Two weeks ago, on a sunnier day than this one, many of us gathered outside in
the courtyard, roasting marshmallows over a campfire, and telling stories about our
experiences of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the life of this church. The campfire
meant s’mores, of course, but the crackling flames also served to remind us of
Pentecost’s dramatic visual miracle– tongues of fire appearing among the disciples and
resting on each of the disciples as the sound of a rushing wind swept through the house.
Wind and fire are ancient symbols of God’s Spirit. In the beginning, God breathed
air into the first humans and gave them life, and before that, the ru’ach, the Spirit, the
breath of God brooded over the waters of the earth in the beginning of all things. When
Moses led God’s people out of Egypt, God led the way for them as a pillar of cloud
during the day, and a pillar of flame at night. God spoke to Moses from a burning bush,
and came down to Mt. Sinai with clouds and a mighty wind.
So today as we celebrate Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit came down with
dramatic wind and fire, signaling the birth of the church, we might get caught up in the
flair of these images that point to the wild power of God.
But the greatest miracle of Pentecost is not in the rushing wind or the dancing
tongues of fire. The miracle is much quieter and perhaps even more rare than this
dramatic show of God’s power. The miracle of Pentecost at the birth of the church is one
of mutual understanding, of impossible barriers between people being broken so that
real communication can take place.
For as the wind blew and the flames danced, the disciples were filled with the
Holy Spirit and miraculously began to speak in languages they did not know. The huge
crowd that had gathered was diverse, with people from all over the ancient near east and
beyond, and yet each person could hear the disciples in their own languages as they told
stories about God’s deeds of power. These stories could be heard and understood by
everyone present, breaking down the most ancient and primal barrier between different
groups of people– language.
And on this Pentecost day in this wild year of 2022, I can’t help but think we need
this reminder now more than ever. Pentecost traditionally marks the birth of the church
and the coming of the Holy Spirit, and on this occasion, thousands of years ago, the
great miracle was that people could actually understand one another.
In the two weeks since we sat around our own fire, telling our own stories of
God’s deeds of power, already, so much has happened that reminds us of how truly
difficult it can be to simply talk to people. To listen. To actually understand one another.
We might think that the tragic, senseless death of children and their teachers in a
school shooting might be enough to break down barriers between groups of people and
unite us to fight against such horrific violence. But no. Just days before the shooting at
Robb Elementary, 10 people lost their lives in a supermarket in Buffalo, gunned down
simply for existing in black and brown skin. And just days after Uvalde’s tragedy, a man
opened fire in a hospital building in Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing four people and injuring
ten more. This man was seeking revenge on his surgeon for unbearable post-operative
There are many things that these horrific shootings have in common, and yes,
easy access to guns is definitely one of the biggest of those problems. A desperate need
for serious police reform is another. Corruption, lobbyists, and ineffective political
leaders are another serious problem. Access to mental healthcare and confrontation of
systemic racism and radicalized young men are yet more features of these tragedies. I
could go on of course–greed for money, hunger for power, thousands of years of
patriarchy that never taught men and boys how to cope with emotions… there are so
many more layers.
But at the heart of it all is the consistent failure of humans to truly connect,
communicate, and understand one another, to see the mutual humanity that we share,
to appreciate and witness the image of God that every one of us bears.
That’s the common feature of racism, sexism, and prejudice of all kinds, and as
Pride month begins, it becomes obvious for many of us who are not accepted as our
whole selves by people we love because of our sexuality, our gender identity, and who we
cannot help but love. Insurmountable barriers of communication and mutual
understanding are the source of so much of the world’s pain.
So that, my friends, is why the Spirit of God set this example on the day of
Pentecost at the birth of the church! When people actually listen and understand each
other, that’s where the Spirit of God is. Jesus called this wild third person of the Trinity
the Advocate, and because the Greek and Hebrew words for Spirit are often feminine, I
often call her by feminine pronouns. She is the Spirit of fire and wind, the Advocate, the
breath of God in us and around us, and her great miracle at Pentecost was to break
down walls of communication so that people who were separated could be brought
together and that which could not be understood was heard as clear as daybreak.
Her great miracle is our example. We must listen to her voice within us. That
voice is sometimes the quiet coo of a dove, but other times the demanding shout of wild
goose! Like the Holy Spirit, our mission is to help people who are separated come
together, and that is why our church enthusiastically affirms the validity of the
LGBTQIA+ community through celebrating marriages, honoring pronouns and blessing
new names, ordaining queer leaders, and advocating for equality. Like the Holy Spirit,
our mission is to advocate on behalf of the image of God present in all human beings,
and that is why our church is continually striving to confront the realities of systemic
racism, colonialism, and white privilege. The Spirit demands that we realize and atone
for our sins and the sins of our ancestors by continually doing the hard work of
anti-racism, both inward and outward. Like the Holy Spirit on Pentecost day, we are
called to facilitate communication and understanding in places and among people where
there was once only noise and confusion and fear. That is why we must grieve the
victims of senseless violence and cry out alongside their families, and that is why we sit
at the same table as our unhoused neighbors, eating with them, listening to their lives,
and translating their stories for the wider community.
The miracle of Pentecost is one of translation, of communication and breaking
down barriers, a miracle of joining what would have been separate, a miracle of joy so
wild that people might wonder if you’ve had a little too much to drink. This is our holy
work, as seen in God’s Holy Spirit herself. So happy birthday, church– let’s get to work.