Learning to Speak and Listen in Their Native Tongue

Today is Pentecost – the birthday of the church, the historic celebration of the Jewish feast of first fruits in the ancient tradition and now the day reserved to commemorate the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai fifty days after the Exodus – which makes Pentecost a truly important feast day. And feast days are intended to be passionate celebrations that help God’s people rejoice in a unique blessing the Lord has shared within and among us but many in our tradition don’t really grasp what’s at stake in this festival.

Is that fair to say: that a lot of us don’t really understand the value and meaning of Pentecost? I mean we know it comes around every year in the worship cycle like Christmas and Easter but aren’t really sure why it matters, right? So let’s talk about Pentecost – and why it matters – both because it is a sign of God’s grace to us, and, can help us clarify our mission as a congregation. You see one of the truths I have discerned about First Church as your new pastor is that we currently have what I call a “muddled sense of mission.”

For a long time you have maintained honorably – you have kept the building in place, the choir intact, many of the outward manifestations of ministry alive and well and the finances stable – in a word, you have worked to keep the ship afloat. Survival has been the goal and you have accomplished that with love, dedication and hard work. But survival and maintaining the status quo, beloved, is not mission: it neither grows the church nor trains disciples – it does not attract new believers into the faith community nor does it raise money for bold and healing ministries – because survival is fundamentally fear based while mission is rooted in faith, hope and love.

Listen to how Jesus put it in this morning’s text: On the final and climactic day of the Feast, he cried out, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way, just as the Scripture says."Jesus said this in regard to the Spirit whom those who trusted him would soon receive. (John 7: 37-38) Now did you hear that? Jesus is inviting those who love him to both receive the Holy Spirit and share it with others in need so that living water would pour out into a physically and spiritually thirsty world to bring it refreshment and renewal to hurting people.

And the promise of Pentecost properly understood is that God will give us everything we need to make this sacred mission possible if we go forward in faith, hope and love. That’s the testimony of the disciples as recorded in the Pentecost story in Acts, isn’t it?

When the Feast of Pentecost came, the (disciples) were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from – and it filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.

Now please pay careful attention to this: the Bible tells us that when the Holy Spirit filled the first disciples they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them. Not that the Spirit em-powered them to speak in tongues – although there is nothing wrong with speaking in tongues – it’s just not what happened at Pentecost. Rather, when the early church was filled and energized by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they found themselves equipped for ministry and mission in the world.

Do you recall the two symbols of Pentecost: wind and fire? We know that wind – ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek – is one of the ways the Bible traditionally describes how God’s Holy Spirit works in our lives. At the start of the scriptures there is God’s wind – or spirit or breath – hovering over the face of the earth before bringing order out of the chaos in acts of creativity, yes? (Genesis 1) What about when Jesus began his public ministry saying the spirit of the Lord has come upon me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind? (Luke 4) And what about St. Paul who wrote that it is God’s spirit within us that gives us the power to love one another as Christ: love is patient, love is kind, love never gives up, it doesn’t strut, have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first” and doesn’t revel when others grovel, right? (I Cor. 13)

Well, the first symbol of Pentecost is the wind – the Spirit – and we’re not talking about a gentle spring breeze: no, the Spirit of the Lord at Pentecost “is a mighty, rushing wind – a wind in a hurry – a hurricane force gale smashing through the whole house – filling not just the pulpit but also the pews.” (Clarence Jordan, Incarnational Evangelism, p. 22) There is an urgency to God’s spirit at Pentecost that pushes people into action – that is the first truth – and the second is found in the fire. Here the Bible talks about a sustained fire – almost an electrical charge with real juice – that energized people who were once afraid and living in the shadows to not only leave the security of their safety zones, but also find ways of communicating God’s love with people from vastly different backgrounds.

What we’re being told is that the Spirit gave ordinary people the juice and the joy to start acting and speaking and doing what Jesus had done before them – sharing the living water of faith, hope and love – and once they stepped out of fear into mission, some wild things started to happen: men began talking to women with respect – straight folk began communicating with gays and lesbians – the old found they had something to talk about in common with the young – and Catholics and Protestants started breaking bread together. Republicans, for God’s sake, started talking to Democrats about common ground – Americans began making friends with Iraqis and Iranians – and Palestinians were befriending Jews. The Bible says that:

When those who had gathered in Jerusalem heard the sound of the disciples, they came on the run. And when they did, they began to hear one another in their own mother tongues and were thunderstruck. They couldn't for the life of them figure out what was going on and kept saying, "Aren't these all Galileans? How come we're hearing them talk in our various languages? We’re Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia… Egypt and the parts of Libya… we’re immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes; even Cretans and Arabs! How in God’s name are these Christians speaking our languages, describing God's mighty works in ways that we can understand?"

Well, old Clarence Jordan explains the miracle of Pentecost it like this:

When the Church of God gets to talking (in the real power and presence of Jesus) it doesn’t talk in unknown tongues. It talks in the tongues of real people. It talks in their native dialects. It learns how to speak “hip hop” and “rock and roll” as well as Brahms, Beethoven and Bach. It knows how to talk all kinds of talk because the spirit of God becomes articulate and speaks the language of people… it doesn’t hide behind holy church words like thee and thou and what and what not. No, it talks business executive with those on Wall Street and housewife to homemakers for when the Church becomes articulate in Jesus language it communicates with people where they really live. (p. 22)

Pentecost is about being empowered by God to make Jesus visible for our generation. So how do we become articulate enough in the words of Christ that they become flesh and blood acts of healing mission within and among us? I suspect that there are at least two ingredients: one is that you can’t give what you don’t have; and two more often than God’s love will have to break our hearts. Remember: the first disciples began with broken hearts – their beloved rabbi and friend Jesus had been tortured, humiliated and crucified before God’s love raised him beyond death – so these folk were already tender and raw. They were aching for insights and answers – and when they met the Resurrected One and he told them to “wait together in Jerusalem for power from on high” they took him seriously.

In fact the Bible is clear that these disciples spent the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost in study, prayer and waiting before they were inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Can anyone tell me what is significant about the number 50 in the life of God’s people? It’s the Jubilee number – 7 x 7 + 1 – the blessing of deep Sabbath. “Six days you shall work but on the seventh you shall rest as I the Lord your God rested at the start of creation,” right?

Every seventh day was a Sabbath rest, every seventh week was a Sabbath week, every seventh year the fields were to lay fallow in a Sabbath for the earth and every seventh cycle of Sabbath years culminated in one additional Sabbath called the Jubilee – a time of justice, renewal, restoration of rights and a new cycle of hope and peace. The Jubilee was to be the season of Sabbaths where debts were cancelled, prisons were opened and broken relationships made whole. You might recall that Jubilee is how Jesus described the start of his own ministry in Luke 4. So the disciples were a broken hearted people ready for spiritual training – they were ripe for Jubilee and open to the blessings of the Holy Spirit – which is another way of saying that they were learning from Jesus how to become Jesus for the world in another body. They were being prepared to share the image and power of Christ with creation through the birth of the church.

And when the Spirit of the Lord came as God promised – to fill them from the inside out and impregnate them with Spirit so that they, like Mary, could bring Christ to birth in a new way – man, they were ready. With love and broken hearts, training and power from on high, the early church was filled not with fear and a quest for survival, they were on fire to make Christ’s love flesh in the world.

But becoming tender people of the Spirit with broken hearts is not easy: it is counter-cultural work – tough going – which is why a lot of churches opt out of living as the Body of Christ. They may go through the motions and say all the right words, but as an old teacher of mine used to say: you can sit in a church all your life, hear sermons and hymns and organ preludes till the cows come home and that still won’t make you a disciple of Jesus any more than sitting in your garage all day and night will make you a car or howling at the moon will make you a coyote.

No, what you need is an encounter with that Jubilee spirit – that power from on high that heals you and inspires you; it fires you up and pushes you out the door – where your heart will be broken. Mother Teresa used to say that only when we allow our hearts to be broken is there room enough for God’s healing presence to be poured out among us. And I think she’s right – at least her words ring true for me.

Shortly out of seminary, my second ever funeral was for five young children all under the age of 10 who had perished in an electrical fire. It was horrible – the worst thing I had ever encountered – mind blowing. To make matters worse, it was probably at least partially the result of their parents’ ugly alcoholism for they were too wasted to help these children get out when the fire erupted.

I had visited with this very broken family a few times before the tragedy, trying to intervene on behalf of the children only to be rebuffed and shunted away by mom and dad. And when I encouraged them to try rehab, well you can probably guess that I was told in no uncertain terms to “mind my own freakin’ business and get out of their face.” Well, a few months later came the fire – and mom and dad stumbled out with one of their babies, but five other innocent children died – and I was furious – and filled with the darkest anger I have ever known.

I had no idea how to be a pastor to these people: I could barely look at them, I didn’t know how to express, let alone share, anything of God’s comfort at this tragedy because I blamed these two wounded, sloppy drunks for this horrible mess. I didn’t even know what to pray for let alone hot to put together a liturgy that made sense in this context. So I found myself going back to the old words – I dusted off my trusty old Book of Common Prayer – and somehow we made it through. To this day I have no idea if there was even a ray of light in their darkness because shortly after the funeral they went back to drinking and then moved out of the area.

To add insult to injury, for the longest time afterwards I continued to be haunted by both my anger and my agonizing inadequacy as a pastor: I was supposed to be a man of God, for God’s sake, and I couldn’t bring comfort. I was worthless – and here’s the really odd thing, it was only when I really owned that truth – that I was empty and angry, inadequate and lost – that another truth began to take root. Yes, I began to realize, it will always be true that left to myself I will never have enough fire and spirit to bring a healing faith, hope or love to people in that kind of pain, which is why God has promised never leave me all by myself.

Are you with me? It took me years to get it but in time it became clear that God will never leave you all by yourself when you’ve been given a mission. God has shared the Holy Word to encourage us in the depths of our broken and empty hearts; God has given us Christ to take on the full fury of our blame, guilt and anger; and God has sent the Holy Spirit to fill us and heal us from the inside out so that we are able – even in broken and imperfect ways – of making the love of Christ visible and real. I wept like a baby when I came across these words from the prophet Isaiah:

My thoughts, says the Lord, are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than you ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts .And as rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth… it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the things for which I sent it. Isaiah 55: 8-11

There is nothing sentimental about a heart broken for love of the Lord writes Frederick Buechner. When Jesus stood by the dead body of his friend, Lazarus, “he is not Gregory Peck. He has no form or comeliness about him that we should desire him for he is as one from whom men and women hide and turn their faces.”

To see a man weep is not a comely sight, especially this man whom we want to be stronger and braver than a man, and the impulse is to turn from him as we turn from anybody who weeps because the sight of real tears, painful and disfiguring, forces us to look to their source where we do not choose to look because where his tears come from, our tears also come from.(Listening to Your Life, p. 104)

But that seems to be how it works: our hearts are broken first by the pain of the real world and then by God's amazing grace and there is new birth – the Holy Spirit comes to us to make clear the cost of discipleship and the possibility of transformation occurs – this is what is at stake at Pentecost. And it can change our lives and our church if we are open and tender and ready to let go of our fears. So let those who have ears to hear, hear.


Black Pete said…
I showed this to my wife Joyce, who is a minister and who is "on" for Pentecost (she's in shared ministry). We both wondered if it could possibly be a sermon (albeit, a 45-minute one! :) ), but liked a lot of what we read.
RJ said…
Thanks, Pete. Yep, it was this week's sermon (and only came in at about 28 minutes cuz I left a little out.) But thanks, man, it was a good day and seemed to connect to the folks I share my ministry with.
Black Pete said…
Wow, RJ, we consider 15 minutes long-winded in our denomination! :)
PogoGirl said…
I was really struck by Pentecost this year, sitting in our congregation which is at this point at least half Karen and Chin from Burma. It was also Youth Sunday, led by a tri-lingual youth group. It was worship in many tongues and in many generations. As I was reading your sermon about mission and our hearts broken, I was recalling the victims of the cyclone and the military junta in Burma, the drastic food shortage in the refugee camps of refugees from Burma in Thailand, and the struggles of our Karen and Chin communities to survive here in their new land. Yes, indeed, Pentecost spoke strongly to me this year. Thanks for your words.

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