God Speaks So That We Understand

Happy Memorial Day Weekend / Pentecost! We worship outside on the Sunday before Memorial Day every year – it was gorgeous out today! A great service.

We have an outdoor worship space down the street from the church that was (correct me if I’m wrong someone!) an Eagle Scout project.

The music was INCREDIBLE this morning!  Aaron had the pump organ, a barbershop quintet sang and one of our college students played taps at the end of the pastoral prayer.  I really didn’t need to preach – we could have just led the spirit move through the music. :)

I can’t seem to get the audio to upload – I think divshare is having issues.  I’ll keep trying – in the meantime, here is the sermon!

Acts 2:1-21

God Speaks So That We Understand

When I was in high school, my church in Connecticut sponsored a refugee family from Bosnia. We met them at the airport, had an apartment furnished and ready for their arrival and provided resources and support to them as they transitioned into life in the United States.

One of the biggest challenges throughout this entire process was the language barrier between the family and the people in our church that were helping them get settled. We did not speak Bosnian and they did not speak English. We brought a translator to the airport with us and when there were important decisions to be made or paperwork to be done, but for the most part we were on our own with English-Bosnian dictionaries, hand gestures and pointing. One afternoon I was at their apartment and I was trying to ask the mother a question. I looked up the word I needed in the dictionary and clumsily talked my way through the pronunciation. As soon as the word was out of my mouth, the mother’s face turned bright red, she nearly spit out her coffee and had to turn away from me laughing.

To this day, I still do not know what I said. But I know that I did not say what I was trying to say – and that whatever I did say was actually highly inappropriate.

Sometimes language complicates situations.

When I worked at the hospital in Atlanta, we faced language barriers every single day. There were translators available to us – both in person, through computer programs and on the phone – but in a pinch we also had to rely on dictionaries, hand gestures and pointing.

This morning we celebrate Pentecost, the “Birthday of the Church” or the celebration of the arrival of the Holy Spirit. In the ancient Jewish tradition, Pentecost is a festival that celebrates the giving of the law on the Mount of Sinai – its name was derived from the fifty days that separate it from Passover. During the festival after the resurrection, a crowd of about 120 people from various nations throughout the land had gathered and the Holy Spirit descended upon them, filling them with different tongues and causing them to speak in different languages. The languages people spoke were different, but what they said was the same – God is powerful and great and through Jesus Christ we are all redeemed.

While there were a few skeptics who thought everyone was just drunk and babbling, for the most part the people gathered were amazed by what had taken place. How could they all understand what was being said, they wondered. They all spoke different languages and yet in that moment they were united by the message of God’s love and grace.

I have had two Pentecost-like experiences in my life. The first happened the second time I went to Honduras. The last night we were there we worshipped at the mission with hundreds of people and families from Teupasenti and the surrounding villages.

Let me set the scene a little bit: When the “gringos” are in town, worship is always a little bit hectic at the mission. Mission leaders want to make sure everyone is having a meaningful worship experience, so it is common practice to bring translators in during the prayers and sermons so everything is being said back-to-back in both English and Spanish. When some of the most extemporaneous and fast-speaking preachers are behind the pulpit, the pace of the translation happens quickly and exhaustively.

The music, however, is only sung in Spanish – it is just easier that way. This particular worship service closed with a song that – despite its Spanish lyrics – sounded familiar to me. As I listened to the opening cords, I began to separate the language that I did not understand and just hear the music. And then it hit me – the song being sung was a song that we used almost weekly in our Wednesday night praise worship service. I knew the song – we all did. We just knew it in a different language.

I tapped everyone around me on the shoulder and told them that this was a song we knew. And so we all began to sing in English. The eyes of the worship leaders and those in the congregation positively lit up as they realized that we knew the song and the energy in the gazebo exploded as we sang together – some of us in English and some of us in Spanish. Despite the language barriers that had challenged us throughout the entire week, in a moment driven by the Holy Spirit, we were united with one another.

The second time I had a Pentecost-like experience, I was at the closing worship service for my seminary orientation. There were several international students matriculating with my class, so when we got to the point in the service where we were going to say the Lord’s Prayer, the worship leader invited everyone to say it in their native language. He began with “Our Father …” and then the sound of different languages filled the sanctuary as everyone began praying in their familiar language. Dozens of languages – one prayer.
This particular experience is why I tend to laugh every time the “debts vs. trespasses vs. sinners” debate surfaces here and at other churches. In the end I think we should pray both in words and in a language that is most comfortable to us. The goal of unison or group prayer, after all, is never to sound the same – it is to be united in prayer.

We are all different; we all communicate differently. But God speaks to each and every one of us so that we can understand. God speaks to us each and every one of us so that we can understand love, redemption and grace. God speaks to each and every one of us so that we can overcome diversity and find unity.

G. Lee Ramsey, Jr., who is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and a professor of Pastoral Theology and Homiletics at the Memphis Theological Seminary, had the following to say about this text and about what Pentecost means for us today:

The language event at Pentecost causes no divisiveness among the speakers or hearers, though it does stir some initial skepticism. The text states clearly that Jews from all parts of the Middle East are each able to hear in their own native languages. Like a gathered conference of the United Nations, each delegate hears the proceedings in his or her own tongue. What could be a more timely message for twenty-first-century Christians? The Word of God not only transcends cultural barriers, but it arrives in the particular language of each listener. Pentecost verifies Christmas. All wrapped up in human form, God comes to us in our very own bodies; God speaks to us our very own language(s). In an age of increasing pluralism, and the perpetual rubbing of shoulders across lines of nation, race, and class, God offers authentic human communion. Through ordinary human speech, the Holy Spirit establishes unity amid diversity, a fulfilled promise that even the most divided congregations and communities can take to heart. {Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, Page 5}

I think that sometimes we assume language can be a barrier put up, preventing people from communicating with one another effectively – but it is not. If we allow language – or even miscommunication – to be a barrier we may be missing out on a different and powerful way to connect with one another and with God. We are missing out on the opportunity to connect through touch, through song, through prayer. We are missing out on the chance to let the Holy Spirit fill our bodies and unite us with the people around us We are missing out on a moment where we can just listen and be present – even if we do not necessarily understand the words being spoken around us.

The celebration of Pentecost is not just a time to remember the birthday of the church and the coming of the Holy Spirit 2,000 years ago. It is a time to celebrate where the church is today and how the Holy Spirit is working through us and around right here, right now. It is a time to celebrate the diversity of who we are as a church and who we are as children of God. It is time not to turn our focus away from the differences that may divide us – but rather a time to turn on our focus on the ways that those differences may, too, unite us.

Pentecost is also a time to remember that God speaks to all of us so that we can understand him. No one is denied the message of God’s love, redemption and grace. God speaks so each and every one of us can understand him – and God speaks in different ways so that as unique and distinctive individuals, we can fully understand it.

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” How is God speaking to you today? What do you hear? What do you see? How do you understand?
May your ears be opened, may your eyes be widened, may your hearts be filled, may your minds be released and may your lives be forever changed as you hear God speak to you.

Amen.

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