The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Pentecost, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Cyclone Nargis (sermon for May 11, 2008)

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Day of Pentecost
May 11, 2008

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23

Meet With Me; You Are the One; Light the Fire; Meet Us

Acts 2 [sermon follows]

A Sound Like a Strong Wind

1-4 When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force-no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.

5-11There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; Visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene; Immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes; Even Cretans and Arabs! “They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!”

12Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?” 13Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.”

Peter Speaks Up

14-21That’s when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: “Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren’t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven’t had time to get drunk-it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:

“In the Last Days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters; Your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams. When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit On those who serve me, men and women both, and they’ll prophesy. I’ll set wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below, Blood and fire and billowing smoke, the sun turning black and the moon blood-red, Before the Day of the Lord arrives, the Day tremendous and marvelous; And whoever calls out for help to me, God, will be saved.”

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

What’s on my mind is how much God cares for the whole world, and how much I want my own heart to be that way. His story is always so “go-ey.” Here, the guests in the city understand – in their own language. See? God causes people to go communicate with other people.

This kept coming up this week. Human culture isn’t often that way.

A friend blogged about a Muslim boy who fell under the spell of some extremists, was going to be a suicide bomber, got caught, probably went to prison. My much-valued friend is an agnostic, and she saw the fault of religion in it—especially given the fact the the books of our faiths (my own included) seem to advocate violence sometimes. She ends:

Reality-based morality is the only way humanity is going to make it to a peaceful future. To see the oneness of our species shows the violence for what it is: brother killing brother, an abomination.

[At that sentence I saw a glimmer of familiarity in the eyes of my friends in church. They liked it!]

I found that moving. So I wrote back:

I think your description of reality-based morality – “brother killing brother, an abomination” – is close to the essence of what I believe, and close to the essence of Jesus. Though I come at it from a different direction – that all people are inestimably precious because they are created in the image of God (and therefore brothers) – I am convinced that “seeing the oneness of our species” well describes the ache in my heart for those who suffer. They are me. Sometimes I wish, for brief moments, that I didn’t feel that. But I wouldn’t want to live without it.

In fact, now that I think about it, I was just speaking on this last Sunday, and included comments from a genocide expert named Amartya Sen. I almost called the sermon Everyone has a name. And I think it expresses some of what is in my heart that is also in yours. …

One more thought – at the very core of Christianity is a “one-ness” so profound that God sets aside all the privileges of “God-ness” to experience this oneness with humans. He leaves his “culture” of privilege and enters theirs as a low-status human, for the purpose of understanding their world and their pain, and spends most of thirty years in anonymity, mostly waiting, listening, and learning from them. What an example it is for cross-cultural understanding – I go, I wait, I listen and learn, I will not force. His passion is their well-being. And in the end, he calls them “no longer friends, but brothers,” and pleads with them to go and do the same. I’m still amazed by it.

The go-ey ness of God!

President Ellen Johnson SirleafAnd then I read of Liberia. In bloody war until not long ago; then—suddenly, to my eyes— there was a woman who was President (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf) and it appeared to be a new day (whenever a woman becomes a president, it appears to be a new day). What had happened? –

The following is an interview with Abigail Disney (as printed on the God’s Politics blog), producer of the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which recently won the award for best documentary feature at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.

What sparked your interest in wanting to make a documentary about Liberia?

The fact that the newly elected president of Liberia was a woman was notable, especially since the continent had had so few women in leadership, and that women had been so peculiarly and sadistically targeted during their war. I knew there had to be a backstory. She hadn’t just arisen spontaneously.

Pray the Devil Back to HellHow were Christian and Muslim women able to come together for a common cause?

They were all so completely fed up with war that they were willing to overcome their reluctance. There was some mistrust at first, but the longer they spent time together in prayer and fasting the more they came to understand and empathize with each other. Friendships were forged on the field that will exist for a long time-it is quite possible that the nature of the relationship between Christian and Muslim was forever changed in Liberia. …

How did prayer inform these women’s social justice actions?

All of the women in this film were deeply, deeply religious and believed with all of their hearts and minds in the power of prayer to influence events and people. This was a critical aspect of their plan, and a big part of what made them so tenacious and persistent in their protests. But more than this, prayer was a source of personal strength to each of the women. They gained strength through their individual practice of prayer, but also the communal practice of prayer was an extraordinary glue that held the group together in spite of all kinds of pressures to pull them apart. …

What can we do to enable this change to continue without imposing our Western values on this culture?

I think you are precisely right here. Why do we insist on imposing “solutions” that are always at best temporary, and at worst impractical and even disrespectful to indigenous cultures? I think at heart we are sometimes deeply mistrustful of the competence of indigenous cultures to find their own answers. And when we impose programs, very often we do so in such a manner as to set them hunting for external money that is scarce, inadequate, and hard to get. The answer is to do some better listening. As people coming in from the global North we need to arrive in places with a little less confidence in our “answers” and a little more confidence in the people we are there to serve. People aren’t poor because they don’t have values, don’t have smarts, don’t have gumption-people are poor because they don’t have money. We need to recognize that most of the “resources” needed to fight the world’s problems are also the victims of those problems.

What’s been the response when you’ve shown this film?

The response has been overwhelmingly emotional, connected, and positive. And this is not just from people in the U.S. We have already shown the film in many countries to women’s groups and the response has been so moving. Women in Iraq wept when they saw it, and immediately asked how many copies they could make so as to make sure that it is shown in people’s homes all over the country. Women from Sudan e-mailed us to say that they felt sure that lives were being changed by the dialogues the film had sparked. In Tblisi, Georgia, women sat down immediately after the film and wrote up a Peace Agenda that is now making its way around the country for women’s signatures. What is remarkable is the way that so many women were already poised to work together for peace-all the film does is remind them how powerful they are when they work together. It is a spark of faith in dark times.

God is go-ey, building up other cultures.

And then, after some put-downs of people who don’t have money on a ClipMarks post, another friend of mine, called dmegivern, began to tell of her remarkable (and heroic, I think) experience:

Dmegivern: What haunts me the most in terms of my social responsibilities was experiences like my 10th grade school year. My mom almost successfully committed suicide and I was trying to manage a house of five younger siblings alone. I remember so clearly how Uncle Social Darwin left me alone to handle the whole thing. He left me to handle everything at my mother’s hospital bed while she was unconscious and all hooked up to tubes. I never want to abandon another human being when they most need reassurance, support, and help.

I was rescued from a life a poverty by government educational programs like Head Start and Upward Bound. I was fed by school lunch and government cheese. No conservatives rushed in to help me as a parentified child caring for two mentally ill parents and five younger siblings almost alone until Upward Bound stepped in. Our LDS church brought us a rin of three types of popcorn every Christmas.

Through a government-funded program, I give 150% to getting my students [she’s a teacher now] caught up enough educationally to graduate from college and get out of poverty. My survival and ultimately my middle class status is entirely attributable to government intervention. This allowed me to rescue my yongest brother and sister. I wish it could have been enough to prevent my brother from committing suicide at age 23, but no.

I defy you to find a single “bad” choice have made with my life. Poor people can’t afford to make any mistakes at all or they do not escape. No youthful indescretions are allowed whatsoever. Cough, Bush.

I want to add that all of my debt was incurred paying for food, shelter, clothing etc. for my younger siblings after I was given court custody when I was 24 years old and in graduate school. My pay ranged from $12,000 to a high of $24,000. A lot of poor people I know have extreme challenges of a similar nature.

What if we realized this about people who didn’t have much, instead of running them down? Why aren’t we cheerleading for those who work so hard, instead of buying into ridiculous and slanderous (and, since this is church, sinful and wicked ) stereotyping?

Now, one for us. CBS’ coverage of Myanmar, and the recent cyclone:

Here’s a way you can help with that problem. Amnesty International USA has set up an email form so you can dash off a letter to the Myanmar Ambassador. One name may not mean much, but a thousand names might mean a whole lot – and the only way you get a thousand names is one at a time.

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL USA
A cyclone devastated the lives of over a million Myanmar residents. However, the government of Myanmar is slow to help pick up the pieces.

Urge the government of Myanmar to cooperate with the international community in the distribution of humanitarian aid.

And then, check out this letter I got from Nazarene Compassionate Ministries:

Cyclone Nargis slammed through a 30,000 square kilometer area of the coast of Myanmar over the weekend, leaving destruction and death in its wake. The Myanmar government radio has confirmed 22,464 dead and as many as 41,000 missing in the hardest hit areas of the low-lying Irrawaddy delta region and Yangon. Tidal waves, some up to 12 feet high, are reported to have killed most of the victims in that region. The UN also reports that up to one million people have been left homeless.

South-east Asia (SEA) Field and mission personnel have made contact with Nazarene leaders in the area. They are shaken but safe. They were relieved to hear about the love, concern, and support of their Nazarene family. Several of the 21 Nazarene churches in Myanmar [whoa, wait a minute – we have 21 churches in Myanmar?] are located in areas hit by Nargis.

NCM and Field personnel hope to travel into Myanmar later this week to survey the situation and distribute relief supplies such as basic food items, water, and emergency shelter. NCM is coordinating with other international relief and aid agencies in an endeavor to collaborate in an effective response to this disaster.

See, those people – pastors, churches – they are already there. We can help them get on their feet, and they can help the others around them. There’s an address at the NCM website if you want to give to it. It’s a way you can go.

So, everywhere I looked this week, I was reminded of this Pentecost message: God goes. He builds bridges. He learns the language. He respects and loves and listens.

May you and I be enough like him to find a way to go, too.


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One Response

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  1. Noted your reference to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Did you know that she is a life long United Methodist and is bringing her belief in reconciliation and love into her country through her job as president? She sopke to the international UM gathering in Fort Worth in May.

    Monte Says: Thanks, Steve – I certainly didn’t know it until I started preparing for this sermon. I came upon a picture of her speaking to the UM gathering, and included it in the live presentation of the sermon. May God give her grace and strength for her daunting task!

    Steve Sprecher

    May 22, 2008 at 1:52 pm


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