A man whispered, “God speak to me!” and a white throated sparrow sang her northland plaint. But the man didn’t hear.
So the man called out, “God speak to me!” and thunder rolled across the sky. But the man didn’t listen.
The man looked around and said, “God let me see you!” and a star shone brightly. But the man didn’t see.
Despairingly the man said, “God show me a miracle” and a life was born. But the man didn’t notice.
Desperate now, the man said, “Love me God’, and his wife smiled at him. But that was so normal, he missed it.
Feeling completely alone he whispered into the heavens, “Touch me God and let me know you are here!” God reached down and touched the man. But the man brushed the butterfly away and went sadly on his way.
Today is Pentecost Sunday — a day when Christians share a story about being touched by God. Today, on Pentecost Sunday, all around the globe, Christians are wearing red as a sign of that being touched. We wear red clothing; clergy stoles are red; sanctuaries are often decked in red. But unless we turn that red into some color that matters, this story is just another story from our ancient and dusty scriptures that Christians hold on to for reasons that most of us can’t really articulate. Of course, I don’t mean to say that one color is better than another. I just mean that we have looked at red so long, that we don’t recognize God when God touches us with butterfly wings or with the smile of a loved one. Or to put it another way — the story of Pentecost has not been well translated for the 21st century.
The reason for this poor translation has to do with our theology. To put the issue in a nutshell — the church has condemned the little story I just told about the man longing for God as heretical; as dangerous to faith. There are all sorts of reasons for this. The one I want to mention today has to do with the way we tend to view the world. We think of it as disparate bits of material stuff — all out there and barely interacting. And because these disparate bits of stuff cannot in any way be God, God must be separate from it, in all respects. The church decreed God must be distant but in control. God’s mechanism of control is may be many things — it may be divine, supernatural intervention, it may be through guilt, or bloodletting (which is the usual way of thinking about Jesus), but what it can’t be is love. Love is not about control from a distance. Forgiveness is not accomplished by fiat, but by the enduring and abiding sense that there is more to live for than grudges. The way we think about God matters. And it needs to change.
The ancients who wrote our scriptures experienced the power of God in these intimate ways — in ways that seemed to light up people. If there is mystery in the world, they seemed to say, the mysterious thing was the way they could embrace people of all walks of life — even as our reading put it today — those who have no rights — and communicate with them and discover solutions to their issues. Their idea of God, their experience of God, the feeling of God, permeated all things. The story of the Pentecost we just read is a dramatic story because their experience of God was dramatic — was real, was life-changing and required stories that were not to be taken literally, but which instead told a truth about our lives together — an existential truth.
Like a movie director Luke, the storyteller we traditionally claim as the author of the Acts of the Apostles, and which we now believe was written in the early 2nd century, creates an imaginative scene of wind and fire… and noise. The noise of nature. And just as significantly, the noise of humans communicating despite the cacophony of foreign tongues being spoken. The story is told with dramatic language because a dramatic thing had been happening to them.
So, while we can not take literally the drama of Pentecost Sunday, we can take it seriously. The Pentecost story tells of an experience. An experience, I would wager, we continue to understand today. That somehow, through the cacophony of human issues, and the differences of opinion in them, gay marriage, state budget, affirmative action, racism, war, to name a few current ones, we are sometimes able to hear and a respond to a voice calling for honesty, integrity, wholeness, humanity and civility within them — that transcending our seeming intractable differences, a possibility for just solutions where the flourishing we seek for all, is found within right and good relations.
That’s the idea. But over time, because Christians embraced the idea of an otiose God, distant and separate from humans and the rest of the material world, the solutions we devised were not wholly just because God no longer permeated all things – but only certain things or ideas beloved by these Christians.
Lynn White, in what is now a famous 1967 article, ”The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”, suggested that Christianity’s move to such an otiose God from the one that permeated all things, caused us deep and continuing problems Indeed, Christianity replaced the belief that the ‘sacred’ is in rivers and trees, with the doctrine that God is a disembodied spirit whose true residence is in heaven, not on earth.
He writes: “By destroying pagan religions, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (White 1967).
In other words — certain Christian teachings have blunted our ability to experience belonging with other life forms. And this has rendered us unable to hear God. A self-destructive course unwinds before us.
How will we alter it? How will we prevent ourselves from continuing down that path toward destruction?
I believe that will only be accomplished by changing our thinking about God. I do not think that we should merely reclaim pagan understandings where the sacred literally dwells within rivers and trees. That kind of theism, called pantheism does not echo our experience of God’s love, nor does it provide solutions to our problems. A pantheistic explanation of the world is only the other extreme from the idea that the whole world is comprised of material bits barely interacting with each other. Instead of barely interacting the pantheistic vision of life is a sea of God and the freedom which makes love precious and evil possible is overlooked.
But by thinking away from the idea that God’s mode of action in the world is other than through relationship, by thinking away from the idea that the church’s traditions are cut and dry “God’s words” to the notion that we are called not only to recognize the peace and beauty of the religious life, but to hear the voice of God for ourselves and to judge it right or wrong by our intellect, we are able to blaze a responsible Christian response to Lynn White’s critique.
Pentecost is more than a so-called past event. It is the story of the experience of turning a new leaf when a new leaf needs to be turned. We humans are given a great gift in freedom. We can use that freedom to act in short-term self-interest because God doesn’t really care about that freedom because God is in control, or we can use that freedom to see ourselves in partnership with God, with the source of all creativity and freedom whatsoever. And if we can do that, then it begins to be possible for us to see God again where God has been all the time.