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Pentecost Sunday, 05/15/2016

Sermon on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-41, by David Zersen



  English speakers may not know the relationship between Pentecost and peonies in the German language. Typically, around late May, just in time for the celebration of Pentecost, peonies are in full bloom in Germany as well as in the mid-western United States. Although the date for Pentecost Sunday varies each year depending on the date for Easter, the Germans nevertheless know these flowers as Pfingstrosen or Pentecost roses. I have always loved their lush blooms and fragrant smells, but they have a downside. They are a household plague if they are brought indoors because once the blossoms have opened outside, ants seeking their nectar cover them.



Pentecost by P. Solomon Raj



The need for a new orientation
Different aspects of our world have these pros and cons as well. Personalities have their strengths and weaknesses, democracies have valid characteristics as well as shady ones and cities have beautiful vistas and seedy ghettoes. The traditional Old Testament text for Pentecost also shows us this dichotomy. A bold and progressive people decide to build a city with a substantial tower in it to set them apart from everyone else. They settled in a region with no native stone, so they got creative and made bricks. And they were arrogant enough to think that they might make a name for themselves throughout the world.  Perhaps they would be listed among the world’s ten best cities in which to raise a family, should a clay-tablet version of U.S. News and World Report come to exist in their day!

The downside of this ancient story dating to the Bronze Age calls the city “Babel” because what happened there was a clash between the materialistic dreams of the inhabitants and God’s dream for all people everywhere. The self-centered vision of working to make one’s self important in the eyes of others is well-known to us. In fact, the will to go our own way, to see success as personal aggrandizement, is a prime characteristic of Generations X, Y and Z. It is, therefore, no wonder that such individualization or “me-first” attitude often places today’s Millenials at odds with the God who created us to live with and for one-another, in community. In this ancient story, God puts an end to a skewed view of purpose and meaning by, rather humorously it seems to me, causing everyone to speak a different language that only the speaker can understand. Of course, these people can’t now work together to establish their wrong-focused society, so they head for the hinterlands to start all over. The misguided project remains unfinished, as will subsequent ones—until people receive a new orientation.

Seeking to finish unfinished lives
Of course, the traditional New Testament Pentecost lesson (Acts. 2) introduces itself here and invites us to learn how the project came to be finished. God’s people were reoriented to a new way of thinking and living through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Before we get to that lesson, however, let me reflect with you on what it means to live an unfinished life, to be an unfinished person.

Currently, and until Sept. 4, the MetBreuer, one of the museums in the labyrinthine Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is hosting an exhibition of 197 works from the Renaissance to the present time, called “Unfinished.” The exhibition has two types of unfinished works. Those that were never finished, for one reason or another, represent one category. In connection with this grouping, a story is told about a work by Alice Neal who in the first sitting with a live model began painting a dramatic work of an Afro-American man. However, he was called up to serve in the Viet Nam War, and never returned for the second sitting.  An unplanned incompletion, as it were. The other category contains artists’ works that were intentionally unfinished to make a specific statement. These works present subject matter that is unresolved, that allow the viewer to make a judgment about what is taking place or should happen. Years ago I remember asking an artist about the meaning of some symbols in a liturgical free-standing-altar antependium that he had created. Will Werling, the artist, responded, “If I tell you, that’s all that you will ever see there.” It was very instructional to me to learn that some works, some cities, some ventures and some lives, are unfinished, perhaps open-ended, so that we who follow can make judgments, can fashion resolutions or set more appropriate directions. We can make the pursuit, if we have the proper orientation to do so.

A powerful example of such fortuitous follow-through is developed by Jonathan Sacks in his best-seller, Not in God’s Name (Shocken Books, 2015). Sacks is the chief rabbi in the United Kingdom and the author of many books dealing with ways to complete the unresolved and unfinished challenges in our world. In this book he is speaking to the children of the three Abrahamic religions, Jews, Christians and Muslims, who like the citizens of ancient Babel, are busy making their own self-centered civilizations while they disregard the desires of their siblings. Just as in the case of Ishmael and Isaac, of Jacob and Esau and of Joseph and his brothers, there is sibling rivalry going on between the sons of Abraham today. Their concern to be first, to be better, or to struggle with old memories of former fratricides (in the Christian crusades, in the Muslim invasions of Middle Eastern countries or in the atrocities committed by ISIS) give them unfinished business. It can take a long time for them forgive and to repent as well as to seek totally new directions. But nothing can change without a reorientation.

One of the strongest reorientations that Sacks lifts up to the reader is the encouragement to consider that throughout human history God has not been on the side of the tower builders and the power brokers, but on the side of those who are weak, disenfranchised, or poor in spirit. The one to whom God gave his own type of success was not Ishmael, the first-born, the hunter, but Isaac, the docile and obedient child. It was not Esau, the brave and strong son, who received the ultimate blessing, but Jacob, the mother’s favorite. It was not Jacob’s ten strong herdsman sons who received the promise, but Joseph, the one who knew how to forgive and who taught his brothers how to repent and change their lives around. This is the intriguing character of God’s plan from the beginning and it embraces us as we seek to complete the unfinished character that wants to become whole within us. It was because of such intentions to fashion community from those who serve each other and not establish themselves that God chooses to provide not a temple or a tower for Jesus’ birth, but a donkey’s feedbox. It was because of God’s desire to fashion communities that don’t have to be abandoned, but can be completed in love, that Jesus came to feed the hungry, heal the sick and help the poor.

Letting Jesus be the “finisher”
With that background in mind, we can now turn to the traditional Pentecost lesson and consider how it is that we, unfinished works of art that we are, can attend to the matter of striving for completion. In the remarkable story shared in Acts 2, we listen to Peter telling the crowd that those who were speaking in diverse languages were fulfilling the ancient prophesy of Joel who said that in the last days, days like our own, the unfinished dreams of young and old will come to fruition. The very person that the people in Peter’s audience helped to crucify, God has raised and exalted. The very one whom the strong and powerful in a corrupt society of their own making crucified, God had made both Lord and Messiah. In other words, even though people were hard at work forming a virtual dead-end society based on rules that showed no compassion for God’s poor, they would always end up with an unfinished product. Only when the Jesus who loves us into action is made our Lord and Messiah are we able to finish the new creation.

The Pentecost message therefore draws us from self-centeredness to service, from being negative to being positive, from having an unfinished character to fashioning a complete one. Just as the Spirit of God surrounded and embraced those gathered to hear Peter on the first Pentecost, so we are empowered by Jesus’ love and energized by the Spirit to reorient ourselves. As an artist at work in his or her studio, may we seek to complete the unfinished aspects of God’s masterpiece, a life that rises up to the full stature of Christ. You know where the corners of darkness are that need a Rembrandt-like ray of light.  Only you can decide where more color or more detail is required. The decision to apply the added touch, however, comes from your relationship with Jesus, the “author and finisher of our faith.” To him we turn on this Pentecost Sunday as we pray for the Spirit’s power to move from being those who build towers to those who love people.


Prof. Dr. Dr., President Emeritus, David Zersen
Concordia University Texas
E-Mail: djzersen@aol.com