At Hickory Neck, one of our core values is creativity. We have an openness to experimentation that has served us well throughout this pandemic. You might have noticed our Acts reading today was a little different – allowing us to sample the idea of what it might have been like to hear the chorus of languages on that famous Pentecost Day. In the past, we experimented a little differently – with all the languages at one time, so that a cacophony of noise filled this space. I LOVED the experience every year. However, some found the cacophony to be more an experience of noise as opposed to joyful noise. So, we experimented again this year with another way to stimulate our imagination about this significant day in the life of the Church.
As I have been thinking about our experimentation with hearing today, I stumbled on the work of theologian Willie James Jennings. Jennings argues about Pentecost, “…we must see more than a miracle of hearing. …The miracles are not merely in ears. They are also in mouths and in bodies.”[i] Jennings argues that just as important as everyone hearing in their own tongues at Pentecost was the miracle of speaking in tongues. Now I do not know how to recreate our Acts readings by randomly choosing five of you to spontaneously speak another language. We’ll have to experiment with that next year. But I am intrigued by why Jennings thinks the speaking is just as important as the hearing. Jennings argues that when you can speak in the language of another group of people, you can “speak a people.” He says, “God speaks people, fluently. And God, with all the urgency that is with the Holy Spirit, wants the disciples of his only begotten Son to speak people fluently too. This is the beginning of a revolution that the Spirit performs.”[ii]
During a year of volunteer AmeriCorps service, you learn to live a little differently. I stayed in a campus ministry building on campus for free in exchange for cleaning and locking up the building every night. I lived on a shoestring budget and managed to get by with support. One day, I was sitting on the loading dock of the Food Bank where I was working next to older teenager, Jayden. We had just done a lot of work with fresh produce. He lived in a group home that was a frequent shopper at the Food Bank. Together, we sat on the dock, sweaty and exhausted. As our conversation meandered, we began to talk about our homes – him in the group home and me in the home that was also a job. When I explained my arrangement to him (which I had admittedly resented sometimes – I mean who likes cleaning toilets and pest control?), he looked dreamily out into the sky in front of us and sighed, “I hope I can find a place like that someday.” Now, Jayden did not speak a foreign language. The Holy Spirit did not make another language burst out of my mouth. But Jayden and I were from very different worlds – me a recent college graduate and him unsure of his fate after he aged out of the group home. But sitting on that loading dock, the Holy Spirit allowed me to “speak a people” – to break down the walls of language so that we could sit as equals and ponder the wonder of God and express our deepest desires with vulnerability.
Pentecost is an invitation for the Church to learn to speak a people. Now that does not mean you need to go sign up for foreign language class – though that certainly would not hurt. And that does not mean you need to go volunteer for a year – though that would not hurt either. But what speaking a people means is finding ways to meet people where they are, hear their stories in their own “language,” and share the love of God that you have received so abundantly. Speaking a people may also mean that you do not use your mouth as much as your body to show forth love and light.
And just in case you are hearing this invitation today and thinking, “That sounds like the work preachers should be doing, or evangelicals are better at doing,” remember what happened at that festival of Pentecost. The text tells us, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” As scholar Karoline Lewis reminds us, the text says “all” of them. Not some of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. Just like John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit, and Mary was filled with the Spirit, and Elizabeth, and Zechariah, and Simeon. All of them were filled.[iii] And just in case you find yourself saying, “But those were famous people, a long, long time ago. How can I do that?” The answer is right there in verse four. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The Spirit will give you the ability to speak a people. The Spirit will give you the ability to listen deeply and speak meaningfully. The Spirit will make a way for those powerful, vulnerable moments of truth and love. So, when you hear that dismissal today, “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, alleluia, alleluia,” your answer can be an emphatic, “Thanks be to God, alleluia, alleluia!” Amen.
[i] Willie James Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 29.
[ii] Jennings, 30.
[iii] Karoline Lewis, Sermon Brainwave: #847: Day of Pentecost (C) – June 5, 2022, May 29, 2022, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/847-day-of-pentecost-c-june-5-2022 on June 2, 2022.