Sunday, May 31, 2009
Here's this morning's homily. In addition to red Pentecost balloons -- I don't know if there will be party hats and noiseblowers -- we're also baptizing a young man named David.
I love Pentecost, when I was baptized myself, so I'm always happy to preach about it. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, the essential reading is Acts 2:1-21.
In his book The Prophetic Imagination, theologian Walter Brueggemann says that churches exist to provide an alternative to the dominant culture. We’re not supposed to fit in with the rest of society: we’re supposed to offer gentle, but pointed, critiques of business-as-usual, to model a more loving way of life. That is, after all, what Jesus did, and what he commanded his followers to do.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the church. Jesus has ascended into heaven, telling his followers that he’ll send the Holy Spirit to guide them. In this morning’s reading from Acts, the Holy Spirit finally arrives, with rushing wind and tongues of flame, giving everyone gathered in that place the ability to understand any language spoken by anyone else.
This scene was most certainly not business as usual. The witnesses were “amazed and perplexed,” and some suspected that many in the crowd had been drinking, until Peter set them straight. If we read more of Acts, we learn that three thousand people were baptized that day. That’s why Pentecost is one of our traditional church dates for baptism. I was baptized on Pentecost in 2000, and today we welcome David to the Body of Christ. As we heard in this morning’s Collect, Pentecost is also the day when God “opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation.” Pentecost is when everyone is welcomed into the church.
The early church, though, didn’t look much like what we know today. “All who believed were together and had all things in common,” Acts tells us; “they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” These first church folk “ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
The early church was endlessly joyful and hugely successful at attracting newcomers, but it also operated on economic principles that alarm many Americans. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is a sentiment we associate with Karl Marx, not with Jesus. According to the Book of Acts, though, this is exactly how the early church functioned.
There have been similar arrangements throughout American history. In the 1960s, we called them communes, and the people who lived there -- and who also tended to be active in civil-rights and anti-war movements -- were often criticized by mainstream churches, not to mention the government. People in the dominant culture often feel threatened by alternative visions of how the world might work, by any change that might hurt their own interests. Just look at what happened to Jesus.
The college students I teach use the word “hippie” as an insult. Nonetheless, the Book of Acts invites us to view the early church, the post-Pentecost church, as a bunch of hippies: people in sandals and robes, blissed-out on the Holy Spirit, preaching universal love and peace and sharing anything they had with anyone who needed it.
Is that what our church looks like today? Is it what it should look like? If not, why not? The church is 2,000 years older than it was on that first Pentecost. Do we still challenge the dominant culture, or have we become part of it, just another piece of business-as-usual, blending in instead of standing out?
In mid-April, I got to spend a few days in a place that looks a little like the early church. A medical student I was working with at UNR invited me to lead a writing workshop at HEART, the Humanistic Elective in Alternative Medicine, Activism, and Reflective Transformation. This one-month, fully accredited elective for fourth-year medical students takes place at a secluded retreat center nestled among towering redwoods. The elective focuses on “intentional community building, complementary, alternative, holistic and integrative medicine, social justice and activism, reflective transformation including meditative practices, and personal growth.”
Traditional physicians might roll their eyes at this description, and HEART has a keen sense of humor about itself. Their website includes a photograph of a medical student hugging a tree. While the twenty-five medical students who attend, and their teachers, are serious about transforming the culture of medicine, the whole project can indeed look a little kooky from the outside. When I arrived, I found twenty-five barefoot medical students, blissed out after sesame-oil massages, sprawled on yoga mats in the main meeting space. I felt acutely out of place.
The teacher that afternoon was a western-trained MD, a family-practice doctor, who also practices Ayurvedic medicine, the ancient healing system from India. She taught the students a bit about Ayurveda and then led a lively discussion of the challenges they’d face during their upcoming residencies. Fascinated, I offered a few of my own comments, although each time I apologized for doing so. After all, I have no medical credentials, alternative or otherwise.
Afterwards, my student came up and scolded me. “Susan, you have to stop doing that! You have as much right to speak as anyone does. You aren’t an outsider here.”
The teacher added, more gently, “HEART wants to change how medicine works. We’re here to do things differently. If you aren’t welcome here, no one is welcome here.”
“If you aren’t welcome here, no one is welcome here.” As soon as I heard that sentence, I felt like the universe had turned upside down, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Every group I’ve ever been part of, including the church, has considered welcome a privilege it could grant or withhold. “We were here before you came,” such groups might say, “and we’ll be here after you leave. We decide whether to open our doors to you.” The HEART model doesn’t work that way. The HEART model says, “If we do not welcome you, we will not exist as a group. If you are not part of the group, there is no group.” Followed to its logical conclusion, this means that the group embraces the entire world, the entire universe. No one can be left out. No welcome can be withheld. Everyone and everything is connected and beloved.
I’m not sure what that model would look like in practice at St. Stephen’s, or any other congregation, but I have a hunch that it would look a lot like those early church communities. The HEART philosophy certainly offers a provocative alternative to a business-as-usual culture obsessed with competition, consumerism, and exclusivity.
Peter, and Walter Brueggeman, both describe one of the main effects of the Holy Spirit as the gift of imagination. We can only work towards change we have first imagined. “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,” Peter says, quoting Joel, “and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
This Pentecost, let us rejoice in the power of the Spirit, and dream our own dreams of how we can offer God’s alternative medicine -- love and peace and social justice -- to the people around us, to everyone who is lost and hurting and needs healing and welcome. Let us imagine what it would be like to say to everyone we meet, “If you aren’t welcome here, no one is welcome here.” Let us imagine the entire cosmos as the Body of Christ, in which everyone and everything is connected and beloved. And as symbol and token of that welcome, let us joyously welcome David into that body, and into our St. Stephen’s family.