The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas
Come Holy Spirit, come. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight for you are our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Good morning, Cathedral Family.
Our reading from Acts this morning takes place on the Jewish feast of Pentecost known also as the Feast of Weeks. This feast was initially celebrated in thanksgiving for the first fruits of the harvest. It would later become associated with the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was one of the three major festivals when Jewish people from across the land made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was celebrated 50 days after the offering of the harvest at Passover hence, Pentecost. On this particular Pentecost, Acts tells us that something out of the ordinary happened. As the disciples were there gathered in one place, a violent wind filled the house where they were sitting, their tongues were set on fire and they began to speak in various languages, languages, not their own. Amazed at what they were hearing coming from the tongues of the disciples inside the house, the crowds gathered on the street asked, “What does this mean?”
What does this mean? The violent wind, the setting on tongues on fire. What does this mean? It means for us the birth of the Church. It is about the force that is the gift of the Holy Spirit blowing the Church into being and thus setting the disciples on fire, if you will, to do God’s work and be God’s Church in the world. And so, what does this mean? The question of the crowd in Jerusalem is the question of Pentecost for us. For what does it mean? What does it mean for the Church to be blown into being? What does this mean for being the Church in this our world? The answer to this question is indeed found in this very scene from Acts on that first Pentecost. For Acts tells us that being Church means something about presence. Something about prophecy. Something about promise. Interpreters of this scene in Acts have often highlighted the fact that on that first Pentecost day, as we know it, the disciples’ tongues were set on fire, causing them to speak in languages, not their own.
There are those who have associated this with speaking in tongues, a sign in many church denominations, that one is filled with the Holy Spirit. What is often overlooked, however, in interpreting what it meant for the disciple’s tongues to be set on fire overlooked is the people’s response to hearing what was coming from their mouths. Those who were gathered on the outside were bewildered. Bewildered, not so much by the fact that the disciples were suddenly speaking different languages, but rather bewildered by the fact that the languages they were speaking were the languages of those in the crowd. Amazed and astonished, Acts reports, they asked, “Are not all those who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear each of us in our own native language?”
What does this mean for the Church that was blown into being on that Pentecost day? In as much as in the biblical witness, fire signals the presence of God, it means that just as God makes present the languages of others, so too must God’s Church. Put another way, to be present with God doing God’s work in the world is to make present the languages of others. Such a presence, Cathedral Family, it’s not about translating words. It’s about more than speech and grammar and speaking with the right pronunciation and inflections. Rather to make present the language of another is about listening to, learning from, taking in, and appreciating on its own terms another’s intricate culture, a another’s rich experience, a another’s history. This is not about appropriation, that is taking on what is not ours and making it at our own, while ignoring or even belittling the people to whom it belongs.
Rather, it is about respecting and honoring the people for what they have shared with us. The language, the language that is the richness of who they are. Such a presence does not mean making our presence felt to a people. Rather it means taking into ourselves the presence of another. So that our tongues indeed, our very selves, are lit on fire with a sanctified regard for the language that is another struggles, the language that is another strivings, the language that is another’s story. And so, it is for this reason that the people were amazed, that the language they heard the disciple speaking was their own. It was about them. For the disciples opened themselves to the presence of the people on the outside of their gathering.
And this brings us to another aspect of the people’s astonishment as they heard the language, their languages on the tongues of the disciples. For these were the languages of a diasporic people. The Jewish people who had come to Jerusalem were from many nations across the land. They were a people scattered from their homes. As theologian Willie Jennings says, and aptly describes, “They were people in the diaspora. That is, a people who for the most part have been involuntarily displaced or forced for various reasons from their homeland. And so they are a people, they are a people in search of a place that they can call and make home.” They are a people always, as Jennings says, “On the verge of being labeled an enemy, a people who must navigate the ever-present reality of being turned into them or a dangerous people or those among us.” And so it is that the languages that the disciples spoke on that Pentecost morning were the languages of a diaspora. Of a scattered people, of a people in want of a place where they were not disdained. In want of a place where they were not othered or unwelcome, a place they could simply call home.
And so it is no wonder that the crowd that had come to Jerusalem was amazed and astonished when those who were on the inside of the house, were speaking the languages of them who were relegated to the outside of the house. “What does this mean?” the people asked. What does this mean for the Church that has been blown in by the spirit of Pentecost? It means that the Church must be defined by doing as God did, opening the way, opening the way for the presence in our world, in our society, in our churches, to the languages of those people, relegated and made to feel as outsiders in this land. Those people in want, and want of a place they can call home, a place where they are not disdained, othered or unwelcome.
Cathedral Family, in this time that is ours, when out of some misplaced sense of privilege and entitlement, or some misguided fear of being dissented or replaced. In this time that is ours, when the languages that are the struggles, the strivings and the stories of the race diaspora in this nation, are being erased and banished from institutions of learning, erased from our story as a nation. And even as our story as a people of God. In this, our Pentecost time, it means that it is the urgent work of the Church to make present within its communities, the languages that are the experiences, and histories of those that have been forced to the outside of our knowing, of our speaking. Borrowing from the work of legal scholar, Richard Rothstein, “If the stories that are the languages of others are not present to our children, then they have little chance of doing a better job than past generations or of our own, when it comes to promoting racial justice, or simply becoming a more equitable and fair people.”
In the words of Jesus, they have little chance of being better than us at doing unto others, as we would have others do unto us. What does the disciples’ tongues being set on fire with the languages of a diasporic people mean? It means, Cathedral Family, a presence, a presence of language that the Church must have and promote. And it means prophecy, prophecy, prophecy that are the dreams and visions of God’s just future. In answering the question of the crowds of what does this mean? Peter, after assuring the people that the disciples were not drunk, went on to recall a passage, familiar to many of us, and no doubt to them, a passage from Joel. It went something like this, “In the last days, God’s spirit will be poured out and sons and daughters, men, and women, and even slaves will dream dreams and seen visions.”
What does this mean? It means first and foremost, nothing less than the fact that everyone, everyone has a right to dream. Everyone has a right to a vision for a good life, for a better world where they can, in fact, not simply survive, but thrive. It is not that people don’t have dreams. It is that this world, our nation, our society thwarts and extinguishes the possibilities for dreams. It makes far too many people feel as if they do not have the right, the right to dream dreams. To dream, Cathedral Family, is not an entitlement or prerogative of only the few, the powerful, the privileged. Just as men have a right to dream dreams. So too do women. Just as sons have a right to dream dreams, so too do daughters. Just as non-LGBTQ+ persons have a right to dream dreams, so too do LGBTQ+ persons.
And just as those who bear the legacy of slaveholders, have a right to dream dreams. So too those who shoulder the legacy of the enslaved. And so what does this mean? It means that the Church that is blown in by the spirit of Pentecost must honor the sacredness of dreams. Thus it must be about the work of God advocating for and creating a world in which people are free, are free to dream their dreams for themselves, for their children and for their children’s children. Such a world, such a world is one in which people are freed, freed from the nightmare that is poverty and homelessness. They are freed, freed from the nightmare that is white supremacy. They are freed, freed from the nightmare that are the hateful isms which deny their humanity in full personhood. And such a world is one in which people are freed, freed from the nightmare of unfettered access to guns of mass casualty and death.
Bottom line, Cathedral Family. It is hard to dream dreams when you don’t have the basics to live or when you don’t feel safe. So what does this mean? It means that the Church of Pentecost is to be about the work of dream, of creating a world where dreams, especially the dreams of those who are not meant to dream, where dreams are possible. And this brings us to another aspect of Peter’s answer found in his recall of the passage from Joel. That passage starts like this, “In the last days, it will be.” What does this mean? It means that the Church, which was blown in on Pentecost, must pull us toward that which will be last upon this earth. And that is nothing other than God’s will for us. Nothing other than God’s just future. A future where the languages and the dreams of all are cherished, respected, and honored as sacred. Simply put the Church must show up, all the way up, in this are messy world. It must show all the way up in this are divided public square, witnessing and word indeed, to a prophetic vision for a world, a nation and society where each and every person with the languages of who they are and the dreams of who they want to be really do matter. And then the Church must go about leading the way and advocating for and creating such a world, such a nation, such a society. And guess what? There is no better place for the Church to start than with itself, thus modeling the very future that is God’s for us. Cathedral Family, in this land that is ours, where far too many human beings, young and old are treated as exploitable expendable, and extinguishable bodies. The time simply for thoughts and prayers is long over. It’s time to lead the way to a new way of being.
It is time to lead the way to a nation, a society where the violence of injustice and inequity, bigotry and hate, of guns and more guns, are no more. It is time to not just pray, though pray we must, but to do also the messy and sometimes dangerous work. For a future when God’s kingdom will come and God’s will, will be done on this our earth as in God’s heaven. It’s time for the Church to be prophetic and witness to the way God’s world is not only meant to be, but guess what? Will be. In the last will be. What does this mean? It means the Church must be defined and guided by the prophecy that is God’s dream and vision for God’s world, for God’s people. And this brings me to the final, if not fundamental, aspect of what all of this means. For it means nothing other than promise.
The promise that is the Pentecost gift of God to us. This is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is nothing less than the promise that God will be with us always as we go about being Church in this God’s world. Put another way, as we partner with God in bringing the world closer to that future, which God wants for us, God partners with us sustaining, empowering and guiding us along the way. And so what does this mean? It means in the end, we have no excuse. We have no excuse for not being Church. We have no excuse for not showing up. We have no excuse for not speaking truth to the powerful. We have no excuse for not being bold in our words, and courageous in our actions. Making known that we are the Church blown in at Pentecost. We are the Church committed to working for a world where the languages of a diasporic people are cherished in the dreams of a people not meant to dream are honored. We have no excuse, Cathedral Family, for what really more do we need other than the promise of God. And so it was that Jesus said, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace, I leave with you. My peace, I give with you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” This is the Pentecost promise. What more do we need?
What does all of this mean? It means that if this Day that is Pentecost means anything at all to us gathered here in this place and across the globe, then we must in this our time be the Church. Be the Church that was blown in by the spirit of Pentecost. Be the Church that is defined by presence, prophecy and promise. Be the Church without excuse. Oh yes. as the spirit blew in on that first Pentecost day with an urgency of force, Pentecost comes to us today with an urgency of force for us to be Church. To be Church in this our Pentecost time. Cathedral Family, what does this mean, the crowd asked. It means be Church. Be Church. Amen.