Connection

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)
Douglas Hagler
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?

10 thoughts on “Connection

  1. I love your last sentence! Really, the last two sentences.You’re dead right on this of course. There’s no way you can put the 33 lives at VA Tech and the 600,000 lives in Iraq in a scale and balance them. The difference is purely our ability to feel connected to those lives. The loss of 1 person if it is the person most dear to you is crippling. But the deaths of millions if they are people you can’t relate to, don’t matter at all.Great way to envisage the work of the Holy Spirit and what we mean when we say “the communion of the Holy Spirit”.For me this dovetails right in with my time with AFS and my undergrad in Friends World. The philosophy of both of those organizations (with Christian roots) is that the more people get out and get to know foreign cultures and forge bonds with people from other countries. The less and less likely war becomes.The Celts and the Vikings used to do something similar with their foster system. Families would trade sons for a year or two from warring clans, because once someone else has cared for your child it is difficult to kill that person.

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  2. Please be careful with your language when referring to the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is to be revered, not dragged down into the gutter with base language, no matter how clever the allusions are.Incarnation may mean that God came among our filth, but it did not mean He became contaminated with it.

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  3. Stushie,What? What language did you find offensive here? You must mean the line at the beginning referring to how the Holy Spirit is often treated by the church like “the bastard stepchild of the Trinity”. But he is lamenting this treatment, not condoning it. He is saying he thinks we should pay more attention and give more respect to the spirit, not less.Really, what did you understand?

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  4. I think I understand what you’re getting at, stushie, and its probably a difference in how we use language. For me, I’m ok with, I guess to a point, using rough-and-tumble everyday language to talk about God, especially in a venue like blogging where saying things in a more evocative way makes up for the facial expression or tone of voice I’d use to get across the same meaning in a face to face conversation.On a side note, theologically, while I wouldn’t say “contaminated” per se, I do believe that in Incarnation God takes on everything about humanity, and relates to human beings in a genuinely new way. I think that the Christ who ate with prostitutes probably had a very high tolerance for filth, and even, I would say, loved it, not for its own sake but for the sake of the humanity behind it. Hopefully, my humanity is visible behind my own filth.

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  5. Hi Doug,I’m not sure its “connection” that makes us reach out to one person and not to another. It’s more like whether you feel you are the >only< person who reach out or not. I have seen crowds of gawkers watch one or zero persons reach a lending hand to someone in need. When you are one in a crowd you can always convince yourself that someone else is more suited to help, more qualified, more obligated. But alone, that’s a very different thing. It gets very personal then. You know the call is yours and only yours. Perhaps it is a connection of sorts. The heroes are the ones who even in a crowd see themselves called to reach out. The Holy Spirit reaches out to us in ways nobody else can. He or she saves us, teaches us, comforts us in ways nobody else does. In the crowd the Holy Spirit knows he is alone. Somehow it’s just Him and Us.I read your sermon with an eye for what it would mean to a person in the pew. It’s for an intro to preaching class? Well thought out, well spoken, … I was wondering what I might feed back to you to enhance the learning experience. Your listener comes to listen for a reason. They give you their time in exchange for something. They have a question or a need that they feel only you can meet. They could have read the paper, a book, watched TV, made love, gone bike riding, whatever, but they chose to come listen to you. Why? What makes you alone up there? What connects >you< to the person in the pew? What special gift do you want your sermon to give them in return for their time? When you write your sermons, do you keep questions like these in front of you? Jodie PS Leave out VT. Or tone it down lots. The media has overexposed us to it, the pundits have weighed in, even Oprah has had her say. After a while fatigue sets in. When preaching on current events they need to be extra fresh (There’s a sermon topic…)

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  6. Jodie:Thanks for the thoughtful reply.My answer to your last question is: absolutely. Foremost in my mind when I’m writing or delivering a sermon is the notion that I have this privilege that I have to use with the utmost care and thoughtfulness.Part of me is always amazed when anyone shows up to hear me preach at all. In this class they had to because it is an assignment to critique each others’ sermons, but I look out at even a very sparse turnout with a feeling of surprise and gratitude.I’ve read more than one major study where the conclusion reached was that it is much more likely for a lone person to help someone in need than for anyone in a crowd, however large. One involved a heartbreaking video of a man who feigned a heart attack and fell down a flight of stairs and lay there, gasping and moaning for help. The video goes for minute after minute as people walk past him, talking on cellphones and assiduously not looking at him. It was incredible. So I definitely take your point that part of how the HS calls us is individually to reach out to other individuals, to help them as if there was no one else – because there really might not be.I’ll also definitely drop the VT reference on the final sermon for Pentecost. In fact, in light of it being (to a few) Pluralism Sunday, I might change it entirely 🙂

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  7. Doug,I am relieved you didn’t take offense at my comments. Its not so much about care and thoughtfulness, but whether it is responsive. Did you listen before you started to talk. That sort of thing. (How fun to watch a preacher being born – thanks for blogging)Between you and me, Pentecost is a bad time to celebrate Pluralism in the Church. Pluralism was born in the church in Acts 15 with the decision made by the elders in Jerusalem to finally accept Gentile Christians as Gentiles, not requiring a conversion to Judaism. And in a way it is not so much a celebration of pluralism, but a declaration that despite pluralistic appearances we are all the same – before God and from the point of view of the Kingdom of God.Trinity Sunday would be a better choice, because in the doctrine of the Trinity we declare that the plural persons of God are One, and just as God is Three in One, so the church in Christ is One, male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile.In my ever so humble opinion…(Pentecost is the lifting of the curse of Babel). Jodie

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  8. Jodie: The Babel connection is definitely there. The connection I focused more on, personally, was with the giving of the law on Sinai. The “thunder and lightening” described in the cloud at the top of the mountain in some translations could also be interpreted as “fire and voices”. Pentecost was also the spring festival which became a time to celebrate Moses receiving the Law from God. Yet again, God appears, with ‘fire and voices’, to bind a community of faith together in a new way, and during that particular festival. What occurred on Sinai is reflected in what occurs in or near Zion, as it were…Pentecost might not be the best time to celebrate pluralism. We’ll see what comes of it. The church I intern at won’t officially be part of Pluralism Sunday, so it won’t be anything so overt, but I almost never “push it” with what I do in worship, and I’m hankering to do so a little. We’ve also got a pretty pluralistic congregation, and its a very hot issue, since a member is getting married to a Buddhist woman and wanted some Buddhist aspects in their ceremony. This started a very heated debate in the church for a number of reasons.Now, that could be a reason to talk about it, and it might also be a good reason *not* to. I’m still discerning about that.

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  9. Given that we so rarely do talk about pluralism in Church I’m inclined to think almost anytime is possibly a good time to do so. Still, I also thought Pentecost was an odd time to choose to celebrate it. Not so much because the messages are conflicting, but because I think Pentecost is really important, that it gets short shrift in the church, and that it would be ashame to obscure important stuff by adding in an additional layer of meaning. I would prefer to celebrate pluralism on just about any sunday (or every sunday!) in Ordinary time and let the feast days keep their primary meanings primary.

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  10. Aric,Excellent point(s). And Doug, I love the connection to Sinai. Hadn’t ever noticed it before, but it’s obvious now that you mention it.There is another fabulous Moses story where he takes a bunch of elders on retreat, so to speak, and the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they start to prophesy. But it turned out some of the elders stayed back in camp, and they received the HS too and also started to prophesy and it got the rest of the folks back at camp all bent out of shape. They asked Moses to put an end to it and he refused saying he rather wished everybody started prophesying. (Num 11:16-30)Its an odd story, but it foreshadows Pentecost rather nicely too. It fulfills Moses’ dream, plus it talks to the judgmentalism in the Church (the assembly of God’s people) whenever the Holy Spirit tries anything new…cool stuff,Jodie

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