love for those involved burn like tongues of fire in our hearts. It’s not enough for us to gather together each week and know within ourselves that we’re nice people and a welcoming church. We need to throw open these doors and pour out into the streets like they did on that first Pentecost. We need to shout our welcome out loud in terms that everyone in this community can hear and understand. We need to get so fired up about it that they call us drunk or crazy, just like they did to the Christians on Pentecost. We can’t afford to keep quiet or polite about it. The future of this church and the safety of those we love depends on it.
Deeper than the many things that divide us, there is one Spirit that unites us. May we be filled and empowered by that Spirit to love like Jesus did and bring his message to the ends of the earth.
I’ve often felt sorry for Abimelech. He strikes me as a stand-up guy who got the short end of the stick. We first meet him in the 20th chapter of the book of Genesis. He’s named as the king of the Philistines who lives in Gerar. One day, a rather attractive woman moves to town, supposedly with her brother. She makes a splash on the social scene and turns the heads of some very well-placed individuals. Before long, she’s dating Abimelech himself, who is quite taken with her. Little does he know that she too is taken, but not in a good way. The woman’s “brother” turns out to be her husband who is using her as part of a con-game that they’ve been running in several different towns.
Abimelech, an apparently decent fellow who’s not into that sort of thing, demands an explanation. Abraham, the brother-husband, replies, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place”.
No fear of God? That doesn’t seem to be the case. First of all, I should explain that I tend to cringe at the word fear being used in this sense. The actual Hebrew word means awe or reverence. We, on the other hand, tend to associate it with dread or terror. Abraham was insisting that he saw no reverence for the sacred in the house of Abimelech. Yet, Abimelech seems to be a rather spiritually sensitive person. One might even call him a mystic. He hears God speaking to him in dreams and responds without hesitation. If anything, Abimelech comes across as a much more spiritually centered person than Abraham the con-man.
Abraham saw no reverence for the divine in Abimelech. I propose a theory that it was actually Abraham’s own prejudice that prevented him from seeing the truth about the kind of person that Abimelech really was. Abraham was accustomed to seeing “foreigners” and “outsiders” in a certain way. Abraham thought that he, as the exalted ancestor of the chosen people, was the sole-possessor of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” about God. As a result, he was blind to the reality of reverence in Abimelech’s life.
Don’t we do this all the time? We get used to seeing things in a certain way. We come up with interpretive schemas that we impose on reality in order to categorically organize our perceptions of the world. We want to know who is “in” and who is “out”, who is “saved” and who is “damned”, who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”. This is a natural way of looking at things (especially for kids) but it causes problems for adults who know through experience that life is never that simple. If we stay committed to such binary thinking in the face of more nuanced evidence, prejudice closes our minds and hardens our hearts against reality and reverence. We fail to keep in step with what God is doing in the world and end up becoming the worst versions of ourselves.
Especially in this fast-paced and interconnected world of the 21st century, it is incumbent upon us to remain open to the varieties of reverence we may encounter in those who are different from us. When I walk into a situation or relationship with the assumption that God is neither present nor active in another person’s life, I am more likely to misconstrue God’s presence and activity in my own life.
Through openness of heart and mind, let us maintain our reverence for what is sacred and celebrate together the incredible diversity we find in this universe.
Who here has seen the movie (or read the book) Jurassic Park?
It was one of the epic stories of the 1990s. Scientists find a way to bring dinosaurs back to life and put them on display for tourists. How is that possible? No problem! They cloned them using dino-DNA from prehistoric mosquitoes trapped in fossilized tree sap. How do they control the dinosaurs? No problem! Genetic manipulation makes it so that the dinosaurs can’t reproduce while high-powered electric fences keep them safely contained. However, those who are familiar with the story know what happens next. The genetic manipulation doesn’t take and the dinosaurs start breeding. Then a power-outage deactivates the electric fences. The tourists’ initial wonder gives way to terror as they are chased and eaten by hungry prehistoric predators!
The scientists of Jurassic Park thought they had the answer to everything. They thought they had absolute control over their situation. But life turns out to be just a little bit more complicated than the scientists expected. Their control gives way to chaos. In the end, Jurassic Park is a classic story about human progress gone wild.
This morning, we read from another classic story of human progress gone wild. It’s the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The story begins on a positive note. The human race exists as one family with one language. They are explorers and inventors who bravely probe the depths of human creativity and ingenuity. They settle new territory and develop new technology (i.e. bricks). All in all, it sounds like a pretty utopian society, kind of like the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek. But the Bible, it seems, is a bit more realistic than Star Trek. It doesn’t take long before this “masterpiece society” develops a dark side.
The human race quickly gets ahead of itself in verse 4, saying, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves”. That’s quite a leap, isn’t it? One day, they’re inventing bricks and the very next day, they’re building downtown Manhattan, complete with skyscrapers! There’s no small amount of arrogance that comes with this new idea. Their new skyscraper will have “its top in the heavens”. Humanity literally intends to lift itself up by its own bootstraps. Also, they intend to “make a name” for themselves. They want to be feared and respected. By whom? We don’t know. Theoretically, this group comprises the entire human race. But that’s just one more reason why we’re not reading these stories as literal and historical fact. They’re stories that are meant to tell us something about who we are and who God is.
What’s the reason for this sudden and huge undertaking? Why build this urban metropolis? The people tell us why in the second half of verse 4: “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” They’re afraid. They’re afraid of being scattered. The flip side of their arrogant pride is a paralyzing fear. Do you know anyone like this? Some big and tough person whose macho attitude is just a cover for feeling afraid and insecure? Bullies like this are everywhere: from high school locker rooms to corporate board rooms. They’re all motivated by fear. In fact, if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we can all identify with that impulse to hide our fear with pride. It’s no different for the humans in this story. Their big building project is motivated by fear.
The ironic thing is that this fear becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The text tells us in verse 8 that, in the end, “Yahweh scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth”. The very thing they feared is what they brought upon themselves through their efforts to relieve their fear. It’s kind of tragic, isn’t it?
But is “scattering” really so bad?
In order to answer that question, we should first look at the reason why God decided to do it. Everybody was safe, happy, and getting along with each other in Babel. Why not leave well enough alone? God gives a hint in verse 6, saying, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” Now, that might not sound so bad at first, but think about the kinds of things that humans tend to do when they get together and make big progress on big projects. Midway through the twentieth century, humanity unlocked the secrets of the atom. The very next thing we did was make a giant bomb and use it. We then spent the remainder of the century living in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, terrified of nuclear annihilation and “mutually assured destruction”. That’s the kind of thing that human beings do when “nothing that they propose to do [is] impossible for them.” So God, interrupting this progress-gone-wild and scattering the human race, was actually saving people from themselves.
Also, according to the text of Genesis, “scattering” itself may have been part of God’s plan for humanity from the beginning. In Genesis 1, God says to humanity, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth”. God says it again in chapter 9, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” And yet again, only six verses later, “And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.” Is it just me or is God sounding like a broken record here? Do you think maybe there’s a point that God is trying to make here? Yeah, I think so too.
I think God is trying to say, “Hey everybody, get out there! Go out into this amazing world and be who you were meant to be! Don’t let fear hold you back!”
Traditionally, the invention of languages in this story is thought of as a punishment for the human race, but I’m not so sure about that. I see it as a blessing. God sees human beings imprisoning themselves behind walls made of brick and fear. God is a like a mother eagle who gives her little birdies a push out of the nest in order to teach them how to fly! The push out of the nest in this case is the confusion of languages. In other words, God challenges humanity to become who they were meant to be by giving them the gift of diversity.
In many ways, things aren’t so different for you and me. We build our own protective “towers” of ideology. Whether you’re fearful about the economy, social justice, church attendance, or family values, the temptation is the same: to imprison yourself behind the brick walls of arrogance and fear, blurting out easy answers in convenient, bumper sticker-sized slogans, and surrounding yourself with people who talk like you, look like you, think like you, and believe like you.
Enter God. God sneaks behind the walls of your tower of terror with this brilliant gift of diversity.
Through this gift, God shows you that life is far more complicated than your easy answers would have you believe. Through this gift, God meets you with the realization that you really don’t understand the human being sitting right next to you at home, at church, or in line for the voting booth. And if you ever hope to understand that person, it’s going to take a long and difficult process of patient listening.
But if you can rise to the occasion, if you can receive God’s gift of diversity, and if you can accept God’s invitation to embrace real unity rather than simple uniformity among your fellow human beings, you’ll discover that being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” isn’t so bad after all as God leads you out from behind your walls of fear and into this amazing world and the fruitful life that God has always meant for you to have.