It is not by accident that Pentecost – the fire and wind of it, the sound and the fury of it, the wildness and wonder of it, the stunning loquacity of it – occurred in a city. It is not by accident, it is no fluke of fate that Pentecost occurred in a city, in a great city of the ancient world. It is not without meaning, without design that the Day of Pentecost, as Christians call it, the day the church was born in wind and flame and multilingualism – erupts in the holy city of Jerusalem.
It might not have. In the painful wake of the death of Jesus, his followers might have retreated to some remote location … to a quiet place, a place of sanctuary and refuge.
I can imagine them, heads hanging, dragging their feet off to Galilee where the sun shines upon the sparkling sea; where, not long ago, Jesus had taught so brilliantly and where, for a time, for a space, all was well and right with their world; where Jesus was young and strong, brilliant and kind, a teacher and preacher like none other.
They didn’t retreat. They didn’t disappear deep and far into the countryside.
You see Jesus himself, the risen Jesus who appeared to them after his death – or so they recounted – ordered them to stay in Jerusalem. The Greek word for ordered can be translated: commanded them or he charged them. Jesus decreed that they remain in Jerusalem at the scene of the crime, in the city of crucifixion where, as followers of Jesus they, too, were at risk of arrest, of detention, of crucifixion.
The fact of the followers of Jesus being in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, is no fluke, no accident. It’s God’s doing, Jesus’s own doing. They are there – not off in Galilee – at the behest of the Divine.
It is God’s doing that the fire and wind of Pentecost, of the church’s birthday, it occurs, explodes in a densely populated locale, in a city, a metropolis … a city filled – as most cities are– with people from all over the globe. In the words of this story, people “from every nation under heaven.”
And, while, I am sure God loves the countryside, the rural outposts, the hamlets and villages of the earth there is no denying that the entire sweep of the Bible is a movement, a journey from Garden to City. From parochial to broadminded. From tribal to multicultural. The Bible opens in Eden, the Garden of Eden and then progresses toward the city, the shining city of the Book of Revelation, the Holy City, the New Jerusalem.
Jesus himself makes this journey, this pilgrimage, from Galilee to Jerusalem, from countryside to metropolis, during the entire length of his ministry. He is being inexorably drawn to Jerusalem.
In the story of Pentecost the city plays a part.
The writer, Luke, is at pains to tell us something rather interesting … that the city is filled with immigrants. It’s in verse five. Look it up if you like. It goes like this: “Now there were devout people from every nation under heaven living (not visiting) in Jerusalem.” Immigrants!
The followers of Jesus speak their languages … the main languages of the immigrants. The immigrants need not learn the local language. The church will come to them, will meet them where they are. There is no fear, here, of diversity. No urge or insistence or theological reason to all speak a universal language. Rather, in the story of Pentecost we encounter the God-initiated undertaking to meet others, strangers, foreigners where they are … to speak to them in their languages.
This is no melting pot where the sharp, spikey differences of foreignness are brought to a high boil until distinct ethnicities evaporate. This is no melting pot.
This is a salad: Parthians and Medes tossed in with Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia. It’s a salad where the distinctiveness of Judeans and Cappadocians are preserved alongside the distinctiveness of those who came from, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia and Egypt.
On the day of Pentecost, at God’s bidding, a cacophony of differences is tuned and perfected into a symphony of praise: praise to the God who made us and who made us different.
Praise be to you, O God, author of it all: of the whole, wide wonderful, multifarious miracle of life.
It is no accident, it is not without God’s doing, that Old South Church in Boston finds itself here, in the heart of the city, ministering in the midst of multilingualism … here, at this corner, at this densely populated locale, in a city, a metropolis that is filled – as most cities are – with people “from every nation under heaven.”
Now, I have to be honest, here. We tried to flee the city. Our forebears tried. It was in the mid-1800’s. In the 1850’s and 60’s and 70’s. We were in the thick of the city on Washington and Milk Streets … today’s Downtown Crossing. It was dense, thick with people and it was (by all accounts) smelly and sooty and loud. And our forebears wanted to flee the city in the worst way.
And they did. For a minute. In 1872 they moved here …to the newly filled in Back Bay, to the country.
But God wasn’t having any of it. And before we knew it the city was engulfing us. Today, it is fair to say of Old South Church that we own our urban ministry in every way … that we own our urban destiny… a God-ordained destiny that we do ministry in the context of difference, otherness … foreignness … as Jesus did.
Today, this morning, marks the 32nd year of Boston’s AIDS Walk. Our own member, the Rev. Dr Kenneth Orth is undertaking his 29th year of the Walk.
Travel with me back in time, to the late 1980’s. Our brand new, young Associate Minister of the time, the Rev. Arlene Nehring, found herself ministering during the AIDS pandemic. Ever so quietly, she and other Old South leaders began to reach out to those who were suffering, perishing … who suffered not only terrible illness and pain, but also shunning and isolation. They were in every way: modern day lepers. They were in every way strangers and foreigners.
Under Arlene’s leadership was born the AIDS Prayer Group. Held off-site at first, invitation only, so as to protect the privacy of the participants.
About the AIDS Prayer Group, Arlene wrote: “Our liturgy was simple. We welcomed each other, formed a circle, and created a simple worship center on the coffee table.” Each session began with Arlene lighting a blue candle (symbol of hope), and words to this effect: “Welcome to this circle. My name is Arlene. I am one of the pastors at Old South Church. We are a church with AIDS”.
For an hour, one by one, participants spoke, cried, and shared their personal stories, their fears and hopes. Arlene continues, “After the last person spoke we held hands—which was crucial because so many were afraid to touch people with AIDS for fear of getting sick. We held hands and I gathered up the joys and concerns of the group in a pastoral prayer.
Before participants left the gathering, anyone new received a daily mediation book and a rainbow ribbon. We made sure everyone had rides to appointments, food on the table, and someone checking on them. We took care of each other.” We hugged.
In addition, Arlene’s pastoral care extended into Boston’s interfaith community and, crucially, to working with local funeral homes, notably J. S. Waterman’s and Sons. Arlene was often called upon by funeral parlors to preside at the funerals of those taken by AIDS who had been rejected by their home churches.
It is God’s doing that the fire and wind of Pentecost – of the church’s birthday, the sound and the fury of it, the wildness and the wonder of it – occurs, explodes in a densely populated locale, in a city, a metropolis, a city filled (as most cities are) with people “from every nation under heaven.”
Is not this Pentecost? Meeting people where they are, speaking in the languages they know? Is not this Church?
This is our destiny, Old South Church: our God-ordained destiny that we do ministry in the context of difference, otherness … foreignness … as Jesus did.