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Day of Pentecost

Today is the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost in Greek means 50 days, because we are now 50 days from Easter. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are this weekend also celebrating their Pentecost. This was a Jewish festival before it was a Christian one. The men and women in the reading from the book of Acts were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate that – the Jewish Pentecost (or Shavout, as they call it).

Pentecost in the Christian tradition is one of the five primary feast days in the church year for baptisms. And we have another–our last for a while–baptism today, of Stella Caramanica. Welcome to her  and her family. They joined our parish about two months ago, after moving from Washington. Their former church was Christ Church in Alexandria, which is a big and historically important church for Episcopalians. Here’s something interesting: that church was built before the founding our country. George Washington had a pew there, which still has his name on it. It was founded in 1749, so exactly 100 years older than we are. We’re honored you all chose to make St. James the Less your new parish home. Welcome. Stella has an older brother Lucca and we welcome him, too.

All over the world today Christians are baptizing new members into the faith, many at this very hour. Kind of a lovely thought. Pentecost is really a celebration of Christianity’s reach and scope and of our religion’s diversity. So it’s appropriate that we are all doing this important thing together today of baptizing new Christians.

I had a picture in my mind of this sermon before the words came. I saw countless little red dots and lines on a world map, starting in Jerusalem. On the Day of Pentecost when the disciples had this ecstatic experience of the Holy Spirit, 3000 people, pilgrims there in Jerusalem from foreign lands, were converted that day (that’s mentioned just after our reading). So this picture in my mind’s eye started at Jerusalem with 3000 tiny red dots. Because many of those people went home after the festival to their faraway towns, in North Africa, in Turkey by the Black Sea, to Arabia, there would be a little line charting that course, and on the far end of it, more dots branching out as each of those people converted spouses, children, even households.

This keeps spreading out, and spreading out, dots and lines, dots and lines, Jesus’ word spreading to the north, to the south, east and west, across oceans, deserts, channels, borders, mountain ranges, across ethnicities, language, cultures, dots and lines, big red masses of many dots, extending further and further out, until south and north, east and west meet. That is the story of Christianity, beginning on this day.The writer Philip Jenkins, who writes about the rise of Christianity in the Global South, said that our faith spread out to more cultures and languages in its first 100 years than any other religion in so short a time. To do that, you had to be zealous, and those first Christians were certainly that. You had to have some help from history: Roman roads, good ships, books–the codex, a new invention at the time Christianity began and certainly one that helped it spread. But you also had to have people who were adaptable, flexible, and who wanted to go out, to venture far afield of what is comfortable, and known.

It is traditional that, on the Day of Pentecost, we also read this story from the book of Genesis, the Tower of Babel. It’s an old folktale. The first 11 chapters of Genesis contain the “pre-history” of Israel. It’s filled with mythical stories of how things came to be: the earth, human sin, murder, cities, different cultures and, today, different languages. We meet these people in our reading as they’re plotting to build a tower. The story says less than we think it does. It doesn’t say anything about hubris, or vanity, or trying to overtake God in building this tower. What it does tells us by way of a motive is that they wanted to avoid spreading out. “Let us build a tower… otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

The implication being: we do not want that. Let’s huddle here. Let’s be as like each other as we can. Let’s take no risks, let’s build a fortress to protect ourselves from uncertainty and the unknown.

The Christian Pentecost story is sometimes said to be a “reversal” of the story of Babel. Until recently, that never quite made sense to me. If it were a reversal, then the many languages would become one again. What was undone at Babel, the one, unified language and people, would be restored. But that doesn’t happen in Acts. If anything, the diversity, and the chaos, only increase.

But now I get it: it’s a reversal not of many languages back to one, but of that desire to huddle, and not change or be changed. It’s a reversal of fear that keeps us in one place. It’s a reversal of monoculture. It’s a reversal of the need to always be safe, to always be buffered from risk by hiding in towers and fortresses of our own making.

Those early Christians had a mindset that couldn’t be further from the people of Babel. They got out there, in the world. They let the Spirit lead them to places and people unknown. And today on this Feast of Pentecost, we’re called (like them) to let God’s light shine as far and as bright as it possibly can. To expand our fellowship. To let the Spirit do its work, in us.