Bishop’s Sermon on Pentecost Day

As we go toward a digital world, I find that the old-fashioned ways of communication still have their place in the market. For example, where would evangelists be without printing presses that produce everything from a tiny tract to a big Bible?

On the one hand, we have the door-to-door evangelists. On the occasional Saturday I return home after going to the farmers’ market or running errands and find small flyers on my front door, letting me know that one religious group or another has been by my house. This sort of evangelism has been a staple in the South for as long as I have been alive. In my travels to other cities, I see that these sorts of evangelists are alive and active north of the Mason Dixon line as well. Sometimes the tracts are left under the wiper blade of the car, and on other occasions there are actually people on the sidewalk handing them out. Those tracts have not changed that much since I was a youngster: same old, usually fearful, message.

And then on the other hand we have Episcopalians. We Episcopalians tend to eschew such evangelistic efforts involving tales of streets of gold and scary lakes of fire, and from what I have seen, eschewing them is the best thing to do. In general, getting our people to talk coherently about what we believe is scary in and of itself. But don’t think that we are so far divorced from tract ministry. We have our own way to evangelize via printed matter: it is when we hand out our own tasteful paperback dictionaries of Episcopal terminology. Isn’t that just SO unbelievably WASP-ish?

I don’t have the statistical proof, but anecdotally I can tell you that if you are going to have an Episcopal bookstore, the two things you ought to stock are Books of Common Prayer and books filled with Episcopal Church terms. The Prayer Books are for Baptism and Confirmation gifts, and the dictionaries are just about the only way we that we try to share our faith with other people. A couple of weeks ago we ran an article in the on-line Communiqué, offering free copies of a paperback book called “A People Called Episcopalians,” and there was such a run on them that I had to dip into my discretionary fund to order more books.

What we try to do with these books is get people who are not Episcopalians, but should be according to our own view of ourselves, to start speaking “Episcopal-ese.” You know: give them definitions of words such as Eucharist, Sanctus, chancel, purificator, and miter. The diocesan communications director and I went back and forth over whether or not to use the word narthex instead of foyer a couple of weeks ago in a publication we were preparing for some non-Episcopalians. If Episcopal churches actually had sufficient signage in place in their buildings, for most outsiders the words would look like something in an obscure Romance language, the letters familiar, the meaning not so. I am reminded of P. T Barnum’s sign on his museum of curiosities in New York that stated, “This Way to the Egress,” and people always took it, only to find themselves standing on the street corner with no way back into the museum. No wonder most of our visitors don’t return. We church people love our terminology, and we want to educate others so that they can speak like us.

It sounds so commendable, our effort to educate the differently educated, to use a politically correct phrase, and it sounds so proper for us to hand out something that looks intellectual, and in so doing, bring people in to the church so that they can be like us. It is our version of Pentecost’s tongues of fire and speaking in unknown languages, but boy, is our practice so at odds with the actual story of Pentecost itself.

When the flames came down on that Pentecost celebration mentioned in the book of Acts, two different things could have happened. The flames and the attendant speaking in a new language could have settled on the apostles or just as easily on the Parthians, Medes, Elamites and other people who had gathered in the house. After all, nothing would have prevented God from letting the foreigners begin to speak Greek. That would have been a true completion of the Tower of Babel story; everyone finally brought back together with a common language. But no, the divine flame and the Holy Spirit chose the apostles. For the church to be alive, the story that we are being told is that it is incumbent on the church to speak in the language of the stranger, the language of the visitor coming into the house, rather than for the stranger to speak in a language that the church understands. It is sort of like the church being willing for a visitor to say that what I am wearing sure looks like a poncho, which is what every one in the real world would call this thing.

Today I am not focused on whether or not God wants us to use the word foyer rather than narthex, although a healthy congregation will be attuned to the confusion that the visitor has when showing up for worship on Sunday mornings. What I am talking about, and what the writer of the book of Acts finds important enough to record, is that the church is always being called on to be changed, to find itself made anew. There is something holy for the church in finding common ground with people who traditionally had nothing to do with the church. There is something holy in showing the unchurched that we understand them and are willing to be changed for their sake—and for ours.

What happened on that Pentecost is that the apostles were changed. The insiders learned to speak a new language. The comfortable thing for the church, the easy thing then and now, is for God to change the outsider to be like us. The hard thing for the church is for us to be changed. Or on this Pentecost I will say that the easy thing is for the outsider to be purified by God’s fire; the hard thing is for us to be so purified. The easy thing is for someone else to repent. The hard thing is for us to turn around.

We so want everyone to be like us. But one of the effects of resurrection is to begin to see old, uncomfortable things in a new light. Seeing health where once there was disease. Seeing love where once there was fear. Seeing peace when the call to war seems so natural.

One of the most powerful evangelism tools we have is to change how we view our neighbors and families and co-workers and political enemies, to name but a few examples. Do we see Jesus in them? Do we find ourselves resurrected to a new life? Are we willing to learn the language of what it is like to be the bottom 10% rather than the top? Are we willing to learn how to speak like someone who has no health insurance and no vacation time and who lives in fear that the loss of one paycheck will be a disaster? Can we make connections with people who have always, and usually rightfully so, feared the hubris of Christian churches?

If we do, then it is a new chance for the church to bind up old wounds and heal them, to show the power of love to overcome animosity, to bring hope that the future of every last one of us does not have to be a copy of the past. That is resurrection. Can we speak the language of the world in ways that makes the average person, standing on the edge of respectability or security or fear, find joy? If we do, then it is Pentecost all over again, and this long-preserved biblical story from the book of Acts will once again occur. Amen.