Sunday, 9 September 2018

Widening the circle of God’s love: a sermon on being wrong and being corrected

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church on 9th September 2018. Texts: Mark 7:24-37, James 2:1-17.

Have you ever had that kind of conversation where someone you really like and admire suddenly says something offensive or obnoxious – something racist, embarrassingly sexist, toe-curlingly old-fashioned, that kind of thing? And your heart sinks and you wonder whether to argue back. Bad enough if it’s directed to other people. Awful, really horrible, if it’s directed to you. And worse still if the person saying it has power over you, or you need something from them.

So it is in the story which begins today’s gospel reading. And yet it has a happy ending of sorts, which shows Jesus widening the circle of what he understands as God’s love, of where he sees as his mission field, going beyond the narrow confines of the people of Israel to people everywhere. Now this might sound shocking in a different way. We know that Jesus had a temper had times, that gentle Jesus meek and mild was no such thing, but the son of God being actively racist? Or the son of God learning from his mistakes? Well he was human as well as divine, and humans say dumb things, humans do dumb things, and then learn to do things better. So is a story of hope for us all.

We start by seeing Jesus in foreign lands. The city of Tyre was an important port in what is now Lebanon, and was then part of the province of Phoenicia or Syria. But as you can see from the map, to Jewish eyes it was a long way from home. Remember that Galilee, the heart of Jesus’ ministry, was already seen as the distant north to the people Israel and Judea; and Tyre was far away from Galilee. Like various of their neighbours, the Jewish people didn’t much like the people of Tyre, and those living there would definitely be seen as foreigners.

It’s not clear from the text why Jesus was in Tyre, but we are told that he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. So he could have been on some kind of retreat, or just needing a bit of space. And speaking as an introvert, I can empathise with him getting grumpy with anyone invading that sense of privacy. But then a woman comes to his door. The gospel writer takes care to describe her as doubly-foreign. First she’s described as Syro-Phoenician, which is to say from the coastline around Tyre. Second, in many translations she’s called a Gentile, but the word in the original is simply ‘Greek’, part of the Greek-speaking culture found all around the eastern Mediterranean. The point from the gospel writer is clear: she’s a foreigner, she’s the Other, she’s not one of the chosen people.
Image: Ilyas Basim Khuri
Bazzi Rahib (1684),
via Vanderbilt University

But she’s in the kind of desperation that often brought people to Jesus – her daughter has some incurable condition and she’s in search of healing and she’s heard that someone is in town who might help. She throws herself at his feet, begs for his help. So does Jesus take pity on her, proclaiming that her faith has healed her daughter?

No, he does not. Instead he continues with this othering process and he refuses to heal her daughter. His mission is to the children of Israel, and they must be fed first – to take that from them is as bad is taking food from children and giving it away. And then he uses a racial slur, comparing the Syro-Phoenician woman and her daughter to dogs. This wasn’t an uncommon comparison for Jesus’ day as a term of abuse by Jewish people towards foreigners, but it needs a few words. Here’s how we think of dogs today – pets, companions, members of a household. Whether you’re a dog person or not, most of us have a similar sense of dogs. Certainly there are badly behaved dogs, with strays and the like, but mostly they live with humans and mostly behave themselves.

In Jesus’ time, dogs were seen very differently. They were frequently wild, often scavengers. Unpleasant, wild creatures. You didn’t throw food to them, you didn’t give them little treats. If they were under a table, it wasn’t to be given food as part of a family, it was picking up what they could get where they could get it. So to be compared to a dog, to have a gift of healing compared to giving food to dogs, that was pretty insulting. And let’s be clear – this was explicitly a racialised insult. I have no wish to sully this church by speaking out modern equivalents, but I’m sure you can think of some. There are abusive words which are spoken by the powerful to the less powerful, and which are specific to the abused person’s race, or gender, or sexuality. They continue today and they’re horrible. That Jesus was in a foreign land is not relevant, because history is full of people whose culture had led them to believe themselves superior, going to foreign lands and treating the natives badly. Think about the British in India, or the Belgians in the Congo.

Now, the idea of the son of God speaking in a racist manner punctures a lot of what we like to think about Jesus, so over the centuries there have been attempts to explain this language away. The word for dog is a diminuitive form, a little dog, so perhaps he was playfully calling her a puppy. Or perhaps he was testing her, in the way that rabbis sometimes did, being deliberately provocative to bring out an answer. Or perhaps that the woman was actually part of an economic elite in Tyre and he was criticising her for her privilege. Or something else. I get why people feel the need to defend Jesus, but I’m not convinced by these, it doesn’t fit to the text. In my view, this simply shows Jesus in a bad light, but demonstrates that nobody is perfect, even the one who was sent by God to change the world and who hung out with the poor and the downtrodden, that even Jesus had his moments.

And fortunately it doesn’t last. Because the woman replies with an argument that changes Jesus’ mind. In a few words she convinces him that he’s wrong. These are calm words, the kind of words that oppressed people have often used to challenge those in power. She doesn’t dispute the dog imagery, but she says that even if that’s so, then the dogs get crumbs from under the table. This is standing up to authority. This is speaking truth to power. I like this image, because this is the image of a woman coming out from oppression and seeing her own power
Image: Ched Myers
. This is saying that she matters, that her life matters, that her daughter’s life matters. It’s the same spirit that inspired the civil rights movement in the US, and that today inspires those young people who stand up and call for gun control. It’s the same spirit that inspires gay people to march in Pride parades and demand equal marriage from the state and from the church. It’s the same spirit that inspired the women’s suffrage movement. It’s the same spirit that inspired the anti-slavery campaigner Sojourner Truth, herself born a slave in the USA, to say the words “ain’t I a woman?”. It is, ironically, the spirit of Christ, of the gospel of liberation and love, but it’s words spoken not by Jesus but to Jesus.

In fact, and I use this phrase carefully and with respect, the woman is saying that Syro-Phoenician lives matter. Her call is for racial justice. And Jesus, because all his message is about widening the circle of God’s people, about bringing justice to people in all sorts of oppression, Jesus hears her argument. And here’s a thing – he doesn’t commend her for her faith, he commends her for her argument. The Greek is logos, often translated as word with a capital W, identified in the gospel of John with the eternal Christ who comes before the human Jesus, and is the spirit of wisdom. Logos is not something you attributes to dogs, to sub-humans, to inferiors. Logos is a word you use of someone you respect. It’s a sign that Jesus has really heard this woman, that her words have touched him and affected his ministry. He immediately says that her daughter is cured. But then, as this slide says, he understood justice more deeply because of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s insistence on justice for herself and her daughter.

And then Jesus moves on, not south back towards Galilee or Jerusalem, but north, further into Gentile territory, to the city of Sidon and then back to the Romanised area of small towns called the Decapolis. He’s heard the Syro-Phoenician woman’s argument, and he’s off to heal and preach to the Gentiles. And as if to emphasise the point, he heals a man who is deaf and mute, in quite a physical way that’s described in detail by Mark. He allows the man the power of hearing and speech, by urging him to Be Opened – which is Aramaic is that splendidly unpronounceable word ‘Ephphatha’ which most of the translations preserve. Because opening is what this whole passage is about. Opening up an understanding of God’s justice. Opening up an understanding of who is welcome in the kingdom. Opening up an sense of God’s love as wider than human boundaries or categories or prejudices.

We say in the church that we’re open to all. But are we really? There are too many stories of churches which said they welcomed everyone, but only on their own terms, only if they’re willing to fit in with the dominant culture. Churches which say they’re open to children, but make no effort to change their wordy sermons or archaic liturgy. Churches which say they’re open to autistic people or those with dementia, but give no pointers to help those people make sense of their worship. Churches which say they’re open to gay people, but not if they want to bring a same-sex partner or get married in the church. Even churches which say they’re open to women, but refuse to let them have leadership positions.

The United Methodist Church in the USA has a slogan based on these ideas, ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors’. Which are wonderful words, except that members of that church have pointed out the many ways that the United Methodists fall short of that ideal [see the Pulpit Fiction podcast for this week]. And they’re not even bad as American churches go, they’re a long way from the evangelist megachurches. Openness to all really matters. It’s at the very heart of justice. But we have to be able to live out what we say.

So a quick return to the epistle of James that we heard before the gospel. A few verses before the passage we heard is the wonderful phrase which in the King James Version reads ‘be ye doers of the word, not hearers only’. I quote this version because it’s on the lectern in the chapel of Westminster College in Cambridge, and there’s something rather charming about having those words on a lectern. But it’s the way to truth: not only to hear the word of God, but to live it out.

Put in a different way, we heard in the reading from James that ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’. There was a lot said in the Reformation about faith and works, about what you believe and what you do, and Martin Luther didn’t like this book much, but I find it very profound. If we don’t put into practice what we believe, is there really any point in believing it? The church doesn’t exist as a cosy club of people who believe the right things, it exists to transform the world, to help to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a much later member of Luther’s church put it so well: without works, there’s no faith at all, and no obedience to God.

I’ve not spoken about the long and interesting story with which the passage from James began, and it would make this sermon too long, but it’s quite scary that people might judge those who come into a church and give the best seats to those they consider rich. Not us, you say, and probably not – but in some places and some times yes, and there are certainly those who are more favoured in going into new churches than others. But where it connects back to the rest of this sermon is the idea of dishonouring the poor and favouring the rich. Our society does this so well, especially if we extend the word rich to mean those with privilege and power, those who are white or male or able-bodied, those who aren’t too young and aren’t too old. Even though we know the rich, the privileged, don’t always have the interest of others, and although we know the world is stacked in their favour – we still let the world turn for them.

And yet here is the message that the Syro-Phoenician woman, speaking her truth to power, taught to Jesus and can teach to us: the circle needs to widen. The rich might always be there, the privileged might always have fortune, but the kingdom of God belongs to those who weep, to those who mourn, to those who are downtrodden by life and by the world. God is on the side of the poor, God is on the side of the foreigners, God is on the side of those who have been ruled out by those who claimed to speak for God. It’s sometimes taken the church a long time to work this out. It even took Jesus some time to work it out. But Jesus worked it out, and Jesus widened his understanding of God’s love, and with the grace of God, we can widen our understanding too, and the church can widen its understanding, and come to heal all people and to love all people and to value all people. For of such is the kingdom of God.


Sunday, 8 July 2018

Sent out to transform the world - a sermon on rejection, repentance and discipleship

Image: Rev Andy Stoddard
Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 8th July 2018. Main text: Mark 6:1-13, with Ezekiel 2:1-5.

Movie writers sometimes talk about a backstory. Behind the hero, there’s some kind of past history which can floor them completely and makes them unable to function. Perhaps it’s an undisclosed secret. We watched the movie of Les Miserables the other day, and you learn near the end that the former convict Jean Valjean has never told his adopted daughter Cosette about his past, for fear she’ll reject him. Or perhaps it’s an object that renders you powerless, like the way Superman is unable to function in the presence of the element Kryptonite. But for many people, it’s to do with past relationships. The people we used to know years ago can have a hold on us, and their over-familiarity, or their belittling, or their contempt, can reduce us as a person, and make us quite unable to be the selves we’ve become. This is why school reunions aren’t always a great idea.

Because people change over time. I’m quite different from the person I was before I became a parent, or before I got married, or before I started work at the Open University. It’s not just that I’m older. I may or may not be wiser. But I’ve gained skills, I’ve gained experience, I’ve seen and done things, and I’ve matured as a person. The same is true for all of us. If someone from your distant past comes along and expects you to be the same, or judges you according to the things they knew from those days, then not only will they be wrong, but they could well do you damage in the process.

And so it is for Jesus. He returns to Nazareth, where he grew up, and people don’t see the healer and the preacher, the one who has been wowing the crowds around Galilee. And they begin muttering about him.
“I’ve always thought there was something a bit odd about him.”
“He’s not properly educated, just some labourer.”
“And what about that story about his birth? OK he’s Mary’s son but nobody ever worked out who his father was”
“Plus he left his mother and sisters at home to be looked after by his little brothers, while he went waltzing around with weirdos.”
Image: Cerezo Barredo
Because small communities are like that. They remember gossip. They use little innuendos to put people in their place. Israel was a patriarchal society, men were referred to as the son of their father, not as the son of their mother. To call Jesus the son of Mary meant that at best his father was dead, but more likely it’s a way of saying he was illegitimate. And the word translated as carpenter, tekton, is a pretty demeaning word – it’s not a skilled role, more like a day labourer on a building site. So he’s low status, of questionable parentage, and he’s left his family behind in the village when he should be looking after them.

No welcome with open arms for Jesus. When he later told his parable about the prodigal son, perhaps he remembered this moment – but there was no fatted calf in his story. Instead: demeaning language, belittling him and his background. Sounds horrible. No wonder he couldn’t do any deeds of power there in Nazareth.

Now you might think, well he’s ok, he has his friends. There are plenty of people rejected by family and their past associations who find a new life with a set of friends instead. Except Jesus never quite does what you expect, and as soon as he’s been rejected in his hometown, he sends them all away to get preaching.

Except of course he sends them away with a purpose – to start to preach the gospel. He sends them off with a mission, to preach repentance and to heal those who were sick. Notice these two emphases fit closely with what Jesus has been calling for throughout the gospel to that point. The first five chapters of Mark are full of healings – a leper, a paralysed man, someone with a withered hand, a man with a severe mental condition, a child who had died, a woman who suffered years of haemorrhages. We’re told that he healed many more, but these are told as stories. These healings are interesting. They are all people whose conditions cut them off from society, which made them unable to care for themselves or made them outcasts, unclean and unfit to associate with devout Jews. So Jesus healing these people was not just a kind deed. It was a set of actions which challenged oppression, which challenged marginalisation, one person at a time.

But Jesus went further than this. His first recorded words in the gospel of Mark are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. In our time, the idea of repentance and good news are often tied up with a post-Easter vision of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. But the good news Jesus was talking about was a different sort. And it had to do with repentance, the key to Jesus’ preaching and the command he gave to the disciples.

Image: Kimberley D. Reisman
Jesus called people to repent. In the Greek, that’s the word metanoia, which means a changing of your mind. Not simply a change in mind about whether you want pizza or curry for dinner, but a complete mental shift in your worldview, in everything you understand about the world. The point is not to condemn yourself, but to recognise that you’ve strayed from the right path, that your true self is better than this. The Hebrew word for this idea, the lovely word teshuvah, has a sense of homecoming about it. You are a beloved child of God, you can come home to the love of God. But in the process you show love to others. So this is a repentance about changing your life around.

Image: Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
It’s a repentance that’s deeply related to the idea of the kingdom of God. It says: turn away from violence and hatred, come home to the power of God’s love. It says: turn away from power and hierarchy, come home to equality and care for the downtrodden. It says: turn away from war, come home to peace. It says: turn away from the kingdom of the emperor, come home to the kingdom of God. It was a deeply radical and transgressive message. It echoed the words of the Hebrew prophets for centuries but it was an incredible challenge to the Roman and Jewish authorities. It’s still a challenge today, in a world governed for the benefit of power and money, run by puffed-up egos such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, full of their own self-importance and with little care for those who get in their way.

So a proclamation that people should repent, and an offer to cure them of their sicknesses – those are radical ideas for Jesus to be sending out his disciples to fulfil. This story in Mark has parallel versions in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth, and he quotes from the prophet Isaiah. He speaks words there that have been described as the Nazareth Manifesto, the foundation of Jesus’ commandments to his disciples then and now. They read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And in case there’s any doubt, Jesus says plainly that these words are fulfilled today in the hearing of the people in Nazareth. That’s what repentance is about. That’s what the healing he conducts in Mark is about – proclaiming good news to the poor and setting the oppressed free. It’s not about just about individual healing. It’s about healing society. It’s about radical social change.

Repent, and put your faith in the power of God to change the world, and you will be healed.

There’s a further challenge in the way he tells the disciples to go out. Travelling preachers weren’t uncommon in Jesus’ day, but they went equipped – spare clothes, food, money. The disciples aren’t to do that. They’re to accept hospitality wherever they can. That has its own challenge. Because leaders are supposed to be givers, not receivers. But part of the upside-down kingdom of God is being willing to receive when something is freely offered, no matter how meagre. It’s not about getting rich on others’ giving – Jesus says his disciples were to stay in the first house they entered, not to go climbing up the social hierarchy of a town. There are no private jets here for the followers of Jesus. This kind of simplicity reminds me of the Franciscans, travelling people in simple robes who accepted the hospitality they were given. And St Francis emphasised the value of action in addition to words, saying that “The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today”.

Jesus has been rejected by his family and those he grew up with. He’s lacking in authority in Nazareth. But he has great authority in himself, and he passes on that authority to the disciples.

Yet the rejection Jesus received from his family was similar to the rejection the disciples would receive from society. Yes, they healed and they preached. They spread the good news of the kingdom, and they transformed through their lives, and they slowly built up followers of Jesus, especially after his death. But within a fairly short time, all of the twelve sent out by Jesus would be killed for their teaching and their actions, for the challenge they posed to Roman domination. And Jesus’ followers continue to be persecuted for their faith, from the Christians thrown to the lions, to Martin Luther King shot down for preaching equality and justice. They are persecuted by their own, like the singer Vicky Beeching who was the darling of the evangelical church and then ostracised when she came out as a lesbian. And yet, as Ezekiel was promised by God for his own preaching, “whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they shall know that there has been a prophet among them”.

Because it was the sending out of those twelve disciples that began the slow road towards the establishment of the church, towards the spreading of Jesus’ message throughout the world. And it’s through that message that the gospel is spread today.

The world needs repentance today as much it did 2000 years ago. People today need healing as much as they did 2000 years ago. And the pattern established for the twelve is a pattern for us today. We are called to walk the way of Jesus today. We are called as followers of Jesus to urge others to repentance, to cast off the power structures of this world, to become lovers of justice, to show the power of God through the way we live our lives. We are called to heal others in whatever ways we have power to do so, but also to heal society in whatever ways we have power to do so. We might not have to wander the streets to do so, but we can preach the gospel of love in the places we find ourselves daily, in the places we are sent when Jesus calls us to go. We might face rejection, but we will be acting in the authority of Jesus. And we will play a part in bringing about the kingdom of God.


Sunday, 20 May 2018

Catalyst and disturber: don’t domesticate the dove

Sermon preached on 20 May 2018 (Pentecost) at Creaton URC. Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21.

Don’t domesticate the dove. I read that phrase online this week. Don’t make the Holy Spirit into something small, contained, Encountering the Holy Spirit is an awe-inspiring and life-changing event. It’s not cosy. It’s not simple. It’s not easy to put into words. Pentecost is such a familiar story that we can too readily forget the vastness of the experience. It was so profound that the disciples were left scraping for metaphors to describe it. And yet it changed their lives. And experiences with the Holy Spirit can change our lives too.
Now the Bible is full of occasions where human beings encounter the divine – Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus at his baptism, Paul on the road to Damascus. They often struggled to put their experiences into words, beyond umpteen variations on the theme of ‘wow’. But images of wind and fire are common ones. Recall the pillar of fire which accompanied the Israelites in the desert, or the hurricane in which God appeared to Job, or the still small voice after the wind and fire when God spoke to Elijah.

These would all have been very familiar images to the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. With the idea of Pentecost as the birthday of the church, and all the talk of different languages and different peoples, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this was a deeply Jewish occasion. All of those Parthians and Medes and the rest were members of Jewish communities scattered around the Eastern Mediterranean who had come to Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot, which was originally the first of two harvest festivals, but was venerated as the time when the Torah was given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, again with fire and cloud and wind. That event was in many ways the birth of the people of Israel – they came together through persecution and flight from Egypt, but they gained identity when God gave them a way of living. In the same way, the followers of Christ had come together through his preaching and example, but gained identity as a group when God gave them the Holy Spirit.

This year and next, Shavuot falls on the same day as Pentecost though the complexities of religious calendars means this isn’t always the case. This year, Muslims are also celebrating Ramadan just now, which celebrates the revelation of the Qu’ran to Muhammad. Both faiths celebrate by reading their scriptures right through – many Jews stayed up all night yesterday into today to read the Torah. The disciples at Pentecost received a different sort of revelation of God, a direct experience of his power and energy. They received not just the word of God, but the very breath of God – because the word for breath and spirit are the same in both Hebrew and Greek. That’s the point Ezekiel makes about the dry bones being breathed into life. The followers of Jesus, still reeling from his death and the uncertain events of his resurrection and ascension, were empty and lifeless. And then God came and breathed on them. And nothing was ever the same.

The phrase about domesticating the dove that I quoted comes from an author by the name of Danielle Shroyer. She also writes: “The Spirit of God has been released into the world. Not contained but set free. Not limited but expanding. And what else would we expect, if this Spirit of Life is indeed the One through whom God raised Jesus? This is the Spirit of Life, who God has called not only to raise Jesus to new life but to raise all of creation to new life. Without Pentecost, we’d just be people who tell Jesus’ story. With Pentecost, we’re people who live into Jesus’ story.”

So I say again: we need to be careful not to underestimate the power of this Holy Spirit and not to make the story sound too comfortable. Because it’s not a comfortable experience. Let me talk personally. Some of you know that I spent 15 years as a Quaker. If you’ve not been to a Quaker meeting for worship, it’s an interesting experience. The congregation sits in a circle in a simple room, listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit. Nobody speaks until they feel compelled to do so by the Spirit, and there are no set words or preachers. But the power of the Holy Spirit can be really compelling, a physical as well as spiritual experience. I remember once having words come to me, and wanting to speak, but not having the courage – and afterwards I felt awful. Another time I was in the annual business meeting of British Quakers, with several hundred others, and we were at the end of three days of discussion and decisions and in a closing period of worship which was normally kept silent. But words came to me about community and love, and I could not be silent, and I was shaking and my ears were buzzing but I was convinced that I was instructed by the Spirit to speak, and so I did; and afterwards others told me that they found value in whatever I said. Because at the moment I was not speaking my own words, I was speaking the words that were given to me.

Now Quakers, for all their many good works in peace and justice and social change that this experience of the Holy Spirit has made possible, are a quieter bunch than charismatics. The ecstatic experiences of raising your hands and singing for half an hour, or speaking in tongues, or healing with the touch of hands – those experiences don’t appeal to me, they feel rather alien and frightening – but I understand where they’re coming from. They come from a place of compulsion by the Holy Spirit, of being filled and being transformed and being a channel. Not my will, not my voice, but that of the Lord.
Artist and original source unknown
Of course that wasn’t a new experience at Pentecost. Peter’s sermon, once he had done pointing out that his colleagues weren’t drunk because it was too early in the day, which I’ve always thought is a good start to a sermon, Peter then quotes the prophet Joel talking of God pouring out his spirit on all flesh, and all kinds of people prophesying. A commentator on the book of Joel has some vivid words to say about this passage: “Whenever God pours out his divine energy, people are transformed; they behave like madmen, they dance frenziedly; seized by ecstasy they undress and lie naked on the ground. Moreover they have visions and enter the heavenly realm.” Quite a party. And very threatening indeed to the political and religious establishments. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit does some odd things.

Here’s something else that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit brings: justice and equality. Again this has a precedence in the festival of Shavuot. In the book of Leviticus where that festival is commanded, the next verse reads “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien”. The giving of Law is bound up with the giving of social justice, because it comes out of a place where the Israelites were oppressed and both law and justice were responses to that oppression. I talked earlier about the parallels with Ramadan, and you may know that the Muslim practice of zakat, the giving of a proportion of one’s income to the poor and to charity, is a key feature of Ramadan, as much as fasting. Law and justice are joined together in both faiths.

And we see the same thing at Pentecost. Because on that day the Holy Spirit broke down the boundaries which separated people in the very segregated society of 1st century Roman Palestine. The Spirit rested upon women just as on men. The Spirit rested on poor people just as on rich ones. It rested upon people from Jerusalem, from Galilee and from all the lands of the Jewish diaspora. It rested upon slaves as well upon freed people. It rested upon the old and the young alike. And to show that this wasn’t just coincidence, that it was part of the plan, Peter quoted Joel who said exactly that these things would happen. The Spirit came to all of them.

And it comes to all of us today. We cannot exclude women from ministry, because the Spirit came to women. We cannot exclude old people or young people or rich people or poor people or gay people or disabled people or transgender people or people with dementia or people with autism, because the Spirit came to all those people. Pentecost is a story about inclusion, a story about God’s justice being so expansive that he breathed his very Spirit upon peoples of all kinds.

And Pentecost continues today. The Spirit is moving in our world today. Where there is hopelessness and God’s people receive renewal, the Spirit is moving. Where there is injustice and God’s people are enabled to fight for justice, the Spirit is moving. Where people are pushed under the weight of oppressive governments, or the power of money-grabbing corporations, or violence of all kinds, and they say enough! – the Spirit is moving. The young people who are speaking out about gun laws in the United States, the parents protesting against food poverty in rich countries, those brave souls campaigning against female genital mutilation in various African countries – amongst them all, the Spirit is moving.

The Spirit is moving in our world today. It brings life to situations of hopelessness. The valley of dry bones in Ezekiel is the valley of the shadow of death. We all know of valleys like that in our world. There are places of death, like the waste processing towns of China, or the polluted lakes caused by industrialisation in Russia, or the desolate landscapes caused by oil sands extraction in Canada, or the impacts of plastic throughout the world’s oceans. There are places of spiritual death too, the lands where violence has stripped away hope from the people, or where financial austerity has meant life has become harder and harder, or where homeless people are walked over by the rich on their way to fat-cat jobs. And yet in all of these places: the Holy Spirit is present. And it might sound glib and just the vain prattling of preacher-talk, but God has promised to the bones that he will cause breath to enter them, that he will bring life back to them, that he will restore hope to them. And it might feel like nothing much, or it might feel like a rushing of wind and tongues of fire, but the Day of Lord is approaching, when all pain will cease, and when hope will come. And the Spirit is always with us. This is the promise of the day of Pentecost.

I’d like to close with some words from a book entitled The Fire Runs about mission and the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. It was written by a Church of Scotland minister called Ian Fraser who died last month at the age of 100. His book was the basis of a conference on liberation theology which I attended in St Andrews around 25 years ago. I remember that in one act of worship we were offered images for the Holy Spirit, and the two which have always stayed with me were the words catalyst and disturber. The Holy Spirit changes and mixes and transforms, it brings the fire that forms the spark that sets alight change in our world – that’s the catalyst. And the Holy Spirit shakes us up, it comes in with a mighty wind that blows away our preconceptions and our prejudices and our past experiences that stop us from following the path of Christ – that’s the disturber. The Spirit was a catalyst and a disturber on the day of Pentecost, and may it be so for all of us today. Here are the words of Ian Fraser in his poem:
Like fireworks lighting up the night
the Holy Spirit came;
dejected Christians felt the touch
of living fronds of flame -
and suddenly the world was young
and nothing looked the same.
For Jesus’ nearness gave them heart
to venture, come what would:
the love of Jesus bade them share
their house, possessions, food:
the mind of Jesus gave them speech
the whole world understood.
This is the Spirit who, today,
new daring will inspire
and common folk are given gifts
to change the world entire:
the sparks which flew at Pentecost
started a forest fire.