June 4, 2017 — Day of Pentecost
Rev. Alison Quin
Learning Other Languages
Pentecost is the culmination of Easter. Easter celebrates the resurrection—but the grace of the resurrection becomes ours through the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is through the Spirit that we come to know Christ. It is through the Spirit that we are transformed, inspired, empowered to carry out our mission of bringing Christ’s love to the world.
What can we learn about the Spirit from today’s readings? In Numbers, we learn that the Spirit empowers leadership. But the Spirit is unpredictable—two of the people who received the Spirit in that story were not part of the established authority. Joshua wanted Moses to shut them down, but Moses embraced the unpredictability of the Spirit “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets . . .”
In Acts, we learn that the spirit is powerful and even dangerous. They heard the sound of a violent wind rushing through the house. And they saw tongues as of fire, resting on them. A violent wind is powerful, and so is fire. Fire and wind can be dangerous and unpredictable. But a wind brings fresh air, and a fire brings light and heat. And both bring changes. Together, they symbolize energy, inspiration, transformation and new life.
By definition, transformation is not fully predictable, and cannot be contained or limited by our expectations or institutional structures.
The Spirit is blowing through the world today—we are seeing tremendous changes, bringing both danger and new possibilities.
The danger is that we will give into fear, and see the world in terms of scarcity. We will respond with competition and greed, hostility and division. The new possibility is for us to fully embrace God’s vision for the world. God has given us enough and more than enough for all to live, if we live more simply. In the power of the spirit, we can reach across divisions and build a new community, based on mutual care rather than competition. The seeds of peace are present even in the current climate of violence.
We sense the danger of the present moment—anxiety is our common currency. But the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the enormous possibilities of this moment. The Spirit enables us to see visions and dream dreams and become prophets of a new era.
The Holy Spirit is also blowing through the church, not just this church but all the churches in North America and elsewhere. Churchgoing is no longer required either socially or politically. Many have left the church to pursue other spiritual paths, or to embrace a secular life. Membership has fallen in mainline churches.
We can sense the danger—will the church survive? Is it still relevant? What will happen to the message of the gospel? Many people in churches are are anxious about the future.
But the message of the gospel is both death and resurrection. If the church as we know it is dying, then God will raise it to new life. If the gospel is the word of God, then we need never fear that God will fall silent.
There is tremendous opportunity for the wider church right now and for Christ the King. When the church is no longer intertwined with the power structures of society, it is freer to speak the truth about injustice and stand with the poor and powerless. When we give up the desire to be accepted and approved by the culture, we are able to take more risks as we try to live out the gospel and share God’s love with others.
How does the church go about sharing God’s love with others? The passage from Acts gives us a clue. When the Spirit rested on the disciples, they were able to speak other languages—and those who were listening heard them speaking in their own languages. It was a miracle of communication—people could hear each other and understand each other. The possibility of a new community emerged.
The Spirit calls us to speak other languages too—to communicate with those we don’t yet know. This may involve literally learning another language, such as Spanish, or Arabic or sign language. But at the core, it means stepping outside our own frame of reference, to listen to other people’s experiences, and learn about their lives. When you listen to another person’s experience, both of you will be transformed. A new connection is made and new possibilities open up.
When this church reached out to migrant workers at the Gill Farm and tried to understand their point of view, we forged a friendship that transformed us. We learned about the hardships that farmworkers face and came to understand the lack of legal protections for farmworkers. We formed a relationship that involved a welcome dinner and helping with clothing. Because of that relationship, they asked us if we could help provide something for their children to do during the last two weeks of summer when their summer program ended and the parents were in the fields 12 hours a day. We made some wonderful friends and we learned a lot about a group of people living in our midst, yet isolated and largely invisible.
The Spirit leads us to listen carefully to those around us, especially when they are different from us. We are called to learn about their needs and their perspective, and open our hearts to them.
In recent years, we have been learning to listen to people with disabilities, to try to understand their experiences and their needs, and to change the way we do things so that we can be more inclusive. That is why we have assisted listening devices, and an accessible entrance. And the more we learn, the more we can change.
We are also trying to listen to children and understand their needs better. They are different from adults, they have different needs and they communicate differently. But if we make the effort to reach out to them in love, and make changes in order to meet them where they are, we will find our own lives immeasurably enriched by the gifts they give us.
Our Food Pantry came about because we listened to those in the community experiencing food insecurity. Over the years, we have added more programs for school children, and now we are helping community college students who don’t have money for food.
Every time we go beyond our familiar circle and reach out in love to learn about people we don’t know much about, the Spirit goes ahead of us to help us to listen, grow and change, and widen our understanding of community. This is how the good news of God’s love is shared and how God’s vision for the world is realized.
Through our racial equality committee, we are trying to listen to the experience of African Americans in our nation and area. As a white person, I have never been followed in a store, suspected of shoplifting. I’ve never had to train my children to be afraid of the police and learn how to survive an encounter with people who should be protecting them. The men in my family don’t face a one in three chance of being incarcerated, and if they are imprisoned, they are unlikely to serve an unjust and lengthy sentence only to find it next to impossible to get a job after release. As a result of our screening the movie 13th, a court watching program was established in Ulster to document the racial bias in sentencing in criminal cases. As we reach out beyond our current community, and learn to listen to our neighbors, new relationships are formed and a new community based on the dignity of every human being becomes possible.
Through the Spirit, Christ continues to inspire us with the vision of a world where all of God’s people are heard and understood, loved and cared for. Through the Spirit, he calls us into relationship with those who are different from ourselves, to expand our hearts and minds, and to enlarge our community until it includes the whole world.
After the service, we will hear from our capital campaign about the results of the feasibility study—how much money we can raise to maintain and expand our building so that we can continue to fulfill our mission. We can continue to reach out through the Spirit, to learn other languages so that we can hear and understand others, and share God’s love with them. We can welcome and feed, love and care for people in the name of Christ. We can continue to grow in love with each new relationship. Our work, empowered by the Spirit, is to open our hearts and our community until they are wide enough to take in the whole world.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.