Acts 2:1-21; Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:24-34,35b; John 14:8-17, 25-27
Most of you already know that I‟m planning to climb Mt. Rainier in July. In order to prepare for that climb I need to do training climbs. Yesterday my wife & I climbed Mt. Si near North Bend.
The forests of the Northwest are always beautiful, especially this time of year. Everything is green. As you walk through the woods, you might get the idea that because it‟s all green it‟s all pretty much the same. But as a person hikes, she notices the rich variety of plant life: dicentras, ferns, huckleberries, salmonberries, salal, thimbleberries, columbine, youth-on- age. Then there are trees: Indian plums, alders, firs, cedars, hemlocks, douglas firs. If you look closely you can see many types of mosses, not to mention countless small plants that in our gardens might be called weeds.
In the past few decades humans have begun to appreciate the diversity of creation. It‟s always been there, of course. But science teaches us that the rich diversity of God‟s creation is not a luxury. It‟s a sign of strength & health, & essential to life itself.
The list of plants that we saw yesterday on Mt. Si reads like the list of nations in Acts, ch. 2. On the Day of Pentecost there were gathered Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.
The list of cultures in the world seems as rich & diverse as the plants on a mountain trail. Sameness, as our reading from Genesis teaches, is not necessarily a good thing.
I grew up in Iowa. Iowa in the 1960s & 1970s—in many ways, even today—is not the most diverse place in the world. But the person who brought me into the world helped me from an early age appreciate the diversity of God‟s creation. My mother was a Lutheran missionary teacher in New Guinea for five years, in the late 1940s & into the mid „50s. During those five years in New Guinea she never returned home. My sister, brother & I grew up watching slides from her years overseas. We never grew tired of seeing her pictures of the people of New Guinea. Their appearance, their clothing, their homes & their customs were so different from our own & we kids were fascinated. It was our early introduction to the diversity of God‟s creation, & the value of that diversity.
Diversity is built into God‟s creation but human nature drives us to resist that diversity. We form cliques, clubs, tribes & nations. We develop the conviction that our way is the best way—or maybe even the only way. Wouldn‟t it be great if everyone were like us–we think. Some say, well, diversity is great, as long as everyone stays in their own little group. But walking through the forest, what do you find? All the douglas firs off in a corner together? All the mosses off in a corner together? All the salmonberries off in a corner by themselves? No, we find them mixed together, dependent on one another for health–& even survival.
In the story of the tower of Babel, sameness leads to trouble. It‟s a story that speaks to the truth built into God‟s created order. For example, humans seem to prefer pure-bred animals. But purebreds—dogs, cats, horses–tend to be weak; they develop health problems. Which is why we humans have laws against incest. Likewise, gardeners know that planting the same kinds of vegetables in the same place year after year can lead to disease. Crop rotation minimizes the risk of disease.
Diversity is a central feature of God‟s kingdom. It‟s also a central part of Jesus‟ teaching. He constantly offended the religious, law-abiding people of his day who often had a very narrow understanding of God & God‟s will. He hung out with those whom society ignored or despised: the poor, the diseased, foreigners, & those whom according to society‟s rules were morally suspect.
Pentecost is often called the “birthday of the Church.” At that first birthday party, God‟s power signaled very clearly that sameness is not a “God-value.” Unity is. Diversity is. But not sameness! On the Day of Pentecost the religious people didn‟t know what to think. They are described as bewildered, amazed, astonished & perplexed.
Have you had that experience? You‟re cruising through life with a certain set of beliefs & all of a sudden something happens that turns your ideas upside down? Maybe it had something to do with someone‟s life story. Bewildered, amazed, astonished & perplexed—this is a common & natural response to anything that challenges our love of sameness.
In our church community some of you get discouraged by our small numbers. If large numbers & sameness are gospel values, then you have reason to be discouraged. But as it is in the natural world, so it is in Christ‟s Church. Sameness can lead to weakness. We as a faith community today are far more diverse in our cultural backgrounds & beliefs than we were thirty years ago. From a Pentecost point of view—from a spiritual point of view–we have grown stronger!
I believe that God is leading us to even greater spiritual growth, which means greater diversity. I believe that we are at a point similar to what the church experienced at its birth: a new understanding, a new way of doing things. For example, many of us experience confusion & fear about what seem like new beliefs about sexuality. They aren‟t the same as what we‟ve been used to. Some individuals & even whole congregations have found these new teachings to be so different & so threatening that they have gone their own way.
“Bewildered, perplexed, astonished & amazed.” These are normal responses to something that is not the same as what we‟re used to or comfortable with. But at Pentecost, these reactions weren‟t simply in response to what was new. God‟s people responded with amazement because they discovered that those who were different from them were speaking their own language.
This is what we find today. At first, we‟re afraid & confused by people & beliefs that seem different from our own. But when we take the time to listen to them, we hear stories that sound similar to our own: stories of joy & sorrow, hope & despair, faith & doubt, fear & courage, success & failure. When we take the time to listen, the differences that threatened us often fade into the background. We find common ground. We even find common purpose.
At our best, Christians listen to the stories of those who are different from us. As we listen, we may discover that God is speaking to us & moving us out of the small world we‟ve constructed for ourselves. In the diversity of God‟s kingdom on earth, we work in the midst of our diversity for the healing & wholeness of God‟s whole creation, which is, after all, why God put us here in the first place.
In this season of Pentecost, think about who in your life seems most different from you. Prayerfully consider why you might feel threatened by those differences. What is the basis of your fear–teachings from an early age? Personal experiences? What turned the tide at the birth of the church was not the languages that were spoken but the ability of the people to listen to those who were different from them.
May God grant us ears to hear the stories of those through whom the Spirit is speaking today!
Let us pray…