Unmute the Church

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Texts: Acts 2:1-21

           John 15:26-27, 16:5-15


“in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” - Acts 2:11B



Spirit of the Living God, be with us now.

Be with us in all we say and in all we hear.

Be with us now, Spirit of the Living God,

and give us wisdom to listen and to learn

how to speak and dream in the language of the Gospel. Amen.


            There is a small group of our church members and friends that have been meeting on Monday afternoon to discuss and reflect on Walter Brueggemann’s newest book entitled, “A Gospel of Hope.” The book is a collection of what Susan Wei very appropriately calls Brueggemman’s “nuggets of wisdom.” Each chapter contains several independent paragraphs that are held together by the biblical and theological reflections of this beloved and well-respected scholar, theologian, preacher and man of faith.


            In his book, Brueggemann makes the audacious claim that God has called the Church to be an un-anxious presence in the midst of our anxiety-ridden society.[1] He says very eloquently that the Spirit of God has given the Church a new song. And this new song is filled with words that make you and me imagine a radically different world, an absolutely different society and even a more faithful, courageous and outspoken Christian community. This new song, Brueggemann insists, empowers the Church to refuse to accept the world as it is. It inspires the Church to live up to our stunning vocation to stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful, in a society that is paralyzed by gun violence, anxious about safety and immigration, divided by political resentment, haunted by racial hate, frightened by demographic change, nostalgic about the past and terrified of a future it cannot control. In this world where the same old way of life, the same old divisions, the same old political games, the same old strategies, the same old big policies, and the same old powers push humankind closer and closer to exhaustion and even to a complete meltdown, Brueggemann believes that the role of the Church is to practice the anxiety-negating Way of Christ. Rather than giving into the collective anxiety of our days that causes people to divide the world into “us and them,” into the good guys and the bad guys, the new song of the Spirit opens our hearts and minds to God’s newness. We learn to listen to the notes and melody and words of the new song and our lives begin to move to its beat, which is set by the Easter faith. And the Easter faith is the hope that the world to come, the world God dreams about for humanity is not in the past, is not in heaven, but it is on earth beyond our old certainties and our scary chaos. The Church’s mission is to sing the new song un-anxiously as a reminder to humanity that a new world remains possible and viable.


            “But how do we do that?” One of the people in the book group asked. “How do we keep talking about newness in our world? How do we keep singing this new song without being anxious?” I took these questions into my heart and I have been mulling them over for some time because these questions are relevant to every one of us gathered in the church this morning. How do we keep singing this new, subversive, revolutionary song about a new world that has never been seen in human history? How do we sing a new song of peace, justice and freedom to a world where Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are forced to live in subhuman conditions and the international community utters meaningless diplomatic condemnations when Israeli soldiers use live ammunition against children, women and unarmed protesters? While Evangelical pastors prayed for peace at the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli soldiers killed at least 60 Palestinians and wounded more 1,000 protesters.


            How does the Church, meaning you and me, sing a new song of kindness and hospitality at a time when the President of the United States speaking at a meeting in the White House said very openly that some undocumented immigrants are “animals?” Trump supporters have rallied by the President’s side. They have claimed that his words were taken out of context by the mainstream media. They say that the President was only referring to the violent Central American gang members in his remarks. Trump critics have accused the President of willfully dehumanizing all undocumented immigrants. Regardless of the side any one takes, the fact is that words do matter and the words of the President of the United States matter even more. And we are all at a dangerous place when we give even the slightest nod to the notion that some people are less human than others.


            And how do we keep singing a new song of love and life in the midst of a society where more school children have died because of gun violence than servicemen and women in the US military? An article published last Friday in the Washington Post revealed an eye-opening and scary statistic that suggests that in 2018 schools are more dangerous to American lives than combat zones.[2]


            Our God-given mission to sing this new song in a world that appears to be indifferent to our singing and unchanged by our dancing seems to be more like a fool’s errand than a divine calling. Generations of Christians before us have tried to re-write the social, political, religious and economic lyrics that go with the prevailing and dominant tunes of human history. For centuries, the Church has sought to create easy-to-teach arrangements, compose sophisticated harmonies, and make music that might overcome the world’s resistance to the new song of the Gospel, but what is pleasing to the ears of the old ways of our world rarely mixes well with the new and holy sounds the Spirit gives the Church to sing.


            In fact, Stephen Mattson, a progressive Evangelical writer, made the bold claim that mainstream Christianity in America has failed and looks nothing like Jesus.[3] The reason for Mattson’s searing indictment of Christianity in America is the intentional choice he believes the Church has made to lower the volume of the Gospel in order to have a place at the table of political power and social influence. But Brueggemann says that the last thing the world needs is a Church that fits in, dances to the world’s deadly rhythm, and only talks about what is already possible. The work and mission of the Church is “to battle the world’s definition of what is believable and possible.”[4] Our calling as followers of Christ is not to adjust the sound of hope, peace, faith, love, freedom, justice, hospitality, kindness, forgiveness, and life to the post-modern sensitivities of our society; our calling is to keep singing the new song as loud as we can, for as long as we can. The world may not like what they hear; not everyone will listen to our song, but they will not be able to ignore our voices and no one will ever say that we got discouraged, lost our faith in the song, toned down the words of the Gospel or that we quit singing altogether.


            Today is Pentecost. This is the Sunday Christians around the world remember the moment the first disciples realized that they had a voice. Until that day, the friends of Christ were living with a paralyzing sense of separation anxiety. It had been 10 days since the Risen Christ had been lifted up. The men dressed in white robes had told the disciples to stop looking upwards and start looking out into the world around them. The words of the Risen Christ still haunted them, “[You] will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[5] But anxiety had driven the disciples into hiding, into silence, into isolation and fear. The world outside still looked too dangerous. The followers of Jesus were afraid of what the Roman authorities might do to them. They were anxious about the future without Jesus to tell them what to do, to calm the storms in their lives, to remind them to believe in the impossible, and to encourage them to speak up when the anxious world wanted them to be quiet. In that house behind closed doors, the disciples felt anxiously safe. They could talk about the way things used to be when Jesus was physically present with them. They laughed at the memories they shared of those times when the religious lawyers tried to trick Jesus only to have Jesus beat them at their own religious games. They cried as they remembered Jesus’ arrest at the Garden and how they all abandoned him. And the disciples very likely talked about their Last Supper with Jesus. The sound of their teacher’s voice still echoed in their souls, “now I am going to him who sent me and I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth.“


            And in that gathering of anxious disciples, something extraordinary happens! Luke, who also wrote the Book of Acts, does not know how to put into words the profound spiritual experience the gathered community had on that day of Pentecost. The writer says that it felt as if they had heard the sound of a violent wind that filled the entire house. Something like tongues of fire rested on each one of them. They felt as if they could speak a new language. All of a sudden, their fearful anxiety was transformed into a daring sense of hope. On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit of God burst into the disciples’ lives and gave those scared and hesitant men and women of faith a new song.


            On Pentecost, the Church stepped out into the world unafraid of what the world might think of its message, unabashed about its faith, and undaunted by the challenge to sing a new song in a world still deeply suspicious of anyone who dares to imagine a human society where no one has to be anxious about life, about safety, about the other, about food, about healthcare, about housing, about their immigration status, about employment or about tomorrow. It is no wonder that the people who were in Jerusalem on Pentecost assumed that the disciples were as drunk as skunks at nine o’clock in the morning. Their new song overcame the barriers of language, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, social class, gender and ideology. The new song could not be contained by old certitudes, traditions, loyalties and patterns of life. The new song might be ridiculed by the old insiders who resented the power of the new song to change human lives, but it could not be stopped. On the day of Pentecost, the Church discovered that the Spirit had come to invite the faith community to walk to a different drummer no matter how popular, acceptable, enjoyable and trendy the music of the world might be.


            Of course, we still have to answer the question about why we would keep singing the new song when no one appears to be listening or dancing. Well, Jesus promised to send the Spirit of truth, but he never said that our mission would be easy or that when the Spirit came, everything would be well in the world or in the Church. What we have been given is the song. Our mission, our calling is to keep singing. We sing the new song not only to remind the world that there is a more hopeful alternative to the old ways, we also sing it to encourage one another not to let the song of faith be silenced.


            The late Anthony de Mello, an Indian Jesuit who is still well-known for his wisdom and rich spiritual life, once was asked if he thought his work as a priest made any difference in the world and in the Church. Father de Mello answered, “I am satisfied to do my thing, to dance my dance… According to a nice sentence I read somewhere, ‘A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.’ So I am content to sing my song, even though often the whole thing seems meaningless.”[6]


            The Holy Spirit came to unmute the Church. The Spirit came to remind us that we have a new song that the world may not like, but that it needs to hear. We sing because we still believe in a world where Palestinians will have the right to live in their own free and independent State. We sing the new song of the Gospel to remind our nation that Christ instructed his followers to help the poor, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, stand up against xenophobia, oppose misogyny, fight prejudice, and love the neighbor. We keep singing this new song of justice because we believe that the lives of the school children in Santa Fe cannot be just numbers in some report on gun violence in the United States. We sing the new song because we know that if we come together and put pressure on our elected officials, we can and will have better gun control in this country and parents will not have to bury their children when they should be celebrating the end of another school year. We sing this new song because this is a song about the courage to dream of a new America – an America that is not fearfully anxious about the future or that sees itself as weak and unfairly treated, but an America that still believes that we can bring down the barriers of culture, language, ethnicity and religion and live out the great motto of the nation, “E Pluribus Unum.” We keep singing this song because it has changed who we are and even when it sounds meaningless we know somewhere, somehow, the words and melody of the Gospel song are touching people’s lives. We sing this song because it is making the world a little better than it has been; it is challenging men and women like you and me to dream of a better tomorrow; it is giving us visions of a future that will be unlike anything we have seen in the past or see in the present.


            I would like to end this time of meditation with the words of a prayer written in honor of the great Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was a man of faith who never stopped singing the Gospel song even when his life was threatened by the old powers of this world. He was shot while he was celebrating the Eucharist in a small chapel inside a cancer hospital where he lived. The words of this prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero and were pieced together by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, MI. May we hear the new and hopeful song of the Gospel unmuted in these words:


            “It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
            The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
            it is beyond our vision.

            We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
            of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
            Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying

            that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
            No statement says all that could be said.
            No prayer fully expresses our faith.    

            No confession brings perfection,

            no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
            No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
            No set of goals and objectives include everything.

            This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
            day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
            knowing that they hold future promise.
            We lay foundations that will need further development.
            We provide yeast that produces effects
            far beyond our capabilities.

            We cannot do everything,

            and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this.
            This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
            It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
            a step along the way,

            an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
            We may never see the end results, but that is the difference     

            between the master builder and the worker.

            We are workers, not master builders,

            ministers, not messiahs.

            We are prophets of a future not our own.”[7]


            We are also singers of a new song. And we will keep singing it because this is the song the Spirit has given us. It is a song about a future not our own. So let the Spirit unmute our church and give us our new song.


            May it be so. Amen.


[1] Walter Brueggemann. “A Gospel of Hope,” p. 28.

[2] By Phiip Bump. “2018 has been deadlier for schoolchildren than service members,” The Washington Post, 18 May 2018. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/05/18/2018-has-been-deadlier-for-schoolchildren-than-service-members/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.812e0f01fda5]

[3] By Stephen Mattson. “America ‘Christianity’ Has Failed,” Sojourners, 25 January 2017. [https://sojo.net/articles/american-christianity-has-failed]

[4] Walter Brueggemann. “A Gospel of Hope,” p. 22.

[5] Acts 1:8.

[6] Joseph Pulickal (compiler) & Aurel Brys (editor). “We Heard the Bird Sing: Interacting with Anthony de Mello S.J.,” p. 48.

[7] Journey with Jesus [https://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Ken_Untener_A_Future_Not_Our_Own.shtml]

Sermons are meant to be preached and, therefore, all sermons are prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation rather than on proper grammar and punctuation required of written documents.

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