Pentecost, Year B
A couple of years ago I visited my cousin in France. My cousin lives in France because she married a French man who she met at mime school. It was fortunate that they met at mime school because she did not speak much French and he spoke even less English. Despite the language barrier, they fell in love and got married. My cousin’s husband continues to act, mostly improv. He was performing one of the nights when I was visiting and we went to see the show. It was all in French. I studied French in high school and college, but most of it has faded from my memory. However, I thought that since most of the humor was very physical (almost slap stick) I would be entertained. It was a difficult two hours because as I spent most of the time trying desperately to find words that I could understand and fake laughing when everyone else was laughing. I did not want to seem rude. I didn’t want people to know how completely clueless I was.
Last week we celebrated the Ascension when Jesus rose into the clouds leaving the disciples to stare after him in wonder. After a short conversation with a few angels, they were reminded that they had work to do here on earth. The first thing they did was go to the temple to pray together. It’s very possible that they were still gathered in prayer, praying for direction and understanding when we hear of them in today’s Acts reading.
Their prayers for direction and understanding were answered as a wind rushed into the house and tongues of fire alighted on each of their heads. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and were suddenly able to speak in different languages. Eventually, a large crowd gathered around them, people from every nation. These people all spoke different languages, but somehow they could understand the disciples because the disciples were speaking their language.
Our English text says that the people were amazed, astonished and perplexed. But the English does not capture the emotion as fully as the Greek. What these Greek words really mean is: in an uproar, beside themselves, blown away. Just imagine that we are all sitting here in church waiting for the service to begin and instead of the processional hymn, the doors burst open and a powerful wind rushes in. Books are blown out of the pews…books and hymnals everywhere! The altar hangings would be flying around and all of the candles would be blown out. The altar guild would be in a frenzy. Then you would feel a heat and you might think, hey that feels funny and you notice that there are flames coming down from the ceiling resting on people’s heads. And you worry because there is a lot of wood in this church. It would be chaos. Someone would grab a fire extinguisher; the sprinkler system would go off. Most of us would want to run out, but for some reason, we don’t. For some reason we stick around because out of the chaos comes a voice that we understand, a voice we have been longing to hear.
All of us gathered here today speak English and we are accustomed to hearing English spoken. We expect that we will understand the words that are spoken in our service. So it might be hard to grasp the radical nature of this moment where people from all different places heard the words and understood. Perhaps we can think of it another way. Consider for a moment that you are in one of the following frames of mind. It’s been a hard week and you really didn’t feel like coming to church today. (I am sure this has never happened to any of you, but just try to imagine.) Maybe you don’t want to be here because you are simply too tired and you would rather have slept in and had a big breakfast. Or maybe you come every week but really don’t get much out of it and you come because you are expected to be here. Maybe this is your first visit and you have no idea what to expect or when to kneel and stand.
Put yourself in one of these scenarios, and then imagine that you hear from somewhere (in the music, the readings, the kind greeting from a stranger, the sermon)…you hear exactly what you need to hear. You hear that thing that puts it all in perspective. You hear what you have been dying to hear. For that moment everything else falls away and you get it, you know what it is to belong, your faith is crystal clear, you know what you want to be when you grow up, or you finally let go of the hurt that has been wearing you down for these many years.
That is Pentecost. That is the Holy Spirit. It’s when God connects to you in a way that you can understand and experience God. You can feel it in your body and in your soul. You might not be able to explain it, but it finally connects. God is speaking your language.
When I was watching the French improv group, there was one point in one of the sketches where they spoke English. And I got it. It was funny. When I laughed, it was a real laugh. It only lasted a minute or so, but I held on to that moment because it was real for me. Afterwards, I got to speak to the actors. They all spoke a lot more English than I spoke French. One of them said, “You should have said something, we could have done more bits in English.” I was so impressed that they knew enough English to do that, but also that they were willing to perform in another language so that one person in the crowd could understand.
Humans have a need to understand and be understood. It is one of the reasons that we spend time with groups of people who are similar to us. We assume that they will understand us and we will understand them. But that also means that we have a tendency to stop trying to get to know people who are not like us. We even can stop trying with God. God wants to be in relationship with us. God knows us and he wants us to know him. Sometimes we just need to be to be honest with God and about God. We can tell God, I don’t know what you are trying to tell me. Help me understand. We can do that in church as well. If church means nothing to you, then maybe you can help us convey God’s message in a way that helps you find that moment of understanding and connection.
God might not have sent us wind and fire for today’s service. That does not mean that God isn’t still speaking to us, still trying to speak the language of our hearts. God didn’t stop speaking to humans when the Bible was put together. God did not stop speaking when the Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1979. God is still speaking. Now we need to do our part to keep those lines of communication open. We need to admit it when we can’t find meaning, even if are afraid that people will think we are clueless. We lose so much insight in church because people are afraid of admitting what they do not understand, or possibly understand more than we do. If I had yelled out in that French theatre: “Hey, there is a clueless American here with rudimentary French and I want to get in on the joke.” They would have spoken my language because they wanted to connect with their audience. God wants the same of all of us. God wants us to get it. And that might mean us admitting that sometimes we don’t get it and we don’t need to feel bad about that. We can’t always wait for real wind to blow open the doors of our hearts. Sometimes, we need to open the doors ourselves and invite the Spirit in. The Spirit is still speaking.