Sermon: At-one-ment



Pentecost – Acts 2:1-21

I took Patrick to a medical appointment on Monday and was talking with a staff person there that I have gotten to know over the years. She knows I’m a Mennonite, and she told me that she had just listened to a Malcolm Gladwell podcast about Mennonites. I decided to listen to it as Patrick was in his appointment. It was Gladwell’s story about Chester Wenger — the 96-year-old ordained Mennonite pastor who was stripped of his credentials for marrying his gay son back in 2014. It was a story that made front page news in papers and websites across the country. 

Gladwell knows Mennonites. He grew up in a Mennonite community in Canada, his parents joined a Mennonite church, his brother is married to a Mennonite minister. And he’s trying to explain to his podcast listeners who Mennonites are.  He’s trying to explain Mennonites to non-Mennonites. And this is what he says (4:14 in podcast):

Let me start with a few more words about Mennonites because what Wenger did makes no sense unless you understand the world that he inhabits. The theologian Palmer Becker has a lovely phrase to describe the Mennonite way, “Jesus is the center of our faith, community is the center of our lives, reconciliation is the center of our work.”

It’s hard to explain to an outsider how seriously the Mennonites take these three things Jesus, community, and reconciliation. 

My ears immediately perked up at this, because we use Palmer Becker’s pamphlet, “What is an Anabaptist Christian,” in our new members class every year, and I had just spent the day before unpacking that phrase with our new members and others who joined us —
“Jesus is the center of our faith, community is the center of our life and reconciliation is the center of our work.” And I realized I have no difficulty saying that I take seriously the idea that Jesus is the center of my faith. I would say: The way of Jesus is the center of my faith and then I would go on to talk for 10 minutes about what I mean by that. But I could say it and take it seriously.  And I take seriously the idea that community is the center of my life. But is reconciliation the center of my work, our work?

Reconciliation isn’t the first word I get to thinking about my or our calling in the world. I looked up the word in the dictionary and it means “the restoration of friendly relations,” which seems a bit anemic, and also “the action of making one view or belief compatible with another,” which could sound like watering down your beliefs so you can just “go along to get along.”  There are some beliefs with which I never want mine to be compatible. And, even more,  the word is quite problematic when used as a synonym for racial justice. Too often white folks have thought of racial reconciliation as — come on, people of color who have endured centuries of systemic oppression by white people that we neither want to learn about or understand and against which we are highly defended and who are currently experiencing injustices that — if you mention it — we will feel threatened by that — let’s just all get along. Let’s just reconcile and feel good and join hands together.  

But then I turned to the Biblical definition of reconciliation. In the Hebrew Scripture, the word “reconciliation” is the Hebrew word “kaw-far” and it is one of the most theologically significant words in the Bible — it’s sometimes translated as forgiveness but its most common translation is “atonement.” This word, literally, means at-one-ment. To make one. To bring what was divided and separated together, into oneness. And the concept is so theologically significant because, as I thought of it, all of Scripture is a story of trying to overcome separation, of trying to bridge separation and alienation. 

Think of it: In the beginning, the divine Wind, the Spirit swept over the waters and creation was born. And it was good, and humans were good. Not alienated from their Creator, with whom we walked in the garden; not alienated from creation, which was delightful to our eyes and provided us effortlessly with food; not alienated from each other — in fact, we were bone of bone and flesh of flesh to each other. 

And then: We ate that apple. I don’t know why we say it was an apple; the Bible just says it was fruit. But it was so sweet. And it promised us so much. Eating it, we were going to be as God, knowing good and evil. Maybe we had to eat it to become conscious, aware. That’s our species name, after all – homo sapiens sapiens — the human who is aware that it is aware. But as soon as we ate, we experienced division and separation for the first time. Alienation from ourselves, from our natural state— these bodies! We’re naked. Ah! Alienation from our Creator — we hid from Her in the quiet of the garden. Alienation from creation — Genesis says the “ground is cursed” because of that act, and we now have to toil and labor to get our food from the earth. And we were cast out of the primordial oneness, the primordial unity we call the Garden of Eden. And what was the first thing that happened after that? Cain killed Abel. One brother killed another. The ultimate divider, the ultimate separator — death. We wielded its power for the first time.

But not the last. And we kept on using power against each other and creation, deepening the divide between us and our Creator, between us and creation, between each other, within ourselves.  It got so bad that God decided it was time to press the reset button and start over. The flood that wiped out every living creature except those on an ark was the great do-over. Let’s see if humans can get it right this time. But what’s the first thing that happens after that reset? The Tower of Babel. In that story, humans decide that they are going to build a tower with its top in the heavens. They want to make a name for themselves, Genesis says. Be big men and women. Separate themselves out from others and look down upon them. Be “high and mighty.” The consequence of this tower building is the fragmentation of humanity, our separation from each other. Because before the Tower of Babel, humanity all spoke the same language. After the Tower, we all speak different languages. We literally can’t understand each other anymore.  We can not communicate — “come” (with), “unicate” (from the word for unity). We are separated, walled off into our own language groups, not able to bridge the separation between us. What a perfect metaphor for the loss of at-one-ment.

And then comes Jesus, in a long line of Jewish prophets, who denounces those separations and divisions, those ways we make ourselves high and mighty over others; who denounces the death-wielding power of injustice, another great divider.  And Jesus shows us the way of community (community — with unity), a community that breaks down the separations and barriers of gender, rank, class, tribe. And on the night before he dies, as it says in the gospel of John, he prays fervently that we would be one with each other and one with God even as he is one with God.

He is killed but then, miraculously, is experienced as alive again. Even that great divider, death, has now been bridged. After 40 days of being alive to his disciples, he says he must go away again. He will ascend into heaven, but he says that we are not going to be separated from him. Because the Spirit is going to come and be with us. The Spirit will bridge the divide between us and him. 

And so, his friends, are “all together, in one place.” That’s the beginning of our story today from Acts. All together, in one place. Waiting. And there is a rushing of wind, like the wind that swept over the waters at the beginning of Creation. A wind that creates, that forms worlds.  The Spirit in the form of fire enters and alights on each person. And what is the first thing that happens? The followers of Jesus begin to speak in all the languages of the known world at that time. They begin to speak so the Phrygians and Pamphylians and Parthinians and Elamites all know what they are saying. This Spirit sent by Jesus undoes the Tower of Babel. It bridges our primal separation by allowing us to communicate with each other. And with communication comes the possibility for communion and community.

And then Peter says  that this Sprit of communication and communion and community has now been poured out on everyone — on all flesh — on men, women, daughters and sons, upon slaves — across all separations of gender and age and rank that divided people then and now, across all tribal and language groupings. All these people now have the power to dream of a world without walls and they all have the power to communicate — to bridge what separates us from our Creator, from creation, from each other, from ourselves. That is the Spirit poured out on Pentecost. The Spirit of reconciliation. Of at-one-ment. 

What are the divides within yourself you might be called to heal? What breaches in your family or within friendships or within this community are you invited to repair?  How are you alienated from God or Spirit or Soul or how might you open yourselves to healing that alienation? What separates you from right relationship with creation? And what walls and barriers of injustice are you called to help tear down; what justice are you invited to help build?  Do you take those invitations seriously? Because this is your work. This is our work. This is the work of the Spirit in us.