This is an amazing story – of transformation and empowerment, of finding voice and speaking with confidence – of gift deliverance – and unapologetic proclamation that draws attention, divides the listeners, changes lives and propels the church into the world.
At funeral services we often hear the words of the wise writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes; “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to keep silence and a time to speak.”
Well, friends, Pentecost is a time to speak up and speak out! It is a time to find your voice. It is not a time to keep silence, or to be too polite because the Spirit has been given to proclaim.
It is not a time to please everybody. It is not a time to be hesitant in the face of rejection. It is time, however, for action, to speak with an urgency that comes from passion; into the public arena for reaction.
This is what happened in Jerusalem on Pentecost that morning. It might be what happened at the Masonic Temple last Monday night at 2,000 folks gathered in faith to speak out about social justice.
But on the day of Pentecost, the disciples were “all together in one place;” of one heart and one mind ready to receive – right on the cusp of a hope. And that is a very powerful place to be, a very agitating moment, a very precarious moment. Hope can be empowering but a hope unfulfilled is like a “Dream deferred” that “dries up like a raisin in the sun.” As Langston Hughes wrote.
And then the violent wind; and then divided tongues; and then the filling of the Holy Spirit; and then the speaking in other languages; “as the Spirit gave them ability.”
Let’s stop right there. Pentecost wasn’t a cacophony of sound, a muddle of conflicting voices and messages that created a jumble of unintelligible mush. This was no “Pentecostal speaking in tongues” as our charismatic sisters and brothers experience. No one needed interpreting – people who were there that day – heard the message in the language that they had been raised in. Right? – Parthians heard the message in Parthian. And the Medes heard the message in Median and the Elamites heard it in Elamitarian (or whatever it was) … you get the idea.
Our procession this morning was more a mass of voices and languages and I doubt you heard anything intelligible.
But Pentecost was different – people heard their own language. I remember coming off the plane in Damascus, Syria and everything was in Arabic – the signs to me unreadable, the words of the guard trying to say something to me – unintelligible. And then I heard English – another English speaker – from England and she was like a long lost sister. She was speaking my language.
Think about it – the appeal of the politicians who move us to vote for them is because “they are speaking my language.” I remember picking up a book by Walter Brueggeman, by Stanley Hauerwas, by Kathleen Norris, Henri Nouwen, Annie Lamont, Jim Wallis, Tim Beal, Marcus Borg, William Slone Coffin – these women and men write what I believe, they “speak my language” and have changed my life. But to other Christians? These authors and voices just don’t resonate.
Jesus Christ speaks a language that moves me so deeply, I want to follow him and call myself a Christian, and walk in his path. To people of other faiths? Jesus may be important and interesting but not ultimately compelling, a turn off, not practical. I don’t know, my job isn’t to judge. My job, our job, is to proclaim because it is a time to speak!
Language creates connections, stories bind people together. Why do veterans want to be with other veterans? But in binding people together inevitably some will NOT be bound, won’t be interested. They will find other stories and languages and books and speakers and points of view that do resonate.
Even within the Christian world – there are progressives and conservatives – and of course these titles stereotype but we know what we are talking about. Is it possible to speak a message that everyone will agree to? No.
On Pentecost the word was expressed in multiple languages – and some were amazed, and others were perplexed and some even sneered: “drunks!” BUT some were longing for what they heard, like a parched land longs for rain – and they were baptized (2:41) and in time over 5,000 people were drawn by words about Jesus (4:4).
We need to listen again to this story of Pentecost because too many of us are timid and unsure about what we believe. We are not confident of our stories, or the words to use. We don’t want to come across like one of those “other” religious types; their language is not our language. But here is the agitation: instead of opening ourselves to the spirit who will give us “other” words to use to tell our story – we are silent.
No wonder the church doesn’t grow: it isn’t about programs it is about proclamation! No wonder that Starbucks and the NY Times trump church every Sunday.
And no wonder the more confident churches, with equipped church goers who are very secure in their stories, and in their vocabularies, and in their messaging take over the airwaves and set the tone for public discussion.
Have you told anyone about your faith, about your relationship with Jesus, about why you even go to church, why you believe what you do?
Practice telling someone NOT what you DON’T believe but what you do? Go ahead, tell someone how you view the world, who and what you trust, what lens you put on to make sense of your life. Do you have any hope at all? Why do you come to THIS church? What CAN you affirm? Just start there. And I guarantee you this – your words will find an ear and like the word of God through the prophets, and through the disciples on Pentecost – it will not return empty.
Not everyone is going to have the same story, (I hope not!) – not everyone will have the same vocabulary, certainly we all bring our different experiences to play. But one of my fundamental beliefs is that God inspires all of it – uses all of it, wastes none of it. Life is precious and VERY precarious, there are no certainties of success, but there is presence, and power, and reasons to live, and the story of Jesus Christ is the “river that runs through it” for me. But how will people know if you and I don’t speak?
Don’t worry if your so-called “Bible Believing” friend seems so much more confident. They have a word to share, and it resonates with some, but not all. There are so many who are yearning to make a connection, find a spiritual home, begin a spiritual journey, have a deep discussion with someone, look at their own lives in an honorable way.
Back in the first century the Christian message resonated most powerfully with the “Godfearers” – sort of a special status of folk who were drawn to the synagogue but weren’t Jewish – they were the “seekers” – caught in the in between of culture … and the word of from Paul and Lydia (and many other first century Christians) moved them. The Christian message of inclusion, and empowerment was just the language that these folks on the outside looking in needed to hear. It is a word that we need to proclaim today.
When we were in Turkey and the group met with Rev. Timothy Fearer who is doing church growth work in that country. And he shared with us that of the 1,500 converts to Christianity – almost all of them had been raised in traditional Islamic homes – but they had drifted and were secular looking for meaning… and just as so many nominal Christians wander away in our culture, so too these Muslims -looking for community, for meaning, for hope – and the language of Christ has become their language.
This is not to judge Islam or Judaism – I am being descriptive not judgmental. I am not trying to convert faithful Jews, or committed Muslims, or dedicated Buddhists – I am just trying to speak my language, my hope, my experience and let the Spirit do what it will.
You and I need to make the connection between Jesus Christ and social action. Between faith and politics, between Jesus and the spiritual quest, between God and reality… lots of folks are very curious! If you and I don’t do it, who will?
This was the challenge and joy of our Holy Conversation small group. For 13 weeks some of you explored your Christian language and practiced telling your own faith stories to each other and then to someone outside the group. That was the scariest part; to find a conversation partner not from this church and to tell them about your faith. The bravest of us sought an un-churched person who was a neighbor down the street.
And like the disciples that Jesus sent out two-by-two, the Forest Hill disciples found that everyone was really interested in talking about faith.
See your story matters – like the AMC network’s tag line “Story Matters Here” – so too does your story. You never know when you will say something that will spark, and cause a change, a deliverance, a hope… Your honesty matters – it liberates YOU and others!
There was a Rabbi and a Priest talking at an ecumenical gathering. And after a lengthy conversation the Rabbi told the priest; “would you stop being apologetic about being a Christian. Would you please tell me what you believe.”
Forest Hill needs to get out there and proclaim in word and in deed that we are a Christ centered, Spirit empowered, God loving, fun-loving too, progressive, inclusive voice … this is what we will hold ourselves accountable to because we believe the Gospel demands it. And there are thousands upon thousands who are eager, hungry, yearning, looking, ready for a conversation.
Find your voice. The words that come out may sound strange at first – but it is you.
Find your voice. Be a powerful witness for the kingdom of God.