Pentecost – June 5, 2022
Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-27
Happy birthday! It’s the feast of Pentecost and it’s also known as the birthday of the church. It’s a birthday story like no other, full of wild details that challenge the imagination. Tongues of fire. Rushing winds. Accusations of drunkenness. To put it bluntly: God showed up fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection and threw the world an unforgettable party.
There is another unforgettable story of a birthday. The birth of the world from the Kabbalah. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen is one of the wise people of this world, trained as a physician, one of the pioneers of holistic healing and alternative medicine, she has written books entitled “Kitchen Table Wisdom” and “My Grandfather’s Blessings”. Dr. Remen shared the story of the birthday of the world from the Kabbalah as told by her grandfather. The Kabbalah is Jewish mystic tradition and Dr. Remen’s grandfather was known as a Jewish mystic. She tells the story:
So this is the story of the birthday of the world. In the beginning, there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light.
And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident. And the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.
Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again, and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. This is a very important story for our times, that we heal the world one heart at a time. And this task is called “tikkun olam,” in Hebrew — “restoring the world.”
Tikkun olam is the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born — we are all healers of the world.
And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.
Such an important birthday story. And now back to the Pentecost story…when God threw that unforgettable birthday party, he did more than throw a party; God gave his followers, God gave us, a clear and startling picture of what could be.
When the Holy Spirit blew in, humanity wasn’t restored to a common language; he declared all languages holy and equally worthy of God’s stories. God wove diversity and inclusiveness into the very fabric of the Church. He called the people of God to be at once the One and the Many.
Notice when the disciples and their friends began to speak in foreign languages, the crowds gathered outside their meeting place understood them. And this — the fact of their comprehension — was what confused them. They were not confused by the message itself; the message came through with perfect clarity in their respective languages.
Perhaps what the crowds found baffling, was that God would condescend to speak to them in their own mother-tongues. That he would welcome them so intimately, with words and expressions hearkening back to their birthplaces, their childhoods, their beloved cities, countries, and cultures of origin. As if to say, “This Spirit-drenched place, this fledging church, this new Body of Christ, is yours. You don’t have to feel like outsiders here; we speak your language, too. Come in. Come in and feel at home.”
As Christians, we place great stock in language. In words. Like our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, we are People of the Book. We love the creation stories of Genesis, in which God births the very cosmos into existence by speaking: “And God said.” “In the beginning was the Word,” we read in John’s dazzling poem about the Incarnate Christ. On Sunday mornings, we profess our faith in the languages of liturgy – creed, prayer, and music. In short, we believe that language has power. Words make worlds. And unmake them, too.
To attempt one language as opposed to another is to make oneself a learner, a servant, a supplicant. To speak across barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, denomination, or politics is to challenge stereotype and risk ridicule. It is a brave and disorienting act. It happened on Pentecost.
Something happens when we speak each other’s languages — be they cultural, political, racial or liturgical. We experience the limits of our own perspectives. We learn curiosity. We discover that God’s “great deeds” are far too nuanced for a single tongue, a single fluency. Debi Thomas, an Episcopal Priest in California, whose parents are immigrants and someone who speaks two languages, shares a story:
I must have been nine or ten years old when my aunt and uncle called our extended family together one weekend for a “special surprise.” When all thirty of us were packed into his living room, my uncle introduced a guest — a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman in her thirties, named Sarah. He explained only that Sarah had spent a few childhood years in Delhi, where her parents worked as journalists, and that her family had vacationed occasionally in Kerala — the South Indian state my family is from. He then handed things over to her.
It’s hard to do justice to what happened next. Suffice it to say that thirty jaws crashed to the carpet when Sarah nodded to my uncle, smiled warmly at us, and said, in Malayalam “Hello, I’m so happy to meet all of you.” Over the next twenty minutes — while my relatives gawked and gaped — Sarah told us her story in careful but convincing Malayalam. Those childhood trips to Kerala had fascinated her. So much so that she moved to South India after college, and immersed herself in the language and culture. “It was very hard,” she admitted. “Learning the script, forming such new sounds — annoying people with my mistakes. But I’m so glad I did.”
Over dinner, she went on to explain how much her Kerala immersion changed her. “I didn’t realize before how limited my own perceptions were. My ideas about humor, about art, about God. I didn’t know how many things were unsayable in a single language.”
I thought about Sarah for a long time after that evening, because her visit altered my world. Something became possible for the first time — an alliance, a bridging, a new kind of empathy and friendship. When my family experienced the unprecedented pleasure of hearing “an American” speak our language, we realized that the many distances separating “us” from “them” were not, in fact, un-crossable. Sarah — the stranger — had taken a risk, made herself vulnerable, and entered our world. In doing so, she had rendered us less strange. Less alien. Less Other.
But she had also offered us a challenge: it would no longer be possible, in the light of her generosity, to hang onto our stingy, self-protective narratives about identity. She had bulldozed her way through that barrier, and only a massive act of cowardice and denial on our part would re-erect it.
Can we hear what the Spirit is saying to us, God’s people? God is doing something new, and we can be a part of it. We can be the One and the Many. We can be on fire for the healing of the world. Just wonder about that a little, what if we were exactly what’s needed? What if you are exactly what’s needed? What then? How would I live if I was exactly what’s needed to heal the world? How would you live if you were exactly what’s needed to heal the world? One heart at a time.
Happy birthday to the church. Come, Holy Spirit, Come. Amen.