June 9, 2019
When the day of Pentecost had come, they 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.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“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.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
On Friday I was invited to attend a prayer walk, on the corner of Ready and McCabe Avenue, Just down the street from Miss Phillis’ house, the force of nature and Spirit who is the president of the Woodbourne-McCabe neighborhood association. A small group of us gathered where a non-fatal shooting had taken place last week at two in the morning. I drove up apprehensive, wondering what I had to offer in a moment like this. As a white man with privilege to spare, dressed in my business casual get-up, getting out of my Prius, I was painfully aware of the legacy I embody. The neighborhood was targeted by the racist housing and financing practices of red lining, where Black and Immigrant neighborhoods were denied loans for home ownership, business investment, barring returning World War II veterans from purchasing homes with the GI bill. The injustice of unequal educational funding for predominantly black and brown schools is felt hard here, and distrust of the police is high for many residents. I knew that it had been a dispiriting week for so many in the community who have been working so hard to lift the neighborhood, and worried that my presence would be unhelpful. But all that apprehension melted away when I saw Miss Phillis. When someone asks you to show up when they’re struggling, just our presence can be ministry, but also, when we know folks and have a relationship, gathering together can be grounding, reminding us all that we are not alone. We prayed on the corner, chatting with folks from the neighborhood getting off the bus, walking past, driving to their homes. Walking along, kids I’ve gotten to know through camp and kickball were out, Neighbors on their porches said hello, gave us hugs, talked about the things neighbors do; their kids, gossip from the neighborhood, inviting Miss Phillis to parties and get-togethers. By the time we got to Alhambra Park, a pickup game of football was happening as the sun was setting, and the resiliency, hope, and love of the Community was palpable. It wasn’t something I and Pastor Jenn, from Second, brought. It was instead something the community revealed, a light that the community shone, a peace beyond all understanding they manifest.
Our culture, and especially the Baltimore area, is full of dividing lines we are told we shouldn’t cross; racial, economic, cultural, generational, differences of theology, religion, sexual orientation. Stick to your own, our culture insists. Sometimes we’re told it’s for our own safety, but more often than not, these boundaries are respected to avoid feeling out of place, to keep us from feeling awkward, or guilty of the privileges we have, or to keep us from being frustrated by the lack of awareness those with more privilege have to the injustice we are experiencing. But the idea of who is our own doesn’t stand up to the power of the Holy Spirit that is loose in our world. One of the girls I know from camp, she walked up to me in my button-up shirt and slacks and said, “I’m not a fan of this outfit.” Pastor Jenn from Second Presbyterian added, “yeah, don’t you think it’s a little too colonizer?” Referencing Black Panther. And we laughed, the false boundaries melting away as Marie asked if we liked how our toes look, sharing about our plans for the summer, enjoying the cool air traveling on the evening breeze.
I am constantly reminded of how artificial the barriers we encounter in our County and City are. God created us diverse, we are blessed with cultures that are unique and different, united by our dreams for our lives, even wondering if our toes are misshapen. That’s why I love hanging out with kids, and community organizing, Playing and having deep conversations with folks. There is something Holy about the honesty of children, and there is power in listening to folks about who in their lives, and what experiences have empowered them to be leaders engaging with their neighbors. In these moments, false boundaries melt away. It’s not that we are all the same. Instead, there is an ability to connect with other people, in all our diversity, around the common desire for abundant life, however we manifest that.
Our story from that Pentecost celebration after Jesus’ Ascension, is full of people who are a part of a community brought together seeking abundant life, while encountering boundaries of language and culture that separate them from one another. In this story, there are Hebrew people from all over the world, from everywhere under heaven that the Chosen Family of God had fled to or been exiled to over the centuries. But they’re back together. Fifty days before, they had gathered to celebrate the Passover, and now they have gathered to observe Pentecost, the Jewish festival of Shavuot, one of the major pilgrimage festivals when the Temple stood. It’s a time to give first fruit offerings from the harvest, and recently, when this story is taking place, the Rabbi’s from Galilee have begun to organize celebrations marking the receiving of the Torah. It’s a time of staying up all night and reading, celebrating the People Choosing to receive the Torah, to live by it, to remember the choice to be God’s people, to be reminded that God has adopted them. The Rabbi’s tell stories about when the Torah was received at Mount Sinai, each person heard it in their own language, and in a way that they could understand. It is a celebration of being God’s people, of celebrating God’s provision, a time to remember God’s faithfulness in the past, present, and look towards the consummation of God and humanity. But there are folks who don’t feel quite at home at this massive family reunion of God’s people. There are differences of culture, and language, and at the time of Jesus and the Disciples, the struggle that many observant Hebrews couldn’t read Hebrew, but relied on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew texts.
Adding to this diversity, the people of God have always had groupies, not quite fully members of the religious community, but a part of their communal life. In ancient Palestine, some of these folks were enslaved peoples, or indigenous folks from the land, strangers, refugees, and immigrants who lived among the community. In Jesus’ time, there were also folks who called themselves “God Fearers,” not Hebrew by Maternal Ancestry, but intellectually and spiritually adopting of the traditions of the God and People of Israel. Into this mix, the Apostles gather for Shavuot, and the Holy Spirit shows up. It’s a scene full of noise and tongues of fire, of people suddenly proclaiming the deeds of power of the Living God in the Native Languages of the gathered peoples. God’s Mighty Deeds of Power is not a phrase that many of us hear regularly but is something that folks at this party would have known. We lift up these deeds when we celebrate the Lords Supper; that God created the world, that the Lord called Abraham to sojourn with the living God, that from the Matriarchs and Patriarchs emerged a people as numerous as the stars of Heaven and the grains of sand in the sea. The Deeds of Power remember the plagues that befell Pharaoh and his people, the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, the parting of the red sea, the feeding and guiding of the people through the wilderness, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah, the establishment of the people in a good and broad land, and the promise to renew the people, gathering them back from Exile, to re-establish God’s reign of love in the world. So when people start proclaiming these deeds at a festival of first fruits, a time when folks give thanks for new wine and fresh fruit and cheese is enjoyed, who can blame some in the crowd for thinking they had hit the wine jugs a little early this year.
This wild Holy Spirit speaks through folks so that everyone gathered hears the mighty acts of God’s presence in the world, and God’s desire for how we can live together, all peoples and all nations. This overflowing Spirit, she’s adopting a new people, not at the replacement of those already in the household of God but building a new wing onto the Family home. The Living Word dwells in the Beloved Community of the followers of “The Way,” the Jesus Revolution, and the differences that have separated and isolated folks from one another fall away.
In this story, I find myself, not with the disciples, but in the crowd hearing of God through people who are different from me. I think a lot of us have had these moments, where we feel like outsiders, and are suddenly met with a deep sense of home among folks who we are aware of how different our life experiences are. As folks from MPC have been going and having relational meetings with young families with children, I’ve heard about your surprise at how much people have enjoyed speaking and sharing with you. I know how wonderful you are at listening, and what a gift integrated friendships can be, but it fills me with joy to hear about young mothers not wanting to stop talking to you, about you finding new friends when you risk sitting down with someone new, only to hear about what God is up to in other’s lives in a way that sounds familiar to your own questions, faith, and doubts. You have so much to offer, just by your presence. When I think of Pentecost, I think of these moments, where people hear someone speak or intact God’s love in liberation, across lines of difference.
I was surprised on Friday to realize that the Holy Spirit was in Alhambra Park, as She so often is, breaking down all that seeks to divide us from our neighbors. Aware of all the ways I am different from the community, I still heard and saw and experienced the Go-Between-God on the move, stirring in our midst.
One of the many gifts of the Holy Spirit we celebrate during the season of Pentecost is that in the Family of God, we hear of our own liberation and Beloved-ness from folks who are different than us, who the Spirit gives the ability to speak the native languages of our hearts, reminding us of God’s revolution and how it transforms our lives. I wonder for you, what is that native language, those deeds of God’s love, that show up and surprise you? For some of us, it’s showing up to church, a place that has been the source of so much pain and shame, and hearing straight folks giving thanks for God’s Liberation of LGBTQ+ People. For others, it can be the celebration of God’s ongoing Liberation of People of Color in our midst. Others, it’s the Language of Freedom for those of us who are differently abled, being celebrated by those of us who experience abled privilege. The Church can be a place where we hear, “Hey, that abusive relationship you’re in? Yeah, it’s time for it to end, and there are folks who will walk with you and support you when you’re ready to make a change.” I’ve heard stories from church basements where a room full of total strangers suddenly speak of a freedom that is possible from addiction, where folks hear of hope for recovery. For others of us, hearing about Feminism in Church as a way of expressing the truth that God created you good and equal and worthy of respect, authority over your own life, and power to shape the world around, is a liberative revelation. For many of us, the language of our hearts is that the tradition we grew up in, it’s not the entire story of God, and there is a place for our questions, our doubts, and our desire to live as Christians in a different way. When the Holy Spirit shows up, the Beloved Community can be a place where Adolescents and children hear in ways that ring true that they are valued and honored, that they have insight that needs to be listened to.
Beloved, we are a little church family made up of a rich diversity of experiences and identities, a people making pilgrimage to neighborhoods and communities where we feel out of place, in the hope that we will be surprised to hear the Holy Spirit speaking the native languages of our heart as She opens us up to be a part of what God is up to in the world. When that happens, it’s messy, a little uncomfortable at times, but also freeing. The gift of the Holy Spirit is that we don’t have to be alone, and we get to be surprised by the families and communities we are adopted into. May we lean into the discomfort, and find ourselves at home in the world, as the boundaries melt away through the Spirit’s tongues of fire, kindled anew in us this day.
In the Name of the God of Woodbourne-McCabe, This Little Church in the Woods, and the Language of Each Heart’s Native Tongue, Amen.