1 Corinthians 12:3-13
Today is the festival of Pentecost, the day we remember the work of the Spirit in our lives. From the moment Jesus’ followers felt the spirit moving among them, blowing like a mighty wind and setting their hearts ablaze, they were unstoppable. The fear that had filled their hearts was no longer central. They not only stood up to be counted but shared the story of Jesus’ life and ministry with a passion that inspires people now some 2000 years later.
Listen closely to what the writer of the book of Acts says, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages as the Spirit gave them power to proclaim his message.”*
You see the text doesn’t exactly say which other languages they spoke, but it goes on to say.
“Now there were staying in Jerusalem Jews of deep faith from every nation of the world. When they heard this sound a crowd quickly collected and were completely bewildered because each one of them heard these men speaking in his own language. They were absolutely amazed and said in their astonishment, “Listen, surely all these speakers are Galileans? Then how does it happen that every single one of us can hear the particular language he has known from a child?”**
So maybe they each actually heard their native tongue. It may be that suddenly all those young men who had grown up in the region of Galilee speaking Aramaic suddenly became conversant in a variety of very different languages from the Mediterranean, Asia, and Africa. Or maybe what the bystanders heard was simply the language of the heart.
Remember also Paul’s words to the people of Corinth: All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful [and as we heard they include speaking in] tongues and the interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God.***
As I think about it, I imagine the people in Jerusalem who heard the Spirit-filled disciples were simply moved by the disciples’ fervor and devotion. I want to tell you, my friends, that we are much in need of the two gifts named in this passage today, the speaking of and interpretation of tongues. We need people who can speak the truth clearly and plainly in a language that others can understand, and we need people who can interpret the language of hearts that are so broken they are often misunderstood.
This week the country has been rocked by more evidence of the pervasiveness of racism. The encounter in Manhattan’s Central Park was prelude to what came later. Two people were out enjoying a day in the park. The man had come to pursue a favorite activity, birdwatching. The woman was walking as her dog wandered freely nearby.
Signs in that area of the park clearly state that dogs must be leashed. So, the man concerned about protected flora and fauna asked the woman to comply with the leash law, and it went downhill from there. She called the cops, and to give teeth to her claim for assistance, she emphasized her observation that the man was African American and said she was being threatened by him. Now I don’t know what was in her heart, but I do know as do we all that too often encounters between the police and black men do not end well. Often black men, boys, and, yes, women have been killed in encounters with police.
As if to emphasize that concern, while the country was still deep in discussion of the incident in the park, George Floyd was killed later in the week in Minneapolis. A $20 bill he gave the clerk was apparently counterfeit and complying with Minnesota law she called the police. When they arrived, the police treated Mr. Floyd roughly. Handcuffed and on the ground he begged for air, for water, for his mother, for life itself and died as police held him down with a knee on his throat for long minutes as bystanders who were recording the incident pled for mercy for the dying man.
Understandably, black people across the country are in agony at yet another senseless death of one in their community. Centuries of abuse, ancestors in chains, mistreatment and second-class citizenship are not just in the past, they continue to be and feel all too real today. There is a reason one of the most basic lessons black mothers and fathers teach their children is how to respond to an encounter with police and other white people who see themselves and privileged, entitled, and empowered. And – still – they – die.
No doubt you’ve heard the reports of protests and vigils by black citizens and their allies in Minneapolis and other cities and towns across the country. The daytime and nightly events that keep us focused on the unjust treatment of black Americans have now resulted in curfews as violence ensued. Some have been quick to quote Martin Luther King, Jr, who said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” But the story of the violence we have seen is complex. Yes, some is at the hands of those who have not been heard when their silent peaceful actions and statements have been made. Anger seeks expression and white America has turned away, averting eyes and silencing those who spoke out. It is troubling to hear of the destruction of businesses and property, of cities in flames. Especially so knowing that many assume that all the damage is being caused by the protestors. But that is not the case. What started out as peaceful protests turned to chaos when white men, yes, white men, opportunists with an agenda, were the first to start breaking glass and setting fires, hoping to incite violence.
Friends, we must not be fooled. We must listen well and carefully to a variety of sources, to trusted witnesses to these events. And we must have the courage to speak out on behalf of those who have been denied access to the best jobs and education, denied entry into neighborhoods, denied basic services, health care and access to healthy food in their communities, denied even the recognition of their humanity.
All this comes in the midst of an already divided country challenged by indecision and conflicting leadership in a time of pandemic.
We pray for peaceful resolution, for wise and courageous leaders of the communities in crisis. And there is more to be done. It is up to each of us to speak out… for silence is complicity. Speak out for justice and restraint by law enforcement and we must also take time to reflect on our part in and our reactions to the problem of racism.
Those of us who are white must be willing to observe how we have benefitted from a system devised to give every advantage to those of European ancestry, especially the wealthy and educated few who established it. We must be willing to listen to how we respond in words. When we hear the chant Black Lives Matter, we must resist the impulse to respond as some have, All Lives Matter. Yes, it’s true, they do. But in this time, it is black lives that are most at risk. So yes, Black Lives Matter. We must also consider how our body language and our deep instincts often betray the way we have been conditioned to think of blacks and other people of color as different and perhaps something to be feared. You see, this Pentecost we do need the gift of tongues and the interpretation of tongues, languages, and culture.
So, the next time you are in the grocery store or in the parking lot or on a street downtown, or in a place of business, when you encounter a person of another race try to notice how your body and thoughts respond. Does it seem natural? Are you surprised and caught off guard? Do you move away? Do you instinctively guard your belongings? Is your smile genuine or strained? By noticing our responses, we begin to see how we might learn the language of the other. Are we responding to the person or to our lack of understanding of their culture?
Friends, as we pray for our country, pray for the Spirit to move in our hearts and across this land. Let us also pray for the wisdom and the courage to be led into a future that considers and values the humanity of each and every one. Let us resolve to listen deeply to those we know well and to those whose culture and experience is very different from our own, for we are all God’s children.
*Acts 2:4 NIV
**Acts 2:5-8 JB Phillips
***1Corinthians 12:8-11 The Message
C 2020 Judy K Brandon