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May 28, 2023 Deacon Chris Beukman
Good morning Good Shepherd Reading!!
My name is Chris Beukman, and I am the Archdeacon for the Diocese in charge of Pastoral Care and Deployment for the fifty or so Deacons -active as well as retired- in our Diocese. Thanks to father Brian for the invitation to be here not just on this Pentecost Sunday but also at the occasion of our beloved Deacon Pete’s retirement. It’s great to be here!
Pentecost is a complex holiday and there is a lot to be said about it. Yes, it is the Sunday we wear red to church, and I am glad to see that some of you have (or have not) .Yes, it’s the birthday of the Church. Yes, Pentecost celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church .
As the disciples themselves were perplexed and confused, as the book of Acts teaches us, some of that perplexion and confusion can rub off on us as well. . When I was a student, in our wonderful ecumenical student parish it so happened that on Pentecost Sunday there was a new lay reader who was assigned to read from the Book of Acts second chapter. Needless to say, she was very nervous, which was understandable in this passage teeming with Phrygians and Pamphilians. So with a slightly trembling voice she began to read : “There were nine Parthians, Medes and Elamites, ten Phrygians and Pamphylians, eleven Cretans and Arabs- and all of us were going :’ where did she get those numbers ? Was she there? She can’t be that old !!.’
Then, of course, afterwards we realized she was reading one of those Bible translations where the verse numbers are interspersed with the text itself, not in the margins.
Pentecost becomes even more complex when we realize that those ‘devout Jews from every nation under heaven’ that verse 5 talks about were there for a specific reason: to celebrate the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot which falls exactly fifty days after Passover. Pentecost means fifty, correct? Pentecost comes fifty days after Easter, Shavuot comes fifty days after Passover, and now all of a sudden it makes sense, right?
At Shavuot, Jews remembered and celebrated the receiving of the laws of Moses on Mount Sinai, that’s why it was such an important holiday for them There were all kind of special observances, poetry readings, special foods and songs, and on the Shavuot holiday the scroll of the Book of Ruth was read, which makes sense when you think that the setting for Ruth’s story is also a harvest scene.
But for me this year, Pentecost is yet again about something else. It’s about language. In many churches (I don’t know if this is the custom also at Good Shepherd ) the account from Acts 2 is read in different languages. In the churches that I have served as a Deacon, I have often been asked to read a verse or two in Dutch, which is my native language. It’s kind of a neat experience to hear people that you have seen in the pews for a long time all of a sudden get up and read the in Bible in Hindi, or French, or Icelandic or some other exotic language .
There is a story in the 11th chapter of the book of Genesis, the well known story of the tower of Babel, that begins with ‘Now the whole world had one language and the same words’ Imagine a world like that !! I would hope there would be lot more understanding between nations and peoples if this were the case. Nowadays you can buy electronic pocket translators that claim to directly translate your words into some sixty languages when you speak into them- but I hear they don’t work so well.
In their hubris, the people of Babel began to build a tower that would reach to heaven. So strongly united did they feel in their ability to understand each other’s languages that they thought they could be equal to God. There is a famous painting by 16th century artist Brueghel the Elder that depicts that activity and I gave that to Fr. Brian to put on the cover page of our bulletin today.
Needless to say, God was not completely comfortable with these human efforts to rival God. And this is how God thwarted their efforts to build this tower : God confused the languages’ of all the workers so they could not understand each other, and so the great work of the tower of Babel failed .
We have lived in this confusion of languages most of our human history. If you have ever landed in a country the language of which you are unfamiliar with, you know what a confusing and anxiety producing state that can put you in.
But, you see, at Pentecost all of this is reversed, and God stands the Tower of Babel on its head,’ in our own languages we hear them speak of God’s deeds of power.’
So for me this year, reading the Pentecost story, it’s about the dream of once again becoming one people, one humanity, one language that is restored on Pentecost.
Now I am so glad that we are talking about languages today on the day that we are celebrate our dear Deacon Pete’s retirement. Because, you know, Pete speaks many languages. And by that I don’t mean he’s fluent in Greek or Hebrew, or can carry out a conversations about French literature and cuisine, no, Deacon Pete knows the language of the people of faith. Pete also knows the language of the poor, the needy, especially the language of people struggling with opioid addiction, as well of the language of the immigrant new to this country. Pete knows all of those languages. But most of all, Pete speaks and understands the language of love, and Pete has spoken that language loud and clear here at Good Shepherd and in the Reading and Tewksbury communities all the years of his ordained life. And for being an interpreter to us, Pete, of those languages in a way that we could understand them, we are just so profoundly grateful!! Pete, will you stand up please?
Pete, we honor you, we respect you and we love you. A thanks from the bottom of our hearts for all you have done for Good Shepherd and here in Reading. Deep thanks to Andrea and Fr. Brian and all those who have supported you throughout the years. Thank you for speaking the language of love to us. We hope to enjoy your presence here among us for many years to come and maybe even hear you speak the words of the dismissal from time to time. Pete, we love you. Happy retirement and God bless. Amen
May 14, 2023 Deacon Chris Beukman
Good morning, St. John’s.
Happy Mother’s Day to all here who are mothers and to all who have mothers. We pray also today for Michael, who is away in California at Credo, an immersive clergy renewal program, and for his safe return.
My parents, who were good Christians, taught me never to say a dirty word in Church. However, today, as we say morning prayer, I want to start this sermon with a dirty word: ‘evangelism’. Why is it a dirty word for Episcopalians? Because we are too polite, too bland, and too civilized to get involved with the verbal sparring that evangelism is often associated with. I recently read a definition of evangelism that said ‘I am right, you are wrong, and if you let me in, I’ll tell you all about it. ‘
But perhaps we confuse evangelism with proselytizing. It often strikes me that the whole business of proselytizing is much more about the ego of the proselytizer than about the message of Christ.
I am mentioning evangelism this morning because today’s readings are tightly bound together by the theme of evangelism. The first letter of Peter, which we did not read today but that was appointed, encourages us to ‘always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence’ The phrase ‘do it with gentleness and reverence’ seems to indicate that the writer of the letter of Peter had some experience with the manipulative and ego-boosting qualities of the proselytizing business. I think that by itself this is a beautiful definition of evangelism. We simply tell our story from the perspective what gives us hope as followers of the Way. I can live with that.
The apostle Paul, however, brings evangelism up to the next level. To put it in perspective for you, a major part of the book of the Acts of the Apostles, written as you know by Luke the Evangelist, is taken up by description of Paul’s voyages throughout Asia and southern Europe.
It has to be noted that Paul’s attempts at evangelism often were spectacular failures. Just last week when the Book of Acts was the appointed reading, we saw Paul prior to his conversion encouraging a crowd who was stoning Stephen, the first Deacon of the Church, which goes to show that if a Deacon is not in trouble, they not doing Deaconing right. It might be startling to make the jump from seeing Paul as a persecutor of the people of the Way to a Christian Evangelist here.
Paul’s failures include preaching tours in Berea, Thessaloniki end Philippi where he was chased out of town by people who opposed his message.
So, it must have been with fear and trembling, after so much failure that Paul now comes to Athens, the very center of culture, arts and philosophy in the ancient world.
I know the people of St. John’s are generally well-traveled: how many of you have been to the Acropolis in Athens? Perhaps some of you have noticed a knobby hill just below it known as the Hill of Mars, or Areopagus. It was a place where the Supreme Court of the city of Athens met to mete out justice.
What follows has been called a master class in evangelism. Rule number one: know your audience!! It is clear not only that Paul has done his homework, but also that he has a good understanding and warm empathy with that what lives in the hearts of the Athenians who are listening.
It turns out he has even studied the classics. The phrase “In whom we live and move and have our being’ that occurs in more than one place in the prayer book Paul actually borrows from the poet Epimedes, and he uses the phrase ‘for we too are his offspring’ which comes from the work of a Stoic philosopher named Cleantes.
The Stoics believed that a virtuous life was the only thing leading to true happiness. Cleantes came to Athens a poor man, earned his living as a boxer and water-carrier by night so he could practice Stoic philosophy by day. So interesting that the Apostle Paul quotes Cleantes here.
Paul has done his homework. He has roamed the vast city of Athens and noticed the Greeks have a god for every purpose, represented by some many temples and statues in that city. But just in case they missed a God, they also have erected a statue with the inscription ‘To an unknown ‘God. Just to cover all the bases.
Masterfully, Paul takes the starting point of his sermon from that statue. Without even mentioning Christ, he teaches the Athenians that his unknown God is none other that the God of Abraham, Isaak and Jacob and the father of Jesus Christ because “he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Rule # 2 of evangelism: Tell your own story of what God has done for you. It means accounting for the hope that is in us, as the Letter of Peter says, and Paul’s tells his own story masterfully.
It is not known how many Athenians came to know and love Christ that day. The book of Acts says it was just a few, and mentions their names, Dionysias the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and some others.
As evangelists, we simply tell our story of how God has changed our lives, and we then invite others to tell their stories.
I wonder, though, if words are truly needed. A famous Deacon St. Francis of Assisi (who was not ordained a priest until on his deathbed and even then against his will) once said ‘In all we do, always evangelize, and if necessary, use words.’ Our actions speak louder than words. The outreach that Emily inspired us to do speaks loudest of the story of our love for Jesus.
Last Saturday, I was at the funeral at St. Paul’s in Bedford of one of our oldest and longest ordained Deacons, The Rev. Bruce Nickerson. Bruce was ordained in the Diocese of Rhode Island 26 years ago. A factory worker, he listened to the stories that his co-workers told, and decided to collect and study these stories as folklore. This study let to his Ph.D. in Sociology.
A man in recovery, he went in the prison at MCI Concord for 26 years, each week leading Bible study for inmates and presiding at AA meetings. At times he even managed to smuggle our Bishops through the trap and into the prison, a story Bishop Gayle would often recount will great pleasure.
I don’t know how many men at MCI Concord found faith through the work of Deacon Bruce, but I think it’s substantial. But Bruce never preached or proselytized, he simple did his job, the difficult work of guiding people in recovery and presiding over Bible study. Bruce did not say much, but he just did. And those actions of evangelization speak louder than words.
In all we do, we must always evangelize. And if necessary, we will use words.