Saturday, May 26, 2007

Pentecost/Day of Prayer for Reconciliation

Some years – and a number of parishes - ago, Alison and I set up a youth club for a bunch of kids in their first year of high school.  They didn’t want to call it a youth club, of course - that would be a bit naff - we had a long conversation about it and decided we would call ourselves ‘Ab Fab’. 

I remember, particularly vividly, one of our less successful group activities.  We were having an ‘in’ night - that means we were at the church hall rather than going out somewhere - and we set up a number of games and challenges.  One bright spark suggested we do a human pyramid.  This was going to be the biggest, highest, most astounding pyramid ever.  Well, everyone knew how to do a human pyramid - everyone had either done it before, or seen it done, or had a friend who’d done it, or … So we had 18 experts.

The first level - no problem - I thought, ‘so far, so good’.  Then people started climbing on top, and it did cross my mind that there were some things we hadn’t thought through.  Luckily, I knew how to do a human pyramid properly, so I gave some sensible advice - unfortunately, nobody was really listening, because they were all giving advice too.  We got up to four levels before things started to give way, and we ended up in a tangled heap.  Nobody suggested we try again.

Have you worked out I’m telling this story because it’s a metaphor for real life?  We get competitiveness and hostility between ethnic and religious groups, between workers and employers, between city folk and country folk – and two things happen as a result – the first thing is that chaos rules, we end up in a tangled heap – the second thing which is maybe more serious, is that some people and some groups get overlooked – some people’s gifts never get noticed – some people’s needs never get met - because the way to get what you need is to have the loudest voice or the deepest pockets.  So structures of inequality get started.

This very same process is also described in one of the legends of the beginnings of human culture in the book of Genesis - the story of the tower of Babel.  According to this story, the people of the earth all spoke a common language, and when they began to live in cities they decided to build a tower with its top reaching into the heavens.  In the usual way of fairytales, God gets annoyed at their arrogance – even a bit threatened, maybe? - so God destroys their tower and separates them into different language groups - this is where the English word ‘babble’ comes from.  So the tower of Babel is a story that tries to explain the fragmentation of humankind into separate and sometimes hostile groups who don’t understand each other.  On one level, this legend reveals an underlying mistrust of city dwellers – you can read it as propaganda for nomads,  ‘oh, nothing good can come of this new-fangled urge to live all on top of each other’.  But on another level the story of Babel reveals a profound truth, which is that the beginnings of human civilization and culture somehow contain the seeds of our miscommunication, competitiveness and inequality.

It’s a good metaphor, I think, for any of the long-running tragedies of human civilisation, certainly for the two centuries of distrust between Aboriginal Australians and the rest of us who arrived as migrants or whose ancestors came to Australia from the other side of the world.  It’s a history with genuine grievances on both sides – on the one side, invasion and dispossession, government policies that Sir Ronald Wilson as Commissioner of the Stolen Generations inquiry described as genocide, appalling rates of child mortality and a life expectancy that’s still 20 years less than the average for all other Australians.  On the other side, resentment over blanket land claims and ‘sit-down’ money, alarm at rates of criminal behaviour including property offences and sexual abuse in the Aboriginal community.  Reconciliation – that blanket word for the healing of relationships on every level between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, a process that includes the acknowledgement of past suffering, forgiveness and commitment to working together as Australians for a just and inclusive future – reconciliation I believe needs to be at the very centre of our sense of national identity.

This morning we have read Luke’s version of the story of the arrival of the Holy Spirit at the feast of Pentecost.  There is of course another version of the story at the end of the gospel of John – scholars tell us that Luke’s more colourful version is based on older Jewish stories about the gift of the law on Mt Sinai.  So Acts tells us that the Spirit comes down on the community with the sound of a "rushing wind" and with "tongues of fire" – symbols that are always associated with the presence of God.  Then the followers of Jesus, now "filled with the Holy Spirit," begin to speak in other languages.  Notice that this isn’t the ‘speaking in tongues’ that Paul tells us about – praise and prayer that nobody but God can understand - in Luke’s Pentecost story, the effect is quite the opposite - people from all over the world find they can understand what the followers of Jesus are saying.  Rather than being miraculously unintelligible speech, it is miraculously intelligible. 

And here’s where the two stories come together.  Because what Luke’s story is suggesting, is that the coming of the Spirit is the opposite of the story of the tower of Babel.  What Luke is suggesting, is that the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit has brought about a new age in which the fragmentation of humanity has been overcome.  Filled with the Spirit of God, the disciples find they can communicate and be understood by all sorts of different people in all sorts of different languages. What the gift of the Holy Spirit is all about, is God’s power to recreate the human community and break through human boundaries of language and culture that create inequality and mistrust.  God’s power to work in human life what we can’t do for ourselves.

However, as with all of God’s gifts, it is up to us to receive it.  It’s also, I think, not a ‘once and for all’ thing that sets everything to rights just like that – I think the gift of the Holy Spirit is a bit more organic, sometimes moving quickly, sometimes a barely perceptible growth towards trust and wholeness.

Which, in the land that the earliest European explorers named the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit, is an encouraging metaphor for the on-again, off-again progress towards reconciliation.  Today we celebrate a great leap forward, the referendum in 1967, forty years ago today, that saw Aboriginal people reclassified from the Flora and Fauna Act and given full status as citizens.  Recognised, in other words, as human beings.  That, I think, was a good start.  Another great leap forward was the High Court Mabo decision which for the first time recognised that Aboriginal people had rights to the land they lived on.  And another was the Stolen Generations Inquiry that recognised the pain of generations of Aboriginal children removed from their families.  Much has been achieved in the healing of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians over the last forty years, but there’s a long way to go.  Aboriginal children born today still have a higher chance of dying young, a higher chance of going to prison, a lower chance of getting a good education or a job than any other Australians.

What the Pentecost story tells us, more than anything, is that the gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of recognising that we belong together, that the kaleidoscope of differing cultures and perspectives that make up God’s world are all part of the one pattern, which is the story of God’s love for creation.  We encounter the Holy Spirit when we are prepared to reflect on the value and the beauty of diversity, when we are prepared to see the world through one another’s eyes.

But there’s another side to the story, because the gift of the Spirit is also about repentance and mutual forgiveness – about acknowledging past injustices, about allowing the Holy Spirit to blow through us and clear out the cobwebs of our prejudices and lack of generosity.  The tragedy of Babel keeps getting repeated until God’s people are prepared to believe in the miracle of Pentecost, the reality that the gift of God’s Holy Spirit can unite us and transform us.

Let us pray that as God’s people in the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit, we can claim that gift together.