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"Great Balls of Fire" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - June 4, 2017

posted Jun 5, 2017, 10:42 AM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Jun 5, 2017, 2:07 PM ]

pentecost bird.jpg

This week, as I thought about Pentecost, I couldn’t get the old Jerry Lee Lewis song out of my head:

You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain

Too much love drives a man insane

You broke my will, but what a thrill

Goodness gracious great balls of fire


Lewis wrote the song with romantic love in mind.  But the words also speak to the disruptive, overwhelming, life-altering experience of God’s spirit.  Certainly, the first disciples experienced the Holy Spirit as a force which shook their nerves and rattled their brains.


But, if I’m honest, I can’t separate this song from the movie Top Gun, the eighties classic about Tom Cruise as an ace fighter pilot named Maverick.  Maverick and his co-pilot Goose sang “Great Balls of Fire” at a moment in the story when everything seemed to be going well.  Maverick, who often didn’t “fit,” felt at that moment a profound sense of belonging.  Surrounded by his best friend's family and his girlfriend, the troubled life of the Maverick seemed finally settled.  Of course, it didn’t last.


Just as Maverick sang “Great Balls of Fire” at this perfect moment of belonging, the Holy Spirit infused the disciples on that first Pentecost with a feeling of belonging.  We can feel like Mavericks in our own community, we can feel like people who don’t fit, but the Holy Spirit’s fire works in us, making us breathe deeply till we know in the depths of our being that we belong.


I’m in many discussions these days about the challenges we face as a city, a state, a nation.  We all have ways to name and describe what’s going on.  I think we face a crisis of belonging.  Much of our politics centers around the question, “Who belongs?”  And many of us wonder in our hearts, “Do I belong?”  Recent events made me realize this: we face a crisis of belonging.


The bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, particularly focused me on the issue of belonging.  A suicide bomber killed twenty-two people and wounded many more in the explosion.  It rends the heart to read the bios of those killed in the terrorist attack.


My family thought of our friend Dave Budd who lives in Manchester with his two daughters - a teenager and a young adult, the Ariana Grande demographic.  As everyone who knew anyone in Manchester did, we reached out to Dave.  They were alright.


While that gave me relief, even more I treasured his reflection, just a day after the attack on his city.  His email ended with, “The secret to [getting on in our world] is to turn the other cheek and give my Muslim neighbor a great big hug and ask if he’s got any curry going spare.”


There’s just something in that closing line - any curry going spare; it’s both an especially British way to say it and evocative of a real connection with his neighbor, a real belonging together.


I continued to think about this as news emerged about the suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, a son of Libyan refugees.  He grew up in Manchester; a family friend described him, “He was always friendly, nothing to suggest (he was violent). He was normal, to be honest.”  At some point Abedi became radicalized, embracing the violent ideology of ISIS.  The bare details and the trajectory of his life hardly make sense.


A number of researchers have looked into how people become radicalized.  And what they’re coming back to is the issue of belonging.  The youth and young adults who become radicalized felt as if they “belonged nowhere.”  In the research, radicalized youth and young adults felt marginalized by both Western culture and their heritage culture; hence, belonging nowhere.


Denmark leads the way in figuring out how to turn youth and young adults away from violence.  Ahmed, a Somali immigrant living in Denmark, described all the ways discrimination and alienation from his own heritage caused him to become radicalized.  The Danish police intervened; but not to arrest Ahmed.  Instead they partnered him with another Muslim named Mahmoud.  He remembers Mahmoud telling him, “You can still be a Muslim and have a prosperous future in Denmark.  You can be an asset to society, not a liability.”  Mahmoud spent a long number of months helping Ahmed feel that he belonged.


Imagine how different our world look if we communicated to people, “You belong!”  Imagine what would happen if we asked our Muslim neighbors if they had curry going spare.


Just as I tried to digest the news from Manchester, word came of the awful attack in Portland, Oregon.  As widely reported, Jeremy Joseph Christian began screaming anti-Muslim remarks at a black teenager and her hijab-clad friend on a commuter train.  Several men tried to stop him.  He lashed out, killing two people and seriously injuring a third; a brutal, hate-fueled attack.


Christian is just the most recent in a rising number of radicalized whites embracing a violent nationalism.  We might not know the specifics of how Christian became radicalized, but I think the underlying issue probably comes down to marginalization, the feeling of belonging nowhere.  I certainly get that sense reading even just a few of his Facebook diatribes, which have no coherence other than his own sense of grievance and isolation.


Christian projected his own feelings outward, trying to make two teenage girls feel as if they didn’t belong, to shame and isolate them, to make a black girl and a Muslim girl feel like they weren’t Americans.  Which made the actions of the bystanders even more important: Christian shouted that they didn’t belong, but the bystanders stood with them.


In court Christian called his actions “patriotism.”  But the true patriots were the men who stood up to say the two teenagers belonged, on the train and in America.  Nicholas Kristof, reflecting on this, described the men who protected the teens as “dying on the battlefield of American values.”  He went on:  

“What the three men in Oregon understood... is that in a healthy society, Islamophobia doesn’t disparage just Muslims, racism doesn’t demean blacks alone, misogyny hurts more than women, xenophobia insults more than immigrants. Rather, we are all diminished, so we all have a stake in confronting bigotry.”


I appreciate the way Kristof honored the men in Portland for standing up for the best of American values.  They made clear - at the cost and risk of their lives - that hatred and bigotry would not define who belonged in America.


And while appreciating that, I want to look at this same moment spiritually; to look at two different ways of spiritually understanding belonging.  Because there were really two very different understandings of belonging at play in Portland.  Christian - the murderer - thought people must conform to his views in order to belong.  The men and teens on the train embraced each other regardless of their differences.  If we face a crisis of belonging, then we ought to be clear about what it means to belong.  Must we conform?  Or do we embrace amid our differences?  Hug and see who has curry going spare?


Our scripture readings today speak to the two approaches to belonging.  The Babel story presents itself as a story of the very origins of human culture.  But we ought to pay attention to what we even now hear in the name: Babel, Babylon.  The ancient Israelites told this story as a spoof on Babylon.  In the story, the people of Babel decide to build a huge tower to proclaim their greatness.  And by this, they said, “[We will] make a name for ourselves.”  Biblical scholars note that the concept of a name meant a cohesive cultural force; they wanted to bind themselves together, in conformity.  We can rightly guess all the inequalities in this work: those who baked the bricks were not the ones to live in the tower.  But this inequality remained hidden under a projected unity: we belong because we all talk the same.  Babel, in this sense, was a colonial project: forcing people to assimilate into its dominating culture.  White supremacy works the same way: making “whiteness” the norm, making assimilation the only way to succeed, and building on a foundation of conformity.  You belong if you conform.


It didn’t go well for Babel.  And the Israelites, who so often struggled under the domination of the Babylonians, must have treasured this story of Babel-Babylon’s demise.  Traditionally, we think of God’s punishment taking the form of “confusing the tongues.”  But I think it was a liberation from the dominance of Babel.  Enslaved brickmakers were freed to go their own way and worship on their own.  Diversity didn’t come as punishment, but rather as a sign of freedom: each person could tell their own tale.  And it fact that happened to Babylon: the Persians conquered Babylon, allowing the Jews to return from their exile.  That’s how I read this story of Babel - our God of liberation breaking apart a Babylonian supremacy and letting people go free.


If Babel comes as God’s “no” to domination, then Pentecost provides God’s vision of community.  Babel concerned domination; the longing of a king to build a tower to make a name for himself.  (Is it going too far to say he wanted to build a tower with his name on it?)  But Pentecost tells a very different kind of story: that of people no one would ever consider for greatness.  Pentecost tells of people who didn’t “fit,” who were “Mavericks,” who didn’t belong; and yet they came to be the center of a new kind of community.


You get a whiff of the prejudice in the reaction of the crowd.  “Are these not Galileans?”  The crowd assumed the Galileans must be drunk.  We know that kind of racial prejudice, the kind that expresses shock, “Oh, you’re a sober Galilean?  Oh, you’re such an articulate Galilean!  Why we all understand you.”  (This crowd did everything but reach out and touch Peter’s hair.)


And yet the miraculous happened.  “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”  Usually our tradition focuses on this miracle as a gift of the Holy Spirit that allowed Peter to communicate the Gospel.  Speaking in tongues as a method of conversion; our tradition put the focus on conversion.  But what if it was not just a means to an end?  What if the gift of speaking all those languages were really part of God’s vision?  What if the unity among all those diverse people was in fact the point of it all?   What if all those Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs standing together was, in fact, the point of it all?


Pentecost points to a different kind of belonging than Babel.  In Babel, people belonged because a system of domination enforced conformity.  But on Pentecost, people belonged not because they were smart, or wealthy, or white, or the same; but because God loved them all.


I think we face a crisis of belonging.  We long for the Maverick-Goose moment from Top Gun, that moment when we sing “Goodness gracious,” and feel in the depths of our soul that we belong.  On Pentecost, we find the Holy Spirit shaking nerves and rattling brains.  Because God longs too for us all to belong together.  Regardless of our different cultures, to belong together.  To hug each other and ask, do you have any curry going spare?


Alleluia and Amen.







  • Bodo, Lorand, “Excluded: The Sense of Non-Belonging and Violent Radicalisation in the UK,” August 7, 2016 (accessed May 31, 2017).

  • “Everything We Know About Manchester Suicide Bomber Salman Abedi,” The Daily Telegraph, May 26, 2017 (accessed June 2, 2017).

  • Ferandez, Eleazar S., “From Babel to Pentecost: Finding a Home in the Belly of the Empire,” Semeia.

  • Kristof, Nicholas, “On a Portland Train, the Battlefield of American Values,” New York Times, May 30, 2017.

  • Lewis, Jerry Lee, “Great Balls of Fire.”

  • Lyons-Padilla, Sarah et al, “Belonging Nowhere: Marginalization and Radicalization Risk Among Muslim Immigrants,” Behavioral Science and Policy Association

  • Mansel, Tim, “How I was De-radicalized,” BBC World (accessed May 31, 2017).