Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Text: Matthew 14:22-33
The Peter Principle
Ever since Laurence J. Peter put into words that ingenious bit of wisdom that bears his name, I’ve been intrigued to see how many examples of its truth there are. Dr. Peter wrote a tongue-in-cheek study of American society based on his discovery that climbing the ladder of success means achieving a series of promotions which finally qualifies you for a position for which you are totally unqualified. Or, in his words,
“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his/her level of incompetence and remain there.”
The corollary is, “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.” That’s the Peter Principle.
If this is unfamiliar to you, let me elaborate: If I do my work really well, I’m likely to be promoted to a new and better job and then to another and another, until, finally, I reach a position where I don’t do well. And there I’ll stay. No more promotions. I, who had always done so well, will remain in precisely the position where I'm incompetent.
We all have some experience with the Peter Principle. We’ve seen good sales people become mediocre managers. Skilled mechanics become ham-handed supervisors. Outstanding classroom teachers become less than stellar principals.
Dr. Peter says that this is why, eventually, things always go wrong. Although one redeeming feature in the system is that the real work always gets carried out by those who haven't yet reached their level of incompetence!
* * * *
Now, if we do a little modifying, a little reshaping, the Peter Principle could become an axiom for Christian discipleship. It comes out like this:
Within the body of Christ, every disciple is called to rise to his/her level of failure, his/her level of incompetence.
To give credit where credit is due, this principle should be attributed to another Peter, Simon Peter. Because St. Peter seemed to demonstrate that principle time and time again. Certainly, he had no business trying to walk on water!
Let’s take a look at the Matthew passage. In Bible 101, you will learn that Matthew wrote his Gospel to be a kind of manual for the early church. That is why he combines the teachings of Jesus into topic groupings in particular chapters. So, Matthew’s account about the disciples in a boat during a storm with Jesus coming to them, rescuing them from their frantic “woe is me,” is not only a miracle story showing Jesus’ command over the elements. It’s also a parable for the church. Recall that the boat is an ancient symbol of the Christian church. This story is a parable for that little first-century community of the faithful, buffeted by winds and waves in an inhospitable if not hostile environment. And the miracle, for them, resides in the promise that Christ will be present in their storms, coming to save them. This story spoke to the early church, and speaks to us, of hope – hope for anxious people in need of hope.
Then we look at Peter. Peter has a special place in the gospels. He is regularly portrayed as the “representative” disciple. The one in whom we recognize ourselves, the one who reminds us of our own ups and downs, our faithfulness and unfaithfulness as followers of Jesus.
Although, in this story of Peter, he’s not like us at all. We would stay in the boat. I would do the sensible thing: I would hang on for dear life. But not Peter. Impulsive, daring Peter “promotes himself” to the level of his incompetence. He steps out of the boat in an effort to reach his Master. Imagine, a fisherman trying to walk on water! And soon he is over his head, sinking like a dead weight, and crying out for help. A pathetic figure, victim of his own recklessness.
Jesus comes to the rescue, and chides him for his lack of faith. Meanwhile, you and I are back in the boat, chuckling a bit nervously at the whole scene. It isn’t until the next morning, when the panic of the moment is past, that we realize the irony that bold Peter was the one who was chastised for lack of faith, while we hadn’t even considered climbing overboard, when going overboard, I expect, is what real discipleship is all about.
This is a parable. It's about security and insecurity, risk, and faith, and the power of God.
The St. Peter Principle: Every disciple called to our level of incompetence and failure; every disciple summoned to dare more than we alone have adequate resources for, in order to discover the fundamental source of our strength. In the body of Christ, nothing succeeds like failure – the discovery that you’ve gone overboard in some great undertaking, for Christ's sake, and now, up to your ears, you have to trust God’s power to rescue you.
* * * *
The trouble is, like everyone else, we resist the discovery of our own incompetence. We hide our inadequacies. We remain carefully within the limits of our proven abilities and skills. “Don’t take on too much.” “Don't venture too much.” “Hold back.” “Conserve your energy.” So that, when the storms come, and they will come, “we can run our ship quite nicely by ourselves, thank you.”
Congregations in the old line American Protestant traditions have learned well how to be prudent: calculating goals, planning agendas, developing cautious budgets. We do what we can to preclude failure. We safeguard ourselves. And so we seldom run the risk of needing any help from God to save us. We would rather not be vulnerable in Christ’s service.
Now, prudence is a virtue. It makes sense to stay in a boat during a storm. It makes sense to count the cost, to protect your resources, to prepare for the future. Prudence is a virtue.
But, for Christians, there is always a higher value. Its Bible name is agape. We translate it, inadequately, as “love.” And its meaning involves something totally different from prudence. Its meaning is suggested in sayings such as, “Whoever would save their life must lose it,” and “If you would be first, you must be the servant of all.” Which returns us to the Peter Principle.
The Christian community has known its finest hours when it has tested the Peter Principle. We’ve been at our best when upholding some great cause, when standing beside those whom everyone else has abandoned, when at the forefront of social or spiritual awakening, making clearer the Reign of God. In my experience, for example, with the civil rights movement, the sanctuary movement, Witness for Peace, Bread for the World, More Light (which is “Presbyterian” for Open and Affirming).
* * * *
We as a congregation have some basic work to do. That’s hardly new. In fact, church council minutes record that in 2007 Pastor Susan Chamberlin Smith asked, What is Trinity’s niche in the community? 2007 – that was ten years ago. The question still remains unanswered. Who are we? What are we for? What do we stand for? What difference do we make? I’m reminded of something Gayraud Wilmore wrote. Listen to this. He said, “Today the church is in the world – but much as a parenthesis is in a sentence… [It] could quite easily be deleted without great effect.”
What is our identity as a church in Deerfield? What is our purpose? As The New Beginnings report put it, You will either redefine your mission – and redevelop, on the basis of that new reason for being, that new purpose – or, predictably… you will close. Ouch.
This is daunting, isn’t it? But I am grateful to be in this boat with you. (I am, you know.) Because I see something positive here. Hopeful. This is an invitation to experiment, to try things. Friends, it’s an invitation to adventure. It could be very rewarding. The question is: Can we as a church reinvent ourselves? Your Transition Team will be meeting after worship today. We have some exciting ideas in mind for fall. Stay tuned.
In this pastoral interim period, we find ourselves suspended between our hopes and our fears. Are we up to the challenge? We don’t know. We feel short on ideas, short on vision. Maybe on courage also. But Christ, who always says: “Be nor afraid;” Christ calls us to be bold – to step out of the boat, to venture the storm and the waves, to move ahead, and to discover what, by God’s grace, we can become. And, friends, a hurting and needy world awaits those who dare to be transformed, who dare to expect that we could become a transformative sign that faith and hope and love can make a difference.
* * * *
I pray that as we move into a very important new fall season, we will together dare to test the St. Peter Principle. That in the paradox of God’s grace, it may only be when we risk going overboard in faithfulness that we ever know the full resources of God’s presence and God’s power.
I pray that, as we move into the future that the Spirit is preparing for us – and preparing us for – we will trust God’s competence to overcome our weakness and our doubt, to fulfill the promise that we yet may be.
- With thanks to Edwin Friedman and Robert McQuilkin
The UCC's biennial General Synod just concluded in Baltimore, MD. Several resolutions reside close to our hearts and values at Trinity:
"Declaring the Earth is the Lord’s, UCC calls for environmental imperatives for a new moral era"
The United Church of Christ, noting both the urgency of climate change and the continued debate over its existence, is "raising its prophetic voice" to urge the "healing of the Earth."
On Monday, July 3, the delegates of the General Synod passed a resolution that calls on clergy across the life of the church to preach about the moral obligation to protect God's creation, and appeals to its members to lead efforts to educate and advocate for legislation to reduce the human impact on the environment.
"Delegates Approve Economic Justice Resolution and $15 Minimum Wage"
Delegates to the United Church of Christ's General Synod 2017 voted in favor of a resolution advocating for economic justice, including calling for churches to support legislation that raises the minimum wages to $15 per hour. The final resolution was a combination of two resolutions brought before Synod for consideration.
"Youth voices lead the way on gun violence resolution"
Guided in large part by the voices of youth, General Synod 2017 enthusiastically passed a resolution of witness Monday urging the recognition of gun violence as a public health emergency deserving of federal funding for scientific research.
We are proud and grateful that the UCC is, and has been, a leader in environmental, social justice, and societal issues. Carry on!
(shamelessly blogged by guest blogger, Jen Holtz.)
Our Pastoral Ponderings (i.e., Sermon) ruminated on this a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, Trinity Church is thrilled and proud that the UCC, at its biennial General Synod, adopted a resolution to raise its "prophetic voice" to urge the "healing of the Earth."
Read more about this in the Boston Globe article below.
Love thy Mother. Earth, that is.
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Text: Romans 5:6-11
To Live By Grace
“While we still were sinners Christ died for us.” This sentence is the heart of the gospel. John Newton understood that sentence fully. Two hundred-some years ago, he was pastor for the people of Olney in Buckinghamshire, England. He was also a hymn writer, his best known hymn being “Amazing Grace.” But long before that, John Newton served as a sailor and then captain of a slave ship. He transported African men, women and children to distant ports where they would be sold. He first went to sea at age eleven. And over time, he coarsened, and gained a reputation for vulgarity and depravity. Newton looked back on his sea-faring years as one continuous round of rebellion and excess.
But in 1748, his ship was caught in a storm at sea, and he experienced a dramatic conversion. He renounced slave trading – gave it up – and later, accepted a call to the Christian ministry. He became one of the great evangelical preachers of the eighteenth century. The hymn “Amazing Grace” is John Newton’s summary of God’s transformation of his life. In the Olney churchyard, there is a marker with the epitaph he himself wrote. It says:
ONCE AN INFIDEL AND LIBERTINE
A SERVANT OF SLAVERS IN AFRICA
BY THE RICH MERCY OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR
PRESERVED, RESTORED, PARDONED,
AND APPOINTED TO PREACH THE FAITH
HE HAD LONG SOUGHT TO DESTROY
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Newton experienced what the Apostle Paul learned in his own experience, the astonishing gift of God’s redemptive acceptance, in no way deserved. Paul, who had been a deadly persecutor of the followers of Christ, was startled to discover that despite his ruthlessness, even “while I was still a sinner,” he wrote in Romans, “Christ died for me.”
* * * *
Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables is another story of God’s amazing grace. As Les Miz begins – you’ve probably seen the stage play – its central character, Jean Valjean, has just been released from nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Bitter, ferocious, seething with the injustice of it all, with no place else to go, he turns to the church, where a bishop befriends him, takes him in, feeds him, and gives him a place to sleep. But during the night, Jean Valjean slips into the bishop’s quarters, steals some silverware, and flees.
He is quickly apprehended by the police and hauled back to the rectory. He is caught red-handed – undeniably guilty – but to everyone’s astonishment, the bishop says, mercifully, “Oh, Jean Valjean, when I gave you the silver, I meant for you to have the candlesticks as well. Here. Take them. And don’t forget, you promised to use the silver to become an honest man.”
The police are left with no choice but to release Valjean without charge. He is not innocent. Everybody knows it. But innocence has been bestowed on him. This is a parable about the grace of God.
God’s love initiates, doesn’t wait for our prior worthiness. (It would be a long wait.) God makes the first move, and does so again and again. Continuous new beginnings are what the Old and New Testaments are all about and, above all, it is what the cross of Christ signifies. God doesn’t wait for worthiness. God creates worthiness.
* * * *
Let’s do some theological work, starting with an old-fashioned word that is straight out of our Reformation heritage. The word is “righteousness.” And what is righteousness, but the opposite of what we are by ourselves, given things we have done, and things we have left undone. “While we still were sinners, Christ died for us.”
Martin Luther, commenting on this verse from Romans, called our righteousness an “alien righteousness,” because it is a righteousness, like Jean Valjean’s, that is not of our own making; it is bestowed on us by someone else. We are accepted, not because of our worthiness – what we have done, or not done, or hope or promise to do – but because of God’s redemptive and persistent love for us. “Alien righteousness” is God’s gift of grace to us.
But then, Martin Luther suggested another kind of righteousness, which he called “proper righteousness.” By proper righteousness, he meant the good that we ourselves may do. Proper righteousness is our living into God’s acceptance of us – in gratitude, taking on the tasks of mercy and forgiveness and responsibility for which the gift of loving us in spite of ourselves was given in the first place.
Now, we mainline Protestants characteristically have some difficulty understanding “alien righteousness.” We are generally not people whose personal biographies resonate with
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
We tend to be decent, law-abiding people of moderation, not given to excess, making our own way responsibly in the world. We are not used to thinking of ourselves as the “once was lost, now am found” kind of Christian. But – if we look back, and are honest – there have been times, haven’t there? when we also failed to live up to the standards of our parents, our communities, our own selves. There were periods in our own histories about which – when we remember what we did, what we said, what hardly anybody knew – we can’t help but shudder and thank God that somehow we got past it, got over it. We were forgiven. It is forgotten. Amazing grace.
And if we dare to remember our own painful experiences with the forgiving grace of God, it will surely help us to forgive and embrace others in their life struggles, and to live our lives with gratitude and generosity.
* * * *
In Les Miserables, you may remember what happened to Jean Valjean after the incident with the bishop’s stolen silverware. The story relates the step-by-step transformation of a defiant and cynical outcast into a socially responsible, generous, loving, even noble human being.
Jean Valjean’s metamorphosis isn’t a sudden turn-around. It is full of setbacks and heartbreaks. Which is the way life is, isn’t it?
Victor Hugo called Les Miserables “a drama in which the hero is the Infinite, the second character [humanity].” Jean Valjean’s story is a fictionalized telling of God’s way in the world, and with each one of us: each day with challenges for our renewal and transformation, each day learning from the past, internalizing God’s gift, responding in love, making mistakes, reevaluating, realigning, growing.
In the closing pages of the novel, there is a glimpse of the essence of the story. It would be very easy to miss because Victor Hugo is an artist; he is careful not to shout, not to preach. He speaks his deepest convictions in a whisper, so the reader may fail to recognize them. But, at the very end, when Jean Valjean is very old and ill, he lies alone in his bed. He feels for his own pulse, but can’t find it. Driven to try to tie things together before he dies, Valjean, with great difficulty and effort, gets out of bed, dresses, and goes to his desk to write a letter to those whom he loves. There are some things about the past that he wants to explain. And what you might miss is that, as the old man shuffles across the room toward his writing desk, he reaches for the silver candlesticks – the same candlesticks the bishop gave him years before.
Valjean moves the candlesticks to the desk and lights the candles as he sits to write the epilogue to his long pilgrimage toward a moral and responsible life. Victor Hugo doesn’t say it. But the words of the bishop echo off the page for those who remember how the story began: “Don’t forget, Valjean. Don’t forget: you promised to use the silver to become an honest man.”
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
-- with thanks to Buddy Ennis, Linda Jo McKim and Kenneth Osbeck
Text: Psalm 24:1-6, Matthew 6:25-33
Today’s sermon is in response to the President’s decision last week to pull America out of the Paris Climate Accord, which was signed by all but two nations, Syria and Nicaragua, with Nicaragua’s objecting that the agreement didn’t go far enough. In a statement, United Church of Christ leaders have called this “a tragic mistake,” going on to applaud the Parliament of World’s Religions’ calling the decision “scientifically, economically, medically, politically and morally wrong.”
I am sorely tempted to indulge myself in a righteous political rant. But I know it is wiser, and worthier, for my response today to be more thoughtful, theological, and Biblical. So, we begin with the Psalmist’s reminder that “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.”
* * * *
Vicky and I used to live in southern Arizona, which is desert. In Tucson, temperatures of 112, 113, 114 degrees Fahrenheit were commonplace. So anytime in the summer we could get up into Arizona’s “high country,” we would.
I remember the August week we spent in the White Mountains, at the lakeside cabin of friends. Hawley Lake is 8,000 feet above sea level. So we left behind the bake-oven terrain of cactus and lizard to enter the green environment of deer and bear, of Ponderosa pines and Indian paint brush, where it rained almost every day. It was a restorative week for us.
Especially, that summer, it was 1988. In our home states of Ohio and Illinois, farmers were desperate, their crops withering from drought. And that summer a NASA scientist testified before Congress about what he called “the first unmistakable indication of the ‘greenhouse effect.’”
The NASA scientist, James Hansen, said the warming trend had almost certainly been caused by the burning of fossil fuels, by other gases emitted from human activities, and by wide-scale deforestation. Because gases, discharged into the atmosphere, act like the glass in a greenhouse, making the earth warmer and warmer. “We have altered the global climate,” Dr. Hansen said, “in a manner that will affect life on earth for centuries to come.” That was 1988.
In the twenty-nine years since, it has gotten worse. Plant and animal species are dying off. Glaciers and ice are melting. Some scientists say there will be no polar ice cap by 2060. A United Nations panel on climate change predicts permanent drought and famine in Africa, massive flooding in low-lying Asian deltas, and severe hardship for billions of people. Hurricanes, tornados and tsunamis may be ahead repeatedly, not only for Asian islands, but also… cities like Miami, Charleston, Washington, New York and Boston are threatened by massive flooding. The co-chair of the UN panel pointed out that these conclusions, from the research of thousands of scientists, are based on changes already being observed. “This is not speculation,” said Martin Parry. “This is empirical. We can measure it.”
Which all brings back the sadness – grief, really – that I first felt during that baking summer of 1988, when I read the headline: “Scientist says, Greenhouse effect is here.”
* * * *
A book I took along that August – to Hawley Lake, in the White Mountains of Arizona – was Robert Heilbroner’s Inquiry into the Human Prospect, because he had warned in 1974 about “global thermal pollution.” So up there, in God’s wonderfully ever-green Creation, I read, in a chapter titled, “What Has Posterity Ever Done for Me?” these words:
“Will [hu]mankind survive? Who knows?” “But,” Heilbroner went on, “the question I want to put is more searching: Who cares? It is clear that too many of us do not care – or do not care enough. How many of us would be willing to give up some minor convenience –say, the use of aerosols – in hope that this might extend the life of [humanity] on earth by a hundred years? Suppose we all knew...that humankind could not survive a thousand years unless we gave up our wasteful diet[s]..., abandoned all pleasure driving, [and] cut back on every use of energy that was not essential... Would we care enough for posterity to pay the price of its survival?
“I doubt it,” Robert Heilbroner wrote. “A thousand years is unimaginably distant. Even a century far exceeds our powers of empathetic imagination. By [then], I shall probably have been dead for three quarters of a century. My children will also likely be dead, and my grandchildren... will be in their dotage. What does it matter to me, then, what life will be like? Why should I lift a finger to affect events that will have no more meaning for me seventy-five years after my death than those that happened seventy-five years before I was born?
“There is no rational answer,” Robert Heilbroner wrote. “There is no rational answer to that terrible question.”
* * * *
And so, despite decades of warnings that this finite biosphere is fragile, we keep doing what we have been doing. In the terrible trade-off between economics and the environment – the near-term emphasis on jobs over against the long term question of planetary survival – once again the immediate has been chosen over against the supposedly further-off. But, friends, the limits to our short-sightedness – and our excesses – are coming ever closer.
I once heard our situation described as our “out-running our headlights.” It’s like a driver, at night, going so fast that when the brick wall in the road ahead appears in the headlights, there isn’t enough time to stop the car before hitting it.
At last, we see it: the brick wall ahead, called “global warming,” or “climate change” – not to mention the hole in the ozone layer, deforestation, pollution of the air and waters, over-population. Even if we hit the brakes now, there are collisions ahead.
Do we care? Well, we do. But how much do we care? And how much does the rest of the American citizenry care? And our public leaders? Enough to make significant changes?
But then, why should we? “There is no rational answer,” said Robert Heilbroner. But there is a Scriptural answer: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it...”
* * * *
When it was time to leave Hawley Lake and the mountains, we bustled about the cabin, cleaning up, in gratitude to the people who let us use it. With broom and dustpan, soap and sponge, we got the cabin ready for those who would come after us. Why?
You know. Because – we didn’t own it. It wasn’t ours. We were guests. That’s it. That’s the point. “The earth is the Lord’s.” We don’t own it. It isn’t ours. We are guests.
There was a brochure I found in the cabin, which advertised the nearby Sunrise ski resort; it’s owned by the Apache tribe of northeast Arizona. There was a message in the brochure from the tribal chief that caught my eye. “Come...” he said. “Come, share with us this gift from the Creator that we carefully protect.”
* * * *
When our European ancestors came to this great land, they brought with them an understanding of our relationship to nature that was quite different from that of Native Americans. Our pioneering forbearers read in their Bibles,
“Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it...
“The fear of you and the dread of you shall be put upon every beast...
“Look at the birds... Are you not of more value than they?”
And “subdue the earth” our ancestors did, leading to the greatest national, industrial energy, and power and prosperity in the history of the world. But – at a price.
“Subdue the earth,” it says, in Genesis 1, the first chapter of the Book. But there is another strand in our Biblical heritage. And it is now past time for us as a people to heed it.
It is true that the Noah story ends with the fateful deliverance of Creation into human hands. But there is also Genesis 2, in which Adam is invited to be God’s care taker, giving the animals names, tending the Creator’s garden.
In one strand, all creation is implicated in the Fall, but in another, only human beings are fallen – because we have misused our free will – while nature and the rest of God’s creatures remain unimpaired.
In one strand, the names for God stress power and authority – names like “Lord” and “King” – emphasizing hierarchy, suggesting that earth is to be dominated. But in another stand, God’s presence in nature is emphasized – through images like “living water,” “shelter,” even “womb” – which help us to recognize the world as cherished and embraced by God.
In one strand, nature is the wilderness, the abyss, chaos, an enemy to be overcome; but in another strand, nature is the realm of renewal, refuge, retreat, revelation.
We can no longer act as if we are above nature, or against nature. Human destiny is intertwined with nature. We are in nature, according to the plan of God – to whom we and the earth belong.
Some of our industrial, technological, “modern” concepts of progress and growth need to be redefined. And the time to do this is surely now. There are built-in walls ahead in this, God’s precious world.
With thanks to Elizabeth Dotson-Gray, Patricia Fort, Jeffrey Kluger and George Williams
Trinity United Church of Christ, Deerfield
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Texts: Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21
What Are You Trying to Say?
At Pentecost a group of people were able to speak in such a way that they were understood by everybody. It was a considered a miracle, a gift of the Holy Spirit: to be understood by everybody. It makes you wonder, what language they used.
The word “Pentecost” comes from the day when it happened. Pentecost is a Jewish festival that arrives fifty days after Passover – the word Pentecost meaning “fifty.” So, on this particular Pentecost, it was also fifty days after Jesus’ Resurrection.
The disciples assembled in Jerusalem. They were expecting something. Jesus had told them not to leave the city until they had received power there. So they gathered, and continued to gather, praying, singing songs, reading the Scriptures, sharing a meal “in remembrance of [him].” And suddenly, on that morning, there was a rush of wind, and there appeared to them tongues of fire.
In the Hebrew Bible fire and wind are familiar disguises of God. God approached Moses in the burning bush. God appeared in the desert after the Exodus as “a pillar of fire by night.” And the Hebrew word for Spirit is the same word as for wind.
So when fire and wind both appear, this is major, something world class. God is here in an extraordinary way, giving the followers of Jesus an unexpected gift, the gift to speak in such a way that everyone will understand you.
* * * *
Pentecost is a wonderful story in itself. But it is really the sequel to another story, about the Tower of Babel – Babel probably being the root word for Babylon, where there used to be a huge tower that dominated the city.
Archaeologists say Babylon was a magnificent city, a remarkable achievement of human civilization. But… given the threat that the empire to the north was for ancient Israel, in the view of the Bible Babylon was an evil city, built on the deadly sin called pride.
The Tower of Babel story begins, in the Revised Standard Version, with this intriguing sentence: “Now the whole earth had one language and few words.” What “few words” do you suppose they were if the world was the way God intended.
In the beginning, there was “one language and few words.” But then, according to the ancient myth, human beings built a tower climbing to the heavens. They are trying to usurp heaven, trying to take the place of God. In the stories of ancient cultures, we see this kind of over-reaching pride most often in Greek mythology. The Greeks called it hubris. Hubris is the arrogance that goes before a fall. Which is the point of the Babel narrative. With the result being: many languages, many words – and no communication.
The Tower of Babel story is a description of the human condition. Writ large in the news these days. Just listen to the bravado, the boasting and bluster, that emanates from the highest precincts in Washington these days. Illustrating humanity’s besetting sin, pride. And pride’s consequences are alienation and separation. Its cure is modesty, humility, which is a language spoken so that all can be included, all can comprehend. It makes you wonder, What could that original language have been that all people could understand?
* * *
There is something else about these texts that we shouldn’t miss. They both concern cities: Babylon and Jerusalem. Both were real cities in the ancient world. But in the Bible they take on a mythical dimension. In the Bible, Babylon symbolizes what is wrong with the world. And Jerusalem symbolizes God’s plan for the world.
Babylon is the image many people have of the city. That suspicion is deeply imbedded in middle-American consciousness. It is as if cities are intrinsically evil, and small towns are inherently good and virtuous. Generally, Americans feel little loyalty to cities – except maybe to their sports teams.
I remember my first exposure to Chicago. My dad was doing post-graduate study at the University of Chicago. I was in the eighth grade. I came home from my first day at Ray School very excited. In my class there were Filipinos, Japanese, Germans, a Swedish girl, a Finnish boy, Mexicans, “Negroes,” and… – to me, this was the climax – and… a boy from Atlanta, Georgia! Chicago is amazingly multinational, multi-ethnic, multi-religious. How much more so now, 60-some years later. A babel of tongues are spoken in Chicago. Is the city – like Babylon? Or Jerusalem?
“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” Acts then proceeds to name them all: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesapotamians, the whole lot of them, all named, so you would know every nation and culture was represented in that city.
If Babylon means babel, confusion, Jerusalem means peace, harmony, symbolically. The name Jerusalem is derived from shalom, the Hebrew word for peace: Jeru – shalom, the foundation of shalom. It was the vision of the prophets that some day all the peoples of the earth would come to Jerusalem, the city of peace, and live together as one family. It’s the vision of the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, that the perfect city is Jerusalem, now existing in heaven, waiting until history is complete, when God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Then Jerusalem, the perfect city, will descend to earth and God will dwell with us.
What a beautiful image: the city as the model of what God has in mind for the world, a place where all people of all nations, all of God’s creation, will dwell together in peace. And at Pentecost it was that way for a few days, or maybe just a few hours. The point is, the day of Pentecost is remembered as one extraordinary instance when it happened: God’s Spirit came down. And Jerusalem, the city of shalom / salaam, became for a moment what it is called to be, a place where all peoples are reconciled and remade as one.
Here’s the point: it happened because these followers of Jesus were empowered by the Holy Spirit to transform the city that was filled with a babel of tongues into one community, with a language that all people could comprehend. If we wonder what that language was, it was surely the language of reconciliation and understanding.
* * * *
We, in our time, face a similar challenge. America is now filled with people and traditions from every nation under heaven. Every one of the world’s religions can now be encountered in this country. The question is: What do we have here? Babylon? Or Jerusalem? Is this a curse? or a blessing? Clearly, a lot of middle America has decided that this is Babel. And wants to keep racial and religious minorities out.
But I would suggest in light of Pentecost that we, followers of Jesus, have no choice but to see this as a blessing. God has invited us – and others – to be ambassadors of hospitality and reconciliation, to speak in such a way that all people can understand, to challenge whatever continues to alienate peoples, and to create communities in which all the diversity of God’s creation may meet.
Jesus said to the disciples, “Stay in Jerusalem.” And they did, until they received power to discern a new city. That power enabled them to speak so as to be understood. The language they spoke was a language of reconciliation.
There is no question what the content of the message was. It’s recorded in the second chapter of Acts. It’s Peter’s sermon. In it he proclaimed what God did in Jesus Christ, and everybody understood that in their own language. That’s the crux of it. It has to be spoken in such a way that it will be heard.
I don’t expect it will be heard if we proclaim it the way Peter did, standing on the street corner and shouting it. Today, that delivers a different message. People just shake their heads and walk on by. Briskly. So, what language would recreate the miracle of Pentecost today, the miracle of universal understanding?
We search for such a language in ecumenical and interfaith efforts. Your Council sought such a language by signing the “Out of Many, One” anti-bigotry statement. The Rainbow Flag out front is an attempt also. Underneath such endeavors there is one original miracle. That basic Pentecost miracle is simple, transforming, persuasive – and it can’t be faked.
It is love. Love is the language that all people understand. Love is surely the original language with few words.
Trinity United Church of Christ, Deerfield
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Texts: Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Thinking Cosmically and Acting Locally
A cat was once chasing a mouse. The mouse ran into a hole in the wall, just escaping the claws of the cat. Everything was quiet for a while. Then the mouse heard the sound of a dog barking. “Woof, woof!” And then nothing. Assuming the dog had chased the cat away, the mouse popped out of the hole, and the cat pounced on it. As the cat swallowed the mouse, it was heard to say, “It pays to be bilingual.”
This is true. You’re handicapped in this world if you aren’t bilingual. Being bilingual also helps in reading the Bible. A lot of us have trouble with the Bible because we hear it with 21st century ears, not 1st century ears.
Take the story of the Ascension, for instance. To our ears, the Ascension story sounds like highly doubtful aeronautics, or astrophysics, or something like that. It sounds like somebody is being transported into space – which makes no sense given what we know about the laws that run the universe. That’s especially true of the description we just heard in Luke, in which Jesus went up a hill, outside Jerusalem, a primitive launching site, where he lifted up his hands in blessing over the disciples, and was propelled into heaven. The disciples gathered around, looking up, watching Jesus get smaller and smaller until he disappears.
To see it that way is to pose the Ascension as a scientific absurdity, an affront to our intelligence. That’s the way it generally comes across in our time
Which is why you need to be bilingual. In the 1st century, the story was heard differently. It wasn’t a physical miracle – certainly not aeronautics – it was a political manifesto.
Listen again to the Ephesians passage. I’ll pick it up in the middle, where it says God has raised Jesus “…from the dead and seated him at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And [God] has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things…”
That’s the Ascension. It says Jesus is now Lord over all things. Which is to say, Caesar isn’t. To make such a statement in the Roman Empire was an act of political courage, with terrible consequences.
* * * *
In the second century, a bishop of the Church named Polycarp was arrested on charges of treason. This happened in 156 A.D. in Asia Minor. Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna. The charge against him was that he dared to declare not only that Jesus Christ is Lord but also that the Emperor was not. Polycarp was found guilty, and burned at the stake.
The man who sentenced him was named Statius Quadratus, Proconsul for the Empire in Asia Minor. When Statius Quadratus asked Polycarp, “Will you renounce your faith in Jesus?” he replied, “For all these years Jesus has never abandoned me, and I will not abandon him now.” After his death the Christians in Smyrna posted this: “Statius Quadratus, Proconsul of Rome; Jesus Christ, King Forever.”
Now, the Church didn’t rush into martyrdom. They tried to accommodate themselves to the world around them. That’s the message you get when you read the letters in the back of the New Testament, including the Letter to the Ephesians. The letters say, Be good citizens. Don’t cause trouble. Obey those who are in power. Unfortunately, you find passages that add specifically, Wives, obey your husbands, and, Slaves, obey your masters. They didn’t want to make changes. Didn’t want to upset things.
But the fact was they were upsetting things. Maybe that’s why the accommodating advice was given. They were upsetting things – because if Jesus is my Lord, then Caesar isn’t. And neither is some oppressive husband who lords it over me. Nor any slaveholder. To say “Jesus is Lord” has political and social implications. If Jesus is Lord, then I am slave to nobody. I am free, a person of dignity.
So why this advice to the churches to be obedient to the powers that be? It’s probably because they believed Jesus was coming soon to change all these things. He’ll change them, so for now, just hang in there. Put up with oppression. Come to church. Where you’ll be treated the way Jesus wants you to be treated. But outside in the world, be patient. It won’t be much longer now.
But by Polycarp’s time, the second century – in fact, before that – they began to say, Maybe, maybe, Jesus is not coming right away. Maybe what we are waiting for him to come and do, he is waiting for us to do.
If Jesus is Lord… he is at the right hand of God, “above all rule and authority and power and dominion… above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And [God] has put all things under his feet…” If that is the case, then the world has to change and look like Jesus is Lord.
It took a while for the Church to understand this. Maybe they asked themselves, Why all this power ascribed to him? He doesn’t need all that power to solve the problems in my life. All that power must be for something bigger and greater in this world. He’s been given power over everything that is, so that everything that is will be his. And we are the Church over which he is Lord, so we are supposed to do the changing in his name. We need to do something to make this world look more like he is Lord.
In other words, “Think cosmically… act locally.” That’s what the Ascension means. Think of Jesus as Lord of the universe, the cosmos, with all authority, all dominion belonging to him. Think on that. And then, act on that.
So, what would it look like if we acted on that?
In churches I have served, I have sometimes asked prospective new members, What in the world especially grieves us, brings us pain? What do you want to change? And they have talked about homelessness and poverty, racism, hunger, the abuse and neglect of children, environmental degradation. And we’d stay with it, asking how together we might address one or more of these challenges. I’ve seen some remarkable initiatives have come out of such conversations: a transitional homeless shelter for women and children in Tucson, an inter-racial, inter-religious community organization in Cleveland, a computer recycling project for low income people in Ames.
Some of you have found ways to act effectively in this community. The Gleaning Project with the Deerfield Farmers Market is an ongoing effort. But what else? What now? Especially, as in a time of transition we are wondering, What that is special might we be – become – in and for this community? What might it mean – in this time, in our time and place – to follow the Lordship of Jesus Christ?
* * * *
Today’s epistle lesson was written to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus is a Greek city on the Mediterranean. It was the center of the worship of the goddess Artemis. She was the goddess of fertility, the goddess of agriculture. A cult grew up around her temple in Ephesus, where thousands of people would come to worship. The city of Ephesus thrived because of the tourist trade.
The Apostle Paul came to Ephesus. He came, preaching that Jesus Christ is Lord. And people began to change. They said, If Jesus Christ is Lord, then Artemis is not. The business leaders saw Paul as a threat. They denounced him, and organized a riot to kill him. Although he escaped.
In the Book of Acts, chapter 19, there’s a humorous story about some sorcerers and exorcists in Ephesus who saw Paul at work and admired the power he seemed to have. They wanted it for themselves. So they used Paul’s name to exorcise a demon. They said, “In the name of Jesus, and in the name of Paul, come out!” The demon looked at the sorcerers incredulously, and said, “Jesus I know. Paul I know. But who are you?”
Meaning what? – as we try to be bilingual. Meaning that evil powers know who is stronger than they are, who can do them in. Which is why, in the Gospels, the stories about Jesus, all the demons recognize him. Jesus they know. And Paul they know. But who are you?
In this town, in this region, who are you? Who knows you? Who fears you? Who is concerned that you might do something that would change things? Who knows, or even cares, that this church is here? Who wonders about what would happen if those Christians would ever start thinking cosmically, and act locally?
With thanks to Fred Craddock and Mark Trotter