I once had an incredible opportunity. It was career day at the Marietta Center for Advanced Academics, our 10-year-old daughter’s school, and I was one of the featured guests. Honored to have a table right beside Dr. Bob Harper and his daughter, Mandy, who were there to tell those kids what being a dermatologist is all about, I laid out my Greek and Hebrew Bibles and my preaching robe, prepared to inspire some 5th graders to become a pastor. Unfortunately for me, the dermatologist next door got most of the attention. Examining moles and protecting people from skin cancer made a lot more sense to most of those kids, while many had trouble understanding my vocation. One of those kids saw my robe and thought I dressed up like Harry Potter for a living.
Noticing how many kids were confused about what being a pastor is all about, about halfway through the morning Dr. Harper, who is my dermatologist, asked if the kids had asked me any interesting questions, and they had.
“Have you really married people?” one wanted to know. “Yes, I have,” I answered.
“Have you ever cried at a funeral?” Absolutely.
Or the most interesting, which was asked in just the faintest whisper: “How likely is it that someone could be possessed by a daemon?” That was a hard question to answer. I told her it was very rare, though if she wanted to talk more about it, she should give me a call, and I gave her a business card, which felt like a cold response, but I’m not used to being asked that kind of question.
Presbyterians don’t often talk about such things. Among the Christian denominations, we’re sometimes called “the frozen chosen.” We don’t talk much about hell or daemons. We don’t often clap either, we rarely lift our hands in praise, we tend to be so science-led and rationally minded that we leave things like exorcisms and snake handling to those who speak in tongues.
I’ve heard a woman speak in tongues only once. We were both chaplains at the Metro State Women’s Prison, and the Holy Spirit fell on her, and she began to prophecy. For me, this was an otherworldly experience. As a white, southern, college-educated Presbyterian, speaking in tongues is not in the repertoire. However, speaking in tongues is neither foreign to Scripture nor to the Christian tradition, so today we celebrate it a little bit.
Today is called Pentecost Sunday, which is a lesser-known holiday compared to Christmas or Easter. The Pentecost hymns in our hymnal aren’t as popular as Christmas carols but we still must sing them, because Christmas and Easter are not the only Christian holidays that matter. This is the second Sunday in a row where the Church celebrates a less popular holiday. Last Sunday we celebrated Ascension Sunday, the day when we consider that line from the Apostles’ Creed, “the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven,” and today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the disciples not long after Jesus ascended. It’s called Pentecost and it’s worth celebrating too.
Today we read in the 2nd chapter of the book of Acts:
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.
Can you imagine? That’s what today is all about, this momentous event. It’s a day worth celebrating, but that doesn’t mean it’s familiar or understood, for while there are plenty of Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel, no one is making any Pentecost movies. I can imagine why that is, but our brothers and sisters in the Pentecostal Churches would love a few good Hallmark movies about Pentecost, so I’ve been kicking some ideas around.
Imagine a movie with a plot like this: An old man gets his house cleaned every day by a woman who speaks only Spanish. They can’t understand each other, but then one day the Spirit comes and he can speak so that she can understand. They fall in love and live happily ever after. Or a dad has trouble connecting with his preteen daughter. He tries to sound cool, saying slang terms he’s heard her say to her friends, but it doesn’t work - until the miracle happens and suddenly all his daughter hears is how much her dad loves her.
I could keep going with these movie ideas. I have more; however, this is what I want to emphasize:. What we’re celebrating today is not only that the disciples were suddenly able to speak in languages they didn’t know before. That’s part of it. The other part is that the crowds there could understand.
I still remember the words of Rev. Anna Traynham of Shallowford Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, who last year right here on Day 1 said in her sermon for Pentecost that the miracle isn’t that people spoke. People speak all the time. The miracle of Pentecost is that people were understanding each other.
That’s truly a miracle. Think about how seldom it happens. These disciples had been all together in one place. The Spirit came and they were all given this incredible gift, but the gift didn’t just enable them to speak in languages they’d never spoken before. They were speaking, and crowds were understanding.
It’s there in verses 5 and 6: “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.”
It’s not just that the disciples could speak, it’s that others were able to understand.
And so, I ask you, shouldn’t we spend more time thinking about Pentecost? For how many among us are capable of speaking? How many out in the world have something to say? How many puff themselves up with their proud opinions, who get on their soap boxes and will spout off at any captive audience? Plenty will, but Pentecost is different, because the Spirit enabled these disciples to speak in a language that the nations of the world made sense of.
Now, back to Career Day at our daughter’s school. As I said, there were kids there who didn’t know anything about being a preacher, and a lot of them were a little wary of me once they found out who I am and what I do, so I had some free time. Fortunately, also with me on career day at Cece’s school was Roy Vanderslice’s daughter, Rebecca.
Roy and his wife, Joan, are longtime members of First Presbyterian Church in Marietta, where I serve as pastor. Rebecca and I were talking about her dad, who will not only invite you to ride in his Tesla, he’s also a language student. Knowing that, I showed Rebecca this app on my phone that’s helping me to learn Spanish and I suggested she get that for her dad for Christmas or something. She told me that he wouldn’t want it, because he doesn’t really want to learn another language. He just wants to know four or five words in all the languages. When he meets someone, he wants to be able to say “please, thank you, and nice to meet you” in the language that they speak.
Can you believe how beautiful that is? That’s a slice of Pentecost.
The disciples spoke in a way that each person understood. People were so honored that God would go this far to speak to them in their mother tongue that they stopped and listened. That’s the miracle of today, and it’s a miracle that matters in a world where so many keep talking while their words fall on deaf ears.
How often has it been this way with you? You spoke without fully appreciating who you were speaking with. You were talking but there was no understanding.
It happened once with me while I was in handcuffs. Last Sunday I alluded to having been arrested as a college student. That’s sort of true. What happened is I got in a little bit of trouble with the campus police for climbing into a condemned building on campus. Then, by the school paper I was assigned to interview one of the officers who caught me, and for the picture I asked him to put me in handcuffs. I thought it would make a neat action shot. The trouble was that he’d used the handcuffs so seldom that he didn’t have the key.
After someone took the picture, for hours I was in the handcuffs as he looked around the public safety office for the key. Then he thought maybe he had left the key at home, so he drove me there in the squad car. And this was the weirdest thing. (Yes, it gets weirder). It was when we got to his house that I really learned who this man was.
Every wall of his house (it seemed like) was covered in certificates of recognition for his public service. Every wall, certificate after certificate, “with appreciation,” “in celebration of,” “with honor and distinction.” I tried to read them all while he looked for that key, which he never found. He never found the key and eventually a locksmith had to cut the handcuffs off of me. I remember it like it was yesterday, not just being cut out of handcuffs, but that I had been writing about this man without really understanding who this man was, and it basically took a miracle for me to get it.
That’s Pentecost. A holiday we need to celebrate, for how often do we fail to understand each other? How often in this world do we fail to understand what it’s like to be a police officer? I tell you our country’s lack of full understanding doesn’t stop people from talking.
Some criticize the police without understanding how hard their jobs are. Far too many talk about race without any knowledge of what it still means to be Black in America. Some think they know. They really think they know, so they talk, but as they talk the divide gets wider because they speak without understanding.
So, what does the Spirit do? It gave the disciples the words, the words that the world could understand, which is absolutely a miracle that our society needs today.
Just think about what happens in school boards, city halls, and over dinner tables. We read about it. Crowds of angry parents show up to talk over each other at meetings. Columnists who write articles to help you misunderstand those who think differently than you do. Parents who just don’t understand.
If you don’t say what one wants to hear he’ll shout you down without taking the time to listen. Meanwhile, there are little girls in our public schools who are wondering how common it is to be possessed by a daemon.
What Pentecost reminds us of is that communication - real communication - requires love. That’s what happened so long ago. These disciples weren’t talking so that they could advance their own agenda. These disciples were up there trying to communicate to the world how much love God has for each and every one of them, and when I say everyone, that’s what I mean. Salvation to the end of the earth, the Scripture says. Only, let it start in our own home.
Celebrate Pentecost and dare to try and understand your spouse. Dare to love her well enough to really listen.
Dare to lovingly speak to the police officer who is a human too.
Dare to acknowledge the racism that still surrounds us.
Dare to speak of love, that the walls which divide our world might come tumbling down.
Dare to believe that your salvation, or the salvation of those who think the way you do, is too light a thing, and that the Spirit calls us to the ends of the earth, to those who have yet to hear of our mighty God whose love for this creation and her inhabitants is boundless.
Be slow to speak. Be ready to listen. Work to understand. And may your words be always abounding in steadfast love.