All Together Now
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020
Pentecost Sunday/A • Mary 31, 2020
Today is Pentecost, a Greek word that means ’50’, a special day 50 days after Easter that was in part a Christian response to the Jewish festival of Shavuot, marking the day when God gave the Torah to Israel assembled on Mt. Sinai. It is sometimes called the birthday of the Christian Churches; it’s when Jesus’ followers began to act themselves, inspired by the presence of the Holy Spirit. You’ve just heard the story and often what gets the most attention are the fireworks: tongues of fire, whirling wind. But if we read it closely, it’s part of a longer theme we’ve been following at least since Palm Sunday, a meditation of the them of presence and absence. On Palm Sunday, Jesus was present and acclaimed as the heir of King David, the Messiah coming to reestablish a worldly kingdom. Days later, he was absent when he was crucified and killed by the Romans. On Easter he was present as the resurrected Christ. He was present to his friends for a time and then absent again, as we talked about last Sunday, after the Ascension. Presence, absence: see how they alternate? Now he’s absent but the Spirit becomes present, just as he said. It becomes present, the text tells us, when, “…they were all together in one place.” [Acts 2:1]
Just reading those words, proclaiming that message, feels ironic today when we can’t be all together in one place in our normal way. So like the story, we’re grappling with the issue of presence and absence. Some watching this will remember and perhaps wish they were present here in our beautiful worship area, as they were, as we were until a few months ago. Others have never been here and are sharing a different presence in this time. Are we present together? Are we absent?
Surely those followers of Jesus were wrestling with the same question. They’ve been through the whiplash of Jesus present, Jesus absent, Jesus back and now absent again, but absent after a promise: that they would experience a moment of feeling a spirit come upon them. It’s a holiday weekend, Shavuot, as I said. Shavuot is a pilgrimage festival, like Passover, so Jerusalem would have been full of strangers, Jews who had come from all over to celebrate. It would be noisy, crowded, perhaps the sounds of the crowds and the smells of the food wafting into the room where they are all together. You know what those weekends are like; we all do. The smell of the neighbor’s barbecue on Memorial Day weekend, the sound of someone setting off fireworks over a block, a parade where you u get jostled and buy a balloon for a little kid. Got it in mind? That’s the setting when they are all together in one place.
Then there is an experience we never hear about again:
…suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. [Acts 2:2-4]
Suddenly, they are present with the living presence of God. They know it, they feel it, they picture it and they express it in this fiery language and in what comes next. But what was that really like? What is absence, what is presence?
I’ve been thinking about that question this whole season, thinking about my own experiences of absence and presence. Some seem routine. Most of you know Jacquelyn is a flight attendant so before the pandemic, our life was full of absence and presence: most weeks she would leave, we’d patch our absence with phone calls and then after three days come home: present again.
But one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever felt of presence was the days just before my mother died. My mother and I were never close; I think she’d secretly hoped to have daughters and having three sons was a kind of joke on her. But as the one set of friends who knew us both said, she always worked to make sure I had what I needed. One day when Jacquelyn and May and I were having a casual dinner, I got a rushed phone call from my brother: mom was in hospice, not expected to live long, I should come quickly. So I did: off to Florida, a quick trip to her hospice, where I sat with her for two days while her presence in this life gradually faded, alternating between consciousness and sleep. But before you wonder why I’m telling a sad story, let me say it wasn’t sad: it was glorious. Because in those times she was awake, for the first time, my mother told me about her life, her real life, growing up in the depression, having other family members come to live with them when they lost their own homes, going to college and working at a time when it wasn’t usual for women to have careers. My mother became present to me as a real person, a whole person, for the first time. When she died, she wasn’t absent; she was more present than she had ever been.
That’s what’s happening at Pentecost. Throughout Jesus’ life, Jesus’ gathered usually separate people at his table, all together. It is one of the most striking things of his ministry and perhaps the one most often criticized since it ran against the customs of his time. But Jesus gathered them all together and that happens in three other particular events. At the Last Supper, his disciples, we’re told are with him; John tells us that his friends were also together in a room when he came to them after the resurrection. Finally, the story of his ascension begins, “..when they had come together.” [Acts 1:6] In all these events, Jesus is obviously present; here, at Pentecost he isn’t. If we stop being distracted by the tongues of fire and the noise of the wind, what’s clear is that the disciples and the friends of Jesus suddenly feel the same divine presence they felt with him, just as when my mother died, I felt her presence more clearly. Pentecost is the advent of presence, not in a person but through persons, through all persons.
The “all persons” part gets lost sometimes because we are more interested in the languages than its meaning. Long ago, in Genesis, the Bible explains how ethnicity and division came to be. In their pride, human beings determined to become God like and built a tower, called the tower of Babel [Genesis 11:1-9]. When God frustrated their plans, different languages were the symbol of their failure. Now the Tower of Babel is being reversed. The amazing thing isn’t that t he disciples become multi-lingual, it’s that they speak in a way that everyone understands. What they do with that is simple and powerful: they tell people about the life of Christ and the love of God. That’s Pentecost: in the grief of absence, they have felt the empowering, inspiring presence of God he promised and they tell people about it.
Isn’t that what we need most today —to recognize God’s presence? We’re here, all together, not in a physical way but a spiritual way. Just as our Pilgrim fathers and mothers brought about a new way of worship, we’re forging one together. The spirit of Pentecost is what the prophet Joel said centuries before Jesus, that God would pour out the Spirit on all people, even old men will have new dreams, even those marginalized will be heard. The life of Christ is present; the love of God is present. What should we do about it?
Shouldn’t we follow those first disciples and do what they did? Over the last few weeks, we’ve found a surprising fact: our in person services usually average 25 to 30 people but this online service is viewed by more than twice that number most weeks. Wow! Now there’s something you can do if it’s important to you to share the good news of a church where all people are welcome and cherished. Like the disciples going out to the crowds, you have a crowd to which you can speak by clicking on the share button on your screen. Share this service, share all the services. Do it as part of your Pentecost celebration.
But clicking a share button isn’t the most important thing we can do. The most important thing we can do is to take seriously the Pentecost message: that God is present right now, right here, wherever here is, whoever’s life ‘here’ is. We can look at others as children of God. We can reject the division so fundamental to our culture and demand that we be treated as all together now, all children of God. For that long list of nations, you could substitute all those things that divide us up: race doesn’t matter to God, gender doesn’t matter to God, age doesn’t matter to God, party doesn’t matter to God, language doesn’t matter to God, nationality doesn’t matter to God. We know where these divisions lead, they lead to violence. In the recent past, we’ve seen a black man lynched in Georgia and another murdered in Minnesota and an EMT killed in her home. We’ve heard about a public official in Texas saying that the only good Democrat is a good Democrat. What he really means is that he can’t stand someone different. Divisions lead to death. God’s all together now love leads to life. When the divisions don’t matter to us, we draw closer to the presence of God.
Many years ago, I was a young minister serving as a counselor at a youth camp. Someone who didn’t know me well gave me the job of leading singing at the campfire. Now, I can tie a bowline upside down lying on my back, I can preach, I can do many things. But singing isn’t one of them. Nevertheless, at the time, I got up and tried to get everyone to sing; it was a complete failure. My tuneless attempts weren’t just flat, they fell flat. Then a smart senior with some stood up and yelled, “All together now!” The guitar player struck up “Do Lord”, and people sang and it blended together and it swelled and we were all together, and we were all together, and God was present as surely as at Pentecost and we were all together and present and the presence gave us peace. You can have that peace: God wants you to have that peace. All together now: living in the love of God. Amen.