Back when I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to visit my ancestral home of Glarus, Switzerland. After leaving the rest of the group behind, I was all alone, and had very poor German skills. After a few hours there, I began to wonder what the heck I was doing. No one seemed to speak English, and everyone was yelling at me! After a little while longer and a lot of walking, I heard a group of people talking ENGLISH!! All of a sudden, the discomfort went away as they talked to me and explained the community and, most importantly, that the people were not yelling at me. Switzerdeutsch is a very rough language and it always sounds that way. Learning from that group and then being sent off changed my experience from being lost and frustrated to a marvelous weekend of discovery and learning.
I cannot help but think about what it was like on that day of Pentecost where all who were gathered were able to hear the message of God in their own language (especially thinking of the comfort I found bumping into a group of English-speaking people in a foreign land!). What hope and power there must have been in the welcoming comfort of the message in their native tongue.
Today, much of faith and Christianity has devolved into pious discussions concerning who is right and sadly, who can be part of the faith and who are excluded. To me, this is a very personal thing! As I have said many times before, church is where we should all be able to come together and be accepted as children of God. The basis for all of this is the fact that God has created this world and created each of us.
Knowing that we are created in God’s image is important because it helps us realize the gift God has given us. Moreover, it stands as a clear symbol that God has made us to be who you are called to be. However, there is another important message, which is to accept yourself; this is one of the biggest difficulties that we face as individuals. As a mentor of mine has told me many times, “You cannot hear the love in this world until you open your heart to hear the love that is in there!”
Oftentimes we are beaten down by the judgments in this world. Many who are at work or in school are judged by their weakness or difference. However, the message of God is that God did not create us to be compared to each other, for we all possess different skills, abilities and knowledge. This makes us inherently different, while at the same time recognizes that we are all seen as equal in our incompleteness.
Knowing that God has created us in this way should give us strength to take control of our lives and listen to the ways in which we are called to be or not to be part of the world. I often tell people in counseling that the commandment “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. (Lev 19:18)” starts with the commandment to love and understand yourself so that you can begin to understand and empathize with your neighbor.
Thus Pentecost becomes a celebration of the church, the individual’s faith and a calling to welcome all into God’s House! While we do not speak all of the languages that are found in our community, we can learn to love those who are in our midst, seeing that we are all children of God! And this can be a place where we can learn to love ourselves, love our neighbor and love God.
The theme this year for Pentecost is “All God’s Children Have a Place in the Choir.” This comes from a favorite children’s song by the same name. It is a perfect children’s song, since it makes you giggle, but behind it is a very serious message: God does not exclude anyone from his choir or the church or the community. I ask that this year, you invite a friend or neighbor to join us for this very special day as we celebrate Pentecost and the fact that God loves us so much that his spirit is here!
When you first met Sid Byrd, he would hand you a business card with a logo on the top that read "F.B.I." On the back, it explained that stood for "Flat Broke Indian." Sid was a Dakota raised on the Lakota reservation. I spent the summer before college on mission with Sid, ministering on the Sisseton Reservation in South Dakota. I learned a lot that summer, mostly from mistakes, but a great deal came from long car rides with Sid.
Sid was very open about the fact that white people were not to be trusted. As he regaled old Dakota stories and his own history, it was hard to miss why he would feel that way. Abuse would not begin to cover the extent of those experiences. It was the first time I really was embarrassed about my heritage and realized my privilege. The stories he would tell had a common theme of things being taken away, starting with crafts and land and dignity to identity and finally, life itself.
The stories were hard to hear, but he always seemed to come back to the questions, “How can one claim ownership of another person or the land or even the right way to live?” To him, everything belonged to God, and subsequently for him that was where his Dakota faith connected with the Christian faith. For Sid, accepting a sovereign God was in line with the faith of the Dakota people, and Sid taught me the first very important lesson in my professional ministry.
A lot of what we practice in Christianity is not really Christian; rather, it is cultural. Moreover, a lot of what people do in the name of Christianity is not Christian either. He was the first person to show me how people used a particular myopic view of Christianity to oppress and repress people. Sid also helped me to see how I had been influenced by that view, creating an idol to worship rather than God. For Sid, Christianity was very much about humility and stewardship. I remember him saying once that the moment one realizes they are not God, they recognize their responsibility to care for this world because the land and our lives are gifts. From an early age, I was taught that anytime you borrowed or used something that was not yours, you had a responsibility to leave it better than you found it.
The problems that we face in our world today are based in the fact that we have no real sense of humility and stewardship. Fracking and its by-products are causing earthquakes and sickness in many communities because we do not think about where our gas, oil and electricity are coming from. We arrest and deport people because they were not lucky enough to be born in our country, even though many of the conditions they are coming here to escape are caused directly or indirectly by our consumerism or power grabs. The shootings and violence we see all around are caused by the fact that we are disconnected from each other. Not only do we not love our neighbor, but often we do not even know our neighbor.
Our society lifts up warped values that claim wealth to be success and power to be good, and often this is done under the guise of Christian faith. So often we reject the realities that are happening all around. When things are good, we credit ourselves, and when they are not, we take no culpability. So often we are left wondering where God is, rather than finding ways to let go and truly be present with God.
I remember one day driving through the wheat fields of northern South Dakota, just south of North Dakota, through rolling hills far away from any development. We pulled over at a place where there was no sign of civilization except the car we were in and the little dirt road we were on. Standing at the top of the hill, we looked all around, and Sid said, “This is all God's, and to God it will return. Never forget that.” It is a beautiful memory, but I can only think of how we, in our quest for control and power, lost our call to be good stewards of God’s world.
We, as people of faith, have to make a change and live into the community that God calls us to be part of. We must begin to model for the world a faith based in humility and stewardship, recognizing our place in the world and our call to live as servants to God and not to be God, to listen to God's call for our humility and to not create idols that only serve to support a warped faith of power and persecution.
As a pastor, some of the most powerful moments in my ministry come in the most interesting places. Early in my ministry, I was at a street fair that happened to be going on a few blocks from my church. Being a downtown pastor, many people knew who I was and, like here, would often come up and ask me questions about their faith journey. In the middle of all the festivities, carnival rides, and laughter, a man with a sour look asked me if God loved him. His sadness in the midst of such joy was jarring.
“Of course, God loves you!” I responded. Without another word, the man walked away, I am sure mumbling things under his breath. About an hour later, I made my way back to the church and sitting on the front steps was this man.
“How can you be so sure? You don’t even know who I am and what I have done,” he said. Meanwhile, in my mind I was fighting my own humanity of being tired and annoyed that this man was bothering me when all I wanted to do was go home. I also knew that questions like this were often loaded and could be a sign of psychological or other issues, so I took a breath and sat next to him. I told him, “I know that God loves you because you are concerned about God’s love. That means that God is in your heart, and as Paul said, if God is with you, who can be against you?” The man started to cry and walked off.
Over the next few weeks, I learned more about the story of this man as he would come in to visit and talk. He was in a bad place, and I guess I said what he needed to hear, because he began to become very active in the church and the sourness of his look began to fade.
I am a strong believer in the power of God’s love and that our salvation is assured in God. To me, this comes from an understanding of predestination. A lot is made of Calvin’s discussion of predestination, and for some, that is an essential part of Calvinism. It’s not. It is a doctrine that Calvin himself changed and struggled with throughout the various writings of his institute. This theological understanding tries to convey a truth that the God that created us will never abandon us, and therefore we are elected into the body of salvation.
Of course, nothing can be that simple. When making an argument for a theology of predestination, often people venture into the land of fatalism, which is an understanding that everything in life has been predetermined. This is not the same as predestination, because within predestination, there is free will and choice. You can be blessed, yet still reject the faith. You can also be blessed and never know Christ fully, or at least not know Christ in a way that is familiar.
This is the difficult part, because as we really dive into the Gospels, there is a trend that happens within the teachings of Christ. Christ is always pointing to God—a God that we know to be both mysterious and compassionate, angry yet patient, judgmental yet grace-filled. The other truth about God is that we only have a glimpse of God’s fullness. We do not always know what God is doing within the hearts of others. This puts us in a precarious position, for if we choose to judge others on their faithfulness, we could very easily be judging God and the way that God is working within the heart of that person.
This is why it is so wrong for Christians to judge others. Many would call this a sin, but I don’t know if that fully encompasses what is going on, because judging others is not just a separation from God, it is both an active rejection of God and an attempt to become a god, asserting control and dominion over others. Biblically, we see this most in Jesus’ teachings about Caesar and the illegitimacy Jesus claims (Matthew 22:16-22).
For me, knowing that God loves me and has already reached out to save me gives me the freedom to truly live. Thus, I live my life in thankfulness for what God has done for me, and I don’t desire to do wrong. And when I do, I know that God will give me the grace and welcome home that I don’t deserve but is there because of his promise that he instilled at my birth.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen