June 4, 2017
Day of Pentecost
There is something about Pentecost that intrigues me.
Our story begins with the disciples locked in a room. Liturgically, they have been there since last Sunday after they saw Jesus ascend into heaven. Historically, all we know is that when the day of Pentecost came they were together in one room. Pentecost or the Festival of Weeks celebrates the first fruits of the harvest. It is also a time to celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. The name, Pentecost, is Greek and is derived from the counting of days from Passover- a total of 50 days. This was a big holiday and Jerusalem was filled with Jews from all over the known world, who had come to Temple, bringing the first fruits of their harvests.
The story continues with the sound of wind and the tongues of fire and then the disciples began to speak in other languages. I want to point out here that it wasn’t the sound of rushing wind or the light of the tongues of fire that brought people to where the disciples were staying. No, it was the sound of them speaking! The Bible says:
At this sound 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?” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
But then come the skeptics. “Oh no,” they sneer, “These men are just drunk.” But Peter rebuffs them and says, “Come on guys, it is only 9:00 in the morning. We aren’t drunk.” And then he explains that this is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, when God would pour out his spirit on men and women. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
I have preached several times on Pentecost now. I am not sure how that came about, but maybe the fact that I am an interpreter and translator had something to do with my either being asked or volunteering.
So as an interpreter, I want to make a professional observation. What is extraordinary is that the people who heard the words of the disciples understood them and knew that they were proclaiming God’s great deeds. I find this quite fascinating, because in the world of interpretation and translation, it is one thing to be able to speak another language; it is a whole other thing to transmit complicated ideas and thoughts from one language and culture so that they can be understood in another language and another culture.
I remember one time in Japan when I was quite young, my parents and I were traveling to visit a friend whose family lived way up in the mountains. When we got close to the village my Dad stopped and asked a farmer in Japanese where the home of our friend was. The farmer looked at my Dad and didn’t say anything for a long time and then muttered to himself, “He is a foreigner, so even if he speaks Japanese I cannot understand him!” He bowed very politely and walked on. Interestingly, there were many missionaries who had similar experiences.
Of course language and translation play an important role in international diplomacy. Some of you may have heard about the kerfuffle about what Trump said recently about the Germans. He evidently badmouthed the Germans for trade deficits in a closed meeting and afterwards Der Spiegel, a German newspaper reported on the incident in Germany, translating Trump’s words into German. Well, English language reporters picked up on the German report and translated the words the German newspaper had used back into English as “evil.” As any translator will tell you, translating from one language and then from that language back into the original language is malpractice. You will never get it right. Eventually, an original source was found and what Trump had said was that Germany was “bad, very bad” and Der Spiegel was criticized for its reporting and bad interpretation. Nuances matter. Language matters, especially on the international stage.
But what does Pentecost mean?
If we go back to the Day of Ascension, Jesus promised the disciples that God would send a Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to be with them. And they waited for that sign to come. On Pentecost we know that the Holy Spirit did come with wind and fire and speaking with different languages, but these indicia of the Holy Spirit did not last. The wind faded, the tongues of fire disappeared and the ability to speak other languages went away as well. It was a one-time thing and afterwards on their missionary journeys they had to use the common languages of Greek or Latin or use interpreters to get their message across.
So if Pentecost is not about talking in a foreign language, then what is it about? If the story isn’t about communication, why do we have this story where languages are used to communicate with people?
The first thing that stands out for me is that this miracle was inclusive. The list of people who heard the disciples talk in their language is very long. More than 17 different places or types of people are named. It is generally understood that this represented most of the known world at that time. In addition, when Peter speaks to the crowd, he recites the words of the prophet Joel who says, “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh”; your sons and daughters, young and old, slaves and free, men and women shall all prophesy.
This visitation of the Holy Spirit broke down all the natural barriers that humanity had created. The barriers of race and culture, of language and religion, of gender and age and slave and free were dismantled by this singular act. In this moment God created an even playing field for everyone, and in that moment people heard, really heard, God’s voice and understood God’s power.
I think of this as God’s language. In this moment God broke into the world again and said you are all worthy, you are all loved, you all belong, you are all made in my image, you all matter.
No wonder people were amazed!
And then that moment passed.
This is the other thing that I see in this story. These moments happen but are not sustained. In this case the Spirit manifested itself on the whole group of disciples; at other times in Acts we see it happening to individuals, like to Paul on the Damascus Road or to Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch on the Gaza road. What follows in the story of the young church is the sporadic visitation of the Holy Spirit in many different ways, but never again as it did on Pentecost.
About 15 years ago our family went to Thailand. On our drive from one city to the next we were taken to some of the remote mountain villages where the indigenous peoples of Thailand still live. Compared to the rest of Thailand, which was busy, cosmopolitan, industrial and modern, these remote villages were several centuries behind. They farmed on steep hillsides, wove their own cloth and in general seemed to be mostly neglected. We saw two villages that day. One seemed to be stable and the people seemed industrious and their fabrics were of intricate design and the women were proud of their work. The second was much poorer. For whatever reason there seemed to be very few adults in the village. The homes were much smaller and in disrepair. Soon a gaggle of children emerged begging for money, for food, for anything, and my heart broke. It just broke. My mind was filled with all these questions. How could there be such disparity in the world? How did it happen that my children were able to visit other countries and have the advantages of life, living in a rich first world country, and these children, dirty and clamoring, were left so far behind? And more importantly what could I do?
What I did was hardly anything. I left some money at the store in the village so that the kids could buy things, but I wasn’t sure that the store owner was honest or reliable, and for all I know he used the money himself rather than giving it to the kids.
On the bus ride down the mountain from the village my tears flowed. I think the tour guide felt bad and in trying to comfort me, told me, “They have always been poor. They do not know any different.” Brutally honest words, but hardly comforting.
I realize now that this was my own Pentecost moment. This was my Damascus road, my Gaza road moment, and it happened on a road in Thailand. Every time I think of this the tears flow. It has gotten deep inside me. God’s language has penetrated my first world white entitled self and has made me see the world for what it really is.
I was not completely ignorant about poverty or discrimination. I had experienced financial poverty as a missionary kid. I had experienced discrimination both in Japan and as a young female lawyer in the Midwest. I felt like a stranger both in the US and in Japan, not really belonging in either world. I have also heard for most of my life the stories from the Bible. How God speaks to people throughout – from the Tower of Babel, to the birth of Jesus, to the conversation Jesus had with the woman at the well, to the parable of the Good Samaritan. I knew God keeps on saying, “I see the world differently. I see beyond power and language and all the other barriers. I see each one of you individually and you are loved. But it wasn’t until I was on that road in Thailand that it became real for me.
The language of God is potent and powerful. And it has moments when we glimpse this other reality and feel it deep inside. Like the disciples who spoke about the power of God and the people who heard them speak, we too hear in those moments the Truth of who we are and the Truth of who others are and it primes us for the work that we will do in the future.
I know that I am not alone in having this kind of Pentecost experience. I am sure that each one of you has had a moment when you were confronted with some kind of inequality, some kind of unfairness, some kind of wrong, and you have had your heart broken, too. And that moment has become a touchstone for you, to do the work to change what is wrong, to keep your heart soft and able to be broken over and over again. Because this is the promise of Pentecost. The Comforter that Jesus promised continues her work even today, confronting our barriers, taking away our inability to see the cost of inequality and injustice, talking in our language so that we can understand, and saying to us, “Do my work in the world. Heal the sick, feed the hungry, stand with the oppressed, bring water to those who are thirsty, bring justice to this broken world, for that is what Resurrection looks like.”