Sermon on Pentecost C: Acts 2:1-21 (Preached on June 9, 2019, at BLC, Escanaba by Pastor Dave Van Kley)
On Pentecost, the annual harvest festival, which came 50 days after his resurrection, Jesus’ little band of disciples gathered to do what they always did: to talk, eat, pray. They were also waiting for something mysterious Jesus had promised—the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit came, it came with a bang. To some of the disciples, the racket sounded like a tornado ripping through Oklahoma. Other thought the house was on fire, flames dancing all around.
As always on Pentecost, the city of Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims. The Spirit’s flashy entrance caused a stir. People came running to check it out. When they arrived at the house, they did not see a fire or hear the wind. They heard voices, many voices at once, a babble of voices. Yet through the din, they discerned words and sentences in the languages they spoke at home: Greek and Latin, the dialects of the Cappadocians and Cretans. Whatever the language, the voices were telling the same story: how the God of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, David and Solomon, had acted once again, through Jesus.
“What’s up with all this?” people said. “Aren’t all of these people from Galilee? Where’d they learn our languages? Wasn’t Jesus the rabbi from Galilee who was recently crucified?”
“Ah,” others said; “It’s a holiday! They’re probably drunk!”
“No!” Peter responded. “Remember what our prophets said long ago, about a great and glorious day when everyone would be filled with the Holy Spirit? Young and old alike would see visions? Poor or rich, woman or man, all would tell God’s story? Look, it’s happening! Right here! Today is the great and glorious day! Today, God is saving us!”
When you hear this story, what do you hear?
One obvious thing is that the disciples addressed many people in their own languages. All of us here today speak English. But when immigrants came to America, they brought their native tongues—Swedish and Finnish, German and Italian. Gradually, everyone learned one language to unite this diverse country. Yet, not everyone who learned English wanted to. For example, native children were forced to attend boarding schools where English was the only language permitted. In these schools, Ojibwa and Potawatomi children were punished for speaking their own languages.
It has been this way throughout history: language has been used as a tool both to unite and control people. That reality lies behind the Tower of Babel story, in which God scrambled the language of the builders, creating many where there had been was just one. Today, the babble continues. At last count, there were over 7000 languages spoken in the world!
So, at Pentecost, it was necessary for the disciples to share the gospel in languages people could understand. Pentecost fulfilled Jesus’ promise: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You shall be my witnesses, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
It has been so ever since. Empowered by the Spirit, the Church has translated the New Testament into 1500 languages. Missionaries always learn the language of the people to whom they are sent. They share good news in words people can understand.
But does Pentecost happen here? Among us?
It’s not as if folks from all over town are running in here this morning because we are causing a ruckus! Our worship doesn’t sound like an Oklahoma tornado or a babble of. People are not saying about us, “Goodness, aren’t those the people we see at Elmer’s picking up groceries—where did they learn Arabic? How did they become visionaries and dreamers? Young women, old men, poor or wealthy, something has gotten into all of them: their hair is on fire!”
No, people are not saying that about us.
But I believe Pentecost is happening to and through us. Here and now.
We may not hear Russian or Swedish in Escanaba, but different languages are spoken here. The language at Rosie’s diner is different than what you hear at the Ludington Grill—I’ve been both places. The talk is different on the floor of the Verso mill than at the OSF nurse’s station. At the high school gym and the Senior Center, on the bluff and in low-income housing—the words may be mostly the same and the grammar not too much different, but people’s concerns are very different. Their values. Their worries and fears. Their pain. Their joys. All are different.
We are sent into all places and to all people with the message of forgiveness, joy, hope, purpose.
It’s not always about words. As St. Francis once said, “Preach the gospel always and if necessary, use words.” Our deeds can proclaim the language of Pentecost, can become the words that speak love and justice in Jesus’ name.
I recall a story a friend told me about his time at Kansas State University. There was a nasty conflict going on between atheist students and kids involved in the more conservative Christian groups on campus. It was a war of words, conducted with sidewalk chalk and signs. Clearly the Christian message wasn’t getting through to anyone this way. So Lutheran Campus Ministry decided to try something different. They organized a food drive with the atheists, working together with them to feed people in need. They learned the language not only of the hungry, but also of people who didn’t believe in God—and proclaimed good news in Jesus’ name. That was the work of the Spirit!
Sometimes, Pentecost happens without either words or deeds.
Recently, I visited the home of a person who is dying. Despite all my training and years of experience, I still do not know what to say or do in the presence of such a person. I feel the weight of the moment and understand that the person is going through something holy and difficult, something I have not yet experienced, but will someday, not too many years from now. I go with my Bible and prayer book, but my heart is pounding and my soul is uneasy. I sit and wait with little to say. The minutes and seconds seem like hours. But in the waiting, somehow, the Spirit is working. A tear comes. A touch. Finally, a few words from the Bible. The promise of God’s presence, the hope of the resurrection. Pentecost happens.
My wife and I will pick up our grandsons in Montana at the end of June and bring them home for a week. I do not know how that will go. They are 9 and 11; we are 64 and 65. They know all about video games and superheroes; we know next to nothing. Our oldest grandson just dyed his hair blue! Will it help for me to say, “Rudy, why did you do that? It’s not natural! You look better in blonde.” Of course not! We must enter Rudy’s world. We must learn Rudy’s language. Or better, we must wait for the Spirit to teach us these things. So I suspect we will climb trees and play video games and go fishing and swimming. And along the way, we will pray and speak of the glory of God’s creation and relate the things we do to Bible stories and thank God for our food. So the Spirit will come and Pentecost will happen anew.
It happens in your life, too! Whenever you open your mind and heart to others. When you enter into their world and hear and speak their language. And let the redeeming love of Jesus shine through you. Be it in silence or speech, in work or waiting.
Maybe a co-worker needs a word of forgiveness. A friend needs a phone call.
Maybe there is a petition you must sign or a protest sign to carry.
Maybe someone’s lawn needs to be mowed. Or a dozen cookies to be baked and delivered.
Maybe there is a neighbor you still haven’t met.
But the Spirit is here, now. Pentecost didn’t just happen. Pentecost happens! Amen.