by Louise Westfall
Christos Anesti… Cresstos Voskreeus…Crees-tuax agla-gikux…Helisituos ee fuhole…Christos t’ensah em muhtan…Cristo ha resucitado…Christus er oppstanden…Christ is risen! You probably understood the Easter affirmation only when you heard it in your own language…unless you happen to speak Greek, Russian, Aleutian, Cantonese, Amharic, Spanish or Norwegian (and as pronounced by a non-native using Google translator!).
There’s something about one’s own language that goes beyond simple comprehension. It’s the language of the heart, what someone has described as the language in which your mother first spoke to you, layered with powerful emotional resonance. Even those with multiple language skills often default to their native tongue at home or when they’re tired or in times of stress.
Today is the birthday of the Church–Pentecost. Like many births, it was messy, loud, and miraculous. The birth was attended by rushing winds and fiery tongues (which is why the pulpit stoles are bright red today). But the “baby” who was born started talking immediately and fluently in a multitude of languages and dialects. The Holy Spirit of God showed up in human speech, heard in the “heart language” of every single person within earshot. A reading from the Acts of the Apostles in the second chapter at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word to you, and to all who are hungry for a good word, a word of truth, a word of power, a word of hope. [Acts 2:1-21]
My sermons are always a mixture of divine and human collaboration: this and subsequent ones will have an extra measure of input from those who join me for Friday Faith Break. We’re exploring the Scripture texts I’ll be using for sermons going forward to discover what God may be calling us to do or become through these ancient words—particularly during the pandemic and as we move into recovery. I cherish this opportunity to listen together, and hope you’ll drop in by zoom whenever you can. Thank you to Heather Collins, Ryan and Charis Smith, Mary Schenk, Bruce Heagstedt, Sherry Kenney, and Kent and Freddy Groff who contributed to this first go-round (though they cannot be held responsible for any theological mis-steps or sermon malfunctions; the fault for those remains with me!).
What do you think was the phrase from this text they noticed first?–actually it fairly screamed off the page: …they were all together in one place… Ah, those were the days! I don’t think I’ll ever take for granted again the ability to gather in person. We’ve always known that something powerful happens when people come together to worship God (which is, of course why preachers are always exhorting you to make it a priority). Now two and a half months into stay-at-home orders, many of us are over screens and zooming and “virtual” anything, and are simply longing for touch and physical proximity (the Session has appointed a team who is working with staff and me to determine when and how we will gather in person for worship, faith formation, life groups and committees).
Fact is, friends, we’re bored. We’re tired of isolation, exhausted from preoccupying concerns about handwashing, masking, getting outside or staying inside. The endless scrolling of smartphone fails to entertain, let alone nourish. We’re worried about vulnerable people and how they’re faring, but frustrated at the limited range of options we have to respond. How can we even summon the energy to delve into emerging concerns?! We’ve become our kids’ school teachers and principals, with new worries about whether we’re doing it right. New guilt feelings have emerged from our sense of privilege—we’re not suffering like some; and even from feeling disappointed about the losses of this time. Come on, we’ve got it pretty good. We’ve cleaned out every closet; organized our files and photographs; baked bread from scratch; binged Billions and Ozark; learned to quilt; made scrapbooks for our kids; and become fluent Spanish-speakers. Or not. Does it actually matter?
God is not daunted by safer-at-home orders or stymied by the reality that we’re “all together” only through our internet connection. The power that birthed the church is available right now, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.
Friends, I think we’re aching for a Pentecost. Fresh winds of holy Spirit blowing and filling the spaces we inhabit, igniting us, waking us up, conferring ability to speak other words besides “social distancing…pandemic…the new normal…” And something more.
Once there was a bright young man making his way into the world with every advantage of education, friends and connections, a promising career. Still he was restless and unhappy. He tried therapy, yoga, and probiotic supplements. He volunteered at a soup kitchen and contributed regularly to the church he attended on occasion. Yet he could not get over the feeling that he was missing out, that his best life was still eluding him. In near-desperation, he turned to the pastor of that church, an elderly man who had always seemed to demonstrate deep fountains of wisdom and joy. Pastor, the young man began, I have tried everything. I am a good person, a hard worker, I help others. What else can I do? Then the old Pastor stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven and his fingers became like torches of flame. And he said, “Why not be turned into fire?” [adapted from a story of the Desert Fathers]
Without breath, the body soon dies. Without air, the fire goes out. Without fire, life is an empty shell. No amusements, distractions, and gadgets can ever replace what is essential. It’s true for the Church, and it’s true for each of us.
So let us pray for a Pentecost. It wasn’t the action of the disciples all together in one place that unleashed the power of God’s Spirit. It blew into that room as sheer gift, a calling and transforming power the likes of which they couldn’t have imagined or created for themselves. Friends, God is not daunted by safer-at-home orders or stymied by the reality that we’re “all together” only through our internet connection. The power that birthed the church is available right now, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. God is pouring out Spirit upon all flesh–sons and daughters, young men and old ladies, believers and doubters, hipsters and geeks, people who can’t remember what day it is, and those who know they’ve been sheltered for 78 days, ten hours, and… 16 minutes.
Long ago on Pentecost, God showed up on earth as wind and fire. And what happened? A small, exclusive group of friends who shared the common experience of following Jesus became a universal, diverse community of embodying Jesus in every time and place. The band of brothers and sisters who gathered behind locked doors felt them blown open so that the whole world might come in. People separated by human-imposed dividing lines of location, color, creed were united. Because here’s the thing: the Word of God is active; it does stuff. God spoke and worlds came into being in ways that still have scientists’ heads spinning. Prophets in every age have spoken God’s word to bring down unjust systems and replace them with better practices. God’s word has the power to mend broken hearts and reconcile estranged people. The Church was born multilingual. We cannot keep silent about the particular way that ability has become diminished–quite apart from the pandemic. The systematic racism that stomps on the lives of Black men and women and children–and the White privilege that condones it must stop. The lives of our black brothers and sisters matter, and our indifference is killing them. It is nothing less than a repudiation of the Spirit of God. So we must pray for a new Pentecost, and act on the holy word of God which has spoken and still speaks: What is required of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.
The group that discussed this text pushed further. They pointed out that each of those gathered received the Spirit; all of them were filled. Everyone began to share the Word, even if Peter was the only one with a microphone. Just as Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, it also can be a new beginning for you and me. A cool breeze in the afternoon of a weary day; or a gale-force wind when boredom or complacency appear to rule the day. The Spirit of God is calling to you and me, filling us with new energy, new resolve, and the ability to speak a new language.
…well, not new, not really. What’s renewed in us is the ability to speak the language of love, Divine words with the power to shine light, reach out across divisions, get woke, bring down unjust systems…with fire in our bones and unquenchable joy in our hearts.
May it be so, for each of us and for the church, now and forever.