One of my earliest experiences of someone speaking in another language was in my home state of South Dakota, when I was in elementary school. In that diocese, more than half our congregations were (and are) Lakota/Native American. Meeting at summer camp (“Thunderhead Episcopal Camp,” to be exact) provided an opportunity for us Anglo kids, mostly from the city, to meet and get to know Native Lakota kids–and their parents and some of our counselors–who mostly lived on one of the reservations.
I think the Lakota language is beautiful. It flows smoothly…and I am deeply drawn to it when it is prayed in hushed tones and demonstrated its power when it is sung or chanted aloud. My summer experiences as a young person of faith in the Black Hills of South Dakota were amazing–not only because I was able to get to know people and a culture with which I had been unfamiliar before, but because, by sharing their language, they gave most of us a new experience of worshipping God, using chanting and dancing, the peace pipe and Vision Quest.
For me, that kind of experience–of being invited in to see and hear and be with–those worshipping in another language, demonstrates the essence of Pentecost–and teaches its many lessons. Through those kinds of experiences, we are reminded, first, that everyone has access to God– everyone, in every language. Second, that God is greater and far more vast than we might have imagined, when seen only through one culture and language. And finally, that in God, all people are one family.
The second chapter of Acts that we just heard in many voices offers the story of the first Pentecost, the first time, we are told, that people learned those many lessons. Through hearing, through the miracle arrival of the Holy Spirit, people begin to speak in their own, myriad languages. Each one of them had to come to know that Jesus belonged not just to that small band of disciples that we hear so much about in the Gospels, not just to those who spoke the common language of that place and time, Aramaean. Jesus belonged not just to that geographic place, that tiny area of rural, ancient Palestine, nor, in fact, just to that time. Through the arrival of Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the first people in what our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, calls “the Jesus Movement,” people learned that Jesus, in fact, was for all people–all places, and all times. They also learned that God was more vast than any of them might have thought before that great day. And, being all together in that one place, speaking in many tongues, they were all together in Christ; they were all one.
I may have mentioned to some of you all a book about contemporary Russian monks that means a lot to me. These monks have lived in the Pskov Monastery, near the Russian border, for hundreds of years. In the book about them, the young monk and author tells us why he and several of his well-educated and accomplished young friends gave up their secular lives and came to live at the monastery, forever. I have that book because I had the chance to travel to Russia a few years ago, to see the amazing Christian art in the the museums there and visit the Russian Orthodox Church. While in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I was welcomed to sit and pray and watch and worship in the churches, listening to the language and experiencing the sights and sounds of that way of living life in Christ.
Through that experience, those same lessons of Pentecost spoke to me: we people of God all have access to God, and in so many different ways. As God is known differently in Russian Orthodoxy than God is known to me, I learn again that God is so vast. And, in being welcomed in Russia, into a land and language not my own, I know that we all are one. These people, who live in a country so far away from mine, are my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I’ll share one final story with you of my experience of Pentecost with you, and then invite you to bring to mind your own. In my work in our bishop’s office, I have had the privilege of worshipping in most of the Episcopal congregations across our diocese of eastern Massachusetts. One of my favorites communities to visit is Christ Church in Hyde Park. Christ Church used to be a very Anglo community; the 19th century building the congregation worships in speaks to the European history of those who built it. It has a great, wide ceiling, and the pictures of former rectors form a wall of white men across a space in the parish hall. But, to hear worship at Christ Church today is to experience something quite different than the building might indicate. Today, Christ Church has a vibrant Nigerian-American community. To worship there is to see the bright-colored swirling dresses and hats, to hear the shouting and singing of praises at the taking up of the offering, and to witness the deep sharing of stories and a vast spread of food. Indeed, before worshipping at Christ Church, I am not sure I had ever seen any Christians more joyful!
And I am known there. Even on my first day at Christ Church, Hyde Park, I was welcomed in. And experiencing that worship and welcome, I once again came home to those deep and abiding lessons of Pentecost: that everyone has access to God, that God is far more vast than I ever could have imagined before stepping into that church, and that, without knowing a thing about these folks, I knew that I was family with them; that in God, we were, and are, one.
What then, is your Pentecost story? Where, in your life, have you have experienced your Christian brothers and sisters speaking in their own languages, and been moved? Perhaps you have travelled to other countries and experienced the worship of God in a culture not your own, being reminded, through that experience, that all of us, each in our language, has access to God. Maybe, through today’s reading in many tongues, you were reminded of the vast dimensions of God. Maybe you have been welcomed by the Haitian community that worships here at CGS, on Sunday afternoons, reminding you that, in Christ, we all are one. Or maybe something else…
Pentecost is a great day–one of my favorites–the birthday of the church. We share, on Pentecost, that very, very old story, when the Holy Spirit came down, to be with us, to unite us. The story is old, but also ever new; we can experience the Holy Spirit and Pentecost each and every day. As you go out into the world, I invite you to rejoice in that Spirit, which is available to all, which is vast and deep, and which make a space for us all to be connected–and safe and loved–as church, together.
Happy Birthday, Church! Thanks be to God!