Archive for May, 1998
Is school over yet? I ask because I want to start with a quiz, a tough one: what phrase appears on every American coin but on no American bank note? … It’s OK you’re allowed to cheat … … …
“E pluribus unum.” Any of you know what that means? … It’s Latin: “Out of many, one.” It’s an idea so close to the American heart that it’s inscribed there on every quarter, every dime. … In honour of that sentiment I decided to bring along this morning something I was given recently as a gift. … You like it? I’m not sure how it will play back in England!
Well here we are, as the day of Pentecost comes round, gathered in one place. We are English and American; Vietnamese and Filipino; Irish and German and Italian; Chinese and African; we are black and white and pink and who knows how many shades of brown; we are tall and short; we are gay and straight; we are woman and man; we are young and old. As on that first Pentecost all humanity is here—it wouldn’t surprise me too much if there weren’t even a few Medes and Elamites here among us.
So here we are, brought together by one Spirit into one Body. Baptized into one Community. All of us drunk on the one Spirit. “E pluribus … unum.” Doesn’t Pentecost sound so American? All our differences dissolved in a melting pot of freedom—blind to colour and race and religion—where what separates us is forgotten and unity prevails. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one!
I think that’s so close to being true that we might easily miss how close it is to being completely false.
A story … Once upon a time the people of the whole world spoke a single language and used the same words. But as they saw themselves spreading out over the face of the earth they began to worry that if this carried on they would soon become scattered and, being separated from one another by distance, they would cease to be one people. So they decided to build a great city where they could all gather and be one and, at the heart of that great city, a great monument to their unity, a hard work of hope and courage, a feat of technology to testify to the power of people working together: the Tower of Babel. You know the story. You know how God sabotages their efforts by the simple move of multiplying their languages. Instead of one tongue they find they have many. And since they fear they’ll no longer be able to understand one another they scatter and divide. The tower is never finished: the monument to their unity falls to pieces. Out of one, many. Ex Uno Plura. The Babel Event.
When one person talks while another listens you have a conversation (or half of one, at least). When two people talk at once you have babble. If we all started right now to say the Our Father in our own languages that’s what we’d have—babble, noise, confusion. It would even be hard to get the words right in our own tongue with all the competition going on. So what’s the alternative? That we undo Babel and all stick to one language? Well sometimes we have to do just that. But there’s a better way.
(Choir sings in three languages at once)
What is babble when spoken, can be harmony when sung. And harmony can only happen if the voices are different. No single voice—alone, unaided, can never manage harmony.
The Pentecost Event with its rushing spirit blows down the doors to intoxicate the gathered disciples and undo Babel. But not by making many into one. Instead, the whole bunch of them are all chattering away in different languages and yet every one hears and everyone understands the message. Pentecost undoes Babel not by dissolving human differences but by making something beautiful out of them. Babel drove the people of the earth far from each other in fear and loathing but Pentecost brings back the scattered into one community burning with the fire of many cultures. Pentecost doesn’t just reverse Babel and give us back one tongue and one ear. Instead the Spirit goes further. Here we are with all our differences, all our languages, and yet still we can worship God together.
The one God has made us full of difference so that in our care for God and God’s world we might make something beautiful together which we could never make alone.
And when our differences get too much for us, as they must always do, the remedy, the Gospel says, is not to diminish the difference but to forgive one another; neither to assimilate the other nor to punish her but to do her justice.
This morning Pentecost is with us as we share Eucharist. Eucharist isn’t possible without Pentecost. The one bread gets taken, blessed, and broken up into many little pieces so that we many different people might gather around one table and be life for each other. This morning eleven young people are asking for a place at the table. They bring their differences too to our feast so that we all might be richer, and the noise we make together more beautiful. The test of our Spirit, sisters and brothers, is how well we make room for them and how well we make room for all the others who want to join our feast.
May 31st, 1998
How many times this week have I heard the groan of guilt and the in-drawn breath of panic as someone else has realised that Mother’s Day was coming? And the groans got louder and the panic sharper as the week wore on. I hope all you mothers out there are satisfied with all the guilt and distress you cause! Not least to a preacher.
“I, John, saw a new heavens and a new earth … a new Jerusalem, holy city, coming down out of heaven from God … and the One who sat upon the throne said to me, “See, I make all things new!” This is supposed to be encouraging: a new world where every tear will be wiped away; a world without death and mourning, without pain and panic. But I for one am ambiguous about the new. The world seems intent on making itself new every day and of that newness, some is glorious, some is terrible, and some is poised precariously between the two so that only time will tell. Chocolate, for example, may be on the way out. It seems that old plantations are struggling with disease and new places to grow the food of the gods are running out. Mothers, this could be the last year you get a box of chocolates: in future you’ll have to make do with diamonds or furs, or even lettuce.
“For forty seconds it outshone the universe.” So said the report on a new discovery in the heavens—a burst of gamma rays so powerful that it briefly took over the sky. That’s the kind of newness to wonder at and keep at arms length. Nice to watch from a distance but hell to have in your back yard.
Closer to home new hope flares and falters for peace in Israel, for peace in Ireland. No one thinks it’s possible. Everyone hopes it may be. Few are willing to bet on the outcome.
“See I make all things new.” Yes, but does God make all things good? We have an appetite for novelty, an expectation of trading in the old for the new, a firm belief that the next thing along will be the best thing, at least until it becomes just one more old thing. But we’re also unsure of the new, a little threatened by it, a bit in awe. So, why doesn’t God make it all simple for us? Why isn’t the new always good? Why doesn’t God do a good job and stamp out the bad stuff before it can do any harm? Or God could at least give us a clue how to tell which is which. And right here we are at the heart of the Easter mystery: why does God’s own path to the new life of Easter lead through the tomb of death?
“See I make all things new!” I think the only people with a chance of grasping an answer to any of this are those who have given birth. You have something awesome in common with God who declares himself to be a mother to the world. God who brings newness to birth. God who speaks in joy to all she’s made saying, “You are good!” Go who takes the enormous risk of creation. Risk, because children don’t always turn out the way you expect or the way you hope. They might give you joy but not without grief. You love the kids but you may not like them: at least when they give you no sleep, when they ruin your furniture or strain your marriage, or when they crash your car, or they never call. Yet liking or not there is love. Love that aches to mend what is maybe unmendable; that longs to put right what seems to be going wrong. Love that has learned the hard way but has to hold back and let them make the same mistakes all over again.
This is the kind of love that we are commanded to in the gospel, God’s kind of love. We are commanded to be mothers to each other. We are told that it is the only sign we can give that we follow Jesus on his way. What kind of new community would that bring to birth if it were to happen among us? We can’t know until we try it.
That puts an enormous burden on those of you who have given birth. You have to teach the rest of us what it is like. You have to teach us how to live with the new things we make. You have to teach us how to be like God. … And like kids everywhere we probably won’t want to learn.
Happy Mother’s Day!
May 10th, 1998
This week I experienced a deep personal trauma—I turned forty. Now for half of you this evening that’s all in the past and no big deal and for the other half it’s still far enough away to forget. But forty crept up on me unawares and bit. I hadn’t been expecting it—hey, what’s another birthday … I’ve got to the age where I’ve stopped counting. But I should have seen the attack coming when I started to get calls from well-wishers hoping the shock of ageing wouldn’t be too great. “No big deal,” I said.
But then the day came and I had promised myself a day off from writing my dissertation so I lounged about and tried to enjoy the sun and the breeze and the time to myself. But as the morning wore on I found myself getting more and more morose—sadness like a comfortable blanket wrapped me and with it self-doubt and loneliness. Forty! Remember how old forty once looked to the teenager with eyes only for the endless possibilities of life? Forty! With life half over and the possibilities all petered out. Forty! And still in school! Forty! And still struggling to write papers!
“I, John, saw before me a huge crowd …” Tradition has it that the same John wrote the book of revelation as wrote the gospel of that name. John the subtle, the sensitive. John, for whom community and companionship meant so much. John, of all the gospel writers the one at home in the city. John the beloved. John the preacher of love.
Now, the tradition has it that for punishment this John was exiled, cut off from his community and those he loves, and sent to Patmos, no more than a bleak and nondescript lump of rock in the Mediterranean with only sheep and their herders for company. But it is here that John is granted visions of heaven. Alone, he sees a huge crowd in heaven. From his monotonous exile, he sees people of every nation and race, people and tongue. Defeated by inglorious exile, he sees the throng of martyrs who have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb. Hungry and thirsty and beaten by the burnished sun, he sees a place of fullness, and cool with springs of life-giving water where God will wipe away every tear.
This is John’s vision. An answer to his longing, a gift in his distress. It is indeed revelation, a lifting of the veil. Because, of course, the heaven that John sees in visions isn’t just the reward awaiting him after death, it is, in faith, the life he is living if he could but see it, if the veil that clouds his vision could just be lifted. Just so the John of the gospel writes about eternal life but in his own Greek tongue those aren’t the words at all. The words he writes are “the life of the next age.” When John’s Jesus says, “I give them eternal life,” he is not talking about a promise of what will be but promising a transformation of what is. Right now, by Jesus’ gift, we can have eternal life, the life of the next age, the life of heaven.
So exiled from civilisation, John still lives by the vision of the heavenly city. In desolate silence, John still worships in the heavenly liturgy of praise. Never again to see those he loves, John still feels their presence around the throne of God.
So what is your vision of heaven? And what does it speak to in your own life? What are you longing for that Christ longs to grant?
Hitting forty—having been hit by forty—I see that heaven must be a place where all the lost time is somehow made good, the missed opportunities somehow ripened to fruition, and the aborted possibilities somehow brought to term.
Where all of that—the essence of forty—is somehow in God’s hands and healed and made whole. And if the life of the next age holds that promise then maybe so does my own when I lift the veil. Maybe school will end. Maybe a dissertation will be written. Maybe it’ll even make a difference in the balance of things. Maybe … if I lift the veil.
May 3rd, 1998