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As the Spirit Gave Them
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
May 31, 2020
A Reading from the Book of Acts
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.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
I feel like I should start this morning by admitting that I don’t entirely know what to say. I’ve preached a lot of very tender-feeling Sundays, Sundays when the world felt heavier than usual. This one feels exceptional. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, caught this week on such dramatic video, has sparked a wave of protests across the country and around the corner. Yesterday afternoon protesters rallied all through downtown Austin. Last night I could hear the helicopters flying low over my house. We seem to be living in an open wound. Of course, it feels fragile. And of course, the fragility I feel is nothing compared to the pent-up righteous anger of black America. But what to say in this fragile moment. What to say that would feel in any way equal to the tenderness of it. What to say that anybody would want or need to hear, over and above the thousand other voices of the moment, all the tweets and all the posts and all the viral videos. What to say into the unspeakable grief of watching this same story happen again and again and again. What to say when there are no words.
What to say on a morning that should have been some other morning. And it’s the violence, yes, but it’s not just the violence, there’s still a pandemic happening. And it’s the pandemic, but it’s not just the pandemic, it’s also an economic crash, so it’s all of that, but it’s not just all of that, also we’ve had an impeachment, and a primary, and we still have to have an election before this year is over, and it’s only May. And we should be in the sanctuary. And we should be in the sanctuary, having the biggest Pentecost we could imagine, and the red paraments would be everywhere, and the spirit would be everywhere, and we’d have about 85 Carapetyans in the first few rows, and we’d be giving thanks to God for Ara’s ministry with all the singing we could possibly muster, and the organ would open all its stops, and the choir would open all its stops, and the sopranos would hang out in the descant, and you could feel the harmonies vibrating through your bones. And it would be what it should have been. And instead. I don’t know what to say.
I’m hoping that Pentecost itself can help us out. I do like to imagine the story starting with a certain amount of dumbfounded silence. The last time we saw any of this crowd, they were watching Jesus ascend into the clouds and staring up afterwards in some sort of dumbfounded silence. Hard to think that the intervening time would have changed much. And so, on Pentecost morning they go back out and join the crowd with their heads still sort of metaphorically staring up at the sky, nobody quite knowing what to say. There aren’t any words, of course, for what’s just happened, for the events of Holy Week, and the unjust death of this man nailed to a cross, for the peek into the power of God rumored by the events of Easter Sunday. It’s a dumbfounding story, and maybe we could all come to church on Pentecost with our heads staring up into space and our mouths just hanging open. Maybe none of us should have words. Maybe then we’d find a way for the Spirit to show up.
That’s the story, of course. The crowd is standing there agog, and the Spirit shows up, and with no kind of subtlety. With the rush of violent wind and with tongues of flame. With all due respect to Jesus in the storm, Pentecost is the pyrotechnic event of the New Testament: the Spirit is determined to be unmissable. And the Spirit brings words. The Spirit puts words on the tongues of this whole gathered speechless crowd. It’s such a tempting moment for us. This is what we pray so regularly, that the Spirit will intercede when we don’t have the words, that the Spirit will put words on our lips and understanding on our hearts, that the Spirit will find something for us to say when we don’t know what to say, not today, not into this wound, not for this moment. The words don’t exist for this moment, God. I can’t find them, I’ve got nothing, God. You’ll have to do it. Come, Holy Spirit, give me something new to say.
Except that on that first Pentecost morning, the Spirit doesn’t give new words. Nobody tells a new story. Nobody invents a language. They’re not speaking in new tongues, at least not as we’d understand it. Instead, the Spirit connects them with something very old. With something very deep. The spirit connects them with their own languages of origin. With their own native tongues. With the muscle memory of these old well-worn syllables. And then, with all of them speaking in this most ancient languages, and with all of them understanding one another in all these most ancient languages, the Spirit calls them to tell the oldest story there ever was, the ancient story of all ancient stories: “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power,” the disciples say. These old words, in so many different tongues, from so many different people, all of them understanding, all of them hearing together. It doesn’t just feel like an old story. It feels like an old song. It feels like harmony, it feels like a harmony that vibrates through your bones. Like a song from deep places.
When words fail, it should be a song. Ara keeps trying to teach me that. Over the last six months, we keep having this conversation, where I say: “Ara, would you put something about your retirement in the newsletter, I’m sure the congregation would love to hear it in your words,” and then I say: “Ara, would you put something about your last Sunday in the newsletter, I’m sure the congregation would love to hear it in your words,” and where I say, “Ara, would you put something about saying good-bye even in a pandemic, in the newsletter, I’m sure the congregation would love to hear it in your words,” and Ara keeps saying to me, with his own unique wisdom from the deep. “Words have never really been my thing, Matt. Music has always been the way I speak. Music has always been my first language,” he tells me. Of course, it is. I think it is for all of us. It’s what we carry on our native tongues. It’s how we learn who we are and what we believe. It’s what tethers us to deep places. There’s nothing in this text to say that the crowd starts singing and yet there’s something so profoundly musical about the moment. When words fail, it has to be a song.
And not just a song, but harmony. I miss harmony. More than anything about worshiping in our sanctuary together, more than the look and feel of the space, more than your smiles and handshakes after worship, more even than breaking the bread and pouring the cup. I miss putting my voice up alongside the harmony of your voices. I miss adding my voice to something big. Especially today. Especially when we have no new words. I don’t know what to say, but I wish we could say it in the sanctuary together, our voices joined with one another in the words of the old confession, “In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, and to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced.” I wish we could sing it in the sanctuary, our voices joined with one another in the words of the old hymn, “Grant Us Wisdom, Grant us Courage, for the facing of this hour.” I wish we could hear the choir in the sanctuary. Singing a song for that distant land. Singing a song of freedom.
And yet, even now. Even in the silence. Even in the quiet separation of our Zoom worship. Even in the haunted morning-after of our desperate streets. Even now, I think you can hear the Spirit, singing. She comes from the ancient deep. She has a relentless persistence and a dogged determination. And she has this old song, a song about love, and a song about peace, and a song about justice. She has been singing this song since the first days, blown through the dust of creation. She sang this song among the Israelites fleeing through the waters of liberation. She sang this song with the voice of prophets and martyrs demanding of their world some reckoning with its chorus. It is the angels’ song. It is Mary’s song. It is the song sung in the midnight jail, as Paul and Silas break their bonds. It is the song of peoples long silenced. It is the song of peoples long in yearning. It is the song of peoples dreaming of some different day. It is the song of thanksgiving for the Great God of all Creation. It is the song that beckons that God into this day, into this moment, into this hour. It is the song for when we have no words. And if you miss harmony, you can add your voice.
It demands to be sung. In one of his poems, the South African author and activist Alan Paton, imagines a conversation with one of the many of his critics who thought he ought perhaps steer away from the hard songs, the ones about bigotry and Apartheid and white supremacy. “Could you not write otherwise,” this woman said to me. “Why then must you write such things? Must you write always of black men and Indians, Englishmen and Afrikaners, of problems insoluble and secret fears that are best forgotten?”
But Paton responds.
“There is a voice that I cannot silence. It seems I have lived for this, to obey it.”
“Simple I was, I wished to write but words,
And melodies that had no meanings but their music
And songs that had no meaning but their song.
But the deep notes and the undertones
Kept sounding themselves, kept insistently
Intruding themselves, like a prisoned tide
That under the shining and the sunlit sea
In caverns and corridors goes underground thundering.
“Madam,” Paton writes. “I have no wish to be cut off from you
I have no wish to hurt you with the meanings
Of the land where you were born.
It was with unbelieving ears I heard
My artless songs become the groans and cries of men.
And you, why you may pity me also,
For what I do when such a voice is speaking,
What can I speak but what it wishes spoken?”
He might have said: when the Spirit needs to be sung — how can I keep from singing?
Thanks be to God.
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