"Sober - Jesus Style"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
May 31, 2020
Numbers 11:1-30 and Acts 2:1–13
I am not sober. At least not in the sense that I have stopped drinking. Though you may, at some point in this message think to yourself, “What is he saying? He must be drunk on new wine.” There is a complex tapestry to weave today – many threads are being woven together to create the history in which we find ourselves today. I’ll try to be clear.
This is Pentecost, the so-called “birthday” of the church. Since it’s an annual celebration, we think we know the story well, and often gloss over some important details. Pentecost was already an important feast day of Judaism, and still is today. It’s called Shavuot, and it celebrates the reception of the commandments on Mount Sinai in the wilderness early in the exodus from Egypt. As we know, the Hebrew slaves had been suddenly thrust from their normal lives – captive and marginalized as they were. Their status may have been only marginally better than slaves in the United States at the time of the emancipation proclamation. They were part of the economic engine that built and maintained the empire – Egypt this time.
Today, we admit that enslavement of African Americans, together with the rape and pillage of our natural environment, are what fueled the supremacy of the empire we inhabit. The name and center of power shifts, but the phenomenon of empire and slavery go hand in hand and reemerge again and again throughout human history. Sometimes that system is overt and blatant – the presumed norm. Other times it is insidious and deceptive, but no less powerful. Perhaps more so because it is all around us – in the air we breathe. Having escaped their multigeneration captivity, the Israelites found themselves in a new, unexpected, and equally uncomfortable situation.
The Hebrew people spent a generation in the wilderness, condemned to wander under contested leadership. The book of Numbers is a description of the events of those years. The Hebrew name for the book is “In the Wilderness!” The people are getting restless and cranky. They cry out, “When will this be over? When can we get back to normal – even though normal meant slavery? At least we were well fed. Now, we don’t know what to expect. We don’t know when this will all be over. We thought we were special people – that a land of milk and honey and privilege had been set aside for us! Where is it? We want it now. And, by the way, Moses, who made you the boss of us? We want to choose for ourselves and we don’t really care about the consequences.”
Lo and behold, God loves sarcasm. God says, “I’ll give you what you want until you’ve had so much it’s coming out of your noses!”
The commandments that Exodus tells us were brought down from on high began as simple rules to help the people survive their uncertainty and to guide them on their trek toward something new and life giving. Don’t waste your praise on empty things that are shiny and dehumanizing. Take time to rest together and be grateful. Respect one another’s intimate relationships. Do not get too far ahead of those who have been around for a while and may be slowing down a bit – in other words, take care of the vulnerable ones in your midst. You get the idea. Over time, I suspect, these simple rules for getting through a challenging time became fixed and rigid and precious. They became an institution – not all bad, but not very nimble. At it’s best, Shavuot is a time of return to the simplicity of surviving with just enough from day to day – a time to pause and be grateful. A sober time – though not without the cup of joy. Shavuot – called Pentecost by the Greek speaking Jews – is why there were “God-fearers” from throughout the diaspora in Jerusalem on Pentecost. As with many things throughout history, followers of Jesus who have become institutional Christians – especially when they wield some power – co-opt and colonize what is best in the lands and cultures they encounter.
Often, it’s hard to get a Lector to read on Pentecost because of the difficult names of places and people that were gathered in Jerusalem for the festival.Theories abound regarding the importance and meaning of the list. It occurred to me that there are twelve groups. That number is familiar. Twelve tribes surrounded the tent of God’s presence in the wilderness. Twelve disciples surrounded the tent of God’s presence in Jesus. Now, twelve cultures are invited into relationship in language that respects their places and cultures of origin – a kind of anti-empire or reverse colonialism. Could this be a suggestion by the author of Luke/Acts of a paradigm shift in the understanding of who is included in God’s invitation to be an example of holy living – an engine for the construction and maintenance of the beloved community? God was working through the struggle and heartbreak of the diaspora to illumine a new way.
Pentecost, then, observes God doing a new thing in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. But not for the first or last time. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples in the upper room weeks earlier. Before that, the synoptic Gospels agree that the Holy Spirit revealed Jesus’ glory to Jesus’ inner circle in the transfiguration. Before that, the Spirit descended in a flutter at Jesus’ baptism. Continuing to retrace the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we remember the annunciation, the visions of the prophets, Elisha receiving the Spirit from Elijah, Elijah receiving the Spirit in the still small voice, the transfer of the Spirit from Moses to the seventy leaders, the bush that did not burn, and in the beginning – the Spirit fluttering over the chaos of creation. So, the Holy Spirit has been with us always. One thing we notice is that the Spirit seems most manifest in times of paradigm shift – of crisis – often unexpected, or at least unprepared for. If ever there was a time for a Holy Spirit moment – it is now in the exile/exodus/diaspora/wilderness in which we find ourselves today.Pentecost is the bold gift of the Spirit poured out on the followers of Jesus, and the way I read it, on the bystanders as well. The gift is in the seeing of the formerly unseeable, the comprehension of the incomprehensible, the courage and power to stand in league with the rabbi/teacher/healer from the backwater region of Galilee. It is a sobering task.
Ronald Rolheiser’s seventh invitation to mature discipleship is “Live in a more radical sobriety.” It’s a subtle and nuanced invitation. “A recovering alcoholic once told [him]: ‘Sobriety is only 10 percent about alcohol or a drug; it’s 90% about honesty. You can drink, if you don’t have to lie about it.’ As a moral principal, that requires some qualifications, but it covers a lot of ground: could you cheat someone, be sexually unfaithful, slander someone, or commit a sin of any kind and feel comfortable in sharing that openly with those who are closest to you?” For me, those would be my mom, Mary and our children, my trusted colleagues, you all. In other words, can I own up to my shadows with those whose opinions matter most? This presumes, of course, that somewhere deep inside we are governed or guided by a moral compass – a spark of the divine – an aspect of our creation in the image and likeness of a creator who pours out the very essence of being – a powerful, disturbing, comforting, visionary Spirit that imbues us as beloveds of God. I believe that is true.
The shadow I own up to, and am ashamed of, is that I am a racist, and so are you. Racism, like alcoholism or other forms of addiction is not the disease of an individual, but the disease of a system that manifests in the addictive behavior of individuals. I may not be the one who is drinking the racist Kool-Aid, but I’m part of the family that mixes the drink.
I also observe the insurgence of a mindset in our culture that has been called vice-signaling. It’s a kind of response or reaction to virtue-signaling –which is the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments merely intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue. A recent article in The Atlantic about the resistance to wearing masks in public defined it this way: “Vice signaling turns everything – even, and especially, matters of life and death – into an empty contest. Its rhetoric is intended,” The Independent put it recently, “to create a community based on cruelty and disregard for others, which is proud of it at the same time.” But it also works as its own gesture of individualism: “The essential message of a vice signal,” the essayist K. Thor Jensen wrote in 2018, “is that it’s never you that needs to change – the world needs to change around you.”” There seems to be, in some quarters, a newly found bravado in displaying how very callous you can be. Compassion, in this view, is merely weakness.
Rolheiser’s point is that to be a mature disciple we must confront and own our shadows, and to the extent we can, shed some light there, painful as that might be for the creatures that lurk there – whose eyes would rather not see. The lack of illumination over the generations results in a blindness to our collective disfunctions – cruelty, abuse, privilege, harm. Of course, the real world is right in front of us all the time. It’s a matter of habit that we do not see these disfunctions. The stories we do tell insidiously disguise what’s sick in our collective body. They normalize the contortions we embrace to preserve our comfort and convenience. The blatant lie is laying out in the open.
Sometimes, events conspire to illumine our path. Today, those events include the exodus of the pandemic, the collective mourning of thousands of deaths – many of which might have been prevented with science-based, non-partisan action, and the clear and inequitable impact of the virus and it’s economic effects on already struggling and marginalized people. Then, on Monday, in full public view, a white police officer in Minneapolis, with the explicit consent of his colleagues, brazenly and casually murdered George Floyd – say his name: George Floyd. This same week, Tony McDade, a Black trans man was killed by police in Tallahassee. These killings are on the heels of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and scores of other deaths and acts of violence not caught on camera. On the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery I’ve heard it said, “Ahmaud was not killed because he was black. He was killed because his murderers were white supremacists.” White privilege, and our reluctance to acknowledge or talk about it are what we mask in our drunken stupor. It’s no wonder that when the power of the Holy Spirit is poured out on the people, enabling truth to be spoken in clear language understood by all, the bystanders blurt out, “Oh, he must be drunk on new wine.”
At the outset, I said I am not sober. But I am profoundly serious. Now is the time for a paradigm shift. God is working through the struggle and heartbreak of the pandemic to illumine a new way. Come, Holy Spirit. Come.
Now is the time for us to take a hard look in the mirror at our individual, but especially our collective self, to acknowledge that we are not well. We need the disturbing, guiding, healing power of the Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit, Come.
The lie of supremacy and privilege that are shrouded in the illusion of normalcy are an affront to the Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit. Come.
I don’t know how to fix it, but I do know that the first step in or recovery from racism and white privilege is to acknowledge that we are broken, we need healing, and we cannot do it alone. We must do it together and with the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit. Come.