Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecost: Listening in Languages Not Our Own

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, May 31

We come here for one reason and for one reason only.

A group of us were meeting a couple weeks back preparing for the Eucharist and Community Life event we’re having here this coming Saturday. And as we were going around the table sharing our personal histories with worship, Shug Goodlow began by saying these words:

We come here – to church – for one reason and one reason only. To encounter God.

Now there may be many reasons we say we come to church – the music, community … engaging sermons … even an hour or so escape from the rest of our lives. But that we choose to seek those things here, in THIS place, shows that what we are really after, what we really hunger for, whether we’re even conscious of it or not, is an encounter with God.

I think Shug is absolutely right. We want something deep inside us to be touched by the one who is far beyond us. And underneath that desire is a deep, maybe even desperate hope that the God who is so far beyond us actually wants to encounter us, too.

And it’s that hope makes our Christian story so compelling. It’s a love story. And it’s not just any love story but the best love story in history … the love between God and us.

Ours is a love story that leaves Casablanca in the dust, and it’s all about the ending. We’re promised not just a classic finish where those left behind toast to the beginnings of a beautiful friendship. The God who could so not bear to be apart from us that she became human in Jesus doesn’t leave forever with Victor Lazlo because she has more important work to do and because someday she might regret not going, Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of her life. No. This God stands with us and says, even though I am leaving, I will send the Holy Spirit to be your companion.

This is not a God who says “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “we’ll always have Paris.” But “Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”

We come here as players in the greatest love story that is still being written. We seek that love that seeks us. We seek that presence that never leaves. We seek that understanding and answers to the questions that amaze and perplex and trouble us so our minds and hearts and spirits can be at peace.

And when we find it, when we encounter God, it is powerful. And that word powerful doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. When we have that encounter, when we catch even a glimpse, feel even a whisper of God, it is like a chord resonating deep inside us. It gives us meaning and purpose. Comfort and strength. It becomes a sacred touchstone for our lives. God has spoken, and even more amazing, we have heard and understood it. How can we not be changed?

It is the eternal story of Christ’s Church. And we hear it today in the Pentecost reading from Acts:
The crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power. What does that mean?

What made the Pentecost experience memorable and life-changing for the onlookers wasn’t just that God was there, but that God encountered them where they were. God met them and reached out to them where they were as who they were. They heard the Word of God in their own languages.

But God made a choice there. So let’s think for a second about what God didn’t do. God didn’t make everyone able to hear and understand ONE language, or perhaps speak in a language like music that is universally accessible. God chose to speak in the individual languages of each of the members of the crowd. Which means that even though everyone there could say they heard God’s word in their own language, none of them could say that it was ONLY in their own language. And there’s a powerful message in that for us.

When we have that encounter with God, it does change us. It gives us meaning and purpose, comfort and strength. Often it can give us a sense of conviction or even certainty upon which we build other pieces of our lives. And that can a wonderful thing. Great people throughout history, the Martin Luther Kings and Mother Teresas and Dorothy Days of the world, have built on the foundation of their encounter with God and led movements of passion and conviction that have changed the world.

But because the experience is so powerful for us. Because we have heard God speaking so strongly to us in our own language, sometimes we can fall into the trap of thinking the language is as important as the divine speaker behind it. And so we enshrine the vehicle the encounter with God came in. And we become rigid not just about how we have and can encounter God, but how others can as well. And we start to have litmus tests for true discipleship that have nothing to do with truly following Christ but have everything to do with our enshrining the ways God has spoken to us.

Litmus tests of liturgical preference – God has to be worshiped in this way. Only this is “real” Anglican worship. Not recognizing that just as God spoke in many different tongues on that day of Pentecost that God can speak through and be praised through many different styles of worship and that the point is less the style that is chosen but that the offering given with joy and integrity and the self-giving love shown to us in Jesus Christ.

Litmus tests of education and economic status. The subtle, silent elitism of believing that only those who have a certain education and live above a certain level have the intellectual capacity to grasp theology. That only certain people can be teachers and bearers of the word and dismissing those who don’t make the cut. Not recognizing that the heart of discipleship is a love that can be grasped and taught to us by the smallest child, the poorest woman on the street, the man who can’t read enough to order off a menu or the parent or grandparent with Alzheimer’s who so painfully sometimes can’t even remember our name anymore.

Litmus tests of political affiliation. The dominant political culture in Amertica the past decade has been that you had to be a conservative Republican to truly follow Christ. But as many of us as bristled and were even indignant at that, the fundamentalism of the left is equally as insidious and that is the insistence that you have to be a liberal Democrat truly to follow Christ. Not recognizing that not only can God speak to us in different ways but that faithful discipleship can lead us to different convictions about how best to bring in God’s realm of wholeness and love, and that it is in demonizing and silencing the other that all of us fall short of God’s dream for us and for the world.

This Cathedral will become the church of Pentecost, the community God dreams for us to be when we not only rejoice in how God has spoken to us but eliminate our litmus tests for true discipleship and seek that encounter with God in languages that are not our native tongue.

We will become the church of Pentecost, the community God dreams for us to be when we approach our liturgy not with a rigid sense of preserving exactly the way God has spoken to me but with a sense of joyful adventure exploring the many ways God is speaking to the other. When we seek to hear God’s voice not just by “rounding up the usual suspects” but by listening to those that the world out there tells us have nothing to offer but that Christ and we know different.

We will become the church of Pentecost, the community God dreams for us to be when the voices of conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats and everyone in between are equally welcomed and accepted as capable of bearing the divine Word. When we can have truly honest and wisdom-revealing conversations about political issues because we are all embracing the possibility of the deepest truth coming from the lips of the one most different from us.

Pentecost is about rejoicing that yes, God speaks to us in our own language. But even more it is about rejoicing that God doesn’t just speak any one language. Even more it is an invitation to learn each other’s languages, to seek to understand and embrace one another, to hear what the word of God sounds like in another’s ears because when we do we expand our own possibilities of having that encounter with God, that encounter with God we crave. That encounter with God that is the reason we are here.


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