There's No Place Like Home
Passage: Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21
Date: May 27, 2007
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Debbie Garber
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Next to the Sound of Music, the Wizard of Oz was one of my favorite movies. Growing up, network television indulged me with yearly repeats. I loved the Technicolor and snappy music, and even the evil laugh of the Wicked Witch of the East. There were so many sights and sounds, good and bad creatures, and a yellow brick road to follow. Dorothy, the heroine, was amazed by it all, but she was also a bit frightened to be in such a strange place. I worried about Dorothy and her little dog, Toto. Would they ever find the wizard? Would they ever see Auntie Em and Uncle Henry again? Would they ever get home to the familiar? Now, not to spoil the ending for you...but Dorothy and Toto did eventually get home. Using her magic ruby slippers, she clicked her heels twice and repeated the phrase: "There's no place like home. There's no place like home." And, through the whirlwind, she was magically transported back home.
There have been times while living in Austin, Texas, that I have found myself repeating those exact same words. I have seen live Longhorn cows grazing alongside the freeway, huge numbers of students in burnt orange t-shirts moving in one direction many Saturdays in the Fall, and spectacular thunderstorms, mostly experienced beneath my bedcovers. It can be exhausting at times constantly adjusting to new surroundings. There are days when I just want to log on to the Internet and listen to OPB to hear the Portland weather or traffic report. I have felt, at times, a little like Dorothy-seeking the familiar, things that make me comfortable. This is especially true as I have searched for a church home in Austin. Frankly, there's no place like Westminster, no matter how much I have looked. Each time I visit a church, it's hard not to compare it to this church. As a Westminsterite and a Presbyterian, I am at home in our way of worship, speaking of God, and relating to each other and the world.
Seminaries, contrary to popular opinion, comprise a wide variety of students from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a wide variety of opinions. I am grateful to God for that. At Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, we are primarily Presbyterian and Methodist, with a healthy portion of Pentecostal, Disciples of Christ, non-denominational, and one stray Lutheran. Students come from a variety of geographical areas, but mostly Texas, and I am proud to say we have five students from the Northwest. Even within the Presbyterian contingent, our theologies range from conservative, maybe even fundamentalist, to moderate, and liberal. So, you can see that there should be no expectation that we will agree on very much. We are, at times, a Babel of voices.
In such a community, maybe not so different from your work or school environment, there is a desire to seek out people with whom we share commonalities. Harder still is to seek out those with whom we are sure we do not share much in common. I have a friend, Norris, whom I met during Discovery Weekend and then later during our orientation in the Fall. Norris is about as opposite of me as possible, especially in our congregational experiences, scriptural knowledge, and theology. I think he would agree with that assessment. Norris is a member of a very large, multi-cultural, mega church in Austin. Their traditional Sunday morning service is anything but traditional. They have auditorium seating, a band, large media screens that project church announcements, scriptures, and songs, and no Christian symbols whatsoever in the auditorium. Their Sunday service would be called a "seeker service" in today's church lingo. It is not the only type of service offered at the church, but it is certainly the main attraction. But there is a real sense of presence of the Holy Spirit in that service and in Norris. Norris has a way of really challenging me to better articulate my beliefs. He often puts me into the role of being the Ambassador for the Reformed Tradition or Ms. Presbyterian USA. Many times after class, we would pour over our theology notes in preparation for an upcoming exam, and then he would ask me...The Question.
The Question changed, of course, based on what we were studying at the time, but it always caught me by surprise. The one that comes to mind is "Do you believe in original sin?" Yikes. OK, let's see, what does Calvin say about original sin, and then I would stumble my way through the explanation. Of course, I always got to ask The Question back, and off we would go, back and forth, explaining, clarifying, speaking in opposites, reaching deep inside and...somehow...slowly...realizing...we were speaking the same core beliefs. Perhaps we were not so different after all. Not all our conversations brought spiritual epiphanies, but many have. Sometimes I have been uncomfortable with Norris' viewpoint, but I have always grown from the experience. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we have developed a fellowship in Christ that embraces our diversity, yet has helped us to find our commonalities.
Pentecost is not a story about imposing a uniform expression of the gospel. Rather it is about speaking and hearing the gospel in our diversity, regardless of where we feel at home. But how does the Holy Spirit accomplish this? Unlike the wizard behind the curtain in Oz, the Holy Spirit does not coerce or manipulate us. The Holy Spirit nurtures us, entices us, and, yes, unsettles us. We are shaken out of our comfort zones to be called to a radical kind of unity: a unity in the diversity of voices, even those that are difficult to hear. The Holy Spirit helps us to see God's gifts working in each other in creative and unique ways.
In presbyteries and synods across the U.S., our denomination is reaching out to those who feel they haven't been heard. But more often than not, the denomination has been rebuffed. It seems that minds and hearts have already been made up. Have we only pretended to listen to "the other" in our denomination and in our congregations? On the one hand, our effort at inter-faith dialogue is growing. For example, at Westminster, there are many projects along these lines to bridge religious gaps and increase understanding. There are many people personally dedicated to this mission. It is a mission that must continue if we are ever truly to be part of a global society. But, I wonder about another mission that is calling us today-the mission of healing in the Church? It is not uncommon for denominations to split and come back together-our history is filled with such events. It may not even be something we can or should prevent. In the Tower of Babel, God transformed uniformity into diversity. In Pentecost, God brings us back together in unity through diversity. All for God's purposes, not our own. The Holy Spirit calls us to transformation, not just tolerance or even respect. It is about embracing and being embraced by all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
A few years ago, I attended a session on compassionate listening here at Westminster as part of the Christian-Muslim-Palestinian small group. Compassionate Listening is a process rather than a product. It is healing precisely because it does not pretend to have the answers. Rather, it engages the participants in processes that have each side seeing the humanity of the other, even when they disagree.1 One thing that has always stayed with me about that experience is how hard it is to be a compassionate listener. You need to set aside your own ego, your own need to say something or debate something. You are not listening to the other person so you can learn the secrets to his or her side of the issue and use it against him or her later. You are listening. Just listening. I have tried to practice the spirit of compassionate listening at seminary. Not always successfully, but in Pentecost we are promised that the Holy Spirit is not only present when we are trying to understand one another, but is active in the process. Our calling is to discern the signs of God's work wherever they may take place.
The Good News of Pentecost is that we have a home in the body of Christ. Being the body of Christ is sometimes uncomfortable and unsettling, but the Holy Spirit binds us together in our diversity and calls upon us to expect to be amazed and astonished in God's deeds of power in each other. Diversity does not need to be divisive. Unity does not need to be uniformity. Paul reminds the Galatians that the gospel is elastic enough to embrace Jews and Greeks, men and women, free and slave. Our hope today in the Babel of voices is to hear the Good News. We are the body of Christ, thanks be to God.