A sermon given on the Day of Pentecost at the 8am BCP Eucharist and 10.30am Choral Eucharist, by The Reverend Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor
Scout knew how to read. She knew how to read before she went to school. Her father, Atticus had taught her. And so her first year out teacher Miss Cunningham did not know how to manage Scout on that first day of school. Miss Cunningham decided that it would be best if Scout told Atticus that he was not to teach her reading anymore. Scout returned home from her first day at school begging Atticus not to make her go to school again. We pick up the story in a scene from the Third Chapter of what is surely one of my favourite books, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Arriving home, Scout has decided that she won’t go to school any more if it is alright with Atticus. He asked what the matter was.
Bit by bit, I told him the day’s misfortunes ‘- and she said you taught me all wrong, so we can’t ever read any more, ever. Please don’t send me back. Please sir.’
Atticus walked to the end of the porch. When he had completed his examination of the wistaria vine he strolled back to me.
‘First of all,’ he said to me, ‘if you learn can a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get on better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Atticus said I had learned many things today, and Miss Caroline had learned many things herself. [Atticus said that if] I had put myself in her shoes I’d have seen it was an honest mistake on her part. …
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. Until you put yourself in their shoes …
Atticus’ plea to his daughter is woven through layer after layer of this book I love so much, To Kill a Mockingbird. “Never judge a person until you’ve stood in their shoes.” Don’t judge the black man on trial for the rape of a white girl, the man who Atticus is defending in that trial, don’t judge the neighbour that you are terrified of because he looks strange, don’t judge the grumpy old lady across the road and don’t even judge your teacher. “If you learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get on better with all kinds of folks,” said Atticus. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Don’t judge a person until you’ve stood in their shoes.
How can Scout live up to Atticus’ plea? How might we? How do we not judge the people who frustrate us or the people who are undermining us? How do we stand in the shoes of those whose theology or politics is different from ours where that theology or politics seems to be at the essence of who we are. How do we stand in the shoes of those who are suffering violence or worse still executing that violence the other side of the world from us?
Well, apart from Atticus, there was one who had mastered the art …in fact one whose life and being was to do just that … and that one was Jesus. Jesus positively pushed a person out of their own shoes to get in there with them. Be it fishermen or tax collectors, religious authorities or adulterers, he knew where they’d walked and what drove them to live and behave the way they did. Jesus he climbed into the skin of the criminals dying at his side on the cross and of the soldiers who nailed him to that cross. What is forgiveness after all? Didn’t he say “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing?”
We can only do it with him. So thank God today is the day when his spirit comes.
It is no accident that our first reading today from the Book of Genesis and our second reading from the Book of Acts have been placed alongside each other. Things fell apart on the relationship front, biblically speaking, in the story of the Tower of Babel. The story we heard read from Chapter 11 of the Book Genesis tells the story of destruction of the capacity of human beings to stand in one another’s shoes and the second from the Second Chapter of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of its healing.
The first verses of chapter 11 of the book of Genesis tells the story of the Tower of Babel. As the story opens “the whole earth has the one language and the same words.” (Genesis 11:1) With the one language and the same words human beings have the capacity to listen to one another, to hear one another’s stories, to begin to understand who they are. In this story the people settle and “build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens.” (11:4) The Tower of Babel. A great tall tower. The people think that this will make them safe. That this will prevent them being scattered and left vulnerable. They misunderstand God and what it is for them to be God’s children. This is their sin. To make their tower into their god, into the one who affords them protection.
God is exasperated. “This is only the beginning of what they will do,” God says. And so God allows the consequences of their sin to fall upon them. He confuses their languages … no longer is there one language on the earth and the same words … and he scatters them abroad from all over the face of the earth. The people, as a result of their sin, are made separate. They live in different places and they speak with different tongues.
Until Jesus comes –the one who sees us, hears us, knows our suffering, understands our fear, the one who teaches us the ways of God and sets us free …and in the end dies for it, because the strange love and forgiveness and insight of God is too much for those who prefer towers, as the people of Babel preferred towers … be it religious towers or political towers, towers they did prefer, …and after his death God resurrected him in an event so surprising that only God could have done it – and he again brought peace and freedom and forgiveness and faith to those disciples who had so hoped in him and who were so shattered by his death. After just enough time with them, he ascended into heaven promising that his spirit, the spirit of truth would come. And today we remember that.
When the day of Pentecost has come, they are all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it fills the entire house where they are sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appear among them, and a tongue rests on each of them. All of them are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gives them ability. Now there are devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathers and is bewildered, because each one hears them speaking in the native language of each.
The spirit comes. And the confusing of languages, the consequence of the longing for power and security in the story of the Tower of Babel, is undone. When the spirit comes the disciples speak and all who listen understand. When the spirit comes, human beings are blessed with the ability to stand in one another’s shoes.
We all build towers of Babel. In To Kill a Mockingbird one of the Towers of Babel was the thought that white people are good and black people are bad. Towers of Babel are edifices that fool us into thinking we are safe without God and without one another. And because of them, we leave ourselves isolated from one another and we cut ourselves off from the wonderful ability to stand in another’s shoes and the wonderful blessing that it is to have another stand in our own.
Thank God the spirit comes today. The spirit of Jesus that enables us to at least engage with the struggle of living as he did. The spirit that enfolds us and places in us the extraordinary thought that perhaps we might stand in his shoes. The spirit of Jesus. That will remind us and guide us and give us the courage to live as he did.
Atticus knew that they wouldn’t be able to do it. They wouldn’t be able to believe a black man wrongly accused of rape. Unlike Scout and her brother Jem, Atticus wasn’t surprised when they found the man guilty and sentenced him to death and he died, shot dead trying to run away from jail, too scared to wait for an appeal. Sometimes we rage, like Scout, that the spirit’s work is too slow. But the spirit is in our raging. And the spirit will never die in its attempt to encourage us again and again to step out in the sandals of that man Jesus as he helps us to step out into our neighbour’s shoes.