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Hearing voices that other people can’t hear is considered to be a sign of serious mental illness. Ironically, even amongst us Episcopalians it is not unheard of for someone to make reference to “hearing God” talk to them. And once a year we use this text from Acts to mark the beginning of Pentecost — the longest season in the church year — a text that includes lots of voices that some can hear and others cannot, leading those who cannot hear to remark that the people who can hear them must be drunk.
Drunk, crazy. At one point, during that summer teaching gig I had in Tanzania, one of the men in my class took a sudden leave of absence.
“What’s that about?” I asked one of the other teachers.
“Oh, from time to time his mother in law turns into a snake at night and attacks the family. He has to go home and deal with it.”
“Oh for pity’s sake; that’s just crazy.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “He’s never lied to us about anything else.”
Once again, infuriating.
“Well (trying to be a team player) it seems like someone should explain that people don’t turn into snakes.”
“You could,” she agreed. “But, I guess I’ve always been more interested in why he thinks his mother in law would attack the family. Or why he sometimes feels like he needs to come up with this story to justify sudden absences from school.”
Today, we will baptize Leighton Ann Gilbert. We will “christen” her; that is, we will sacramentally put Christ in her. Some schools of the Christian faith don’t go quite this far, holding off baptism until the child is much older. But, they do have a sense that something special needs to happen early on and so they bring their infants to the church to “dedicate” them to God, much as Mary and Joseph brought baby Jesus to the temple when he was eight days old.
This is the moment at which, sensing that holiness had entered the space, old blind Simeon declared that God could now set him free to die in peace because his eyes — that couldn’t see anything else — had “seen” the savior, the one God prepared for all the world to see, the one that would be a light to light the nations and the glory of Israel.
In our case, if anyone is being publically dedicated today, it’s the parents and godparents who are publically committing to raise little Leighton in the Christian faith. But, as for Leighton, we are going to seal the deal with holy oil, marking her as Christ’s own forever.
With God’s help, one day she will stand before a bishop who will confirm that the promises that her parents and godparents make for her today will now be on her shoulders to continue to keep. And, by that time, we are hopeful that she will know all too well what these promises include, and be all too ready to accept the outward appearances of the inward graces that attended her baptism on this day.
In the meantime, there will be countless teaching moments for her parents Ned and Kathryn. When she realizes that she has treated someone unkindly, they will guide her to understand that each person deserves to be treated with dignity.
When she righteously rails against something that “just isn’t fair” they can encourage her to look for ways to seek for justice not only for herself but to help do her part to establish a just system that ensures all people are able to expect just treatment.
When she says that church is stupid and she doesn’t want to go anymore, hopefully, they will feel such support from their faith community and have themselves such a larger vision of life that they will bring her anyway. With very rare exceptions, it really doesn’t scar people to keep up a practice that they do not necessarily enjoy. Weekly entertainment isn’t exactly what the church exists to provide, any more than vegetables apologize for not tasting like ice cream. You may grow up to hate eating them, but thanks to eating them you’ll grow up.
But, good news for Ned and Kathryn, the work to bring Leighton up in the Christian faith does not rest on their shoulders, alone. We promise to do everything in our power to support them and her in this endeavor. That’s huge.
It also means that there will be a lot of different voices, sometimes all talking at the same time. How will she learn which voices to listen to? How will she learn when someone is talking nonsense to her? How will she learn whether the important thing is not whether people can turn into snakes but why someone would?
Whether we are talking about Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, the framework that holds us together is actually not our creeds. It’s our gatherings and what happens when we gather. We all have special foods, special traditions that we understand in various ways, and we all have interesting families.
But, like old blind Simeon, who couldn’t see anything else, whose sight quickened in the presence of the holy, the face of God that each of us yearns to see is the face of each of those people who show up with their holiday foods and traditions and their family drama. What do we think is between the covers of the Bible BUT family drama? Do you know how many times a story in the Bible begins with the words “there were two brothers”? Spoiler alert: It never turns out well.
Like Tyrion said to the Dragon Pit Council in Game of Thrones: “What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” And what goes better with a good story than good comfort food?
This is why the baptismal promise to continue in the teaching, the FELLOWSHIP and the breaking of the bread is the first promise that follows the doctrinal statements about God’s triune nature. We heard it last week, and in one way or another we hear it every week.
Each of us is created in the image of God, which connects us to each other, and recognizes the indelible traces that also distinguish us from each other. But wisdom never comes from learning only one lesson, or from hearing only one voice, from being around only people who are like us. Wisdom, discernment, equipoise – the confidence to be human, these traits develop over time by layering lesson upon lesson, line upon line, verse upon verse.
There are clearly times in life when the many different voices we hear can feel like Pentecost chaos, as though people’s heads are on fire or everyone is drunk. So, here’s a hat trick of three useful skills to practice so that only the best voices get through.
First, know your tipping point and honor it. Each of us enters this world with a certain temperament that allows for varying degrees of tolerating chaos. Figure out where yours is and don’t allow yourself to engage every conversation to the outermost boundaries of your capacity. When we fail to honor our limits, we risk saying or doing reckless and hurtful things.
Second, practice getting to empathy before getting to logic. Learn to ask why someone would feel like attacking one’s family or, from another perspective, why a man with an otherwise solid reputation for honesty would create such a ruse to allow for a quick time out from life before challenging whether what someone says makes any sense.
And finally determine to remember who you are and what you are about as folks who aren’t you try to tell you things. In the buildup to war between England and Germany in 1939, the British government developed three propaganda slogans to keep British subjects from panicking. Two were used to great success, but the third was never used.
It showed up in 2000 in a small used bookstore in the NE of England called Barter Books. It was part of a wholesale purchase of used books and posters, and the owners thought its message so timely that they framed it and displayed it. Since then, “Keep Calm And Carry On” has become one of the most well-known and practical pieces of iconic wisdom that we have.
So, know yourself and honor it and practice empathy over logic. Jesus said: “The Holy Spirit will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. I am leaving my peace with you. So Keep calm, and carry on.”
The Rev. Cynthia Park, LPC, PhD
June 9, 2019
The Day of Pentecost