Imagine… you are in the middle of a crowded Middle Eastern market place. Everyone is wearing different clothes, kind of a model United Nations in full costume all in one place. Things are so busy that people bump your arm as they go by. And rather than that customary Canadian “sorry” you’re used to, your ears are drowning in multiple different languages. Some you recognize, but don’t understand. Others you’re never heard before, and don’t understand either. You want to buy something, you want to speak to them. But they can’t understand a single thing you say. You’re embarrassing yourself by flapping your arms trying to mime out what you’re looking for. And you don’t know the social conventions—should I just pay what the sign says, or should I barter down?
You’re isolated. You’re a long long way from home. You can’t understand a single word out of anyone’s mouth, and they can’t understand you, either. You’re surrounded by people, but you’ve never felt so lonely before in your entire life. All you’re trying to do is connect with someone. But you feel nothing but disconnected.
This is the kind of scene we might imagine painted in our reading this morning. A crowded public space where everyone should be connected, but no one is able to connect with each other. It’s the city of Jerusalem, the holy city. It’s the festival of Pentecost, a festival celebration that comes fifty weeks after the celebration of Passover in the Jewish calendar. Pentecost for Jews here is different than Pentecost for Christians. It’s a double celebration—this is when it’s believed Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai. But it’s also a seasonal festival, a sort of Thanksgiving celebration for the first fruits of the harvest. So there are thousands of Jewish pilgrims gathering in this place from one end of the known world to the other. Parthians and Medes from Iran. Elamites and Mesopotamians from southern Iraq. Judeans from Palestine, Cappadocians, Phrygians, and Pamphylians from Turkey. Pontians from Georgia on the Black Sea, Asians from Kurdistan. Egyptians, Libyans, Greeks and Arabs. Folks who are ethnically Jewish, and those who have converted. All gathered in one place for this holy harvest festival. A multicultural rainbow.
You see over the years Jews have been scattered all over the known world by empire after invading empire. And as the Roman Empire comes in to power they are able to now travel over great distances. Sea ways, roads, and their version of mass communications have made the world smaller than ever before. These far-flung people are even able to return to their spiritual home in Jerusalem. But like in the image of the market place we imagined together… they find themselves separated by language, and by culture. Even though they share so much with, and are surrounded by people with whom they should be able to connect. They nonetheless find themselves disconnected, isolated, alienated from each other. Even though this whole new world is more connected than ever before, they find themselves unable to connect. Even in the place they call home.
Disconnected… even in the place they call home. As much as we like to imagine the differences between ourselves and ancient peoples, we hear their challenges echoed in our own. It’s true that unlike ancient Jews in the Roman Empire, language isn’t much of a barrier for us—English is quickly becoming the world’s dominant cross-cultural language. But despite having a shared language we still struggle with all sorts of barriers and divisions. Race and class still disconnect us from each other, even in Canada. And now divisions by age and era are becoming more and more pronounced. Seniors are clustered together, baby boomers clustered together, people with families, couples without kids, single people. We are probably the most generationally segregated society the world has ever seen. Like gathers with like.
But there’s something deeper at work here that just goes beyond simple cultural divisions. Like these ancient people, our world is like a crowded marketplace where we are closer to people than ever before. But we also find ourselves more disconnected than we’ve ever been. I remember a survey of Vancouverites a couple of years ago that the top issue people were facing wasn’t poverty or homelessness—it was social isolation. One of the world’s most liveable cities is also one of its most lonely.[i] But it’s not just big cities like Vancouver who feel this way. It’s our world. I’m reminded of a 2012 book by Sherry Turkle, a professor of Science at MIT titled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Through thorough research and countless interviews, the author found that despite being more connected with each other than ever through smart phones, the internet, and other forms of social media, we feel more alone than ever. Less intimate than ever. Even if you don’t use a computer, I’m sure you feel it, too, just by existing in this new culture. We long for a true sense of purpose, deeper relationships, connection and community. But our world is so much like that busy Jerusalem market. Like these ancient people, we find ourselves more isolated than before. We often find ourselves skimming the surface. We find ourselves alone together. Even in the places we call home.
We live in a world of broken connections, it’s true. There’s a hunger and a yearning inside us that isn’t being met. But the flip side of the coin is that not only are we created for connection, the Spirit of God is also at work reconnecting us. Sounds from the crowded marketplace rise in to the air as the followers of Jesus gather for worship. They find themselves isolated and alone, too. Because Jesus, even though he was raised to new life, left them to fend for themselves. He promised he would send his Spirit, but it’s been 10 days, and no sign. They are singing their songs, praying their prayers, and going though the motions day after day. And suddenly, the text says, “from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” And “all of them,” it says, “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
The lightning hits the rod. And when the batteries are charged they burst out of the church sanctuary. Jesus’ followers are energized, and they’re shoved right out in to the street into the busy market place. Prompted by the Spirit, they begin to speak—Arabic, Greek, Farsi, Hebrew, Kurdish, Italian. They open their mouths and their tongues mysteriously rearrange to produce every tongue in the known world. And everyone in this babbling crowd suddenly understands. These people who were once disconnected from each other by language and culture, they begin to hear the story of God in their own language. Despite all the barriers that keep them from each other, the Holy Spirit breaks them all down. People who were once alone, disconnected from one another. People who found themselves disconnected in a connected world, finding themselves lonely in a crowd. For them, a switch is flipped, the sparks fly. The electricity begins to flow through and between each of them. And in a world of disconnection, a world of loneliness and isolation, they are reconnected. With eachother. And to the mystery at the heart of all things. They not only understand. They find their together as part of a larger story.
And, despite the differences between us in time and space, I believe the community-creating Spirit of God is very much at work drawing us together today. Mysteriously, relentlessly. Past boundaries we once thought were impenetrable. And drawing us in to a story greater than ourselves. Even in a disconnected world like ours. Maybe perhaps especially in a disconnected world like ours. Look around you. In our wider world, we’ve seen an incredible response to the disasters in Fort McMurray. Where suddenly rugged individualist Albertans (I’m one) are suddenly opening their homes, lives and wallets to people in need. Think of the thousands of communities and churches, like our own. Where the Holy Spirit is breaking down boundaries culture, race, religion, fear and suspicion to welcome in thousands of refugee families. God is at work in our world.
But even closer to home. If you look around, today you will see many people different from yourself. In terms of how much (or little money) they or you may have. You will see people at different stages of life and their faith journeys. And really, how many other places in our culture gather together newborn babies, new parents, baby boomers and seniors doing anything together. But today we find ourselves drawn together, finding ourselves part of a larger story. Somehow in a world where we are lonely and starved for connection. And somehow those boundaries we thought were fixed are melting away. Here, now. In this place. That electricity, that connection is flowing in ways we never would have expected. Because I truly believe that the Holy Spirit has gathered us together today, creating community and connection. Where there never was one before.
So friends, brothers and sisters. The loneliness and isolation that is so dominant in our ultra-connected world, the loneliness and isolation that may characterize our lives, can not last. Because even now it’s being melted away by the fiery warmth of the divine love that creates and sustains the universe. And I truly believe that this same love has gathered us together this morning from all corners of the Comox Valley and even from the ends of the earth, in spite of our deep differences and human divisions. Because we are created for connection. And destined for connection. In spite of the barriers between us, the Holy Spirit is drawing us in, reconnecting us to each other. And creating a beloved community in this place. Even in the crowded marketplace of our own lives.
And for this, thanks be to God. AMEN.
[i] “Vancouver study: A city of loneliness and unfriendliness?” The Georgia Straight (June 19, 2012): http://www.straight.com/news/vancouver-study-city-loneliness-and-unfriendliness