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.
Today we celebrate the day of Pentecost. The Pentecost story takes place in Jerusalem on the feast day of Shavuot, fifty days after Passover in the Jewish calendar. It was 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. Our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Shavuot this weekend. For Christians, Pentecost is the celebration of the coming of God’s Spirit to believers that empowered them to carry the message of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.
The followers of Jesus, both women and men, had witnessed Jesus’ return to be with God—what we name as his ascension– ten days before. They had come back to Jerusalem, and devoted themselves to prayer (1:14). Gathered together in one room on the festival day, they hear a sound “like the rush of a violent wind” that fill the house. This was no gentle in-breaking—no still small voice this time. The spirit comes suddenly, even violently upon these followers. Fiery tongues appear and settle on each of them.
With all the racket, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” rush out into the street. And to their shock they hear the men and women followers of Jesus speaking of “God’s deeds” in languages that each one of them could understand plainly. Enabled by the Spirit, the followers of Jesus were able to speak to each person gathered that day in their mother tongue.
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 reminded 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 what we share here does not need translation or mediation for me. The words come saturated with stories and experiences and traditions from my earliest life memories. So, when we gather at the communion table, the words, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me” do not frighten me or cause me to turn up my nose. I hear the loving message that Jesus loves all the fleshy, sweaty, cantankerous, delightful, and complicated parts of me. God is not some distant removed and unavailable being. God is right here beside me, right here within me. I believe that God loves 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 walked the roads near his hometown looking for those who were considered by society to be unworthy and offering them healing and relationship. To each person, Jesus listened and shared the possibility of abundant life. That is what “This is my Body given for you” means to me. Every time we come to the table of thanksgiving, we are asked to remember this.
But as I travel this journey of life, I have found that what rings sweet and true to me, can cause confusion or discomfort 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, they often add, “I love the sound of the Southern voice.” But it also means, “You are not from around here are you?” So when I tell them “Texas” it can take some work on both our parts to establish a relationship beyond our geographic and cultural differences.
The same is true of the church. Though what we hear and experience in this wonderful place can be restful and nurturing to our hearts, many more people, do not find the words of our faith comforting or reassuring. In fact, too often they hear them as primitive and judgmental.
Because many people are not growing up with a faith community that walks with them from childhood to schooling to marriage to job and beyond, too often the only time they hear “Christian” language is on TV or social media from angry promoters of one volatile issue or another, declaring their certainty in Jesus’ name. So, while today, people are in need of a story that connects us to something beautiful beyond ourselves, a story that teaches us that we each are seen and deeply loved, a story that tells us that the Source of love and life is within and through each of us, a story that tells us that we are all connected with each other in a vast web of life—the way the stories are communicated and received, can result in confusion and separation.
Willie James Jennings says, “(through the working of the Holy Spirit,) (t)he followers of Jesus (at Pentecost) 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 communicate in a way that touches people’s minds and hearts? How do each of us speak fluently with each other? We so want to share the good news that we have received with all we meet. We so want to welcome others into 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 God working in us—we have offered an opportunity for those who struggle with the illness of addiction to hear one person’s story that may resonate with their own and in it envision hope. We offer food and welcome to those who find it hard to stretch their monthly paycheck to cover their families’ needs. We are being trained and are accompanying our brothers and sisters as they attend immigration court dates and ICE check-ins so they can enjoy one more month of peace and safety. We have planted another garden so those who are hungry may be fed with compassion and healthy food. We meet young people who need to be reminded that they are beautiful and valued, and that their gifts are vitally needed in our world. And this afternoon, we will join with our sisters and brothers in the Berkshires to prepare bags of food and bags of joy for our neighbors both locally and far away.
All that we do and all that we offer is so needed in our world. What an important role God has given the church! We are people who every Sunday have the opportunity to hear and remember that we are God’s beloved children. That God is always with us. That each one of us are created in the image of God and nothing we do or fail to do can in any way diminish God’s abundant love for us. And then we are invited to follow Jesus who went out into the world embracing, healing, and caring for all—in particular those most in need and those too often ignored by the world. 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 people don’t have our “Sunday School” experience, where even the names “God” and “Jesus” cause people to flinch. How do we share God’s deeds with others in a world where our attempts may feel uncomfortable and our best efforts met with distance or outright rejection?
First maybe we should follow the words attributed to St. Francis who advises us to preach the good news of God always, but only use words when absolutely necessary. Perhaps the best way to share God’s deeds is to pay attention to the needs of others, to offer kindness as often as possible, to live as Easter people and share joy and hope with the world, to live life with the frame of gratitude for all God has done and is doing in our lives.
Second, each one of us have stories. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that “the greatest single antidote to violence is conversation. Speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in that sharing of vulnerabilities discovering a genesis of hope. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can offer to each other is to listen–offering a safe space to share a story, and blessing that story with our full attention in God’s grace. Stories are precious because they can reveal our deep humanity as well as our deep need for connection with others. Stories makes us human to each other and they open us to the vast beauty and complexity that God has created.
In our times of great anger and great separation from each other, as the church commissioned on the day of Pentecost, we are called to be ones who reach out in love, striving to listen carefully so we may truly speak into each other’s lives.
I have invited some members of our community to help me look thoughtfully at the welcome statement we share with the world. I believe that in a time where words of hatred and bigotry are shouted from the highest pulpits and podiums in our world, as church we need to shout loudly as well—the words of open, compassionate, and whole-hearted welcome. Next week in Tuesday’s Child and in our worship bulletin, look for these statements. I invite you to offer your ideas and your enthusiasm as together we continue to create a community in the Berkshires where all are invited in their full humanity to share their burdens, offer their stories, and be confident that, filled with the Holy Spirit, we are a place where strangers truly become friends.
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 must constantly be aware of how my words about God’s love do and do not communicate. And I must faithfully listen when I too often fail. I know that it is worth the effort to establish relationships that can bring hope and peace into all our lives.
We come together on Sundays to be filled and then to be sent out into the world to speak and act through the Spirit’s life-giving power so that everyone, everyonewho calls upon the name of the Lord can live lives of peace.
Through God’s grace, we are given moments when understanding and connection occurs. This is a Pentecost miracle. Through God’s grace, our actions and our words can share the great hope that is possible for us all. When we pray, “Come down O Love divine” we are praying to be given the opportunity to speak a language that sometimes, somehow can be translated into life-giving relationships that breathes the grace filled presence of God into our hurting and yet, God saturated world.
Willie James Jennings. Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible.Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.
Jonathan Sacks. The Dignity of Difference, rev. ed. London: Continuum, 2003, 60.