“Breath, Wind & Fire: Listening in Tongues”
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
May 20th 2018
A Reading from Acts Chapter 2:
When the day of Pentecost had come, 
they were all together in one place. [1, 2, 3]
And suddenly, 
Suddenly , [4, 5, 6]
from heaven, 
there came a sound, [1, 2]
like the rush of a violent wind, [3, 4, 5]
and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. [ALL]
Divided tongues, 
as of fire, [6, 7, 8]
appeared among them, [3, 4]
and a tongue rested on each of them. 
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit [1, 2, 3]
and began to speak in other languages, [4, 5, 6]
as the Spirit gave them ability. 
Now there were devout Jews 
from every nation under heaven [1, 2, 3]
living in Jerusalem. [4, 5, 6]
And at this sound the crowd gathered, [7, 8]
and was bewildered. 
Bewildered. [1, 2, 3]
because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 
Amazed. [1, 2, 3]
Amazed. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
and astonished, [1, 2, 3]
Astonished. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
they asked, 
“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? [2, 3, 4]
And how is it that we hear, [5, 6, 7]
each of us, 
in our own native language? 
in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 
All were amazed. 
All were amazed, [ALL]
and all were perplexed, 
saying to one another, [5, 6, 7]
“What does this mean?” [ALL]
But others sneered and said, 
“They are filled with new wine.” [1, 2, 3]
Let us pray: Holy Spirit, when we feel isolated, divided – show up again – draw us together in wind and flame. When we cannot hear each other – help us to hear your love that binds us together in the midst of division by the power of Your Spirit we pray – Amen.
Imagine a hall full of weary travelers. Devout Jewish pilgrims from all over gather for the festival of the Jewish Law. The Jewish Diaspora is present in one place but also divided by cultural & language barriers. With the crowd gathered it is hot, stuffy and hard to move around. Perhaps there is even some tension with all of the different communities crammed in one space – will there be a misunderstanding? Will there be conflict?
Then, imagine, the windows & the doors suddenly blow open. A sound like a violent wind bursts through the room. Mysterious tongues of fire rest on the men, the women, the children, the elders, even the slaves. Some shout in amazement, others stare in bewilderment – slowly but surely a cacophony of sound becomes miraculously discernible to each person. Folks from one end of the room suddenly hear the groups on the other side in their own native tongue. One pilgrim arrives late to the gathering and wonders aloud, “have you all had a bit too much to drink?” (Not a bad theory).
Peter, recognizes the miracle and seizes the opportunity. He steps up on a table and begins to preach. Peter shares the prophesy of the prophet Joel, “God’s spirit will come anew and rest upon women & men, slave & free – that the elders will dream dreams and the young will have visions.” Peter then shares the power of God’s love manifest in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Pentecost story makes me wonder, what miraculous embodiment of the Holy Spirit could bridge the great divides of our current moment? Just this week there is gut-wrenching violence in Gaza. Continual dehumanization of immigrants in our national rhetoric. Demoralizing unproductive debates about how to address gun violence in our country – how to make the shootings stop. Reminders of the racial & class divides that underpin our very own community. Did you know that New Jersey is the 6th most segregated school system in our country? We are literally divided.
If the Holy Spirit were to manifest in fire and wind in our current moment what might that miracle look like?
My instinct when faced with division or conflict is to speak more eloquently, with more personal conviction. Sometimes no matter my intention, this strategy only adds to the noise.
A careful look at the Pentecost story reveals something surprising. When the Spirit of fire and wind breaks the boundaries between divided pilgrims the miracle was not only that they could speak in other languages but that they could also hear a language that they were not supposed to know. Folks gathered from fifteen different nations, and each person heard the other in their own native tongue.
What if the true miracle of Pentecost today is not “speaking in tongues” but “listening in tongues?” What if Pentecost happens when we can hear of God’s love and power in a language that we aren’t supposed to know?
On April 25th, Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal Church in San Francisco, welcomed a thousand worshippers who gathered for an unusual worship experience. You know that it’s a boundary-crossing, new wind blowing, when the online comment sections are filled with accusations of “blasphemy” even “idolatry.” (Which could have easily been headlines for ancient reporters covering the 1st century Festival of Pentecost). Folks of color, queer folks, generations left out of many churches, folks of all kinds of backgrounds, ages and demographics, showed up at Grace Cathedral for, Beyonce’ Mass. That’s right, you heard it, folks gathered in droves to sing Beyonce’ songs and explore the theological underpinnings of her music through the lens of the empowerment of black women & marginalized communities.
Rev. Otis Moss, Senior Pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago writes about the worship service, “Just like a jazz mass…The service uses Beyonce’s music as a launching pad to talk about liberation theology and the inability of the church to place the issues of black women at the center….We (also) fail to examine pop culture in “the church” …and simply fall into the old lazy western binary categories of sacred versus secular.” He writes, “It is easier to say ‘that is not of God’ than to do the work and figure out if the artist is praying and cussing at the same time.”
Here is the miracle of Pentecost. The Spirit breaks through our boundaries – whatever they may be. And these boundaries aren’t transgressed so that all might become homogenous. God doesn’t come to teach the new Christian community a holy language, but rather the Spirit enables each person, young, old, and in between, male, female, and in between, slave, free, and in between, to listen carefully and then speak of God’s love in their own voice, with their own accent.
Maybe Pentecost is when we hear God in a new way and we dream new dreams, visions of God’s love in the world. We hear about God’s love as refugees serve lunch, as hosts in a café, in a country that wrestles with our own policies of welcome. We hear God’s power in the poetry of a student who writes an “Ode to Freedom” from the confines of prison. We hear about the power of forgiveness as Jewish and Palestinian parents who have lost children in violent conflict come together to grieve. We hear about God’s power in the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement calling for white folks, folks of color, folks of all types of political persuasions, all means and backgrounds to come together to represent a new moral vision for our country. The Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost when things that aren’t supposed to go together sing harmoniously of God’s love.
At the royal wedding yesterday, Bishop Michael Curry, an African American in the halls of the historical space of empire, preached about the power of love & the power of fire. He quoted Teilhard de Chardin, French Jesuit and Scholar who wrote, “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, (human kind) will have discovered fire.”
Beloved go out now, harnessing the power of the Spirit’s wind & fire, harnessing the power of love. Listen carefully, for new winds, God’s love blowing across the divides that separate us. And may these new dreams and visions grant us the courage break boundaries for justice & peace in the name of God’s love.