A Pentecost Sermon about Diversity in Unity

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Photo by Josh Evans, Stained Glass (South Window) at Augustana Lutheran Church, Omaha, Nebraska, © 2017.


Augustana Lutheran Church
4 June 2017 + Day of Pentecost
Acts 2.1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13



There’s a certain pleasure in watching a cooking show on TV — my personal favorite is The Barefoot Contessa — and then searching out the recipe online, hurriedly jotting down the ingredients, and embarking on a quest to make that dish your own. Except it never quite turns out like it did for Ina Garten, does it? Maybe that’s just me, but then again, no one has ever mistaken me for a chef extraordinaire.

In cooking, one quickly learns the lesson that every ingredient matters. Case in point: When you’re making brownies, eggs are kind of crucial. Not that I would know anything about that from experience…

Every ingredient matters. Similarly, Paul writes to the Corinthians that there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit, many members but one body. For Paul, every unique gift matters to make up the whole. But it seems that the lesson we learn from this and similar texts is to place greater value on the end result — the unity, the oneness, the sameness. And yet quite the opposite is true when you cast even a passing glance at this text, for indeed Paul spends the majority of his time naming these various gifts of the Spirit — wisdom, faith, healing, prophecy, and so forth.

The emphasis here is much more on the diversity of the community. So why then do we so quickly jump over that to arrive at a sort of kumbaya/we’re all the same/let’s all get along conclusion?

We’ve probably heard more Pentecost sermons about Christian unity than we care to remember, and while they’re not inherently wrong in any way, I want to suggest a nuance here — unity not as the opposite of diversity, but unity in the midst of and even harmoniously alongside diversity.

The movement in our Pentecost text from Acts draws us from the cloistered group of disciples into the wider community. They were all together in one room… and then suddenly the Holy Spirit shows up… and before you know it, they’re in the midst of a crowd of Jews from every nation, speaking in the native language of each.

Now let’s be clear: It’s not that the disciples were suddenly speaking some universal language that everyone could miraculously understand. These were all different languages. The litany of nations and nationalities isn’t there for its own sake or for the sake of keeping church readers everywhere on their toes. It’s meant to emphasize, or even exaggerate, the dramatic diversity of people to whom God’s Spirit and message of liberation is being revealed. As Peter declares, quoting the prophet Joel, God will pour out God’s Spirit upon all flesh. But what the text doesn’t say, and what  I fear we all too often read into it, is that God’s Spirit will make everyone the same. Instead, there’s a movement here from unity to diversity, and it’s a diversity that enhances our common humanity.

Still, this diversity doesn’t come about all on its own; it’s the doing of the Holy Spirit. But we don’t seem to talk about the Spirit much, do we? God the Creator? Sure, that’s basically the main divine character in the Old Testament. God the Son? Well, that’s Jesus, of course. But God the Holy Spirit? That’s where we get a little fuzzy…

Martin Luther himself ascribed great significance to this oft-neglected third person of the Trinity. In his Large Catechism, he writes, “Neither you nor I could ever know anything about Christ…unless…offered to us and bestowed on our hearts through the preaching of the gospel by the Holy Spirit” (LC 436.38). This Holy Spirit, for Luther, reveals to us the Word of life and brings us again and again to faith.

Luther also says something else quite remarkable: “Creation is now behind us [God the Father], and redemption has also taken place [God the Son], but the Holy Spirit continues [their] work without ceasing… for [they] have not yet gathered together all of [the] community(LC 439.61-62).

The Holy Spirit continues in their work… The work of the Spirit is ongoing. It is as ancient as creation, when God’s Spirit hovered over the waters before life began, and it is promised and received anew on the Day of Pentecost. For the Spirit has not yet gathered together all of the community…

I suspect the Spirit is at work, too, in places like Storm Lake, Iowa, a town of just over 10,000 residents. A recent New York Times article highlights its growing immigrant workforce. Defying state trends, in which the vast majority of Iowans are non-Hispanic white, nearly the opposite is true in Storm Lake. Local grocery store Valentina’s Meat Market showcases a variety of ethnic foods side-by-side, while in the halls of Storm Lake’s public schools, as many as 18 different languages can be heard. “A lot of different communities are living together,” remarks one resident, and another: “This is who we are now.” There is a vivaciousness, a sense of new life, in Storm Lake amidst its diversity.

Here at Augustana, too, the Spirit consistently urges us to draw the circle wide and wider still, as our choir sang not long ago, to include more and more of God’s whole creation — from North to South Omaha and West Omaha to Midtown to downtown, to immigrants and refugees from halfway across the world and our siblings in Christ at Masama Kati, and even and especially the non-human parts of creation, animals and plants and waters, under great threat amidst a changing global climate.

The Spirit is all-inclusive, far-reaching, and ever gathering her people into one. The Spirit doesn’t magically change all those people into the same carbon copy of the next person. But the Spirit thrives in diversity and uses that diversity to enhance our common life. The Spirit draws us together in new and varied ways of worship, song, and prayer; she engages us ever more fully in unique facets and vantage points of understanding and knowing; and she unites us around one table — our diversity intact, honored, celebrated — as we share of the fruit of the one Tree of Life, whose leaves are for the healing and wholeness of all the nations.

A Sermon about the Call of the Holy Siri and Being Rerouted

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Grace Lutheran Church
1 May 2016 + Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Acts 16.9-15; John 14.23-29



Have you ever been lost? No, I don’t mean lost in the spiritual, “Amazing Grace” sense of the word: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” I mean lost like you’re on vacation, you have the map spread out across your dashboard in a futile attempt to determine if you really should’ve gotten off at exit 63, but you might as well be trying to read hieroglyphics.

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I can remember being lost on vacation once with my dad. We were on a hike through the Badlands of South Dakota in the blazing summer heat—a beautiful landscape, yes, but not so much when it’s a thousand degrees outside and you’ve lost track of your car. Though perhaps the greatest lesson learned that day is that when traveling with an ten-year-old maybe pack more than beer in the cooler.

In the age of the smartphone, getting lost has also gotten increasingly more snarky. If you know Siri, you know what I mean. Miss just one turn, and Siri’s nagging to “return to the route” starts to sound like a broken record. And her seemingly helpful attempts at rerouting you are nothing if not passive aggressive.

In our reading this morning from Acts, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit behaves a lot like a primitive Siri. To see what I mean, we actually need to back up a few verses.

At the onset of the chapter, things are going great. Paul and Silas recruit another travel reroutecompanion, Timothy, and the three of them go from town to town, visiting the churches. But then, two interesting things happen: First, we’re told they are “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” So they get rerouted through the region of Phrygia and Galatia. Then, they try to go to Bithynia, but similarly we read, “The Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Rerouted again, they finally wind up in Troas.

Now, those are a lot of place names. The geography itself is not necessarily important, but the sheer number of times their own divine GPS reroutes the trio is noteworthy.

It is at Troas that our reading picks up and where things get really interesting. During the night Paul has a vision. A “certain Macedonian man”—we’re not told exactly who—appears to him. “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” he says to Paul. Rerouted yet again.

At this point, the narrator adds the crucial line: being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. What exactly the Holy Spirit is up to is yet to be made known, but this much is clear: The Holy Spirit is calling Paul, Silas, and Timothy to their missionary task of preaching the gospel—and certainly not where they first expected.

In Macedonia, predictably, the group seeks out the local “place of prayer.” What they encounter is a group of women. It’s easy enough to gloss over this detail in the 21st century, but for Paul and company to engage in conversation with a group of women is no small matter in the original context. Now add to an unexpected venue an unexpected group of people.

Predictably, after these women hear their preaching, one of them, Lydia, along with her family, is baptized. But here again, we should notice something unusual: Between the typical preaching and baptism, there’s no mention made of the Holy Spirit. Last week, we heard Peter’s report to the church at Jerusalem about his own vision while he was staying with Cornelius. In that story, before Cornelius and his family are baptized, the Holy Spirit falls upon them. In the case of Lydia, this detail is strangely missing.

Perhaps, as biblical scholar Mitzi Smith suggests, this implies that the Holy Spirit is already present and active in Lydia’s life. Indeed, we as Lutherans confess that it is only 'The father the son and the holy spirit split.'through the work of the Holy Spirit that we can hear the Gospel and receive the gift of
faith. So it only makes sense that the Spirt would already be at work in Lydia’s life before Paul shows up.

Let me repeat that: The Holy Spirit is already present and active in Lydia’s life before Paul shows up. That simple statement bears repeating because it carries with it tremendous implications about what it means to be called to preach the Gospel.

If the Spirit is already at work in Lydia, then that means the Spirit is not unique to any one time, or place, or people. The Spirit moves where the Spirit moves, and she is always one step ahead of us.

Like Paul and company, we have certain ideas about where we might want to go and about what we think mission looks like. But like a giant “detour” sign, the Holy Spirit is always rerouting us. Sometimes, God simply has different plans in mind for what our mission looks like and calls us accordingly.


As I conclude my time among you as your seminary student intern, I too find myself called away, rerouted, if you will, to the next chapter of my ministry. Looking back on the past several months since I’ve been at Grace, I can see the many ways that this community preaches the good news. Certainly, the good news is preached in all the usual places: in bible study, in confirmation, from this pulpit. But then there are those unexpected places where the Spirit has called us to share the gospel: at a block party in August, at an Easter egg hunt for children and families across this neighborhood, in mutual dialogue with our Muslim friends just a couple weeks ago.

The Spirit is very clearly at work in this assembly, and not simply in the (expected) four walls of this sanctuary.

Each week, the Spirit moves through our liturgy and beyond. In gathering, the Spirit calls us together as the people of God. At the table, we remember the work of God’s Spirit in history and invoke that same Spirit to bless our feast and grace our table with divine presence. And nourished by Christ’s body and blood, the Spirit sends us out in mission to the world.

We can go into mission confidently because we know the Spirit precedes us. Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the “Advocate”—“Paraclete” in Greek, literally something like “the one who is on your side.” But he also promises them the gift of peace—a “profound and holistic sense of well-being,” rooted in the joy of the resurrection.

We hear it in today’s Gospel, and we heard it four weeks ago in the locked room with Thomas. With the gifts of peace and the Spirit, Jesus sends the disciples into mission. And with the same gifts, we too are sent.

As I leave this place for my internship in Omaha, the ministry of this congregation continues on. As the Spirit moves through this assembly gathered here, so too she moves in this neighborhood. Can you hear the man from Macedonia? “Come on over to Elmwood Park, to Chicago, to River Grove, to Oak Park, come on over and help us.” We have good news to share, friends. It starts here, but it continues in our Monday-through-Saturday lives, especially in the most unexpected places.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!