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I Don’t Understand

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Two Pentecost threads: listening in the midst of things we don’t understand and dealing with the discouragement of a world that sometimes seems to be running off the tracks.

Today’s texts: Romans 8: 14-17 and Acts 2: 1-21

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

I’m not much of a builder, but I’m a pretty good errand boy, so a number of years ago when I was part of a mission trip to Nogales, Mexico, I was the one sent out with the car for various errands. Transport the crew, get some food, go to the hardware store.

Of course, going to the hardware store in Nogales – we’re not talking Home Depot here – involves knowledge of a couple of things: a knowledge of hardware and a knowledge of Spanish. I didn’t have much of either.

You can understand how I am kind of envious of all those people in the Pentecost story today, able to understand each other even though they spoke many different languages. I feel pretty quickly embarrassed – and stupid – when I can’t understand someone else’s language or their accent.

My task was to get a certain kind of hinge for a door we were installing. I managed to find the hardware store, which was on a local business side street, not the main drag. It was small, crowded, with a number of folks inside.

I managed to say hello and “yo no habla espanol.” The clerks smiled politely and gave no indication that they understood English. So we engaged in a bit of pantomime and pretty soon, I had just the hinge I needed, due mainly to their patience and to their knowledge of hardware.

PentecostThere are lots of different directions we could take the Pentecost story today – it’s one of the classic stories of the beginnings of Christianity, after all. But I’d like to pick up two threads and hopefully by the end of this reflection, weave them together.

One of them is listening in the midst of things we don’t understand. The other is dealing with the discouragement of a world that sometimes seems to be running off the tracks.

There’s that line early in the story about the crowd puzzling over how they could be hearing Jesus’ followers. “Look, aren’t all these people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How can each of us understand them in our native languages?”

Galileans were not considered great at speaking other languages. They were sort of like a lot of us in the U.S in that way.

The visitors from around the region could not understand how they could understand.

So this story about the beginnings of Christianity immediately starts to break down the barriers that separate people. Somehow, when God’s Spirit got loose in their midst, their resistance to hearing something outside of their experience opened their ears and their hearts.

I think the challenge for us is not only hearing things spoken in different languages. It is listening to things spoken from different viewpoints – and maybe being surprised at what happens, not really sure we understand and yet feeling like something has shifted in our lives.

Last Wednesday, I was a session for spiritual caregivers at Meriter Hospital dealing with both the prevention of and response to suicides. A national group focusing on these issues is called Zero Suicide.

One of the speakers told about the Zero Suicide group holding a rally at a park to raise awareness about preventing suicide. It turns out there was another rally at the park that same day – put on by the National Rifle Association. Now more than half the suicides in this country are done using firearms. You can see that this was an awkward pairing.

These weren’t intended to be competing rallies. They just happened to be in adjoining spaces and the Zero Suicide folks were pretty uneasy when they saw some of the NRA folks walking towards them.

And what did the NRA folks say?

They said, “How can we help?”

They offered do work on trigger locks, safe storage of guns, separating firearms and ammo in homes – a variety of responses that did not get at the fundamental issues of gun ownership but showed an awareness and a concern for the toll guns was taking though suicide.

In that moment, each side could hear the other in unexpected ways.

One of journalists I have a lot of admiration for is Nick Kristoff, who writes a column for The New York Times. Last Sunday, Nick wrote about a place where people are not hearing people speaking from different frames of reference. That place would be universities, where the ideal of hearing competing voices often falls far short in reality.

Nick wrote: “Universities are the bedrock of progressive values, but the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious. We’re fine with people who don’t look like us as long as they think like us.”

Let’s carry that over to a church context.

RevJacquiLewisJacqui Lewis is the pastor of Middle Collegiate Church in Lower Manhattan. She tells a story from when she was a seminary student. She is African-American, but not part of the black Pentecostal tradition. One of her classmates was having some troubles and the classmate’s mom asked the students to gather to pray.

But then the mom said that Jacqui could not come into the room to pray because she was not a Pentecostal. The mom was not willing to listen to a prayer in a different voice.

Those of us who have been to worship services at some of the local African American churches know that the style of prayer there does not always match the way we pray here. We may see a woman raising her arms, swirling around, tears streaming down her face as ushers fan her. There is a prayer in the depth of her soul that we may not be able to understand. But I would be loathe to judge which way to pray is “better.”

When our confirmation class goes to Washington, D.C. in a few weeks, we are going to begin with a staff member at our home base there leading us through some exercises to help us begin to listen with open ears to the stories we will be hearing from people over the next few days – often people whose life experiences and current existence may be very different from ours.

We will need that Spirit that swirled through the crowd at Pentecost to hear, to listen, to understand.

There is a problem with doing that, of course. The more we are attentive to what is happening in the world around us, the more overwhelmed we can feel. The effort that we put out to hear someone whose language or experiences do not match ours, the more exhausted we can become.

In Washington, we are going to encounter men and women living on the streets, we are going to be in neighborhoods where poverty is an every day reality.

Closer to home, we have been living over the past few weeks with the harsh reality of murder on the Interstate, murder outside a restaurant, murders at gas stations, with escalating gun violence, with a shattering of feelings of safety.

On the news we hear of bombings in Baghdad and refugee camps in the Middle East and harsh occupation in Palestine and random attacks in Israel.

We might want to stay in the upper room where the men and the women who were following Jesus took refuge after his death, after his resurrection, after he ascended beyond them. The world out there must have seemed a like a pretty daunting place. And in there, in that upper room, they understood each other. They were safe.

Then there was wind and there were flames and they began speaking in many different languages. Could they understand each other any more? As they went outside, they discovered the crowds who came from so many different places could understand them.

peter on pentecostAnd those who could not understand them dismissed them as closed-minded people often do – with a quick insult. They must be drunk with new wine. They must be immigrants who could not learn our language. They must be giving us tech support from a foreign nation. They must be trapped in an ideology unlike ours. We don’t understand. Maybe we don’t even want to understand.

Here, then, are the words of hope that they offered, words that come from a Jewish prophet several centuries earlier and still ring with meaning in our days:

“I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.”
My Spirit will be on my servants, men and women.
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.”

In the United Church of Christ, we say that “God is still speaking.” God’s Spirit is still at loose in the world.

This God speaks across time in the way we need to hear it. So we need to remember that there is not only one way to hear God’s good news, that there is not only one way to raise prayers to that God, that there is no one place where God connects with us.

All of us, then, have a role to play in spreading that good news, whether by the words we say or the way we live. All of us, then have a chance to understand God’s words brought to us in languages we don’t always understand, from people we don’t always agree with, from places that will surprise us.

We have a chance today to let the fire of Pentecost reignite the passion for a better world in our lives.

We have a chance to let the many languages of Pentecost open new vistas for us in 2016.

We have a chance to let the wind of Pentecost propel us on those days when staying put seems so enticing.

And we can do all that knowing that the fire of God is an eternal fire. In that spirit, let’s sing #64 “Fire of God, Undying Flame.”