The Revolution of the Intimate - Reservoir Church
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The Revolution of the Intimate

Steve Watson

May 26, 2024

Last Monday we hosted the Board meeting for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. And even though important things sometimes happen at Board meetings, Board meetings can be very boring events. It’s practically the same word – board and boring.

But our Monday meeting wasn’t boring at all. One of the people co-leading with me asked me the day of:

where can we buy good cake around here?

And I wondered: why do we need cake? But I suggested a place. And that night she and our third co-leader showed up with cake from a better place than I’d suggested. High quality cake. 

And it turned out the cake was for someone’s wedding anniversary, a 20th wedding anniversary. It’s fun to celebrate anniversaries. Our church had our 25th anniversary last year. This winter Grace and I are going to celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary. When we had our 20th anniversary, we took a big trip together far away without our kids for the first time since we’d had them. And while we love our kids, that was fun too. 

But the 20th anniversary we were celebrating on Monday was a special one. One of our Board members, Marcia, was celebrating her 20th anniversary of marriage to her wife Susan. And this anniversary also lines up with the 20th anniversary of same sex weddings being legal in Massachusetts. 

This is not a coincidence, because Marcia and her wife were the very first couple of two men, or in their case two women, to get married that day right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right after the law was changed. So we weren’t just celebrating Marcia’s anniversary, we were celebrating history too. Which was special.

Marcia said thank you and gave a little speech before we ate cake, saying how much it meant to her that we wanted to celebrate with her. And then one of our leaders, a younger queer person who was only a kid when Marcia got married gave a speech too, and said how important what Marcia and her generation did for marriage equality, and how Marcia’s generation has paved the way for her generation to live safer, freer lives with the people they love. And she was tearing up, and Marcia was tearing up, and a lot of us were tearing up, because we were thinking of our queer kids or our queer friends or siblings, or our queer selves, and what it means to us when we can be loved just as we are and have the same rights and freedoms as anyone else.

But then there was one more speech. One of our founders spoke up and said tonight we’re also celebrating the 20th anniversary of our organization surviving. Because when this law was getting changed, there were people on our Board back then that were for this change, and that were against this change. And it was such a big argument, and such a hard argument, that we didn’t know if we’d be able to stay together as GBIO. But we did because we decided to keep loving each other, and to stay in relationship, even when we disagreed about some really important things. And those relationships kept us together, and they changed us too. Not everyone changed their minds, but many people have. And there are people who didn’t understand or agree with Marcia’s marriage before who celebrate it today. 

And there we were – about 20 people – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Black, White, Asian – as young as 23 and as old as 77. Celebrating Marcia’s anniversary, and celebrating LGBTQ rights, and celebrating our friendships and our desire to keep getting to know each other across our differences, keep learning together amidst our differences, and keep acting for a better world together, powered by all the stories and all the gifts we bring to the table with our differences.

What a gift, to learn to not only tolerate or compromise but to understand and love and live and grow together across our differences. 

This is what the theologian Willie James Jennings calls the revolution of the intimate. The revolution of the intimate is what Jennings says a Christian holiday called Pentecost is all about. And while Pentecost was on the Christian calendar last week, and our kids thought about Pentecost last week in kids’ church, we’re just getting to it today. 

I’m excited to talk about Pentecost, and how it’s the revolution of the intimate, and some of what that might mean to you and me. Let’s read the story. It’s from the book of Acts, which stands for the Acts of the Apostles. It’s the story of what Jesus’ friends did after Jesus died and rose again, and it’s the story of what they discovered God doing among them. This part is from near the beginning, in the second chapter.

Acts 2:1-21 (Common English Bible)

2 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place.

2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting.

3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.

4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.

6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages.

7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them?

8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language?

9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,

10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism),

11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”

12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?”

13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words!

15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!

16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Joel 2:28-32)

I mentioned that last week our kids talked about this story in kids’ church, so I’ve invited two of our 4th and 5th grade kids to tell us what struck them most about this story this year.

Pentecost was a holiday already before this story. Pentecost was a Greek name for the holiday. Today, Jews call this day for its Hebrew name, Shavuot. It was a spring harvest festival. And it’s also the day Jews remember the gift of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. So it’s the birthday of words, spoken words and written words of God, through the lips and pens of people. The anniversary of the beginning of the Bible.

Pentecost is another beginning. This time it’s the beginning of a more intimate experience of God. Not just words you read or hear, but a communicative presence of God with us and among us that we can feel.

It’s like wind. It’s like fire. 

A lot of the time we read the Bible from the perspective of the main characters, of the heroes. 

So we read the Pentecost story and we think of the wild experience of Jesus’ friends suddenly speaking languages they’ve never learned. We hear the image of something like wind and something like fire, and we think – these not very educated working class fishers and tax collectors from the countryside are so bold and articulate and powerful. 

And for some of us, this is very attractive. 

This story has become a big deal in the parts of Christianity that are called Pentecostal, or sometimes Charismatic. Our church has some background here too.

And in these parts of the Christian church, we like to be able to experience God super-close, super personally, super intimate. And that can be beautiful and special. This has actually been important to my faith. 

But sometimes too we can be kind of hooked on what I call the big dopamine hits of an experience of God. We don’t just want to pray, we want to pray in a language we’ve never learned before because that feels extra special. People call that speaking in tongues. It’s something the Bible only mentions a handful of times, and it doesn’t always seem to mean the same thing there, but this has become a big deal to some Christians, because it seems so powerful, so intimate. 

Same with other kinds of powerful experiences of God doing something for you, or God doing something through you. And if all this is genuine and authentic and helpful and encouraging to other people, and you can stay humble and open about it all, that’s cool. 

But I want to read this passage and this moment of Pentecost from another angle today, a different experience of what the revolution of the intimate looks like, and that’s the experience the people in this story who aren’t named have. The crowd of diaspora exiles who’d traveled back to their ancestral home of Jerusalem for the festival. See when we read the Bible, we’re not always the main characters, so it can help to read the stories from other people’s perspective.

And for these residents of Mesopotamia and Asia and Egypt and Libya and Rome, the Spirit of God is like wind. And like fire. And mostly, it’s like someone speaking to you the good news of God in your heart language, in your mother tongue. 

The crowd we’re told are people who live far away. They are bicultural people, who speak more than one language, have had to learn more than one culture and way of being in the world. 

Many of you know these experiences – of living in America and having people wonder where you are from, or being surprised that you speak English so well when you always have, or of being underestimated because your English is considered accented. But then you travel to where your ancestors are from and you’re told you don’t belong there either, that you’re a foreigner there as well. 

In my wife’s Cantonese Chinese roots, they call you jook sing – a hollow bamboo reed, like you might look Chinese on the outside but on the inside, it’s not all there anymore. You’ve lost part of your culture. Or some say it’s like you’re not connected on either end, not belonging in either culture. 

This is the pain of bicultural people, of diaspora people. The doors and hearts that are closed to the fullness of who you are.

It’s the pain of colonized people – then with Jews under the Romans and in modern history. Willie James Jennings puts it this way. I’m gonna quote him at length here. 

He says,

“Imagine people in many places, in many conquered sites, in many tongues all being told that their languages are secondary, tertiary, and inferior to the supreme languages of the enlightened peoples. Make way for Latin, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, and English. These are the languages God speaks. These are the scholarly languages of the transcending intellect and the holy mind. Imagine centuries of submission and internalized hatred of mother tongues and in the quiet spaces of many villages, many homes, women, men, and children practicing these new enlightened languages not by choice but by force. Imagine peoples largely from this new Western world learning native languages not out of love, but as utility for domination. Imagine mastering native languages in order to master people, making oneself their master and making them slaves. Now Imagine Christianity deeply implicated in all this, in many cases riding high on the winds of this linguistic imperialism, a different sounding wind. Christianity was ripe for this tragic collaboration with colonialism because it had learned before the colonial moment egan to separate a language from a people. It had learned to value, cherish, and even love the language of Jewish people found in Scripture – but hate Jewish people.” 

Into this horrible habit we have of cultural and linguistic erasure sweeps Pentecost where the bicultural, diaspora, jook sing crowd hear people unlike them speak the good news of God to them in their mother tongue. 

It’s linguistic reinstatement, it’s cultural validation, it’s a decolonizing of the good news message of Jesus. It’s a revolution of the intimate.

Jennings one more time:

“God speaks people, fluently.”

Let me say that again:

“God speaks people, fluently. And God, with all the urgency that is with the Holy Spirit, wants the disciples of his only begotten Son to speak people fluently too.” 

This is the revolution of the intimate, this profound knowingness of God for all of who I am, just as I am. I’m part of the story, as my immigrant self, as by Black self, as my descendant of barely literate Scots-New Yorkers self, as my queer self, as whoever I am, just as I am. God knows and speaks to me and loves me as me.

And God calls us all to know and speak to one another in this same curious, knowing, generous, respectful, loving spirit as well. 

This is why that Board meeting of ours held power. It wasn’t just celebrating an anniversary or eating cake, it was the invitation of the Spirit to know and be known fully and deeply just as we are. We may not have heard all of the good news of Jesus or the mighty works of God in our mother tongue, but we had a revolution of the intimate nevertheless, as we were translated and known to one another. 

And that encouraged us to imagine the stories we dream that will be told some day about our justice work. 

These things are connected by the way. The revolution of the intimate – the safety and knowingness of our whole selves, and the awareness that God knows us, that God speaks us. This helps us flourish. 

As the passage says,

Your young will see visions.

    Your elders will dream dreams.

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

The revolution of the intimate empowers visions and dreams. And the revolution of the intimate saves us. 

We’re near the end of AAPI Awareness month right now, and this month one of the books I’ve read by Asian-American authors was the autobiography of Grace Lee Boggs. Grace Lee Boggs is someone my wife Grace has been encouraging me to learn about and talk about for years, because she’s this important Asian-American activist whose story so profoundly embodies parts of this revolution of the intimate. 

Grace Lee Boggs grew up in New York City, in the early 1900s, a child of the first waves of Chinese immigrants to American cities over 100 years ago. Her family kind of split apart over time, and she became the one intellectual. She earned a PhD in philosophy way back in 1940, and was interested in radical politics and the transformation of American life to empower the poor and working class.

But her big pivot when she learned about the March on Washington – not the famous one from the 1960s with MLK and John Lewis and all but the one before that, way back in 1941, organized by Philip Randolph, that got the American military desegregated. 

When Grace Lee Boggs learned about the success of that march, she thought: Black Americans have the culture, the religion, the institutions, and the strength to make justice possible in this country. And as an adult child of Chinese immigrants and a PhD in philosophy, she decided to embed herself in the Black freedom struggle. First, she supported and partnered with a Trinidadian radical activist named C. L. R. James. Then later, while living in Detroit, she married a Black union leader named Jimmy Boggs, and together, Grace and Jimmy were instrumental leaders in the Northern Black freedom movement and the beginnings of the Black Power movement as well. 

Grace Lee Boggs lived an incredible life, an incredible story of the revolution of the intimate – two people of two cultures – African-American and Chinese-American, both oppressed and marginalized in this land, largely living apart, amidst mutual misunderstanding and stereotype and mistrust, joined in mutual knowing, mutual respect, and mutual action for the common good. 

These kinds of revolutions of the intimate truly help save us. 

Friends, I wonder about all the ways our world is looking for the revolution of the intimate.

I think about children who are cold to their parents, or even who are estranged from their parents, who need prodigal mothers and prodigal fathers to keep seeing them, keep looking out for them, keep moving toward them, keep loving them.

I think of apologies that could be made, gifts that could be given, love and encouragement that could be articulated. 

I think of communities of great difference – our schools, our city, even our church – where humble, generous knowing and sharing of stories helps us see visions and dream dreams together. 

I think of the anxious places in our hearts that need an encouraging word from God that in the details of who and where we are, we are seen and accompanied, so that our healing, saving journey can keep moving forward.

And I yearn, let’s go. Let’s not give up on the possibility of seeing and knowing one another, and growing the revolution of the intimate among us as well. 

And in all these places, I yearn: come Holy Spirit, speak your good news and mighty works to us again.