Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Church Born Out of Diversity

Today we celebrate the birth of the Christian Church at Pentecost. The first 100 believers had gathered with thousands of other Jewish people to celebrate the festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem. The city was teeming not only with devout Jews from every nation, but also with thousands of others who lived, worked, and traveled to this urban center. Like any other metropolis Jerusalem was an ethnically, culturally and socially diverse city. People came from all over, speaking different languages, practicing different customs, wearing different clothes, worshipping different gods. And it is here, in this diverse, urban context that our Church was born.

Gathered there for what they assumed to be a routine celebration of the Jewish festival something extraordinary happened. The Scriptures tell us that suddenly there was a sound like the rush of a violent wind that came from the heavens, and there appeared divided tongues, as if of fire, flaming tongues that came and rested on each person, filling them with the Holy Spirit. As they were touched, each began to speak in other languages given to them by the Spirit. As onlookers gathered, they all heard the believers speaking in their own native tongue!

Can you imagine? Ecstatic jibberish flowing forth in a cacophony of sound, yet being understood as loud and clear as if spoken in one’s own native tongue! The crowds were amazed as they listened to the believers tell the of the power and deeds of God working in them and at the end of the day three thousand people from around the world, people of different nations, languages, ethnicities and cultures were so convicted by the words spoken by these believers that our Church was born!

What I find so amazing about this story of the birth of our Church is the miraculous way in which the believers were unified in and through their diversity. Through the power of the Holy Spirit people from different nations, classes, ethnicities, cultures, and languages were made one in Christ that day. The unity of the first Church did not come at the expense of, or despite, the diversity among believers, but in fact came in and through the celebration of these very differences. As people witnessed the power of God working in their lives, the Holy Spirit did not obliterate differences so that all could be understood, but rather She worked through the differences of language using diversity as a way to create unity. When each heard the strange tongues being spoken, they were not immediately translated into some sort of lingua franca for the Middle East. They were not all heard in Hebrew, or Greek or even Latin, not even King James’ English. No, the power of the Holy Spirit celebrated the differences of the people gathered that day by translating the language of God into a myriad of different native languages spoken by the variety of people gathered there that day. Unity was found in celebration of diversity!!

For United Methodists, particularly at this time in our history, unity is a loaded word. In recent times unity has been used as a weapon against those who seek to create change in the denomination. Some say that for the sake of unity, those who seek full inclusion in the Church ought to be silent. Don’t rock the boat, they say. If you just be quiet, we’ll let you come to church…maybe. Don’t be so flamboyant. Sometimes you have to know when to be quiet.

These appeals to a false unity at times can dowse the flames of our passion for the Church and for God. The holy breath of life with which the Spirit infuses us, can be sucked out of us in an instant as our fires of hope are dampened by this dangerous call to unity.

We must remember, however, that unity does not have to be gained at the expense of diversity, at the expense of the life of the Church. Historically, the mark of unity has been understood as a gift of the Spirit that brings together all the faithful who believe in God, revealed through Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit; exactly what happened so long ago at the birth of our church. Yet, over time, the mark of unity has been mistaken by many in the Church as uniformity. While unity implies the coming together of many into one that celebrates diversity, uniformity implies the coming together of many into a totalizing one that negates and destroys difference.

When I think of this type of uniformity I often recall a scene from a children’s fantasy novel, A Wrinkle in Time. The author Madeline L’Engle employs science fiction to talk about the problem of evil and the Christian response to it. In this book, two children are sent on a cosmic journey to battle the forces of evil. This quest sends them to a planet that has entirely surrendered to an evil power that threatens to destroy the universe. We might imagine a planet that has been consumed by evil to look radically different from our own….perhaps we might envision perpetual war and violence, death, pestilence and destruction. But that is not the vision L’Engle paints for us…no, evil looks very much like the contemporary world in which we live today…there are neighborhoods, children, families, a large city to which people travel to work every morning, fields and meadows, shopping centers and movie theaters….the only difference is that everything on this planet is exactly the same. As the two earth children wander through the streets they realize that each house on the street looks exactly the same. All the girls are skipping rope in time with each other as the boys bounce a ball in the exact same rhythm. Mothers call out the doors at exactly the same time and fathers walk in sync with each other to the center of the city to go to work. No one is allowed to question or to think independent of the One. It is quite an eerie depiction, one that haunted me as a child.

For L’Engle cosmic evil can be described as totalizing uniformity in which difference is negated and denied to the absolute suppression of the human and divine spirit. Sound familiar?

The Church has for ages fought with those tendencies to make everything uniform in the community of faith. Long battles have been waged over making sure people believed the exact same thing, worshipped in the exact same way, dressed the exact same way, spoke the same language, lived in the same type of families, sang the same songs and called God by the same name. We know those battles, the ones we read about in our history books and the ones through which we live in our own communities of faith. Uniformity has throughout the life of the Church tempted us toward an easy but false unity, sucking dry the life that the Holy Spirit poured upon us all at Pentecost.

For the GLBT community this drive toward uniformity has been particularly painful and oppressive. The scene from A Wrinkle in Time brilliantly illustrates the overt heterosexist values that characterize the evil planet. The girls jump rope, the boys bounce the ball, the mothers stay at home, the fathers work in the city….the face of evil we could say in other words might be compulsory heterosexuality. Be clear I am not saying that heterosexuals or heterosexuality is evil. Rather I am suggesting that the compulsion to enforce heterosexual gender norms may be part of the evil L’Engle described.

Uniform heterosexist gender norms are dangerous for us all regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity. Those of us who dare transgress gender norms have been ridiculed, excluded, abused, marginalized, oppressed, shamed, beaten and battered, put in concentration camps, even murdered. Why? Because we chose to stand outside of the social uniform of heterosexuality.

Just this week, we in the United Methodist Church watched the guardians of ecclesial uniformity swarm in response to the affirmation of Rev. Drew Phoenix’s ministry in the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference. Rev. Phoenix is a gifted and talented pastor who in the past five years has tripled the size of his small urban congregation. In the midst of a denomination that by all accounts is withering in the urban centers, one would imagine the Church would rejoice at such an extraordinarily gifted pastor. The problem however has nothing to do with Rev. Phoenix’s gifts and graces for ministry. The problem is simply because Rev. Drew Phoenix used to be Rev. Ann Gordon.

This transgression of heteronormative patterns of gender threatened for some in the Church the traditional roles for women and men, shaking the very foundation of social order in which women and men are assigned certain scripts for proper social behavior. These uniform gender roles do not enhance the unity of the Church, rather they suppress the divinely ordered diversity that gives life to our Church and world.

Uniformity is not unity. It never can be. While uniformity seeks to make us all alike by suppressing difference, unity celebrates our differences as we strive toward a common goal. The unity of the church is not found in a static set of beliefs, but rather in the dynamic process through which the church moves closer and closer to the mission of God, the vision of God, the reign of God, the kin-dom come, shalom, peace, justice.

Let’s go back to the text…remember the converts came to the faith, not solely because of some supernatural trick, but because of the message the believers conveyed through the tongues….remember, the text tells us that the believers were all speaking words about the power of God working in their lives…that’s what unified the church….it was the message of God’s power and action in the world, in the lives of people as peace and justice and love broke forth into their community. When we proclaim the power of God working in the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight persons, we work toward unifying the Church as one in mission to bring forth God’s vision of peace and justice.

Our diversity brings unity.

Unity is found in the process of embodying God’s reign in our lives so that others may see God working in us….that is where we are unified. Gustavo Gutierrez reminds us that unity is not a given condition within either church or world, rather “it is a process, the result of overcoming all that divides people.”

This celebration of difference in unity is the true mark of the church for it unleashes the powers of human creativity, ingenuity and imagination as powerful tools toward reaching God’s vision of peace and justice. As a people on the margins, as a people who have at some level or another rejected the myth of uniform or compulsory heterosexuality, the queer community has incredible resources for moving the church toward more fully becoming the church as it was created at Pentecost.


Larry B said...

". Through the power of the Holy Spirit people from different nations, classes, ethnicities, cultures, and languages were made one in Christ that day. The unity of the first Church did not come at the expense of, or despite, the diversity among believers, but in fact came in and through the celebration of these very differences. As people witnessed the power of God working in their lives, the Holy Spirit did not obliterate differences so that all could be understood, but rather She worked through the differences of language using diversity as a way to create unity."

I don't quite understand your account of this event. My own understanding is the events at Pentecost were limited to to practicing Jewish people (including pagans who had converted to Judaism). In which case, there is a single point of unity already established around which these people agreed i.e. the principles of Judaism. In fact it wasn't until Acts 10 after the church had been persecuted and scattered, that their adherence to the tenets of Judaism were even questioned.

And we find in Acts 15, for devout Jews it is acceptable to continue with their practices, however the gentiles who are new to the faith as the result of Peter's vision in Acts 10, are only required to adhere to 4 tenets as listed in 15:29.

You seem to imply that the Pentecostal Miracle was an explosion of diversity, yet the text indicates it was limited to faithful Jewish followers only. Am I missing something?

Rev. Tiffany Steinwert said...

I suppose it doesn't matter if the people were all Jewish or not. My point is that they were made one through thier diversities which included at least culture, language, class, and gender.

The point of the sermon is that unity emerged through diversity. The unity of the Church was found not in unifrom culture, language, gender, etc., but rather in a shared mission of proclaiming the power and works of God wrought in and through the motley crowd gathered that day in Jerusalem.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Tiffany, but let's be clear.

This was not a group of post-modern Americans seeking to validate their particular lifestyle. These were practicing Jews who happened to be gathered from different parts of Israel and other countries for the high feast.

This account has nothing to do with LGBT people fight with the Church to allow them to enter. The people at Pentecost would have not at all been tolerant of homosexuality as it was a capital offense in the Law of Moses.

We should fear God and tell people what the text really says. When the Bible speaks of diversity in heaven, it only speaks of different nations and peoples, not sexual orientations.