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 Christians it is the celebration of the beginning of the church. 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. It is an ancient harvest festival that, following the destruction of the first temple in 587 BCE, came to become a celebration of Moses receiving the law from God on Mount Sinai.
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 as we heard last week they devoted themselves constantly to prayer. All together in one room on the festival day of Pentecost, they are surrounded suddenly by 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 shake things up!
They apparently 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. Their homelands encircled Palestine in all directions. 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. The meaning of their message was being conveyed with every nuance of each one’s words and speech patterns.
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 more people to join us here at Grace Church in God’s work 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.
We are doing so many good things in the world—tutoring others to so to improve their school and job prospects, driving people to doctor’s appointments and to church, being a source of wisdom and comfort 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 heard you speak about your desire to welcome people into our community. And we know the best way to have people join us here at Grace—is for you to invite them. To tell others of what you have found here, what it has done for you in your life, where you have found hope and kindness and companionship and beauty. Asking them to “Come and see!”
How do we share God’s deeds with others in a world where a common language is missing and 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 we may be misunderstood as putting pressure on someone to sign up to a specific doctrine or creed. And how do we learn a new language—the language of social media or video games? 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 God’s deeds in the language that communicates with so many. 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, all will prophesy, some will see visions, some will dream. Who do we need to listen to? When God pours out God’s spirit on people, those who speak are often those whom the world tries to ignore. The the poor, our black, brown, and Asian brothers and sisters, people from other faith traditions, children, youth and young adults, our elders whose truth is too often disregarded or ignored entirely. To share God’s love we must realize that none of us hold all the truth or all the answers. Rather each one of us, always susceptible to error, 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, everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.
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 form my words about God’s love in a way that 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 living water into 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, “Breathe on me breath of God” we are praying to have the courage to practice speaking a language that while sometimes can make us feel foolish—that is not our mother tongue– and even sometimes make us seem as if we are “drunk on new wine,” 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 world.
 Willie James Jennings. Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.