St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – Maren Haynes Marchesini
The Day of Pentecost (June 4, 2017) – Acts 2:1-13
Friends, I bring you peace, grace, and greetings from your neighbors to the North, from the State of Montana, from the First Presbyterian Church of Bozeman, from your siblings in faith, love, and spirit.
I’m thankful to Pastor Bart for inviting me here today. I spent a year of my life in Tucson about a decade ago, from 2006-2007, working as a Young Adult Volunteer for Southside Presbyterian Church. There, I came to learn your spirit and your mission here at St. Marks, spending many evenings in the No More Deaths circle next door, driving out on patrol with the Samaritans to deliver water to often-crossed regions of this vast and brutal desert, and stationed at the border to wash feet and give a meal to those recently deported—actions your congregation enables, supports, and undertakes week upon week, year upon year, decade upon decade in steadfastness, but also in impatience for a better world.
It is right, then, that in this season of Pentecost, I have an opportunity to return to this community to share a good word. The very spirit—a word, spirare, derived from breath—of this community, the work of God you endeavor to do, moved through me as a young woman like a violent wind.
Here’s what happened: I met Rick Ufford-Chase, then a Southside member, in Louisville, KY, during his time as moderator of the PC(USA). Rick shared openly and boldly about the missions that motivated St. Mark’s and Southside. As a moment that would come to fundamentally change my life, I actually remember the bare conference room upstairs in the national office of the PC(USA) where I first heard the story of your church, and recall my first impression of the work you do for migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border: “But… they’re illegal,” I said. I thought this to be a useful and incisive critique. At the time, I thought myself a good, Christian liberal, infused with some nascent version critical feminism, gathered through the writings of Simone de Bouviour and Gloria Steinem who boldly proclaimed women to be people. But I still carried within me a distinct notion that lines and boundaries must differentiate us from certain others; in this case, our neighbors to the South.
“Illegality,” I believed, set someone apart as inferior.
“Illegality,” I believed, rightly differentiated my deserving status from another’s suffering.
But mostly, “Illegality,” I believed, caused them not to be trusted as equal members of my country, my community, or my sense of who we are.
When I consider this initial reaction, though I feel frustrated by myself, I see in it a wholly human reaction. As people, it sometimes seems, we have this incredibly well-developed ability to form complicated ways to manufacture differentiation between ourselves and those we deem as others. I notice, increasingly, that these strategies justify our antipathies and prejudices to somehow render us innocent and another person guilty, breeding patterns and conditions that enable and perpetuate another’s suffering.
I confess this to you now because I feel this sense of alienation, of marking myself off from another in the spirit of distrust, is a theme—and perhaps the theme—ten years later, in this odd time in which we presently live.
In his seminal book Bowling Alone, written in the year 2000, sociologist Robert Putnam wrote of a phenomenon of social atomization, noting that Americans have increasingly retreated from public life and affiliations with one another. As a case study, he noted that participation in bowling leagues was on the decline—that we were bowling alone, rather than together—but that this trend extended to every institution in public life. Religious groups, labor unions, voting participation, parent-teacher associations, Boy Scouts, and fraternal organizations saw a mass decline, too.
I heard an interview with Putnam recently on a favorite podcast of mine, Freakonomics, that unpacked this even further. We Americans are growing less trusting of one another. When asked whether, in general, most people can be trusted, only about 30% of us say yes—in other words, most of us believe that other people are not trustworthy. By comparison, in Scandinavia, about 70% of people say yes, with most respondents believing people are trustworthy.
Friends, I notice this lack of trust all around me. It seems like I pick up a new story every day. This is maybe most evident in our political environment, this “dumpster fire” of a year as the Internet calls it. The last year’s election season suddenly rendered visible the intensity of our divisions—our “bubbles,” our silos of information, our narrow networks of trusted voices—our atomization.
A few examples have illustrated this to me lately in ways that feel really personal:
1) A few weeks ago, I was visiting the conservative side of my family in a tiny Montana town. I found myself in a discussion of health care policy with my uncle who on the extreme right of the Republican party. My mom asked him what his daughter, a first-year resident and newly graduated MD, thought about different health care proposals. My uncle replied that he can’t trust what his own daughter, a doctor, says because she lives in Portland, OR, and has been too indoctrinated into liberal ideas.
2) Another cousin, who lives in down the street from me in Helena, has a daughter in the 3rd grade. Recently, kids in her class have informally taken to creating enemy contracts with one another. With these contracts, which each party signs, the children state that they dislike each other will consider one another to be enemies henceforth. I was floored to learn this, and wonder what the school and parents are doing …
but, in any case… these feel to me like insidious instances of our breakdowns in social trust, and the cognate of alienation that comes with it. Father turns against daughter, classmate against classmate, driven apart by suspicion.
Though these instances regard distrust between people who personally know and actually encounter one another face-to-face on a regular basis, Robert Putnam’s research unsurprisingly showed that our social trust declines even more as our metrics of diversity increase. Across race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and class, social trust grows increasingly elusive. This shows up in horrible ways. In Helena a few weeks ago, a Middle Eastern man was spit on by a white man. Upon hearing this story, another Middle Eastern man in town responded that this happened to him so often, he stopped reporting it. Hate crimes are on the rise, often in violent iterations.
In how many ways does this lack of trust show itself in our daily lives? It’s not only that most of us do not have friends who look or think much differently than we do, it’s that we rarely really listen to the perspectives of those unlike us, seeing beyond our preconceptions to discover the motivations, passions, fears, and realities of daily life that drive another’s conscience, morals, and choices.
Instead, right now, it feels like, as a nation, we have descended to disagreeing on the notion of what is and is not true, with some of our most powerful seeming to lie to test the unwavering loyalty of supporters. People of St. Mark’s— it feels hopeless sometimes.
On this day of Pentecost, God gives us hope via a story that feels, on its surface, actually a lot like what I’ve just described. “Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
God blows through this unified assemblage of people and, instead of giving them even more unity, as you might expect, reverses the paradigm. Out of one spirit, they became many, and began to speak in different languages.
What lesson does this hold for us today in our national disunity, our many languages, our alternate facts, and our lack of trust, St Mark’s?
Well. I think God, who is one being in three divided parts, is present amid our diversity. God fashions multiplicity, disrupts homogeneity, places different languages among us. And then, after dividing us up, God calls us brothers and sisters, children of God, heirs of God’s future together.
It’s a little cyclical that I stand here, telling you this. Because the Presbyterian churches of Tucson taught it to me. When Rick Ufford-Chase first told me about No More Deaths and Samaritans, about the Sanctuary Movement, and the good news of St. Mark’s and Southside, he entrusted me with a story I wouldn’t yet understand. I did not immediately trust him, because I did not trust those illegal Others.
But God, through Rick, planted a little seed in me, and, trusting in the possibilities he described, I came here to learn, to listen, to encounter people whom my cultural background taught me to fear and distrust in suspicion. And, St. Mark’s—you taught me to act in counter cultural trust–to give hospitality to the stranger, to welcome the foreigner, to feed the hungry, to visit those in prison; mandates of the Bible, mentioned over and over again in our sacred text, that seem sometimes only to be heeded by the few.
These acts are acts of faith, not only in God, but in our neighbors. You taught me how to hear and hold another person’s story, even when the words don’t immediately make sense. You taught me to empathize, to hold space for curiosity, to believe in the goodness of people, to regard immigrants and homeless people as my own brothers and sisters, holy and blessed by God just as I am.
St. Marks, this is the Good News, the gospel, as I understand it, that the winds of God’s Spirit call us into unlikely relationships built upon curiosity, empathy, understanding, and care for our mutual welfare amid all manner of division, not with the intention that we are the same, but that we regard one another tenderly, in the kind of deep trust that we each are endowed with the breath of God, as common heirs to God’s promises. This is a very difficult task, and one I continue to struggle with as my affiliations change, and the groups with whom I align myself shift to create new Others. Yet, I thank you for your steadfast witness to this gospel of trust and the hope it embodies.
And now, I invite you to pray with me an excerpt of a prayer written by Desmond and Mpho Tutu, father and daughter, both of whom have known and lived the experience of exile and prisoner, of being defined and abused as distrusted others. I invite you to hold in your mind someone you struggle to trust, or that you have struggled to trust in the past. Hear these words of God as spoken for you, and for distrusted Others:
I made you like myself.
I made you good and I made you fee.
Listen! For I have carved in you the heart to hear
Listen and know that I am near.
I am close as prayer.
I am breathing in your breath.
With each breath I choose life for you.
I paint the pattern of joy in your heart and leave it there for you to find.
I build the frame of your flourishing in the center of your being and call you to search it out.
I kindled the spark of goodness in you.
With each breath I fan the flame.
I am here.
I am close as a prayer.
I am breathing in your breath.
With each breath you choose, my child, for you are free.
Will you breathe with me the breath of life?
Will you claim the joy I have prepared for you?
Will you seek me out and find me here?
Will you whisper the prayer?
Will you breathe in my breath?