Sinai, Pentecost, and Our Democratic Process

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, June 9, 2019



Today many Christians are celebrating Pentecost, the day recognized as the event that birthed Christianity as a movement that lived beyond the life of one man. People were gathered together, who had known and followed the teachings of the itinerant activist rabbi we know in English as Jesus, who had only recently been executed for crimes against the empire. They didn’t know anything was about to happen in this intensely grief-driven process. But as they remembered and told it afterward, suddenly they heard the loud sound of wind, and they saw something that reminded them of flames come down and rest on their heads. And they discovered in themselves the ability to push through their grief and actively share their friend’s message. It was a strange day for them, and the way they chose to tell it was downright weird, unless they were expressing themselves in metaphor and symbol.


In the Pantheon in Rome, that ancient pagan temple that was converted into a Catholic church, on this day each year, the descent of the Holy Spirit and that memory of the tongues of flame are memorialized by dropping red rose petals onto worshipers below from the oculus, the 26-foot-across opening at the top of the dome. It is really dramatic. But no matter how miraculous the account in the Bible is, no matter how dramatically it is commemorated today, the core of the experience is that individuals who had no reason to see their own power and potential are, as part of a body with common cause, empowered to fulfill needed roles in their new community. Christian scriptures provide several examples of what these gifts of the spirit are. Some are supernatural or metaphorical in their presentation, such as healing; some relate to character, such as hospitality, leadership, service, or mercy; yet others relate to talents in the arts and crafts. Also prominent are the roles some individuals will play – “some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers,”[1] as the writer of the Christian epistle to the Ephesians later put it – these are individuals empowered in mutually supportive community, communicating their message of power and resistance across lines of difference.


Today is also the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which is recognized as the anniversary of the day when the Israelites, gathered on the plain at the base of Mt. Sinai received the Torah, received their law, received their covenant with their God. Indeed, it was for the purpose of observing Shavuot that the first-century followers of Jesus had gathered in Jerusalem. Christians came to call it Pentecost after the Greek name for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. The events being remembered on that ancient day were already ancient history receding into legend. After those events at Sinai, the Israelites had wandered in the wilderness, entered their homeland, established a nation, established a kingdom, split the kingdom, had gone into captivity in two waves and returned, fought the oppression of the Seleucids, and fallen under the dominance of the new hegemon, the Roman Empire.


So much had happened, and so that ancient memory was told with great drama so it would not be forgotten. In a poem by Chava Weissler, it is described this way:


On the Big Day
There were voices –
Thunder and lightning and a long blast of the shofar;
The mountain was covered in clouds and smoke.
On that day,
We saw the voices.
When you see voices
You never forget it as long as you live…
…Breathing hard, eager, filled with terror,
We all pressed forward towards the mountain
Where God hid and beckoned.
We stood and waited, men and women.
The mountain smoked and steamed
It trembled and we trembled
The sound of the shofar got louder and louder
Moses spoke and God answered[2]


With the focus of the Jewish holiday being on the revelation at Sinai, this day is observed by many as a day for study and learning. There is a widespread custom of spending the night of Shavuot in all-night study. When I am in St. Louis on Shavuot, I participate in the all-night study session hosted by Bais Abraham, a liberal Modern Orthodox synagogue with a justice orientation and, despite its mechitzah separating men and women, a strong and growing commitment to gender equity. They are among the small number of Orthodox congregations who have a woman serving a rabbinic role. This Shavuot study session is also attended by congregations across the Jewish spectrum in St. Louis: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and unaffiliated congregations. And, as is the custom on Shavuot, there are dairy foods available all night long. Think blintzes! Think cheesecake! Think sour cherry soup!


But the reason Sinai looms so large in the Jewish mind is that it was in the story of Sinai that the people who had recently escaped centuries’ long slavery formed themselves into a nation of people with laws, customs, roles, leaders, and institutions with a commitment to the whole within which they could flourish. A true nation rather than a random assortment of free individuals, each seeking only their own way.


And finally, with a whole lot less drama or overt use of symbol and metaphor, today is the day of this congregation’s annual meeting. After the service we will conduct the business meeting required by our bylaws as part of our standing as an American not-for-profit religious organization. According to our bylaws, “Normal business at the annual meeting includes the election of members to serve on the Fellowship’s Board of Directors or as trustees and the adoption of a budget.” It’s a whole lot more like receiving the law at Sinai than tongues of fire on that first-century fateful Pentecost. But without the drama or a trembling mountain and words made visible in the rarified air.


Or is it? We will elect leaders to concentrate on the congregation’s longterm goals, who will provide direction that will guide the congregation on its path forward. Just as that mighty-wind and flaming-tongues Pentecost of antiquity was about empowering leadership for the good of the entire community, we gather today first and foremost to empower new leaders through election of board members and to affirm the faithful efforts of current board members through our vote on the budget they have painstakingly constructed, balancing financial realities of pledge totals, current obligations, and congregational needs, applying our spiritual values to the business of governance. You may not see the metaphorical flames resting on the heads of our board members, but trust me, they are there.


And all of this is within the spiritual heritage of democratic processes. Leadership has always been a high priority. If we look at today’s holiday of Shavuot, at Sinai we saw the establishment of the rule of law for a people recently escaped from slavery under the rule of despots. We saw one main prophetic ruler who had learned that, no matter how inspired his leadership was, he could not do it all. Approaching Sinai, Moses learned to delegate, to give real authority to individual leaders in their sphere of leadership. It was not democracy but it was a great step away from a history under despotism. And at that Jerusalem Pentecost, we saw people who had the benefit of laws and diffuse structures of leadership but living once again under the domination of an empire beyond their control. At Pentecost ordinary people, whose titles might not have been titles of leadership, were empowered to lead for the benefit of the people.


And Unitarian Universalism emerged and developed within the American experience. America grew up with an expectation of citizens’ participating in voluntary organizations for the good of the larger community. Our denomination grew in this democratic republic with the expectation that an ever-widening circle of empowered citizenry would vote for its leaders – sometimes voting directly on the issues that affected them. The fifth principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association is, in the form of a mutual covenant of our congregations, to affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”[3] When the Unitarians and Universalists came together in the new, shared association in 1961, the third of the original six principles read, “To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships.”[4]


If you think about it, democracy and the free expression arising from a free conscience do not comprise the larger portion of human history. Much of religion in the world is, even now, structured hierarchically or with splashes of equity or equality in a sea of hierarchy and control, as if seeking to protect truths too fragile to live free in the world. And there is where the difference is possible in a faith that sees itself as living tradition – not only in the good it instills but in its essentially evolutionary nature. Unitarian Universalism proudly evolves toward expanding consciousness, expanding knowledge, expanding truth, expanding circles of acceptance and celebration, expanding participation in our democratic processes.


A minister colleague of mine observed just this morning on the anxious polarization of the nation and how it affects how we place the emphasis in our congregation and in our movement. Do we put the stress on the individual’s rights or on the community’s needs? Do we focus on the individual’s ideas, the individual’s contribution, the individual’s interests? Or do we center the community in ways that ask us to sublimate the individual’s wishes and needs to the strength of the community? Some would say there is nothing more important that the individual’s freedom to do whatever they choose, wherever they choose, whenever they choose. Some would add some version of “an it harm none” – individual freedom is absolute so long as others are not harmed. And then there are those who are willing to sacrifice the well-being of individuals who did not volunteer for this sacrifice, so long as it is for the perceived or planned benefit to the collective. But the lesson of the convergence of Shavuot and Pentecost shows mutual benefit in empowered individuals working harmoniously with the aims of the community. Similarly, our Principles begin with the individual – we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – and they end with the community of all – we covenant to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.[3] The desires of the individual and the gifts and talents of the individual must always be harmonized with the needs and well-being of the congregation of the whole.


And that is what we gather to balance and celebrate each year in our annual meeting.


May it be so. Amen and Blessed Be.



© Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley


[1] From Ephesians 4:11 (KJV)

[2] Excerpt from “Standing at Sinai,” by Chava Weissler, in Feminist Studies in Religion (V. 1 No 2, 1985)

[3] From Article II of the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association