Holy Spirit Language

Pentecost Acts 2         June 8, 2014

Part of the seminary experience to be trained as a pastor is to go on a year-long internship.  Mine was in Syracuse, New York – upstate. If you just said New York, everyone there knew you meant the city.  But upstate is a whole other place, not totally unlike northern Minnesota.  The Lutheran church where I was assigned was settled in a part of the city that experienced “white flight” some 20 years prior.  The neighborhood was now largely African American. Yet, the declining congregation remained decidedly, stubbornly white.

Yet on Wednesday nights, for a few precious hours, that changed.  I’d get on a bus with the Jamaican driver, and we’d drive around Syracuse picking up folks who didn’t have transportation and were too far away to walk. We picked up folks living just on the edge of poverty, always on the verge of homelessness.  White and black.  Some smoked. Some swore. Some wore the most inappropriate clothing and said the most inappropriate things. They spoke a language that my polite, Midwestern small talk couldn’t touch.

And guess what?  They didn’t leave all that on the bus.  They brought it with them into the church building, right into worship.  Most of the time, there was a crackling hum to worship.  And if you isolated the specific parts of the crackle, you’d hear families fighting, answering cell phones, brothers toppling right over a pew as they fought for the cell phone; a 3 year old circling my legs as I led worship.  Once, Mary called out right in the middle of my sermon, “Vicar Laura! You have dimples!”  I never knew what was going to happen on a Wednesday night. It was terrifying. It was my favorite worship of the week and it was most always a mess.

Being in seminary 2 years prior to this experience taught me how to speak theology. I learned that that training, while necessary and edifying, couldn’t come out of my mouth unedited.  To use all the fancy $2 words like apocalyptic and hermeneutic and Aaronic and eschatological, and, one of my favorite phrases: moralistic therapeutic deism, was to speak another language and whittle down your audience to nobody. Heck, I wasn’t even listening anymore.

Instead, I learned more new languages on this internship year.  I learned to speak “bus” as I rode it for 2 hours each Wednesday.  Yet, I learned that, for the most part, they wanted me to listen more than to speak. They were more willing and perhaps less capable of covering up the truth.  They called a spade a spade.  What was terrible, they named terrible, only a little more colorfully. I learned how to speak “poverty” and “neglect” and “hunger” and “marginalized.”

This isn’t a story of how I taught the poor, black and white folks to love Jesus.  This isn’t a story of how I helped them get on their feet. This isn’t a story of pity or charity.  Unless, perhaps, you can see it as them taking pity on me and charitably floating me along in their lives as I frantically doggy paddled to keep my head above water.

This is a story of how dangerous the Holy Spirit is.  This is a story about how creative and flexible the Holy Spirit is.  It’s no wonder the Holy Spirit is described as a violent wind, as firey. This is a story of how the Holy Spirit used every day life to teach me new languages in which to hear and to speak Good News.

From the passage in Acts, we hear that there are about 120 people gathered in a house – the first followers of the crucified and risen Christ. They are in Jerusalem for Pentecost, the Jewish Feast of Weeks. This is a festival of thanksgiving for the grain harvest as well as a celebration of God’s covenant handed down at Sinai. They were celebrating food and the steadfast promises of God in their lives.

So these 120 people were sequestered away, probably afraid. After all, these new followers of Jesus were seen as a threat. Their lives were threatened for following this Jesus, and just think of the noise in all the rest of Jerusalem with thousands of travelers arriving for celebration. This group of 120, while a lot bigger than the original 12 disciples, was mighty small compared to the thousands of Jews gathered together for this homecoming party. So maybe these 120 were gathered together to take deep breaths in safety.  Maybe it was festive and fearful all at once, which seems about right.

Maybe you come for worship in fear.  Maybe your every day life has you fearful and this is one place where you can leave that behind.  Maybe everything is out of control and worship is one place where you can rest, feel in control, let go for a bit.  Maybe worship is an escape for you.

No matter how you stumbled through these doors this morning, I thank the Holy Spirit for getting you here.  For getting us altogether in a room so that the Holy Spirit can have its way with us.  Maybe we’ll be confused.  Maybe we’ll feel challenged. Maybe we’ll be encouraged.  I hope all of these things happen.  Because this is a safe place for practice the challenging and frightening work of the Holy Spirit. Because it takes that kind of disorientation to actually be open to hearing something new, try something new.

Disciples are inspired by the Holy Spirit to take risks

That’s what the Holy Spirit does, after all.  It inspires us to take risks.  That’s one of our community’s guiding principles, and it’s a scary one. Because when you ask the Holy Spirit to work, it will.  And it never quite does the thing you think it will.  What I’ve learned is that the Holy Spirit most often messes things up for us.  The Holy Spirit is not content with us to meet here and leave unchanged.  No, the Holy Spirit is all about change, all about transforming our hearts.  It’s all about sending us back into our lives to learn to speak new languages.  Or to get better at speaking the one we already know.

Some of you speak school and teenager or middle schooler. Some of you speak medicine and patient care. Some of you speak mother and father. Some of you speak the language of law and the outdoors and the fields. Some of you speak science fiction and fantasy and anime. Some of you speak rock and roll or country. Some of you speak divorce and reconciliation. Some of you speak depression and anxiety.

As a church, we speak all of these languages and more.  It’s not about putting on God talk that no one can relate to.  It’s about looking at Acts 2 and saying, “oh, right. This one time, my life changed when I met this person and…”  It’s about hanging out at the county fair and realizing you speak root beer floats. It’s about realizing you speak beer & hymns, even if you don’t drink anything or sing a note. It’s about seeing God in a bar, at the fair, in the unappreciative recipient of a free root beer float.  It’s about the Holy Spirit showing us that we already speak the language of God out in our lives.

And the promise we live in is this: God speaks our language.  The Holy Spirit gives us the language to speak about God in the world. Filthy bus language and high school hallway language.  Obscure technical language and even theological language. Spanish and Pigeon and Hindi and Chinese. God does not ask us to learn the language of God but instead invites us into lives of loving and forgiving and we discover we that we understand and can speak that language. God breaks through words that would keep us out and confuse us and tells us again and again, clearly and in the language of our hearts: you are loved.

Thanks be to God.