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JESUS MAFA. Pentecost, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source: (contact page:

Genesis 11:1-9 ;Acts 2:1-21

When I moved up to Boston for a new job in 2012, I found a couple of things to be troubling, especially having lived in the southern United States my whole life. Most obvious was the winter- it was no mistake that I interviewed for that position in September, and not in January. I suspect that if they had done that in January, no one would have accepted it. But over the next few months, Shannon and I realized something more subtle, yet still disconcerting to us. We rarely heard Spanish!

My roots are, of course, here in Miami, and even in North Carolina where I spent my teens and early twenties, there was a sizeable Hispanic community. Shannon grew up in Houston, Texas, and we met in Dallas, where Spanish speakers are a sizable minority.

Yet in the first ring suburb that we landed in in Boston, we didn’t. That wasn’t to say there wasn’t diversity there; Watertown, Massachusetts is the home of the second largest Armenian community in the United States, behind Los Angeles, yet that wasn’t the language of the streets, English was.

Thankfully, we found out in our exploring that this wasn’t the case for all of Boston; the town over from us, Waltham, has been a refuge for immigrants since the 1800s, with successive waves of English, Irish, Welsh, Italian, Mexican and now Guatemalan and Indian immigrants landing there and leaving their imprint on the town. We often preferred the vibes there. It’s good to be around people who are different.

That’s because human diversity, in all its forms, is not a curse. It is a blessing. Unfortunately, in the past and in the present, the Bible has been misinterpreted to support ethnic nationalism, and in the United States, racial segregation and white supremacy. Yet I believe a closer read of the Bible, and especially our stories today, tell a different story. One where every person on the planet, no matter who they are, is a beloved creation of God, and part of the great work of humanity is to not just learn to tolerate one another, but celebrate and love one another.

Our first bible reading, our first story, is one you probably know, if not from Sunday School, then from popular culture. The story is mythic in its quality, a just-so story, attempting to explain the diversity of language and people in the world. There is but one tribe or group, it seems, and they come and build a city in what the Bible calls Shinar, this ancient tribe decides to settle down, build a city and eventually a very large tower.

The land of Shinar was in modern day Iraq, and which the Hebrews knew most intimately, but not fondly as part of Babylonian Empire.

Scholars tell us that This part of the story was probably influenced by the Jewish experience in the city of Babylon, where they were exiled from about 597BC to 537BC. It was the largest city in the world at the time with a population of close to 150,000. If this seems small, Jerusalem wouldn’t achieve that population for 2,000 years, in 1944. It must have been incredibly diverse; as the administrative center of a sprawling multiethnic empire, we can imagine it as a city of dozens, if not hundreds of tribes and nations, with as many languages.

It also boasted one of the tallest buildings in the ancient world, the Etemenanki. A temple dedicated to the Babylonian God Marduk, it stood close to 300 feet tall, something like a 25ish story building- still very tall today. Now imagine if you’re used to two story houses, something this size would have been unfathomably big, so large that it challenged the heavens themselves. Although it was shorter than the pyramids in Egypt, this was a building people walked in and around on. Priests of Marduk, a sky God, did ceremonies at a shrine at the top of the building. We can see the ties here between the story of the tower of Babel and the Israelite experience of Babylon: lots of people, lots of languages, a very tall building, and worship of a foreign God!

We all know the aftermath of the tower; the people are dispersed and form many nations and languages. This is often called a curse, but I refuse to call it such. My reading of what God says, “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” does not sound like a curse of humanity, but instead recognition that humanity’s potential is great in a way that we can best describe as awe-ful, in the old sense of the word- that the awe we feel about it should have a little bit of wariness in it.

Power, be it political, technological, or economic, is a tool; there are countless examples of it being used for the common good. But, we also should remember that the pursuit of power was behind the worst moments of the 20th century and indeed, of human history, as dictators attempted to bind together the forces in nations to the will of state and leader, and the terrible results were paid out in the blood of the innocent, and in crimes against humanity.

What if our vast human potential were instead redirected away from the pursuit of power and directed instead to the pursuit of love. What if we understood that our primary calling in life was not to accumulate power and wealth, but to learn to love our neighbors who are of different religions and races, who have different political views and gender expressions and sexual orientations. To learn not just to tolerate them, as the line between tolerance and intolerance is a thin one, easily crossed back and forth, but to celebrate each other.

This means that God’s action at the tower of Babel is not a curse, but a blessing. In creating our diversity in race, gender, sexuality, thought, etc., etc., God transformed the richness and beauty of creation from a mono color canvas into a rich tapestry. Our differences do not make us weaker, they make our experiences richer. Yes, we have to talk and compromise, and sometimes we can’t build a tower to the moon as quickly as we might, but the purpose of humanity is not to build towers, it is to love our neighbors.

Why does this story of Babel matter on the feast of Pentecost? The traditional teaching of the church has been that the story of Pentecost, detailed in our second reading, is the reversal of the story of Babel. Recently, however, we have noticed that it is not the case; the story of Pentecost is not that diversity is bad, and that we should become one people. Indeed, the great miracle of Pentecost, the tongues of fire that settle on the crowd, is not that everyone speaks the same language. No, the great miracle is that the crowd understands each other as in their own languages. This is not a call to a monoculture or even a one language state, but rather once again, recognition of the diversity that exists, and a call for us to learn about our differences and reach across them.

So friends and neighbors, let us go into the world, not to build monuments to our power and pride, but to love our neighbors a little bit better, a little bit more. Let us learn to recognize our differences, reach across the gaps as we find them, and fulfill our calling as a people of God.


Hansen, Eugenio. Alpha and Omega, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source:

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21;Acts 16:16-34

It is not often that I am rendered speechless, but I was on Wednesday afternoon, when news broke of the events in Uvalde, Texas. Like all of us, I felt horror, sadness, and now anger. There’s a reason it took me close to 8 hours to figure out what to say to you all in the pastoral letter which you’ll find printed in your bulletin.

I’m not going to go into a political polemic about gun control right here and now. If you’ve talked to me for more than about five minutes you probably can guess most of my views on that, and well, that’s probably not why you came to church.

I’ll be happy to rant at you during coffee hour if you like.

To be honest, I don’t have much immediate hope right now; hope for our cities, our country, and our world. There’s a lot that will probably get worse before it gets better. Summers will get hotter, and weather events like hurricanes and wildfires will get more extreme. Wealth inequality will probably get worse and communities will get more disconnected from one another, with people having fewer and fewer friends and social connections. Our country’s politics will probably become more and more dysfunctional, as our government becomes less and less representative of what people actually want.

If this seems cynical, it is. I am especially so in weeks like this one, where evil is plainly clear not only in the tragedy of a massacre of innocents, but also in the church (not our church). The Southern Baptist Convention, the conservative denomination founded originally in defense of slavery, was forced to reveal that for decades, leaders kept a secret excel spreadsheet list of hundreds of ministers, deacons, and youth leaders who had committed sexual assault or other misconduct, and refused to share this list with churches or the general public.

So please forgive me if I don’t have a very high view of human nature right now.

Yet despite it all I do hold on to ultimate hope; that is that everything will one day be made right, even though the process will be terribly painful. I also believe in immediate miracles, where beautiful and good things happen and God’s fingerprints are all over them.

Our first reading today is the last in a multi week series Revelation about what our ultimate hope will look like when realized. Our passage today includes the final words in the book of Revelation, and as it’s the last book in our Bibles, the last words of the Bible.

This passage reminds us of a number of truths embedded into our faith; the sovereignty of God: God is the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. That Jesus is both root and branch, divine and descendant of David. That all who are thirsty can come and drink, taking the water of life as a gift.

Yet there’s a flip side of this passage that’s escaped my attention on previous times I’ve preached on it: this is city is not without its price. Now, its price is not gold or silver, indeed, it’s free yet is so despised by our culture and society it might seem impossible to achieve. Accountability. “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.”

“Blessed are those who wash their robes.”

Self-examination, accountability to not only our God but a community is a key part of the Christian life. It’s one of the reasons we go to church instead of going to brunch every week. Just like every child needs a non-parent adult who can nudge them back onto better paths when they stray, so to do we need friends, communities, and well, God to help us from getting too self-involved, too focused on the wrong things. I had a member of my internship church tell me that she went to church because she needed her heart and moral compass reset on a weekly basis.

This is not to say that we should live bound by regret or self-incrimination, but rather that we should try to do better. There is always time for us to live better, to do better, to be better, to not cause quite as much harm in the world. This is sometimes really hard. Neuroscientists tell us that as we do things, as we think about things, different neural pathways are activated in our brains, and it makes physical, not spiritual, but physical changes in how our brains work, which make it easier to do the same things again. It is an act of conscious choice to change, one that is best done with support and community.

Indeed, I would call the breaking of habits, the transformation of our ways of being when it actually sticks a miracle.

This brings us to our second reading, a longer story from the book of Acts. It’s the dramatic story of a miracle living out Jesus’ first sermon in the Gospel of Luke, that the Good News is that captives and prisoners be set free.

The story itself is a little strange: an enslaved woman, used as a fortune teller, starts harassing Paul and his companions, following behind them and yelling, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” Paul gets annoyed and exorcises some sort of spirit from her, presumably the source of her fortune telling powers.

Her owners got mad and did the ancient equivalent of calling the cops on Paul and Silas. Interestingly, what they accused Paul and Silas of wasn’t ruining them economically; it was being of the wrong religion, disturbing the peace, and advocating for strange illegal ways of life that were incompatible with their obviously superior Roman ways of life. I’ll let you fill in the gaps on whether or not people have continued to use violence to enforce what they perceive as threats to their “way of life.”

Paul and Silas are almost lynched, and then thrown in prison.

At midnight, while singing and in prayer, an earthquake loses their bonds and shakes the very foundations of the prison.

The jailor, knowing what fate awaited him if the prisoners escaped- let us remember that violent systems inflict violence on everyone involved with them, not just those who are the primary targets of them- attempts suicide, but is stopped by Paul.

The jailor frees them, and does his penance, faces his accountability; he washes their wounds, the ones that he helped to inflict.

It is only after that that he is baptized.

This is a beautiful story and a miracle; not even the earthquake, but the change in heart of the jailor.

Unfortunately, this sort of miracle is a rare one; throughout history, Christians have been jailors, conquistadors and slave owners. We have committed terrible atrocities, many of them in the name of the church.

Yet, against the weight of history, against my cynicism, I still believe in miracles. I still believe that we can be washed clean, even if, like a child who just got a new outfit, we will sully ourselves again. I still believe in the power of human and divine connection, that we can hold ourselves and each other accountable, that our love of God can, in our most open moments, cause us to choose the better way.

This is the hope that the alpha and omega, the first and the last is not doctrine or dogma, idols or our human foibles, but our God.

This is my hope against hope, the hope I must have to be and remain a Christian, and indeed, probably a functional human being. That we can hold each other in accountability, and in doing so grow in love and goodness, and sometimes, miracles do happen.


Vello, Berta, for Fine Acts

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; Acts 16:9-15

What is a home?

A home is not necessarily the same thing as a house. A house, or an apartment are buildings, physical spaces.

A home, on the other hand, has a deeper meaning to it, even in secular usage will have an almost spiritual tinge to it.

After we hosted a party a few weeks ago, my wife Shannon and I were told that we had a very welcoming home.

This doesn’t mean they were necessarily complimenting the parsonage, although it does have a nice relatively open living room and Florida room combined entertaining space.

Not too toot our own horns too much, but I think they would have said this even if we lived in a small apartment. The core of a welcoming home is not the physical surroundings- there are beautiful mansions that feel like a warzone, and tiny apartments filled with love. I believe it’s not even the individual people inside of it. Instead, it’s about the connections that we have in our family, and the warmth, openness, and safety that we were willing to extend to others. It was this warmth and openness that made our home was place where our guests could relax and feel safe.

I sincerely hope that where you live feels like a home is a place where you feel warmth and openness, and I hope that this church is a place where you can feel safe and loved.

It is a reason I open many worship services with the words, “welcome home”. We all want a place where we can feel safe, where we can rest, where we are welcomed not just for the gifts we bring, but our simple presence.

But home isn’t always easy. Family can be very hard. I think all of us have had an experience where our foundations of home- not of a house, but home- either shifted or became unmoored in some way. Hopefully, when that happened, we- or our family- were flexible enough to change and find secure footing again.

Our Bible readings are about this forging of a new home in their own ways. Our first reading is about the New Jerusalem, the Heavenly city on the remade Earth. It’s a radically different place than our homes now. God lives there, not in a temple, but in the middle of the city. There’s trees and fruit, and healing is readily available to not just the chosen but the whole earth. This is a picture of what home could be like.

Yet getting there is not an easy process. There’s a lot to cleanse on this earth; and if you’ve ever dealt with harsh chemicals in the bathroom to get a particularly gnarly stain out, imagine how hard it would be to scour racism, misogyny, or extreme nationalism out of our planet.

Yet, eventually Humanity and Divinity are able to live together in harmony under a new normal, with new foundations, a rebuilt and completely reimagined home. Even if the people involved are the same, there is a new set of relationships that are fairer and more loving. No longer are there debts or debtors, abused or abusers. Instead, we dwell with God in a place of peace, much like our poet describes on the back of the bulletin.

Our second reading is from the book of Acts, and features one of those rare features in the bible that we have been highlighting since Easter: a named female character. This particular story introduces us to Lydia, a merchant who dealt in the luxurious imperial purple. Scholars suggest that she too, was wealthy, or at least had a household. The patriarchal culture of the time suggests that if she had the sole power to invite these men, including Paul, into her house without asking permission of her husband or father that she was probably a widow, one of the few social situations a woman could be in with some degree of independence.

Lydia, interestingly, is the first follower of Jesus in Europe. This makes Europe the last continent in the bible to have Jesus followers in it- Israel/Palestine is in Asia, and the Phillip the Ethiopian Eunuch converts way back at the beginning of the book of Acts, and starts the church in Africa. As for Lydia, church that she founded, or probably led in the town of Philippi, is the subject of one of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, the book of Philippians.

Lydia, for her part, is honored by churches that have calendars for different saints, including the Episcopal, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The Orthodox Churches even call her “Equal to the Apostles.”

But what I found most intriguing about this passage is that she invites these men into her home. This is a move that took courage, as it would have been scandalous for a woman to invite three unattached men into her home, but she does it. Her act of invitation, however, is no mere act of charity, of sympathy for pitiable creatures.

This happens after her baptism, which, the same then as now, are celebrated as a welcoming into the Christian family of faith. Indeed, her invitation is conditional, but not on them, but on herself. She was not taking pity on a stranger, she was inviting a new brother, a new teacher into her house and into her life. This is what home looks like in practice.

The reading tells us that Lydia’s whole household converts along with her. That must have been quite a disruption! Old ways of relating to one another were upended, and new ways of thinking of their place in the cosmos and the social order had to be made, in addition to new religious rules to follow or not follow- did they allow pork in the house?

We don’t know the minutiae of the discussions and new adjustments that they had to make, but Lydia is clearly able to understand the shifting of the meaning of home and expand it to include Paul and his fellow disciples as siblings in faith, not just as guests.

Let us aspire to Lydia’s flexibility and welcome in our church and our homes. We know that disruptions come to our church and homes surely as they did to Lydia. Some of them are positive; the addition of a child, whether by birth or adoption. New members who join us for coffee hour and maybe sit in our pew occasionally. Others are more painful; suffering from addiction, the loss of a family member or friend; perhaps a beloved family moves away because they just can’t afford to live in Miami anymore.

Yet if we remember that our homes, and indeed our churches, are not the buildings or even the people inside of them, but the network of relationships inside them, including that great relationship to Jesus; although the foundations might bend, they will not break.

Members and friends of the Miami Shores Community Church, Welcome Home. Home to a church that tries to echo that New Jerusalem, a place of healing for all people, not just the people inside its wall. A place where we might learn to love God and each other learn how God loves us and reflect that love in our world that needs us so dearly.


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