We visited my family back in Indiana this past week. While we were there, my niece and nephew Hope and Parker brought home their high school yearbook.
When I graduated from high school, we all went around and signed each other’s yearbooks, with notes about great times we’d had or comments about the future – “I know you will be a huge success,” “I expect to see you in the White House some day,” things like that. The notes were written something in the vein of going-away notes -- “Have a great life.”
This has changed. High school friends can easily keep in touch through Facebook and twitter and text messaging and chat and through that archaic relic of the past – email. Nobody signed yearbooks at Hope and Parker’s school, because there is not that same strong feeling of parting ways that graduating classes used to have.
While sharing information has never been easier, understanding is something else altogether. There is a big difference between talking and really communicating.
Communication can be a challenge because we are all different. Men and women are different. We hear differently and do things differently. We are different ages. We have different occupations, different interests, different educational backgrounds, we are introverts and extroverts, we have different life experiences, and when you get right down to it, it’s a wonder that we can understand each other as well as we do.
The scripture for today, the story of Pentecost, is about how God’s Spirit overcomes such differences to bring understanding. Jews dispersed throughout the world came to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. Luke reports what happened for us here in Acts, and it is obvious that it is an incredible, wonderful work of God.
There was something like a great rush of wind, it was like tongues of fire descending on the disciples, and they began to speak in various languages. Everyone understood the message in his or her own language.
The crowd was astonished. “Aren’t these people speaking just a bunch of Galileans?” they asked. There were some hecklers, doubters, who saw all that was happening and said, “Those Galileans have been hitting the bottle. These people are drunk.”
Peter uses this as an opportunity to address the crowd, saying, “These people are not drunk; it’s only 9 in the morning, for heaven’s sakes!” Peter said that what was taking place was the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
The disciples were given the boldness and power to speak, and this was the fulfillment of God’s promise, said Peter.
Why did God choose to miraculously enable the disciples to speak every language under heaven rather than do what would have been just as easy -- give everyone in the crowd the ability to understand the language of the disciples? The disciples could have simply preached their regular stump sermon, as it were, and the Spirit could have given the crowd understanding so that they would know what was being said.
It could have happened that way, but it didn’t. It seems to me that the difference between those two possible ways is that God’s way shows a profound respect for all people. It respects their language and their culture. And this should inform our theology of mission—it says something about the way we go about ministering to others. We need to meet people where they are. Rather than asking others to become a part of our culture, we need to translate the gospel into their culture. And I’m not just talking about the cultures of China and India and Nicaragua and the Congo; I’m talking about the cultures and languages (plural) of Ames, Iowa.
In the long list of nationalities present that day, there are groups generally looked down upon by others in the world. In fact, this kind of prejudice and stereotyping is even found in scripture.
Consider some of the folks in Jerusalem that first Pentecost. The Elamites? They were thought of as cowering refugees. Jeremiah 49:36 reads, ”I’ll let the four winds loose on Elam…they will be blown in all directions, landing homeless Elamites in every country on earth. I will terrify the Elamites before their enemies.”
The Medes? They were considered ruthless, heartless killers. Isaiah 13:17: “Against Babylon, I’m inciting the Medes, a ruthless bunch indifferent to bribes, who are without mercy even for children.”
And the Cretans? They were just a pack of liars. Titus 1:12 reads, “It was their very own prophet who said, ‘Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.’”
For the Elamites and Medes and Cretans, other languages were too painfully steeped in a history of stereotyping. They needed to hear the good news in a language that would not snipe at them with insults.
Now, there was another option for the disciples. Many, perhaps most of the people there would have understood Greek. Why not simply speak in Greek, and be generally understood? And if a Parthian or Pamphylian didn’t get it, a friend probably could have translated the gist of it.
But again, this was not God’s way. There is something powerful about hearing in the language of home. In our native tongue we are most able to hear and understand the deepest truths.
If we really want to understand, we need to hear in our own language. I am absolutely amazed at students who come here from other countries who not only have to learn what can be difficult subject material, but learn it in what is not their native language. And not only learn it, but teach it, as some of you do. It can be done, and in time it becomes more natural, but it is certainly not easy.
Words are important. Language is important. When it comes to faith, we all wrestle with this language business because we are trying to put into words realities and experiences and a mystery that is so often beyond words.
Increasingly, the language of the church is like a foreign language to much of our culture. Kathleen Norris wrote a wonderful book a few years back, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. After being away for a number of years, she came back to the church, but what she found most daunting and difficult was the language. In her book she reflected on some of those churchy and theological words that can be dense and off-putting.
More recently Marcus Borg made the same point with his book Speaking Christian. The subtitle pretty well says it: “Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power -- And How They Can Be Restored.”
In the same vein, Frederick Buechner wrote,
If the language that clothes Christianity is not dead, it is at least, for many, dying; and what is really surprising, I suppose, is that it has lasted as long as it has...There are (religious) words that through centuries of handling and mishandling have tended to become empty banalities that just the mention of them is apt to turn people’s minds off like a switch.This past week we noticed a church ad somewhere (it wasn’t here in Ames so don’t try to guess) that had a tag line of something like, “Preaching the power of the blood - Christ died for your sins.” I’m sure this church thought of itself as a very evangelistic church, but they were speaking the language of a particular segment of the Christian community. I’m not sure it translated very well to the intended audience.
It is possible for our language to become an insider’s language that is meaningless to those on the outside, and perhaps can actually turn people away. There are a growing number of people who have not grown up in the church, and for them, merely repeating religious jargon is not going to get it. It may be English, but it may as well be a different language. If they are going to hear, we are going to have to speak a language they understand.
The Good News is that just as at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit can take our efforts, meager as they may be, and allow others to hear the truth of the gospel.
There have been times when I have preached a lousy sermon, and afterwards people will share how much the message spoke to them and how wonderful it was. And there are Sundays when somebody will say that the sermon helped them so much with this particular area of their life, and I didn’t know I was preaching about that at all. That’s the Spirit at work.
There are times when we are really hurting, and we try to talk to someone but it kind of comes out as an incoherent jumble, but the Spirit gives them the ability to really listen with patience and compassion and empathy, and they understand what we are saying, really understand.
We can read and study this passage in Acts and never be completely sure just exactly what happened that day, or how. But we know it was something wonderful and powerful and something that transformed the disciples from 98-pound weaklings into people of unbreakable faith. But perhaps the question about Pentecost is not so much “What happened back then?”, but “Do you believe it happens now?” Is the Holy Spirit powerful enough to overcome all of those things that divide us to bring us together that we might truly hear one another?
We believe the answer is yes. We have experienced it in moments of inspiration when suddenly we understand. We have experienced it when we have connected with another person in a way we didn’t expect and really heard each other. We have experienced with one another when a word spoken in love becomes a word from God for us. We have experienced it as we look back at our lives over time and see how God has brought us to new understandings of life and faith.
Terri Pilarski, an Episcopal priest, tells of a family that arrived on a warm June day: a mother, grandmother, and five children ranging in ages from 17 to 3. They had traveled from a refugee camp in Cameroon to Sudan. There they caught a plane that flew them to Paris, then to the United States. The littlest ones were teary-eyed and clingy, hanging on to the bone-thin hand of their grandmother. The mother and older children had that glazed look that comes from extreme fatigue. Refugees from Rwanda, this family was being settled in the U.S. by a local agency. While they waited for repairs to a house, the family would temporarily live in the church.
Sunday School rooms had been converted into bedrooms and a living room. Downstairs was a full kitchen, and the bathrooms contained showers. The afternoon of their arrival, members of the church greeted the family and gave them a tour of the church. The family spoke a native dialect of Rwanda and a little French, but no English. A translator followed the tour, interpreting for the family. “Watch the children outside, do not let them run off the property; cars will zoom by fast, they could be hurt. There is food in the fridge; don’t eat the rabbits in the yard or the birds.” It was clear that this family was in a whole new world.
By the next Sunday, the family’s biological clocks were catching up with U.S. time and they were able to worship with the Korean Methodist Church that shared the building with the Episcopal congregation. It was an amazing sight: a Methodist service spoken in Korean, held in an American Episcopal Church, attended by Rwandans in full native attire.
At the lunch that followed, a few members of both the Episcopal and Methodist congregations were able to speak with the family in sparse French. French was a common language shared among this group of Koreans, Americans, and Rwandans gathered for a meal. But it wasn’t just the French spoken; the shared meal itself was a common language of love and hospitality.
Members of the church dropped by during the week to bring the kids some things to play with: soccer balls, used bikes, tennis rackets and balls, and sidewalk chalk. The kids were delighted. Laughter filled the air, another common language.
Soon the house was ready and the family prepared to move out of the church. A van arrived to take their few belongings: three suitcases for seven people plus seven beds with linens, two scooters, two bikes, and a few balls donated by the church. The sum total of their possessions.
Before they left, a daughter turned and offered the priest a few gifts – a small wooden picture with strands of colored wheat, and two coasters with psalms inscribed. They were gifts a nun had helped them make in the refugee camp in Cameroon. A family with virtually nothing, and yet they came bearing gifts of gratitude. Thankfulness, another common language shared.
Despite all the differences of language, and culture, and food, and customs, a bond was formed. Regardless of the inability to speak to one another through words, the church members and the family members were able to communicate a shared compassion for one another and a common love of God. It was an experience of the Holy Spirit.
It is the Spirit that brings power to the church. Pentecost is called the Birthday of the church - when the Spirit came, the church was born. The Spirit took folks gathered from all over the world and made them one. And it’s still happening today: amidst all of our diversity and together with believers from all over the world, in the Church we are one body of Christ. It is the Spirit that gives power and understanding to the Church. Thanks be to God. Amen.