June 8, 2014
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
As many of you know, I just spent the last ten days traveling in Peru with my niece Gabriella, surrounded most of the time by people who did not speak English, at least not as a first or primary language. Most of the time we were immersed in Spanish with a sprinkling of Quechua here and there. Even when we were among other tourists, many of them were European, and spoke primarily Czech or French or German when they weren’t speaking Spanish. For a person who is as into words and language as I am, it meant that I really had to let go of any illusion that I was in control of what was going on. In fact, most of the time, it meant I had to let go of the notion that I even knew what was going on.
Near the end of our trip, Gabriella and I were befriended by an elderly gentleman at our hotel in Arequipa. The right side of his face had been paralyzed by a stroke, and we learned through my feeble Spanish that he’d experienced a great deal of suffering in his life. His father had died young, and he’d grown up poor. He worked his way through school and then medical school, in order to become a doctor. But his stroke made him retire early from his practice. Furthermore, his medical skills did not enable him to save his brother from dying young, nor to cure his wife, who I believe was struggling with cancer. At least that’s what I was able to glean from his story.
Once he discovered that I was a pastor, he wanted me to pray for him. Specifically, he wanted me to pray for a miracle. He wanted me to ask God to heal his paralysis. Furthermore, he wanted me to explain to him why, since he prayed every day and worked so very hard, these terrible things happened to him. What could I possibly say? What would you say, if someone asked you these things?
Now mind you, I am not sure I could adequately address these theological questions in English, a language I like to think I know. I am absolutely positive I didn’t known how to take them on in a language in which I can only formulate sentences in the present tense, and even then, only when I omit irregular verbs.
I want to tell you that at that moment, there was a mighty rush of wind, and suddenly the heavens were opened and tongues of fire rested above my and Gabriella’s heads and we were able to proclaim God’s word as well as that illiterate fisherman Peter and his buddies managed to do on the original Pentecost. I wish everyone around was so stunned by our newfound verbosity that they could only guess that we were drunk. I wish we’d quoted the prophet Joel, describing how when God’s Spirit pours over the populace, then everyone—young and old people, slaves and free, sons and daughters—would see visions and dream dreams. I’d like even more to tell you that then we prayed for this man and his facial paralysis and wife’s cancer disappeared, their family was restored, and their broken hearts healed.
I’d like to tell you that. But that isn’t how it happened. I was unable to formulate concepts like, “God is able to work mysteriously through even the darkest of circumstances in your life to bring you peace and hope,” or “God is ever and always a God of life, and is not finished until all things are reconciled and redeemed in union with God’s heart.” What actually happened was that in my linguistic and pastoral powerlessness, I fumbled through phrases like, “I am sorry,” “I do not believe God wants you to suffer,” and “God loves you.” And Gabriella was able to wordlessly offer him a compassionate gaze, though later she said she had no idea what was going on.
Our friend seemed entirely unimpressed with our response. Though he continued polite conversation, it was clear we had not assuaged his pain at all. And now we’ve left the country.
Why? Why weren’t we able to communicate the love and power of God as the disciples did in the marketplace on Pentecost in the book of Acts? I have no idea. Still, I trust that our interaction was not in vain. I believe that the Holy Spirit remains with a former doctor in Peru, working in him to bring about faith and hope and life, just as I believe the Holy Spirit is doing with each one of us here in Madison on this Pentecost Sunday. Because, if we really believe what we say we do, we claim that The Holy Spirit never ceases fanning the flames of our faith, sending us ideas and experiences that allow our relationship with God to keep growing and changing and expanding as we mature. Faith in God comes from God and is sustained by God. Our friend’s struggle with God is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work within him, nurturing his faith amid his doubts and fears. Creating and sustaining faith is God’s work, not ours. The Holy Spirit, like the wind, goes unseen everywhere and does all kinds of remarkable work, regardless of whether we understand or like it or not.
Though in the book of Acts, Peter tries to explain what happened when he and the others were filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, even the disciples may not have comprehended what they were saying when the Spirit came upon them. They were simply participating in God’s larger and more inclusive vision of the world as the Spirit gave them ability. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is broadening this congregation’s scope and influence and mission without our understanding it. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is blowing through this community and people are hearing and understanding God’s presence and deeds of power without our really knowing we’re sharing it. Perhaps the Holy Spirit even worked through two gringos facing a man in terrible distress far off in South America.
Why not? After all, do we believe what we say about the Holy Spirit? That this Spirit not only wants to, but CAN work through ordinary people to expand the scope and depth and extent of the church? We really can be vessels to bring God’s word to others without a 2/3 majority agreeing on how it is to be done. This community of faith really has the power to behave so counter-culturally and radically that people might come close and wonder what we’ve been drinking.
Maybe that’s among the reasons I love our Global Sunday worship services too. We pray to God with unfamiliar words, absolutely butchering correct pronunciation on the way. But we do so in solidarity with people who use those very phrases and tunes to communicate their deepest truths to God. We do so, knowing that the Holy Spirit does not rely on our correct understanding or expression of liturgical or theological or Biblical convictions. We babble on in hope because we rely not on our own abilities, but trust in the Holy Spirit’s work in, among, through, and sometimes in spite of us.
Why not? Remember the raw materials the Holy Spirit had to work with on that first Pentecost. James and John, fighting about who was more important. Peter denying he ever knew Jesus. Judas selling him out to his enemies. Need I go on? You see it. Not many were faithful. Not many were brave. Not many were wise. Remember how when Jesus visited them on the first Easter evening, they had locked themselves up in a room to hide? Not exactly the evangelism model we’re after. And yet, Jesus specifically came to that rag-tag bunch, and breathed peace on them. And then, just as Jesus was leaving, he said, “Just as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
So the truth is, we don’t get to sit here, all comfortable and awash in peace. No. God says, “I send you! You, with all your quirks and struggles and confusion. You, with your less-than-stellar track record, and your secrets, and your anxieties. You, with your inadequate education, your strained budget, your limited theological understanding, and your pathetic language skills. I send you. Go. The world is aching for what you have to share.”
It sounds like a daunting task, especially since there are no printed instructions about what we’re supposed to do. All we have to go by—and maybe all we need to know—is that we are called to share the truth that is in us. We are sent to spread the word that God is a compassionate God, a uniting God, a strong God. We are sent to say to people in pain, “God loves you.” We are sent with a little bread and some wine, with only one another’s company to bolster our courage.
It might not sound like much, But that’s all the disciples had on that first Pentecost too. And God worked through them, or what would we all be doing here right now? Perhaps the Holy Spirit will change our fumbling words into an intelligible and helpful message to others. Or maybe the Holy Spirit doesn’t change our words at all, but instead changes the ears of the hearers, moving them to listen and comprehend beyond our own capacity to speak. Or maybe the Holy Spirit doesn’t change words or ears, but somehow opens the hearts of the people who gather around us, so that they are moved. It’s not our job to comprehend how the Spirit is poured out on the people. It is both our privilege and our calling to speak of God’s deeds of power using whatever gifts we have been given by the Holy Spirit!
We conclude our services each week with, “Go in peace and serve the Lord,” or some variation on that mandate. As God sent Jesus, and as Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, so now the Holy Spirit sends us. Go and share God’s story with the world! Go and share the story about how God breathed into you and you became alive. Just go and share. The Holy Spirit will do the rest of the work. Thanks be to God! Amen.