Pentecost: Content vs Context

May 15th, 2016

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Scripture: Acts 2:1–11

I want to tell you a Holy Spirit story. It happened in this room on May 1st after the 5PM service. That was the first Sunday back in the Chapel after its renovation. We were gathered in the back having hors d’oeuvres and a glass of wine (the 5PM equivalent to Coffee Hour). Someone—I don’t remember who—came up to me and said: “You have to come see the Mary window in the Church.” So I went. And what I saw made me quickly return to the Chapel and call everyone into the Church. We stood in the back, in awe, as we watched the Mary window dance. All of the small individual panels were lighting up, one after another, in a random display of light. Only Mary and Jesus faces remained a steady beam. It was like nothing I had ever seen. We all stood in awe, because it was awesome.

I don’t know how many people were there with me. Maybe 10 or so. Here is the wild thing: we mostly would recount that story the same way, but we probably wouldn’t all assign it the same meaning; because content, or what we saw, and context, how we interpreted what we saw, are two different things. Context or meaning can only be known by hearing the person’s story.

Today I want to think about content and context as revealed in the story of Pentecost. Here is some history: Pentecost was a festival day on the Jewish calendar in the time of Jesus, marking the harvest of the winter crop. And some of this crop was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as a thanksgiving offering to God.

At the time of this particular Pentecost, things in Jerusalem were raw and filled with angst. Jesus had died. Everyone knew that. Some said he had returned from the dead. That was less well accepted. And those same people claimed he ascended into the sky. Now they were waiting—waiting for something to happen. And it did. A mighty wind rocked the city. And in that storm, people saw flames of light dancing on the heads of people all around them. And then, miraculously, they could understand each other.

What happened in Jerusalem on that day was that content got demoted, and context got promoted. Here was the Apostles’ epiphany: that the God they worshipped, the God who made earth, water, sun, and seed to produce their winter harvest, was the same God that did these same things for all other farmers all over the world. And if the Apostles’ God did that, then their God was also the God that enabled all deeds of power to be done, in every single life, every where, all over the world. And it occurred to the Apostle’s that this is what Jesus had taught them: He said: “And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also; so there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16 para)

And suddenly the Apostles got it, like a light bulb went on… Suddenly everyone understood everyone else—language—that is content—notwithstanding. The Apostle’s understood in that instant, that the lives and languages and hopes and aspirations of all people throughout the entire world were connected by the context of each individual’s story, and that story, in every single case was unique and profound, like a dancing flame on a persons head.

The stained glass window is our metaphor today. I’m one panel, and my panel tells my story, and it is purposeful and unique; and you are one panel, and your panel tells your story, and it is elegant and mysterious; and you are one panel, and your panel tells your story, and it is hard and enlightening. God is the light that shines through, and the Holy Spirit is the lead that holds us together.

I don’t exactly know how the Holy Spirit works. All I know is that somehow she is dynamically involved in that space between my life and God’s love, and between my life and your life, and between your life and God’s love. And there is not a person in the world not included in that pattern, and it has nothing to do with the content of their life and everything to do with the context of their story. I have yet to hear a story, a true, authentic life story, that isn’t beautiful and awesome, not in Hollywood way, but in a Holy Spirit way, full of truth and deep.

On the day of Pentecost suddenly everyone was a person with a deep story. Suddenly the tribe was secondary to each individual’s particular humanity. This is what the Apostles understood, and it transcended the content of language, becoming a dancing flame of context. It was awesome. It was new. Well, it wasn’t new, but it was newly understood.

Some of you might be thinking, “Wait, everyone’s context is different, it is the common content that should hold us together.” And I’d like that to be the case, but the world is designed to be different for everyone. Look at the earth and the sun. They refuse to cast day or night on all people at the same time. And yet, ask any person to tell you the story of how they sleep, or how they work during the day, and you will hear a deep, real, rich story, unique and significant.

That is the revelation of Pentecost that context is more connecting than content. I have been talking about the Age of the Holy Spirit lately. Connecting through context is a principle to live by in the age of the Holy Spirit, and it is very hard to do. It is hard to do, because, if you’re like me, you’re quick to write the story of a person’s life based on the content you find them in. If you’re like me, you’ve written their entire narrative before even talking to them. If you are like me, you carry in your minds all sorts of stories about people all of the time.

And, unless we’ve sat down with them and heard about the context of their life—really heard it—the stories we carry around about people are completely wrong. We base them on content, and that really doesn’t tell us anything—not where they shop or even where they go to school. Have you ever met someone who doesn’t go the UW who wears the swag?

So today I want to encourage you in prioritizing context over content. It begins by assuming that everyone you meet, irrespective of the content you find them in, has a deep, real, rich story, unique and significant. If you do this, you will find your heart filled with divine love. Not because you love them or the words they say necessarily, but because in hearing a story we always see the Holy Spirit anew in the world.

But it takes practice. It is a spiritual exercise. My prayer for you is that the Holy Spirit puts many practice venues in your way this coming week. Look for them at the airport, or the shopping mall, or the grocery store. Let’s take a test run.

Imagine being at the grocery store. You’re in a hurry, and you run in to get a few things to complete the dinner you’re planning. Just as you are about to get in the express line, a women with two small children and a cart full of pizza, pop tarts, and popsicles pulls in front of you. The cashier takes her, so you don’t say anything, but you’re thinking something. Your tape is running.

Then the inevitable happens. One of the children wants some candy from the rack right there, and the woman says, “No.” The child looses it, and as he’s wailing the other child drops a glass jar of pickles. As the cashier is calling for clean up, the woman hands her food stamps.

I’m writing a story. How about you?

I do it all the time based on a content snapshot! And when I do, I’m doing the opposite of what happened on the day of Pentecost. I’m diminishing the humanity of that person I am looking upon, and the world is worse off because of it.

It is easy to forget the unique, deep, real context of every life. It is easy to forget that if you had time to hear the story your heart would be filled with divine love. Maybe you’d hear about the day care facility she works at. And how these two children got to come with her to the grocery because it was the prize for good behavior, and how she had to rush back so her colleague to take her husband to chemo therapy.

Who knows what you’d hear, but I can guarantee that WHENEVER you prioritize context over content, even when you don’t have the privilege of knowing the story, your heart will be filled with the divine love. Again I am not saying you’ll love them; I’m saying you’ll have a much richer sense of the Holy Spirit alive in the world. And pretty soon, you’ll be walking around in a world were flames are dancing on the head of everyone you meet.

I don’t know much about the Holy Sprit, but I know this: that she is dynamically involved in that space between my life and God’s love, and between my life and your life, and between your life and God’s love. And there is not one person in the entire world not included in this pattern. Each person in the network of humanity has an deep, rich, significant story in every case. Mostly we’ll never hear them, and that is OK. It is enough to let your heart be filled with the story you know you’d hear if you could ask. It is our context, our unique and rich stories that connect us to each other through the power of the Holy Spirit.