Can You Hear Me Now? (6/4/17)
Altarpiece, Church of the Holy Spirit, Singapore
On Sunday, June 4, we celebrated Pentecost, the birthday of the Church! We considered the ways in which our expectations shape our understandings of Scripture and the world around us—and how the Holy Spirit can disrupt those expectations!
Good morning. Every time I hear this morning’s lesson from Acts, I’m reminded of my freshman year of college. In particular, verses 13-15, in which some people say, “they are filled with new wine,” and Peter disputes this by saying, “these people are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” Filled with new wine . . . at nine o’clock in the morning. At this point, you might be wondering why this reminds me of college. Or worse, maybe you’re not wondering at all!
Actually, this story starts at about 10:30 in the morning. It was in August, 1989, and it was my first day of classes. The course was Political Science 109, Intro to American Government. The professor was late. That seemed really strange for the first day of class. Five minutes went by. No professor. Ten minutes passed, still no professor. The students were anxious. Some people talked about leaving, but most of us were freshmen and we weren’t sure how long you had to wait before it was safe to leave.
Somewhere between 10:40 and 10:45, the professor stumbled into class. He was drunk at 10:30 in the morning! Or so it seemed. For a couple minutes, he tried to slur his way through the beginnings of a lecture. Then one student finally had the nerve to call him out. This led to a discussion of what the professor’s duties to the class were, how the law dealt with someone who had a disability or a disease, how those laws have changed over time, and that sort of thing. When I left that classroom, I realized that I knew a lot less about law and government than I thought I did. I also got some laughs out of the professor’s drunk act.
The fancy, academic term for what had happened is social dislocation. I went into that classroom with a set of expectations. I assumed that the professor would offer an engaging lecture that introduced some of the key topics for the semester and that everything would proceed in an orderly fashion. I was shaken loose from my previous expectations and my mind was opened for deeper learning.
Some students weren’t amused by this. A lot of my classmates were studying to be engineers or doctors or accountants. They were taking the class to fulfill a humanities requirement. They had to be there and they were hoping that Poly Sci 109 would be easier than advanced calculus or circuits or organic chemistry. They weren’t there for the professor’s drunk act—they just wanted to come to class, find out what they were going to learn, and get on with it. They expected something neat and tidy, a nice, orderly class. What they got was a professor who challenged their expectations. Some of us embraced this approach, while others grumbled that this wasn’t what they had signed up for.
This is what the Holy Spirit does. The Spirit disrupts things; it blows in like a violent wind. After it blows through, things are changed. But not everybody likes the change, or believes that the change was real—like the students in that Poly Sci class who weren’t amused by the professor’s drunk act.
To really appreciate what’s going on in this story from Acts, we need to look past the tongues of fire and focus on the verbs in this text. Yes, the verbs. No, there won’t be a quiz after worship. But for you English teachers out there—I’m looking at you, Sally—I’m only counting the transitive verbs. That is, the action verbs, not the being verbs.
Do any of you care to guess the most commonly used verbs?
The verb that is used most is, to speak: it appears in some form or other (speak, spoke, speaking, etc.) eight or nine times, depending on whether you count the word, addressed, as in: “But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed” the crowd.
The verb, to hear, is the next most commonly used verb. It occurs three times, or four times, if you count Peter telling the crowd to listen. The verb fill occurs three times. For instance, the people were filled with the Holy Spirit. And in the quotation from Joel, the verb prophesy is used twice. There’s one other verb that catches my attention, sneer. It’s only used once, but it’s important; it lets us know that not everyone responded to these verbs in the same way.
The nouns in this story tell us who was doing the speaking and the hearing: “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” They all spoke different languages, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, they could understand one another. What’s more, the Spirit will equip them with many gifts, including the gift of prophecy. The nouns also tell us that some people sneered, accusing the others of being drunk on new wine. For those who sneered, this visit from the Holy Spirit was fake news. They didn’t rush into this new community that became the Church.
So where are we in this story? I don’t know about you folks, but my ego isn’t quite big enough to claim that I’m like Peter, that I’m the leader of the Church, declaring that the words spoken by the prophet Joel have been fulfilled in this new community.
I think most of us would be happy to say that we’re just like the people in the story who heard everyone speaking, even though many of them were speaking in foreign languages. But how many of us have spoken in tongues? How many of us have prophesied? How many of us even spend time listening to people who speak other languages? For that matter, what counts as a different language?
One of the speakers that I heard at the Festival of Homiletics was a seminary professor named Anna Carter Florence. She suggested that the best way to approach a difficult story in the Bible is to begin by examining the verbs. You see, there’s not a lot of debate about the verbs. We all know what it means to speak or to hear. There’s not a lot of room for interpretation. But when we hear about tongues of fire dancing over people’s heads, that sounds a little strange. It leaves room for interpretation. It begs the question; did that really happen?
In this story from Acts, I certainly hope that I’m not one of the people in the crowd who’s sneering and accusing the others of drunkenness. But the unpleasant truth is that in our culture, we spend an awful lot of time sneering at one another. Look at our politics. We only accept the truths that we want to hear. We don’t listen to one another. We accuse our neighbors of not being real Americans because they didn’t vote the same way we did or watch the same news channel on cable. We use our social media to convict others of unbelief, of being drunk on new wine at nine o’clock in the morning. In doing this, we run the risk that our own voices and the voices of our culture make us numb to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
So, whose voices do we listen to? And which voices do we amplify?
There is a great deal of anxiety in our lives. It’s reflected in our politics and it’s reflected in our congregations. And the anxiety is amplified in times of transition. I can’t speak to all of the troubles in our communities and our nation, but I do hope that I can speak a few words of truth and grace into the anxieties of Rehoboth Church. And there are no better words than what we have already heard in our Old and New Testament lessons.
The story of Pentecost is the story of the birth of the Church. This could only come through the power of the Holy Spirit. And it could only happen after the human Jesus left the created world. Things looked bleak when Jesus was crucified, but that wasn’t the end of the story.
The Book of Acts shows us how the first Apostles were called to continue Christ’s mission here on earth. The story of Pentecost shows how God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, equipped the Apostles for that mission. Simply put, the Spirit gave them the ability to hear one another. That’s it. The Spirit equipped all of the believers to truly listen to one another—nobody learned to speak a new language, but they were all empowered to listen! The Spirit also created the community of believers, yet none were asked surrender their individual identity. Nobody was asked to learn a new language. Believers were accepted as they were, and the Spirit moved through all who were willing to listen.
The reading from Numbers also reminds us that even when things looked bleak for the Israelites, God didn’t stop caring for them. Moses asked God to send the Holy Spirit to the seventy elders of the tribes of Israel. God did as Moses asked and the elders prophesied. More than that, two other men, Eldad and Medad, had also been given the gift of prophecy. Some of the leaders felt threatened by this, but Moses dismissed their concerns, saying: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”
The lessons for us, especially during this time of transition are clear: God sends the Holy Spirit to all of us. We have to be attentive to its movement in our lives and in the life of this congregation. We might hear prophetic voices among the elders of this congregation, or we might hear them from folks who have never served in leadership. We have to silence the voices of our culture: the voices that scream, the voices that tell us to be afraid, the voices that beseech us to buy more stuff, and the voices that tell us store up our earthly treasures.
Now I’ll admit; that’s no easy task. But guess what? When we turn ourselves over to God, when we offer our hands and our hearts and our minds to do God’s work here on Earth, God gives us the tools that we need to do that work. The Holy Spirit equips us for God’s purposes! That is what this story from Acts shows us. Think about it. God doesn’t magically make everyone speak the same language. Rather, through the power of the Holy Spirit, everyone is empowered to understand one another. So, go out there and listen! Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world, the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!