Sunday, May 27, 2007

Day of Pentecost C

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Meridian

Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104:25-37; 1 Corinthians 12:4-13; John 20:19-23

What do you get when you cross a New Yorker with someone from the Massachusetts coast and then send them to raise a family in the Deep South? A friend recently emailed me a link to an online quiz called, “What American Accent Do You Have?” She’s from Minnesota, and was indeed rated as having Midlands accent, which the quiz said was the same thing as having no accent at all. I started answering the questions: “When you say the words ‘c-o-t’ and ‘c-a-u-g-h-t’, do they A) sound the same, B) sound different, or C) sound the same-ish, but a little different?” How about ‘d-o-n’ and ‘d-a-w-n’? What about ‘M-a-r-y’, ‘m-e-r-r-y’, and ‘m-a-r-r-y’?

Now, while my dad grew up in New York and my mom’s parents also met up North, their entire married life was spent down South, and I have lived all but three years of my life in the South. So of course, when I clicked the button to submit my answers, I was rated as having a...Boston accent. I don’t hear it, but then again maybe this could explain why I’m far more likely to dump out a glass of iced tea than to drink it...

Most of the time (myself apparently an exception) the language that we speak, or the dialect within a language, or the accent that shapes our sounding out of words shapes also who we are, how we fit in the cacophony of humanity. Listen to someone speak, and if you’re well-trained in linguistics or at least in stereotypes, you can probably guess where that person is from, sometimes down to a very small geographic area. In 1951, linguist Robert Pittman classified 46 distinct languages in a work he called his “ethnologue”. Today’s 15th edition of that work documents nearly 7300 distinct languages worldwide. Of those, almost 500 are threatened with language extinction, because fewer than 50 people speak them.

Language is at once fascinating and frustrating. It is many-faceted, reflecting an array of alphabets, word meanings, sentence structures, dialects, accents and inflections. Language is what makes communication possible; but it can also be what inhibits communication. It can clarify and confound, integrate and isolate, draw people together and divide them apart. Even within a common language, accents make us sound different (what American accent do you have?), words can carry different meanings, and meanings can be conveyed by different words.

How like language is our dear Anglican church today. Even within a church of common prayer, we are divided by what we say, by how and to whom we truly listen, and by the different meanings we hear conveyed by the Word of God. How hopeful are the words that introduce readings from scripture in some of our newer liturgical resources: Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people…

Long before the gale force of the Holy Spirit filled the disciples’ lungs and lit a fire under their feet (or over their heads, as it were), the Feast of Pentecost was a Feast of Many Languages. It began as a harvest festival, an offering of first fruits; after the Babylonian exile, when the Jewish people were widely scattered, it became a festival of salvation, a celebration of the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai some 50 days (from which came the Greek name, pentekostos) following the night of the Passover, the night when God mightily freed them from slavery in Egypt and set them about the task of learning to be God’s people in and for the world. At Pentecost, Jews traveled from wherever the winds of life had blown them back to Jerusalem, where they feasted together with their sisters and brothers who spoke now many languages and led vastly different lives, but who understood a common language of covenant and of what it means to be chosen and beloved of God. All were invited to the Pentecost feast, from those at the center of society to those on its outermost margins – women and men, young and old, rich and poor, servant and free, Parthians and Medes, Judeans and Romans, Phrygians and Pamphylians…all were invited.

The disciples of Jesus were in Jerusalem because the risen Jesus had told them to wait there for the Spirit of God to fill them with the heart and breath they needed to begin the work of being Good News bearers. But as faithful Jews, they would probably have been in Jerusalem anyway for the great feast, loudly praising God for the ancient words of covenant God spoke to Moses: I am the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. (Ex. 34:6-7) How new those ancient words must have sounded to the wondering, waiting disciples, infused with all they had seen and heard and experienced in the presence of Jesus Christ.

When the day of Pentecost had come, Luke writes, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability…At this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. (Acts 2:1-6)

What do you get when you cross a familiar story from scripture with a new hearing of it and send it to live deep in yourself? That the Pentecost event Christians celebrate contains a miracle of speaking is evident – many of our sisters and brothers the world over today heard the gospel read as the joyful noise of a variety of languages and translations. The Holy Spirit did indeed mightily fill the disciples with the heart and breath they needed to speak of God’s wide-embracing love for all people of every nation under heaven. But listen, then, the Pentecost Christians celebrate contains also the miracle of hearing and understanding and receiving that Good News. When all was said and done that day, Luke writes, those who welcomed the message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:41, 42)

And so Pentecost remains a Feast of Languages. It remains a festival of salvation, not just now for one people but for all people. It remains a celebration of the law, of how to be God’s people in and for the world, now given a new shape by Jesus who said, I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12) The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to speak, and the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to hear and understand and receive the Word of God at times and in places and from people we might not expect.

The Spirit is as many-faceted as language itself, and infinitely more so. So many words and images describe the Holy Spirit of God, words and images that speak to us in different ways at different times – we hear and understand and receive them differently. On this morning just days before the start of a hurricane season predicted to be very active, a rush of violent wind is a disquieting image. On this morning as tens of thousands of acres of wilderness burn in Florida, tongues of flame reduce life to embers. On this morning when we participate in the baptism of Cameron Wade and renew our own baptismal vows, by a sprinkling of water the Holy Spirit falls afresh on us. On this morning as we greet one another as Jesus greeted his friends and disciples, saying Peace be with you (John 20:19), our lungs are filled with the breath of God and we are filled with the Holy Spirit.

What Holy Spirit accent do you have? We are sent out from this place today, as Jesus sent his disciples, with a mission to speak about God’s deeds of power, to be reconcilers, to love one another and the world as Jesus loves us. Paul, so gifted with words, reminds us that the Holy Spirit chooses specially for each and every one of us and activates in us a variety of holy gifts. Imagine that these gifts are languages, for language is not limited to sound – our hands, our faces, our vocations, our passions in life, our relationships speak. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, to another gifts of healing, to another the working of miracles (1 Cor 12:8-10)…to another is given through the same Spirit the joy of preparing meals, the capacity to care for animals, the parenting and grandparenting of children, the teaching of students, the ability to build homes, the courage to fight fires, the knowledge to predict fierce winds and gentle rains...

But we are also sent out from this place to listen: to hear and understand and receive the Good News from those whose gifts are not like ours, whose languages are different, whose lives are unfamiliar. Listen again to the Pentecost story, in which language, which from the opening pages of scripture in the Babel story divided humanity, now brings us together without diminishing any of our diversity, our richness. Pentecost is about one Spirit, one Body, one Church in many, many languages. Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people. It may sound cacophonous to us, but it’s music to God’s ears.

In fact, in the words of a song sung by computer-animated vegetables who tell bible stories to children (see, all kinds of gifts out there, all kinds of languages!)…in the words of their song:

It’s a great big beautiful world, with lots of lots of people.
I’ve seen singin’, dancin’, prayin’, clappin’, and every kind of steeple.
But the Bible makes it plain that in Christ we’re all the same.
One day we’ll gather together in his name.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, by faith you can be a part
of the Heavenly First United Bapticostal Presbylutheran Methodiscopal
Avengelical Evangestolic Nazaristic Faith-a-holic Charismental Fundamatic
Holy Spirit-filled Fanatic Church of God in Christ our Lord,
where all God’s children harmonize and sing in one accord.
You can call yourself what you will – it don’t make no difference, we’re still
one Spirit, one Body, one Church, one Faith, one Lord.