Miracle is easy. Real life is hard.
Forgive me, but sometimes I get a little bent out of shape when I read yet another of the miracle stories that are scattered throughout the Bible.
I know that they are supposed to be impressive and all — and that they are supposed to make you believe — but after you read a few, it’s like, OK… I get it.
Still, I know better than to dismiss any Biblical passage out of hand… that would be a mistake of the first order. So I try to figure out what’s hidden in the story — the part that may be less impressive, but might give us a little hint about the mystery of God.
The Pentecost story that we just heard is, in its own way, a kind of miracle story. The Holy Spirit shows up in an impressive way with great gusts of wind and tongues of flame, and lo and behold, the disciples are given the magical ability to speak in different languages.
The text says that
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Gosh! That must be nice!
You speak, and… voila! someone who speaks a different language understands you.
I wish the Holy Spirit had been available to tutor me during my Sophomore year of High School…
- Fourth period. French class. Madame S.
That was the only class I ever failed!
I tried to learn how to speak French, but it was hard.
Mme. S was a prim lady in her middle years whose idea of teaching involved skewering hapless teens with accusatory glances shot over her reading spectacles.
I didn’t do well.
So when I hear the Pentecost story, I remember Madame S and her accusatory spectacles, and I get a little bent out of shape.
Miracle is so easy. Real life is so hard.
Why must we contend with all these miracle stories that make us expect things of God, that God does not seem inclined to deliver to us in real life?
If God could do it for the disciples, why not help me pass French class?
One day when I was still quite young, I was out shopping with my mother when we happened to run into my 3rd grade teacher, Miss P.
I was wide-eyed.
If I was to believe the evidence before me, it seemed Miss P had a whole life outside the classroom and even did normal people things like going shopping.
It had never occured to me that Miss P did things in her life that did not have to do with being my teacher.
I recall being stricken by a sudden and unaccountable shyness! I stepped behind the shelter of my mother, and gazed up at my teacher in awe.
She and my mother shared a knowing smile. They knew exactly what was going on.
I was in the act of realizing that the world existed beyond… beyond, well… beyond me.
There is a me world….
And there is a you world
And when we speak, we connect our two worlds.
We understand each other with the help of shared context. Since you and I share the context of the United Church of Jaffrey, we understand each other in a UCJ kind of way. By putting these borders around our knowledge of each other, we make it easier to relate.
All this machinery is greased, of course, by the fact that we speak the same language — we use words that have a shared meaning.
Many years later, when I was a student at Yale Divinity School I had another unexpected encounter. I was in my mid-40’s by this point, and I was in the act of walking back to my room from the library I ran into Mister J.
“Mister J?” I said.
Mister J turned around and looked at me. “Ahh… Mark? You are here?”
We found the nearest place to sit down. It had been twenty years since the last time we’d seen each other. Mister J, had been one of my father’s doctoral students back in the Union Seminary days. He was now a big shot professor back in South Korea, and he was at Yale doing some research. I, of course, was studying at Yale to become a minister.
We reminisced for a while about those days, long gone, when my father had played host to all the international students and we’d enjoyed vast feasts prepared by Saintly Asian Church ladies. We sat quietly together for a moment after I shared the details of my father’s death. After a while, I told Mister J that I was interning at a nearby church, and that I had to go because I had a sermon to write.
“You are preaching on Sunday?” Mister J asked.
“Yes,” I said
“Oh,” Mister J said very reverently. “You must pray! Pray, pray, pray!”
Today is Pentecost Sunday.
Most of you have heard the Pentecost story many times, but here is an interesting detail you may not have known…
Moments before this story is told — that is, in chapter 1 of the Book of Acts, the resurrected Jesus departs from the disciples for the final time. This final leave taking is known in our tradition as the ascension.
The text treats this big moment in one matter of fact sentence. It says,
as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
Right before the ascension, though, Jesus has one last thing to say to the disciples.
He reassures them.
Don’t worry, he seems to say, because, quote:
the Holy Spirit would come upon them.
And indeed, the next chapter, chapter 2 of the book of Acts, begins with the fulfilment of Jesus’ prediction:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
This series of events makes a few things clear:
Jesus may be gone, but miracles continue to happen. The twelve disciples still have an important role to play, and they will be helped in their efforts by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus may have ascended, but God, as the UCC is fond of saying, is still speaking.
Or… more to the point, the Holy Spirit helps us speak.
In the Pentecost story, the Holy Spirit bestows upon the disciples the amazing ability to “speak in other languages.”
When God communicates with humans, what does God do?
God gives us the ability to communicate with each other…
But crucially, God does not require us to speak on to those who speak the same language. God asks us, in this story to communicate across difference.
The divine gift is not just communication — the divine gift is communication across difference.
Today, I myself am a teacher. I am also, thank God, a preacher.
As a preacher and as a teacher, I have not perfected the art of skewering with students frightening over-the-spectacles glances.
I have worked hard at learning the art of listening carefully. If one of my students or one of my parishioners speaks the truth, I want to be able to recognize it.
To listen well, one must practice humility. To listen well, you must be able to get out of the way enough to recognize that your truth may not be the only truth. Truth comes in many guises — and some of them may be very hard to hear.
As we all know, you don’t have to speak a different language to feel different. As my 3rd grade teacher, Miss P taught me, we occupy our own complex worlds, and to communicate across that difference requires careful and respectful attention.
To listen is to practice humility.
As a preacher and as a teacher, I know that I have to try hard to be honest myself too.
The best way I have found to achieve this is through writing. I write to discover my truth.
It’s not easy.
To write well, one must wrestle like Jacob, wrestling with the angel. You must fight with your whole self to find out what is true about your identity. That angel struck Jacob and made him lame — but he also gave him a new name — a new identity. Writing is that kind of struggle. Honesty — with oneself — comes at a price.
To write is to wrestle.
It is only then — after listening deeply and wrestling with the written word — that one can try to speak. Because speaking — speaking out to a community — is an honor that must not be taken lightly. Speaking is a kind of imposition — an insistence that what you say is that something is worth hearing.
Now, smack in the middle of my 5th decade, I have developed not one, but two vocations that orbit around these three verbs:
Ideally these three verbs collaborate to discover and proclaim truth.
It’s not easy.
But I wouldn’t want it to be.
Speaking across difference is not something you do during happy hour. Its not about drinking new wine.
Speaking across difference is a long process of engagement. It requires investment. Perseverance. Patience and, of course, Love.
I can hear Mister J’s words: “Pray, pray, pray!”