We’ve recently returned from a family journey in Spain and spent most of the time in the city where many people of different nationalities live, who speak a multitude of languages. Lots of people there went out of their way to be helpful and seemed eager to share their culture with us. I do not speak Spanish but just a tiny bit, still we all managed to communicate effectively what with my well-meaning attempts at Buenos dias, Buenos tardes, a whole lot of Holas and of course, when it came to ordering food and wine, I just pointed and said “este!” The trip was a lot more spiritually enriching than I expected it to be, because the Spanish people were so kind and generous.
This is not to say that there were not moments of hopeless laughter like when I tried to order iced coffee, my daily habit. Apparently, iced coffee is more of a rare thing in Spain than here. It’s not like can drive in to any old Dunkin’ Donuts and choose from a myriad of flavored coffee concoctions. So, needing that daily caffeine buzz, I learned how to ask for it by ordering coffee with ice on the side. That seems simple, doesn’t it? However, at a café in Seville I cluelessly ordered a coffee with ice cream on the side. In Spanish ice is hielo, but instead I had asked for helado or ice cream! The woman who ran the café looked at me as if I was from Mars and I might as well have been. There’s really nothing bad about the idea of coffee and ice cream but it just isn’t a thing Spain, which is why it seemed so silly. Now, as some of you know, I can be pretty darn silly so I usually wouldn’t care about being perceived as such. However, I was embarrassed in that moment which made me feel uncomfortable, even though it was only me, my daughter and the cafe owner. It can be awkward to be in foreign, unfamiliar situations, right? It can be humiliating when you are not understood because of a language or cultural misunderstanding or you have a disability of some kind. That “out of your comfort zone” feeling is exactly why travel is so important. It disarms us and we grow from it. We saved our pennies for a long time to be able to take this trip and I encourage travel as much as possible.
On Pentecost Sunday, we observe a moment in the Christian tradition of extreme discomfort and discombobulation, which the people who were together speaking different languages must have felt. They were not simply ordering coffee poured over ice, they experienced the confirmation of the Holy Spirit - a Baptism of fire predicted by John the Baptizer fulminating in the inception of a spectacular spiritual awakening! The scripture reads,
2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
OMG, what in heaven’s name was going on there? Why were all these people of different background, culture and language in the same house? Pentecost was an ancient tradition of people coming together for the Feast of Weeks during the spring barley harvest, which falls fifty days after Passover. In Jewish tradition, the law was given to the people on this day. Verse 6 reads, “Devout Jews of every nation” were there pointing out the universal character of Pentecost, coming together to share and rejoice over the fruits of their labor. The scripture describes all the countries that were represented at this particular event; Parthians, Medes, Elamites, folks from Mesopotamia, Judea and Capacocia, Pontus, Asia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya and Rome. All of these people gathered, who were Jews by heritage alongside proselytes or new converts to Judaism. So, imagine Pentecost as an international Thanksgiving on steroids but not out of the ordinary.
The Apostle Peter is the spokesperson in this scripture who describes the very extraordinary part of the event when flames of cool fire alighted on their heads and suddenly all were able to understand each other - even though they came from different lands with different languages. What a gift! How wonderful that would be now, when we are struggling to understand each other! Sometimes I wonder why we don’t have Holy Spirit moments of clarity like that these days? Or maybe we do, but we just aren’t attuned to them. Perhaps it is because we are distracted from the presence of God working through Spirit.
Imagine the fear attendees at this Pentecost experienced! I am not implying they were cowards in any way nor that it was not a blessed moment of spiritual awakening, because I believe it was. However, if you were in a place where you had one expectation which completely changed into another, more exciting, spiritual experience would you not feel some fear? For instance, I don’t much like to fly. I’m not afraid to die, it’s just that when I am traveling from one place to an anticipated destination, I just want to get there. I don’t want to go barreling down through the clouds with my heart in my throat and people around me screaming. That would be scary. It’s never happened so I guess you could say I am afraid of what I am afraid of. Senseless? Of course, but it’s simply human nature to feel fear in this way. We like to live, walk in the sunshine and feel our toes in the waters of the living – it is part of our DNA. The fear the attendees at this remarkable Pentecost event must have felt, models the fear that Jesus himself must have felt while walking to the Cross. Oh, dear God, take this task away from me, he said and you really cannot blame him. Fear is the great equalizer – a universal sense of the common enemy.
However, when you look deeper into the depths of fear you just may find that God is deep in there. God, the One who raised Jesus from the depths of darkness imposed on him by political powers and principalities. God, the one who commissioned the Holy Spirit to alight on the heads of all on Pentecost. Even though they may have felt a fear of fire or a fear of the unknown, they were greatly blessed to understand and communicate with one another in a new way. It was in essence the birthday of the Christian Church and all present were in unity and harmony, in spite of fear. Fear is just a feeling, though it is a powerful one indeed. Fear can keep us from communicating with and loving our fellow human beings. Fear is at the core of prejudice and self-righteousness. If we come to others with clear intentions of goodness and genuine caring, fear can dissipate into understanding and even love.
There has been much discussion about the act of listening lately. After an acrimonious political cycle both here and in other parts of the world, it is clear that we do not tolerate one another’s points of view very well. We are keen to TELL people what to do and how to see things but we are less keen to spend the time listening to the language of others. Our own personal points of view have become more important tha
n striving to be in harmony and understanding with each other. Why? Why have we made our positions a kind of god, causing us to move away from listening and caring? Perhaps we need another Pentecost. Perhaps that is what we should focus on at Greendale People’s Church, creating an atmosphere of listening and hearing one another, in spite of our differences and our fears of the unfamiliar?
Look at the this picture, it was chosen for you on purpose. Do you see the people of different colors, wearing different kinds of clothing? The one thing that they have in common is the experience of the Spirit blessing them with the gift of illumination. Their hands are held up and they are happy to be together! Let’s try that. It’s different and weird for us Congregationalists, but stand up either in spirit or in body and close your eyes for just a minute. Now imagine the swooping in of a powerful wind bringing a cool flame of illumination onto your head. Imagine that. Feel that sensation of understanding all others in the sanctuary today. Now lift up your arms and hands and look up to the ceiling, imagining God’s presence. Breathe in and now look around you at the others here with their hands up too. We can lift our arms! We can praise God and be grateful! Feel free to lower your arms. What is our church doing to encourage the spirit to be here? How are we expressing our love of one another and our desire to spread God’s message? How are we agents of God, helping to communicate more fully and clearly with others?
Let us pray:
God’s Spirit brings new dreams
God’s Spirit brings new life
God’s Spirit brings love
God’s Spirit brings hope
God’s Spirit be with you.