A relatively rough sermon, but proof that I can write one even when I don’t have a strong idea at all. Fortunately, I’ll get to preach it at Pentecost, and after tonight I have a lot of ideas of how to improve it. But, without further ado, for your reading pleasure (or disdain):
Connection (A Pentecost Sermon)
Intro to Preaching
Acts 2: 1-13
In undergrad, I majored in Religion, and one of my professors was Charles Kammer. He was an ethicist, a fan of liberation theology, Arlo Guthrie, and Buddhist meditation. His claim to fame was having a root canal with no anesthesia. At the beginning of many of his classes, he would present the following problem:
You’re on your way to a job interview, and you’ll just make it in time if you hurry. You know you’ll get the job if you just show up, and this is the job you’ve always wanted, the job you’ve been dreaming about your whole life, but if you’re late, you’ll lose the job to the next candidate.
So you’re excited, hurrying along, when you see something in a lake that you walk past on the way to the interview. Someone is out in the lake, and it looks like they’re drowning. They’re thrashing around, trying and failing to keep afloat, gurgling and crying for help between gasps of breath. There is no one else nearby, and you’re a pretty good swimmer.
What do you do? If you stay and try to help the person, you can probably save their life, but you’ll ruin your interview clothes and you’ll be late and you’ll lose this job you’ve wanted all your life.
But if you walk by, pretend you can’t hear, you might be condemning someone to death. You’ll get your dream job, but somewhere there is a person who might have died because you did nothing.
Now, I first heard this in a ethics class, and since we were in an ethics class, we knew what the right answer seemed to be. Of course, we’d sacrifice our job interview to save a person’s life. Why? Because there are other jobs, but you only get one life. Because we’d feel too awful if we walked away when we could have helped. Because we’d want them to do the same for us. We figured the most martyr-sounding answer was correct.
Then he turned it on us. Ok, what about this? Today, 35,000 people will starve to death. And tomorrow. And the next day. Thousands more will die of easily treatable and preventable diseases. Thousands more of violence. You can do something about these situations. You can donate, you can volunteer, you can travel to these places and help these people, and yet you probably won’t. Why not?
What’s the difference? Isn’t all life valuable? But we’d sacrifice, in theory, this incredible opportunity to save one person, but you won’t inconvenience yourself to try to help save thousands? What’s the difference?
A lot of us are still thinking about the killings at Virginia Tech. We mourn those deaths, the loss their families have suffered, the suffering that Cho Seung-hui went through. Maybe we felt a tinge of new fear as we sent our kids off to school, or thought of friends and family in schools like Virginia Tech all over the country. There have been vigils and memorials, prayers offered. There has been national discussion about what could we have done, what should we do in the future, to see this never happens again. The tragedy of those lives lost has moved us.
Last year, in October, an estimate came out in the British medical journal The Lancet. In it, an epidemiologist, who has done mortality studies in Angola, Darfur, Thailand and Uganda, estimated that 655.000 civilians have died as a result of our invasion of Iraq. 655,000. That’s twenty thousand civilians dead for every person who died at Virginia Tech. That’s almost the entire population of San Francisco. That’s three times the population of Marin County. It is a staggering number, beyond comprehension. We can’t imagine what it would be like for 655,000 of us to be killed in four years’ time. So we don’t.
Where’s the response? How does 33 loom large in our national consciousness, when 655,000 is just another number by comparison?
What’s the difference?
This thinking brought me, unexpectedly, to Pentecost, and my answer, at least, to the question.
The difference is connection. We share a lot of our culture and language with the victims at Virginia Tech. We can imagine them, imagine a lot of what their lives are like. We’re all in the educational system, like they were. We’re seeing pictures of what happened in the news, all over the Internet. We feel connected to them. They are like us. Its easy to see how we are related.
In the situation in my ethics class, we can imagine this person, thrashing in the water, crying for help, desperate, panicking. Our heart moves in sympathy for them. Whatever we choose to do, we hesitate, we struggle. It is a hard decision, because the person is right there. Maybe they make eye contact with us, when they cry out for help. Maybe we recognize them.
In contrast, in the case of people starving to death and dying of curable diseases all over the world, they’re faceless. They’re numbers. They’re distant. They live in countries some of us can’t find on a map without some serious searching. We’ll never visit where they live. We cant’ imagine what their lives are like. We couldn’t talk to them, because for the most part, they don’t speak the languages we know. They’re foreign, in the most basic sense. They’re other.
In the case of the civilian deaths in Iraq, we can tell ourselves that its just an estimate. This guy is probably exaggerating. It might only be 100,000, or 30,000. We don’t really think about how that’s not ok either. How one single person killed in war is a tragedy. It is a life snuffed out that we do not get back. It is a family torn by grief, friends weeping at a funeral. But in Iraq, they’re not just foreign to us, they’re the enemy. They live in that mess of the Middle East, where people can’t get their act together, where people who cheer for terrorists and call them martyrs. The chant “death to America!”.
The difference in all of this is relationship. It isn’t a matter of our high ethics, or our deep moral reflection, or our nuanced politics, or our adherence to the Law of Love. Not It’s a matter of connection.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit makes an entrance into the lives of the disciples. They connect with each other. They begin to become one body. They begin to be made whole. We see this as the moment where the Church is born, where the outpouring of the Spirit gives birth to the Body of Christ, of which we are a part, here, today. The Spirit deepens relationships already present.
But they also connect with the people outside their little group, who have come from all over the Diaspora to celebrate the Jewish feast of Pentecost, to celebrate God’s gift of the law to Moses and God’s gift of fertility to the land. They have come to sacrifice their first fruits to God, from all over the world, from three different continents, speaking dozens of languages and dialects. But each of them hears the disciples speaking in their own language, through the power of the Spirit.
The Spirit forges a connection where there wasn’t one before. And all those people, who hear their own tongues spoken by strangers, are moved. They are brought into the whole. Three continents. Dozens of languages. Brought together by the power of the Holy Spirit into something entirely new.
The Holy Spirit is that connection. She is the relationship that we share, the relationship between our small communities and the larger body of Christ, the relationship between that body of Christ and God. The Holy Spirit is connection. She is relationship.
Like on that first Pentecost, the Holy spirit deepens our connections to each other. She gives us the courage and the space to be who we are, to be genuine, to accept criticism, to offer it in love, to seek the best for each other, to persevere with each other.
The Holy Spirit will also connect us with people we don’t know. She will connect us with people we don’t understand, we don’t like, we don’t want to be around. She will connect us with what is foreign, with what is other. She will connect us with our enemies. She will connect us with the drowning person we’d otherwise pass by. She will connect us with those who suffer sickness and hunger everywhere, who we could otherwise ignore. She will connect us with our enemies, with those we dehumanize and those we fear. And she will connect us with those from whom we can expect no forgiveness for what we have done to them. For those we have let drown, those we help keep hungry and sick, those who our tax dollars go to kill. Even there, the Holy Spirit brings relationship.
She will make relationship out of distance, friendship out of ignorance, love out of hate. Whether we want her to, or not. It seemed like drunkenness to the crowds that day, in the story from Acts, and it will look like madness now, like the most foolish, sentimental nonsense. But it is not madness – it’s the Kingdom of God.
So, are we in?