Shavuot, Pentecost and Pluralism
Holy Covenant United Church of Christ
June 4, 2017
It is great to be here. Your Pastor is a stellar leader, a gifted teacher, a present and supportive colleague and friend. We have stood together at rallies for marriage equality. We have travelled to Washington, DC, not once but twice to perform legal weddings for gay and lesbian couples in 2011 and 2014. We have responded to the Charlotte protests late at night. I have seen firsthand how tirelessly your Pastor, Nancy Ellett Allison, works to pursue human rights and civil rights. When it comes to celebrating diversity and working for justice, she not only talks to the talk but truly walks the walk.
For 13 years, Reverend Allison has been your Pastor. For 18 years, she has been an agent of positive change in our Queen City. We all are blessed.
This morning we think about the passage of time. We think not only about the years gone by, but today we focus on the days gone by. The Book of Psalms (90:12) says, “Teach us to number our days so that we can acquire a heart of wisdom.” We are meant to count days and we are meant to make each day count.
As Jewish communities and as Christian communities we have done just that. Both the Jewish community and the Christian community, have just experienced fifty days of counting; fifty days of waiting; fifty days of anticipating a revelation. We have counted the days until we could clearly hear God’s voice and, as a result, become one people with a clear purpose.
For you, as Christians, that fiftieth day is today. It is Pentecost. It is a holy time. It represents the start of the church – your becoming of one people, one Church in Christ. According to your faith, Jesus died and was resurrected and on the fiftieth day His spirit returned to the earth. It was no longer embodied within him but belongs to each one of you and to all of you. It was what you call “the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
For us, as Jews, that fiftieth day is called Shavuot – a holiday we celebrated this past Wednesday. It is a holy day on which we celebrate the agricultural gift of first fruits and our historical gift of standing at Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments. In Leviticus we are told to count the days, starting on the day following Passover – seven days times seven weeks – and on the fiftieth day, we are meant to celebrate Shavuot.
We mark each day of the 49 days of the journey from Passover, our elaborate and festive meal celebrating our Exodus from Egypt, to Shavuot, to standing at Sinai and receiving Torah. Each day for 49 days, we say a blessing and count the day. For example, on the eighth we say “today is eight days which is one week and one day of the omer.” (The Omer was the barley offering first brought on the day following Passover.)
Many Jews incorporate into each day’s counting a reflection on the mystical meaning of the day grounded in the Kabbalah, the core text of Jewish mysticism. On a deeper level, Shavuot celebrates our receiving the entire Torah – our sacred scroll with the Five Book of Moses written within it and the entire Hebrew Bible. Shavuot represents the day when we entered into the covenant not only with God but with one another. On Shavuot, we became a people.
As part of the image of revelation, the text of Exodus (20:14) tells us: “v’chol ha’am ro’im et hakolot – and all the people saw the voices.”
“How could one “see” voices?,” the Rabbis of the Midrash on Exodus ask. And Rabbi Yochanan responds that “God’s voice, as it was uttered, split up into 70 voices, in 70 languages, so that all nations should understand.”
As Christians, your revelation of Pentecost captured in the book of Acts similarly reflects multiple languages spoken with a common understanding. The Genesis story of Babel in which the people gather together to build upward rather than outward and are scattered is now repaired. Multiple languages can be spoken and understood. Multiple peoples can work together.
As part of our celebration of Shavuot, we stand in synagogue in the morning to hear the Ten Commandments recited from the Torah. As part of our celebration of Shavuot, we prepare to receive Torah by staying up all night in study. As Jews, we continually study the text of Torah through the lens of two thousand years of Rabbinic commentaries.
One midrash, one legend teaches that when we accepted Torah, God held the mountain of Sinai over our heads as a chuppah, a wedding canopy. That moment represented our marriage with God. The Torah is our metaphoric ketubah, our marriage contract.
Just as Pentecost represents the birthday of the church, our Jewish holiday of Shavuot represents, in a sense, symbolizes the anniversary of our marriage with God and our marriage with the Jewish people.
Now, I have lived in Israel for many years. When I was in Rabbinical school, there was a man named Jeff Sidell who lived in Jerusalem. He was an extremely observant man committed to bringing others into the fold of Orthodoxy. On Friday evenings, he’d go to the Western Wall and invite foreigners to Shabbat dinner in the homes of those in his community.
He’d always approach friends of my mine with the same line, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” he’d say.
Some of my friends would respond by playing Jewish geography trying to find the common tie. While they were thinking in terms of the present, Jeff Sidell was thinking in historic terms. He was thinking of Sinai. As Jews, we know each other from Sinai. And miraculously Jews have remained strongly connected for more than 3000 years.
A Roman Catholic Priest named Father John Gibbons, upon first learning about our Jewish holiday, immediately caught the commonalities with Pentecost as he wrote in a blog: “Shavuot is a festival that happens fifty days after Passover in order to celebrate the event in which God gave the Torah to Moses… in other words, the event in which God gave his word to the Jewish people in the form of text. Christians, on the other hand, celebrate Pentecost fifty days after what we consider to be our Passover: Easter Sunday; fifty days after the resurrection, the word of God was given again, except this time it was not given as written text, but as the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the believers.”
As Jews and Christian we are similar. We both celebrate the receiving of God’s word and the holy community created around it. For us revelation is rooted on text and for you it is embodied in spirit.
As Jews and Christians we are different. As Christians, you believe in the divinity of Jesus. As Jews, we do not. As Christians, you observe Sabbath on Sunday. As Jews, we observe it Friday at sunset to Saturday evening. As Christians, you follow a New Testament. Our sacred text is the Hebrew Bible. As Christians, you named this holy day “Pentecost” which is a transliterated Greek word meaning “fifty.” We call our holiday “Shavuot” referring to the completion of the seven weeks. Both represent the completion of exact same counting of time.
The great theologian Martin Buber writes: “Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique….If there had been someone like her in the world, there would have been no need for her to be born.”
As Jews and Christians let us learn and find meaning in our sameness. As Jews and Christians, let us learn and find meaning in our difference.
To be honest, and in the spirit of interfaith dialogue from which we grow, I didn’t know much about Pentecost. On the bus to the Deep South pilgrimage in which I took part two weeks ago with Myers Park Baptist Church and Mayfield Memorial Baptist Church, I learned. Dr. Ben Boswell said to me that Pentecost is about unity. “Unity?” I challenged. “Pentecost is the moment when Christianity parted from Judaism.”
Which brings us to third topic of my sermon entitled “Shavuot, Pentecost and Pluralism.”
Eboo Patel, a Muslim scholar and founder of Interfaith Youth Core that inspires meaningful interfaith work on college campuses across our country writes, “To see the other side, to defend another people, not despite your tradition but because of it, is the heart of pluralism.”
While we are different we share common goals.
Rabbi Robert Levine, who is affiliated with a wealthy synagogue on Manhattan’s upper west side, was once leading an interfaith Passover seder with a Harlem Baptist church, when a ten-year-old, African-American girl named Chaminique inquired, “Hey Mister Rabbi, who’s drinking that wine?”
She was referring to a cup set out for Elijah. When Rabbi Levine explained that when we open the door, we hope Elijah will come and drink the wine, she asked, “Why do you do that?”
Rabbi Levine further explained, “We believe that if Elijah comes, he will announce the coming of the Messiah. Chaminique, you believe Jesus will come again to make the world a better place. We don’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but we are still hoping that the Messiah will come again soon.”
“And you do this every year?” she asked. “You open the door for Elijah and hope the Messiah will come right after and heal our world?”
“Yes,” Rabbi Levine responded.
“Why are you still waiting?” she asked. “Why don’t you do it yourself?”
This story is from the opening of Rabbi Levine’s book, There Is No Messiah, and You’re It. As the title of his book demands, and as a liberal Rabbi I believe, each one of us needs to take responsibility; not to wait for Elijah, for our government, for our clergy or for some future time to arrive. No matter what we believe — whether we believe the messiah has come or not — each one of us needs to work towards bringing about a messianic future of equality and peace. As Jews and Christians, tikkun olam – the repair of our world is a common goal.
Eboo Patel wrote that: “Faith can be a bunker of isolation, a barrier of division, a
bludgeon of domination or a bridge of cooperation. There are lots of forces in the world investing in bunkers, barriers and bludgeons. We are doing our best to lift up the builders of bridges.” We build bridges by finding common ground upon which we all agree and common goals of healing toward which we all can work.
Father John Gibbons in reflecting on our common history wrote further, “[After learning] about how the Jewish people celebrate their Pentecost, I was filled with what a Paulist who works with different faith traditions would call a “holy envy.” Our celebration of Pentecost did not go on all night… But the degree of overlap between Shavuot and Pentecost has served as a good moment for me to reflect. What am I doing with the word of God in my life, written or otherwise? How much do I pick up that particular word, whether the book happens to be laying on a library shelf or beating somewhere between my lungs? And how often do I celebrate the reception of that gift? All I know is that learning more about the Jewish roots of my Catholic faith has helped me to push these questions further.” (http://bustedhalo.com/blogs/pentecost-shavuot-and-the-overlap-of-the-christian-and-jewish-faith)
The text of the prophet Joel belongs to us both. He prophesied for God: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions.”
God’s word was given to us both of us to actualize in this world – to serve as a foundation for our visions and for our dreams. For both of us revelation was not a onetime event but ongoing and ever accessible.
Eboo Patel wrote: “When thousands of people discover that their story is also someone else’s story, they have the chance to write a new story together.” Our task is not to argue over our differences but to use our commonalities to make a difference.
You celebrate the revelation of God’s spirit on Pentecost. We celebrate the revelation of God’s word on Shavuot. How we hear God’s word and what we do with God’s word is what matters most.
As Patel warns, some will strive to use God’s word to divide and bring about darkness. Others use God’s word to bring unity and shine light. Let us be the latter. Let us write a story together that acknowledges and appreciates our difference, creates a narrative in which not one person in our country is written out, and where all human beings are acknowledged as equal.
As Jews and Christians we are rooted in the same core scripture, what I call the Hebrew Bible and what you call the Old Testament. We share the roots of a common tree but on this day nearly two thousand years ago, each of our branches extended heavenward in different directions.
I close with my favorite rabbinic teaching on difference and sameness, on darkness and on light. In a modern midrash, a modern legend, a rabbi asked his students the following question: “How do we know that the night has ended and day has begun?”
One of his students responded with confidence, “You know that the night has ended when you can distinguish a goat from a sheep.”
A second student suggested that night has ended when you can tell the difference
between an olive and a fig tree.
“Those are all good answers,” said the rabbi. “But I believe that when you see white, black or olive skinned women walking towards you and you say these are my sisters. And when you see Islamic, Christian and Jewish men walking towards you and you say these are my brothers, then the night has truly ended and the day has begun.”
May the revelations we respectively embrace through our holy time last and this week move us to acknowledge our common humanity so that together we can write a new story and bring about a new day. Amen.