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Sermon for Pentecost

Grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus Christ.

Well, Happy Birthday to us! That's what Pentecost is, you know, our birthday, the day the church was born so long ago, birthed by the breath of God in a mighty rush of wind that filled the house where the faithful gathered. It was the very same breath of God that blew the life into Adam and Eve and the same breath of God that the resurrected Christ breathed into the disciples on Easter night to calm their fears and to bring them peace. And then forty days later the same holy breath by which Jesus left them on what we call Ascension Day when he moved into the wind, sailing into eternity from whence he came.

And, now, on Pentecost the wind blows again, and though Jesus is not seeable, hearable, touchable, in that house that day, oh, the Holy is. The Spirit of God blowing, roaring through the house, ruffling their hair, breezing through their garments and they are wondering, "What is this wind?" because, of course, we forget sometimes how untamedly, how strangely, God can come to us. And then they looked at each other in amazement, and here's how we know it's a birthday party?there are candles. Though instead of a pretty cake from the grocery store with "Happy Birthday" in sugar frosting and eight or thirty-nine or ninety-three candles on it, instead they look at each other and they are one and all living birthday candles, flames dancing, dancing over their heads in the cool of the breeze fed by the Holy Spirit, fed by the very breath of God.

Of course, what would a birthday party be without presents? That's what happened at that first birthday party?there were presents, gifts of the Spirit?the very first gift being that people could hear each other, hear love from each other. What a gift?to really hear each other, each of us hearing love in our very own language of the heart.

When I was a child growing up in Mississippi, I seldom heard an accent. That may seem strange for some of you who hear my voice and aren't from the South, but when everybody talks just like you do, what do you hear? Nobody much moved into our state. Every once in a while a new kid would show up at school from Ohio or Connecticut or something and we would say to each other, "Isn't that a weird accent?" But that didn't happen often. New jobs were scarce. The schools weren't well funded so very few strangers came to Mississippi and hardly anybody came looking at Mississippi as the promised land, as a land flowing with milk and honey.

When I was in high school, that began to change. Strangers began coming to our state, lots of them, who didn't drop their r's or drawl or say "you all." Strangers began to come to our state and a lot of them had accents and they talked to prisoners and they heard from those in bondage and they looked at our segregated schools and our "Whites-Only" restaurants and our blacks to the back of the buses and our bathrooms with signs that read "White" or "Colored." And the strangers joined hands with sisters and brothers of every hue across that state and they all said in all their accents, "We are convinced before God this is wrong," and the Gospel was proclaimed and the power of love was unleashed and in my home state and in this country, the kingdom of God drew a little nearer. Because of all those people with all their accents joined together so that everybody, everywhere, could hear a cry for justice. Of course, we couldn't hear it perfectly. It was a terrible and painful time, but often enough through the years somebody could hear love and justice and freedom. People could hear the Gospel proclaimed in his own or her own language of the heart.

Thirty years have gone by since I left Mississippi. My husband and I raised our family in Atlanta and now we are empty-nesters living in East Tennessee in a river valley between the Cumberland Plateau and the Great Smoky Mountains, and one of the first things I remember noticing in East Tennessee is that there are so many beautiful languages. There is the language with the East Tennessee accent, authentic and twangy and easy-paced and reliable as your great uncle. I especially remember talking with the leader of the congregation where I serve who called me on the phone several times before we moved up from Atlanta. We were working on our financial agreement and so forth and he'd call and say, "Hello, how are you?" and I would say, "Fine, how are you?" and then wait for that little beat in the conversation when the other person is supposed to say, "Fine," and then you can get immediately down to whatever your business is. Only Dick didn't play that speed-through-the-niceties game like I was used to doing in a big city. So if you asked him how he was, he'd think about it for a while, and say, "Well, I'm just fine. Had my daughter Tricia home from college last weekend and we had a good time doing so and so or whatever." And then he would ask how my family was--not because he had to to be nice--but because it mattered. Because in the East Tennessee language of the heart, it matters how you are and how I am.

There are a number of high-tech companies around our area so I have also gotten to know the language of a bunch of engineers in our parish. I thought engineer-talk would be like Martian for me?having had very little experience or understanding with the inner workings of things myself. Only now I'm learning whether it's the interior of a nuclear reactor or an aluminum mill or an electrical system or a human being or a community of human beings. I am learning from the engineers that there is such joy when the whole works. And there is such mystery and grace in the whole being so much greater than the sum of the parts. That's the language of the heart I hear from engineers?the grace of the interior of all that is.

And, of course, in every town, there is the language of the hearts of the healers. I have been around healthcare people since I was a child walking around the hospital where my father worked and meeting his friends, Oscar and Mae and Bobby and Mo. Now, in Maryville, Tennessee, here they are again?the nurses and doctors and hospice people and emergency folks and therapists and all that general army of people who heal. What a gift, the language of compassion at the heart of healing.

Also, I love the language of artists, of the creators among us. Always new life welling up from within them, painters, musicians, quilters, the cooks, the gardeners, the ones who see what can become. You remember that wonderful little story of Michelangelo lugging a big ugly-looking rock through the tiny, winding streets of Florence. Somebody looked out the window and shouts down to him, "Hey, Mike, what on earth are you doing? Why are you bothering with that big, old, ugly rock?" And the artist looks up and grins and says, "But, my friend, there is an angel struggling so hard to get out of this rock. And I'm here to free the angel." So I love to listen to angel-freers?to the creators, to the ones who see what can become.

And I love especially the language of the hearts of those who practice the art of teaching. Such a gift to us?teachers?who are really maybe the guardians of all our languages, of all our hearts?the ones who teach us to speak to be heard and to hear the other fully and fairly.

A mother newly come from another town stopped by to see me a few days ago. And I said, "How's it going?" And because the East Tennessee people had been working on me, I had sense enough to wait and to listen to how she really thought it was going. And she said, "Oh, we love it here. My children cannot wait to run to their new friends' houses to play and to Sunday School and even to their school classrooms. They are so at home here and that's making it a lot easier."

My guess is they can hear love in those rooms. My guess is they feel heard in those rooms. By the grace of God, no matter where you live or how you talk, or what work you do, or what your favorite Bible story is, or what doctrine informs your theology, the gift we mainly have to offer each other is the language of love in so many accents and so many dialects.

What a birthday gift?the language of love known to us best in Jesus Christ and now spoken all over the world in all the languages of the heart. Listen intently. You will, I promise you, hear the language of love spoken in the most unexpected accents, in the strangest places, by the least likely people for you and for me and for all the children God sends our way. Happy Pentecost! Don't forget to keep passing the presents around. Amen.

Let us pray.

O God and Father of all, whom the whole Heavens adore, let the whole earth also worship you, all nations obey you, all tongues confess and bless you and men and women everywhere love you and serve you in peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.