O God take our minds and think through them,
take our lips and speak through them,
take our hands and work through them,
and take our hearts and set them on fire.
I spent all of my growing up years in Texas. My mother came from the Piney Woods of East Texas and the languid lilt of her voice always reminds me of home. I can hear the elongated vowels and the soft turned end of words from a hundred paces and I recognize someone from my part of the world, with experiences in common, and a language that speaks to my deep place of recognition.
I also grew up speaking “church.” So much of the liturgy we share does not need translation or mediation for me. The words come girded with stories and experiences and traditions and rituals that I have been steeped in. So when we gather at the communion table the words of institution,”Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me” does not frighten me or cause me to turn up my nose. I hear the loving message that Jesus loves all the fleshy, sweaty, cantankerous, lovable, and complicated parts of me. God is not some distant removed and unavailable being. God is right in the midst of us. God loved us so much that God came to be with us in the form of a real human who cried, and laughed and drank wine and hung out with his friends, and wasn’t afraid to walk the roads looking for those who were considered outside society’s consideration to be listened to and to be learned from and to share the joys as well as the challenges of life. That is what “This is my Body given for you” means to me.
But as I travel, I have found that what rings sweet and true to me, can cause confusion or distance for others. Even though I have lived outside Texas for many years, when I meet someone new, I can see in their eyes that the question is coming, “Where are you from?” Now of course, if they are kind, they immediately follow the question with, “I love the sound of the Southern voice.” But it also means, “You are not from around here are you?” So it takes some work on both our parts to establish a relationship beyond our geographic or cultural differences.
The same is true of the church. Children are not growing up in the church these days. In fact there is almost a generation and a half between those who grew up attending a church or synagogue regularly and those for whom church is a foreign and often disdained experience. So today we have many many people who long for community and the “living water” that Jesus speaks of in John’s Gospel—but our way of sharing that water can be confusing, and too often can create more of a distance than it bridges.
Today we celebrate the day of Pentecost. For the people of the time of this happening described in Acts, it is the Jewish celebration of Pentecost or Shavuot, occurring 50 days after Passover. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are celebrating Shavuot this very weekend. It is an ancient harvest festival that, following the destruction of the first temple in 587 BCE, came to become a celebration of the receiving of the law from God by Moses on Mount Sinai. For Christians, it is the celebration of the beginning of the church of Jesus Christ.
The followers of Jesus, both women and men, had witnessed Jesus’ ascension—his returning to be with God– ten days before. They have come back to Jerusalem, and devoted themselves constantly to prayer (1:14). All together in one room on the festival day of Pentecost, they hear a sound “like the rush of a violent wind” that filled the house. The story tells us that there appeared something like “tongues of fire” that hovered in the air above each of them. The Holy Spirit sure knows how to throw a wild party!! shake things up! (Can really bring the house down!)
Then we are told that they spilled out into the streets where the loud ruckus drew the many people gathered in Jerusalem. But what confounds them is not the sounds of storm, but the fact that the women and men followers of Jesus were speaking of “God’s deeds” in languages that each one of them could understand. We hear in the brave reading this morning, that there were people from all over the Mediterranean basin– Jews from “every nation under heaven.” And we hear that each of them were able to hear about God’s deeds in their own language, as if these strangers from Galilee spoke each person’s mother tongue—in Greek it is translated “the language into which they were born.” The message was being shared in a way that each person, recognized someone from their part of the world, with experiences in common, and a language that spoke to their deep place of recognition.
We know that language is so much more than words. Willie James Jennings says, “The followers of Jesus are now being connected in a way that joins them to people in the most intimate space—of voice, memory, sound, body, land, and place. It is language that runs through all these matters. To speak a language is to speak a people.” Jennings goes on to say that “God speaks people, fluently and God wants Christ’s disciples to speak people fluently too.”
How can we speak people fluently? We so want to invite all to become a part of our Grace Church community as we work together in the Berkshire part of God’s kingdom. We are alive with God’s love. We are a kind and generous community who cares deeply about God’s call on our hearts to go into the world and share God’s love with others.
So much good is happening in the world through our love– tutoring others so to improve their school and job prospects, driving people to doctor’s appointments and to church, being a source of wisdom and support for our youth who are growing up in a troubled world, sitting with those who are struggling with a difficult illness, reaching out and caring for our immigrant and refugee neighbors, helping plant and harvest vegetables from our garden so that those who are hungry may have healthy food, spending time listening to those who visit food pantries when their much too meager salaries run out before the month ends. I have witnessed you reaching out to people both inside and outside our church walls. Many of you have brought your friends and neighbors to church, to our Sunday Suppers, to book group and to Bible Study. I hope many of you will invite your friends and family to our Gideon’s Garden 10thAnniversary Celebration on June 2 and then to our Great Thanksgiving on Sunday the 3rd. I see you every Sunday engage visitors in conversation, offering yourself while listening to their questions and stories.
We know there is a hunger in the world, and often the best way to welcome people into this wonderful community is simply to invite them. But for those who do not find Sunday morning to be the best time or place for their bodies, minds and spirits to find abundant grace and healing, how do we open hearts, make connections, share the good news that we believe to be true—that we believe sustains our lives? How do we tell others of what we have found here, what it has done for us, where we have found hope and kindness and companionship and beauty? How do we invite them to “Come and see!”
There is so much need in the world for connection. And what an important role God has given the church! We are people who every Sunday have the opportunity to remember that we are God’s beloved children. That Jesus came to seek and serve all. That Jesus died because he courageously reached out beyond the borders of what was considered appropriate and spoke unfiltered truth to power. We follow Jesus who touched and healed and shared meal with and cared for all—in particular those who the world excluded. So the church, Christ’s body in the world, is specifically purposed to bring God’s eternal love to everyone. Something the world so desperately needs.
We may worry how to share God’s deeds with others in a world where a common language is missing, where even the word “God” and “Jesus” causes people to flinch. How do we share God’s deeds with others in a world where our attempts may be met with distance or outright rejection? We may worry that in trying to share the good news of God’s love that we will be misunderstood and seen as only trying to convert to a specific doctrine or creed.
And how do we learn a new language—the language of social media or technology or coffee shops or Theology on Tap? For many of us it is not our mother tongue. How do we learn to speak to those whose language does not include God or faith, who don’t find any purpose in attending church, or feel that the church collectively has in so many ways let our world down?
First remember, the followers of Jesus spoke about God’s deeds. What are the deeds of God that gives you life? What are the deeds of God that you pray to share with those you love and with those you know are in need of the living water? Think of all the ways you can share in the language that communicates with so many of God’s deeds. Love? Kindness? Faithful presence? Reaching out rather than shutting out? Seeing the beauty of God in everyone? Sharing yourself generously with others?
Second, as Peter stood to speak to the assembled crowds, he quotes from the prophet Joel that when the Spirit is poured out upon all flesh,allwill prophesy, some will see visions, some will dream. Who do we need to listen to? When God pours out God’s spirit on God’s people, many who wish to speak are often those whom the world tries to ignore. Ramadan began on May 16. This is the most holy month for our Muslim brothers and sisters where they give thanks to God for the Qu’ran revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. In this month, Muslims will pray, fast, and join in community to feast at day’s end to draw closer to their faith and to God or Allah in Arabic. What can we learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters about being human and worshipping the God who alone is God? Our immigrant neighbors, our Black brothers and sisters, children, youth, and young adults, our elders all have stories that too often are disregarded, yet are essential to our created interconnection. To share God’s love we must realize that the truth is spoken in many languages. Are we able to hear the truth that others hear? Each one of us, are dependent on others to make sense of our world and God’s hope for each of us.
And finally, the good news of this story, the good news of all our gathering together in one place, is not that the Church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a Church.We assemble to be sent out into the world to speak and act not by our own abilities, thanks be to God , but through the Spirit’s life-giving power so that everyone, everyonewho calls upon the name of the Lord will be liberated into God’s freedom and peace.
Because I come from a different place and occasionally my words slide into my Texas drawl and because my mother tongue includes words like forgiveness and salvation and redemption, I am constantly called to consider how my words about God’s love can communicate in different languages and to listen carefully when I too often fail. But I know that it is worth the effort to establish the relationships that can bring hope and living water into all our lives.
Through the Holy Spirit there are moments when a person and an occasion is offered when understanding and connection occurs. This is a Pentecost miracle. When we pray, “Come down O Love divine” we are praying to have the courage to practice speaking a language that sometimes might be seen as foolish—other may even think we are “drunk on new wine.” But sometimes, somehow it can be translated into new relationships that set not only our hearts on fire, but can breathe the grace filled presence of God into our hurting and yet, God saturated world.
Ed Stetzer. “Missional Manifesto”. https://edstetzer.com/missional-manifesto/