Sunday, June 8, 2014
Language of Faith
We disciples have been waiting for a long time.
At first we were waiting for a messiah, the long hoped-for savior who would restore the covenant with Israel. A savior who would reunite the twelve tribes and free us from the Roman Empire's occupying influence.
He came, a man named Jesus of Nazareth, and he was the Christ, the son of God. He walked through our lives in a way that gave us hope, healing and teaching us wherever we went.
But he ascended into heaven about a week ago, taken up like Elijah from our sight. He told us to wait, that the Holy Spirit would be given to us, and that we would be sent out from Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
So we wait.
This Holy Spirit, this advocate whom Jesus is sending is going to be different than the way we knew Jesus when he walked alongside us on the earth, or when he walked up the hill to the cross, or when he walked towards us over the water. We didn't always understand Jesus's actions, but at least we could see what he was doing, hoping that we would understand it later.
The Spirit of God though? How will that lead us? What even will it look like?
Our Lord told us to wait, so we have stayed in the city for these fifty days since Passover, to the festival of booths, called Pentecost by those of us who speak the language of commerce and trade.
Our church has been waiting too, just like the disciples. We've celebrated seven Sundays in the Easter season, watching Jesus appear to the disciples in different ways each week, showing them the truth of the Resurrection. We're still waiting.
Many of us have been waiting for the end of the school year, for the end of exams and standardized tests for the chance to go on summer vacation with our families and friends. Beaches and mountain cabins called to us as our schedules relaxed enough to allow us to get out into this great world that our God has created and lay our burdens down, at least for a time.
Many of us were waiting for a new Pastor, trusting that our church could finally move forward once there was stability in this pulpit, that we could resume the work that has meant so much to us when we pass stories of our own golden age around the lunch tables and meeting rooms in our lives.
We disciples have been waiting for a long time.
Throughout all our waiting, and that of the disciples who have gone before us, the Holy Spirit has already been working around us, through us, and on us, hovering over the surface of the waters even in the beginning. Speaking through leaders of the ancient Israelites, descending like a dove at Christ's Baptism, present and active inspiring artists and writers to declare the mighty works of God and calling God's people to gather with one another.
Like the disciples, we are gathered together in one place, waiting for we don't know, something amazing we guess.
But the something amazing for which we are waiting is already at work in us, and has guided us through the myriad experiences in our lives so that we can use our whole selves in the worship of God. Our mouths will tell the story, our hearts will beat with God's righteousness and grace, our minds will grapple with the great questions of faith, our hands will build up the kingdom of God, but these classic, images of faithful living are not the only ways to declare the mighty works of God. The Holy Spirit speaks through every language of faith, calling every aspect of our lives to the service of the Lord of heaven and earth.
A friend of mine, before she came to seminary, worked as a clown at Six Flags. It's a bit of an unconventional background, but she put her talents to work through puppet shows for community children, facepainting at church festivals, and when the pastor found out she could juggle, he made special plans for the following Pentecost.
Because other than speaking in tongues, the image most closely associated with this church holiday is the presence of the tongues of fire. So when the worship service came to a close at Pentecost that year, the church processed out and found her juggling torches, fire flying through the air, drifting in the gusts of wind, a powerful image that God gives us gifts so that we can give them back, no matter how clownish the gift may seem at first.
The Pentecost we celebrate today saw a crowd congregate at the outpouring of the Spirit's gifts just as that congregation crowded around their theological fire-juggler. "There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7They were surprised and amazed,"
The Pentecost of the Old Testament celebrate the gifts of God in the harvest, the promised land, and the Torah. The Gift of the Holy Spirit in our scripture this morning adds to that list with different gifts. The Holy Spirit in this story of acts is giving people the ability to speak in tongues so that they can communicate, not as the ecstatic acts we see depicted on television or even in other places in scripture. Those moments are meaningful to those who experience them, but something altogether different is going on here.
Though some who overhear the disciples hear mass hysteria, it is instead an act of mass prophesy. The disciples who are filled with the Holy Spirit are speaking on behalf of God, declaring God's mighty works to all who might listen. The crowd which has gathered is made of up Jews from every nation under heaven, they are the covenant people who have been raised on these same stories of the mighty works of God. They know the stories of creation, of the great flood, of the liberation from slavery in Egypt, of David and Goliath, of the return from captivity in Babylon, where time and time again the LORD has shown that there is truly a God in Israel.
We are heirs to that tradition, and telling God's story is a privilege, not a burden. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, it comes bubbling out of us in every way we could possibly express it.
Seminary begins with this thing called "Greek School." It's a two-month course wherein the students learn to read the New Testament in the language in which it was written. For eight weeks we become a semi-monastic community that eats, sleeps, and drinks Greek vocabulary and grammar. During the course of that term we are broken up into small groups and each group is responsibly for leading daily worship for one of the eight weeks. At the beginning of the term we pass around a sheet of paper on which each classmate writes down gifts they would love to offer as worship leadership.
Turns out we had some musicians in our class: a saxophonist, a drummer, a guitarist, a bass player, and me on the trombone. So one day in chapel we had a jazz band lead worship.
I've played Jazz since I was in the 10th grade, and it payed for part of my college education, but church music in our tradition calls for more Bach than in does the Blues. The centuries of tradition have given Back an aura of reverence, making its place in our prelude this morning all the more appropriate. The improvisation in a Jazz solo, however, tends to lend itself towards celebrating the individual musician, rather than pointing to God as worship should. So I had always maintained an intentional distance between the language of jazz and the words we offer in worship. But for one chapel service during Greek School, those two were merged.
It very well may have set the tone for the rest of my seminary career.
Because in that service, someone offered a different perspective on the improvised jazz solo, not as an opportunity to celebrate my skill, or even to have a conversation with my fellow musicians, but to offer a prayer through the language of jazz improv, expressing joy and gratitude to God for all of his mighty works, and for the gifts that allowed me to sing his praises. That perspective, offered in passing, moved my musical vocabulary from performance to proclamation.
So for the rest of my time in seminary, I explored how we can translate our ancient truths into new languages. Not just from New Testament Greek into Standard American English, but into our own native languages.
Language is more than just the print that appears on your newspaper every morning, or the setting you select the first time you turn on your smartphone. It's the way we communicate with one another through sounds and symbols to convey our meaning to one another. Sometimes that is through alphabets and grammar, other times it is through the emotion we put into an improvised solo, or the concentration of a fire-juggler. Sometimes it is through the dynamic sweeping lines of art, or any of the other ways we can express God's gifts in our lives.
Part of my calling is to help find it and for us to find ways to use the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God, and to celebrate how God works in each of us by using those gifts in worship, if possible.
We have plenty of practice in telling the stories our spiritual ancestors have passed down to us. Many of us can recite Scripture after Catechism after Hymn. Some of us can offer testimony to when we have experienced God in our own lives, but we cannot be limited to expressing the mighty works of God in these forms. We are people of the Word: the Word made flesh in Christ Jesus, the Word read in scripture, the Word proclaimed in worship, and the Word enacted in the sacraments. But often we have other native languages, languages of touch, of logic, of music, of movement, of relationships, and of art.
My experience of playing an improvised solo wasn't powerful because I got to show off, it was meaningful because someone gave me permission to declare the mighty acts of God through the language of Jazz. In the same way, my friend found power within her ability to tell our shared story of creation and redemption through juggling fire.
God's gifts are the language in which we testify to who God is, and how we express gratitude for who God has created us to be.
So we tell our ancient truths in new ways, not because the words are stale and need updating, but because they are so powerful we have to express them in every way we can.
The Spirit came as fire and a howling fierce wind. In my experience when one adds wind to fire, either the fire spreads or it burns hotter. Frequently both are true. We come to worship on Sunday's because we need to gather and be filled with the Spirit of God to that we can burn hotter and we go back into the world to spread the flame further, through accounting and teaching, music and contracting, and everything in between, the gifts God has given us are the language in which we express what God has done for us. Let us therefore offer those gifts back to the God who is the source of all our gifts, using them to God's glory.
We have been waiting, but we have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been given immeasurable gifts and are empowered by the Holy Spirit to express ourselves and in turn to declare the mighty acts of God.
We disciples have been waiting for a long time. But now is the time to speak God's love with every language the Holy Spirit has give us.