Have you ever had an experience where you realized you were part of something much, much bigger than the little world you thought you knew? For many of us in this culture, it’s a sporting event – when our favorite team wins the big one, and we feel part of something enormous and wonderful. Or sometimes it’s when tragedy strikes – the terrorist attacks in 2001, or the shootings at Virginia Tech. Maybe it’s when our candidate wins the election, or when the extended family sits down at Thanksgiving.
The summer that I was 15, I participated in an event that changed my comfortable little life forever, when I went to the Boy Scout World Jamboree in Idaho. Twelve thousand scouts gathered on the high plains of Farragut State Park to celebrate a world-wide brotherhood, and to learn from each other. For ten days, I met, worked, ate, and learned with people such as I’d never seen before. Here’s a picture of some scouts from Africa just after they had given a drumming exhibition:
I had certainly seen African-American boys before, but never Africans who looked and talked and dressed – and drummed – like these guys. It was a revelation! The second day of the Jamboree, scouts are given a letter in the word spelling out the Jamboree theme. In 1967, the Theme was For Friendship. We then had to search the entire Jamboree to find other scouts with letters to make up the word, link arms, and, when finished, sit down, get each other’s names and addresses, and learn from each other:You begin to understand you are a part of something much, much bigger than you had ever understood.
Later in the Jamboree, I went with another scout and an adult scouter from my troop to eat dinner with a Japanese patrol. We spoke no Japanese, they spoke no English. But I had just gotten my first really good camera, which, of course, was Japanese. So I spent lots of time making hand signals and comparing cameras with my new Japanese friends. Then we all exchanged names and addresses, of which none of theirs I could read.
Three years later I was working at a Boy Scout Camp on the Maryland-Pennsylvania line. We had an exchange scout on our side of the camp whom we called Henry – a great guy who spoke little English but loved to give martial arts demonstrations to us. Late in the summer I met another Japanese exchange scouter who had been working on the other side of camp. He was pretty fluent in English, and we learned that we had both been at the World Jamboree. He pulled out his wallet, and unfolded a piece of paper and showed it to me. Pointing to the writing, he asked, “Do you know him?” There, in my handwriting, was my name and address. He is the scout on the left in the picture you see. We were both floored. We were part of something much, much bigger than we had ever imagined.
On the Jewish spring harvest feast of Shavuot, seven weeks after Passover, about one hundred and twenty of Jesus’ followers (Acts 1:15) have gathered. Ten days before, Jesus had ascended to heaven, promising the apostles he would sent his Holy Spirit to guide, teach, and empower them. As the disciples were gathered for Shavuot – Pentecost – suddenly there was the sound of a roaring wind, and the disciples seemed to glow. All of them – not just the eleven, but all one hundred twenty – began to speak in other languages, praising God. At this noise, a crowd gathers to find out what’s happening. Jews who had come from the whole Mediterranean basin with its rich diversity of cultures and languages, hear the praises of God not just in official Hebrew, cultural Aramaic, or political Greek, but in their native tongues. In the midst of bewildering diversity, they hear one message, of God’s glory.
Bill Mallard, who will preach here in two weeks, insists this is less a miracle of speaking than a miracle of hearing: they all hear in their own languages. It is a miracle any way you understand it. And the miracle of Pentecost reveals the first and most important work of God’s Holy Spirit in the emerging Kingdom: to unite people to the glory of God. The Spirit is poured, says Peter, quoting the prophet Joel, on all flesh – your sons and your daughters, youth, elderly, free, and slave. The gathering of all God’s children without division and separation is the glory of the God who created them red, yellow, black, white, young, old, rich, poor, differently abled.
This week Shady Grove sheltered homeless women through CARITAS. It was not an easy week – our church volunteers had several crises they had to deal with. But I want to suggest to you that we are never more the church that God lays out for us in the second chapter of Acts than during weeks like this last: when poor and rich – yes, we are rich – sleep and eat and work together under the same roof; when we who have houses obscenely bigger and more comfortable than anyone needs open our home to the homeless; when black Baptists and white United Methodists work together to serve God’s needy children. Now, I challenge you to take this Pentecostal vision for ministry to the next step: it’s safe and comfortable for us to come in two weeks a year and house homeless people in a gymnasium and then send them on their way. When are we going to deal with a lifestyle and economy that allows our neighbors to be out of work and out of hope and out of housing, while we plan our next trip to our vacation houses, or remodel our kitchens because we don’t like the cabinets, or buy our sixteen year olds their own cars so we won’t have to compromise our schedules to accommodate them? Ray Buchanan and Ken Horne, who founded the Society of St. Andrew, have been preaching for thirty years that there’s plenty of food in the world – the problem is that it’s unequally distributed. There’s plenty of money and work and housing and love in the world, too, but you’d never know it from our frenzy to buy the next thing no one needs.
The Pentecostal vision is of God’s Spirit poured out on all flesh, so all who call on the name of the Lord can be saved. God’s Spirit descends to break down all the barriers between people – to straighten the highways, level the mountains, and fill in the valleys, so all can see the glory of God. What are you willing to do, this Pentecost, to break down the walls? Do you want to be a part of something bigger than you can imagine – of a cosmic chorus that rejects the false and death-dealing priorities of a world hell-bent on consuming to the last drop? Or do you want to hide behind your walls like a Selfish Giant, protecting what was never yours to begin with?
At age fifteen, I was overwhelmed with realizing I was part of something ever so much bigger than I had imagined. But since then, I’ve come to realize God has called us to a family beyond all time and space and economy and intellect: God is pouring out the Holy Spirit on all flesh, to unite us to see visions and dream dreams of a world in which all the barriers have come tumbling down.
Now, isn’t that something worth dying – and living – for?