Communicating Across the Barriers

A Sermon for the Day of Pentecost

Year A – June 8, 2014

 David H. Knight, Priest Associate

In the Name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came the 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. (Acts 2:1-4)


On this Day of Pentecost, we celebrate the third major feast of the Church Year, equal in importance to the two other major feasts, that of Christmas and that of Easter, though it has never caught on commercially for which we can be grateful. The Feast of Pentecost has forever remained one of the best kept secrets even among us Episcopalians so thank you all for being here this morning!  Today we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon those who would be empowered to be the Church, those who would by their actions as well as by their words tell others about Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit would call the Church to be the voice and the feet of Christ’s love for all of humankind and the voice of justice to this broken world.  I once heard it said that the Holy Spirit is gentle, like a gentle breeze in Hawaii rather than fierce like a wind coming off the lake in Chicago.  We often experience the Holy Spirit in gentle ways. We are gently nudged and uplifted as God leads us along the path of our journey, but in today’s account in the Acts of the Apostles, the scene in that room is chaotic.  A mighty wind swirls through that closed room.  Tongues of fire lick all around the people gathered there. Strange words are being spoken in various tongues.  No, it was not a gentle breeze, but rather the rush of a mighty wind.

What happened in that room on the Day of Pentecost was, at first glance, extraordinary leading us to believe that God acts only in the extraordinary, literally blowing us away upon contact.  Perhaps it might make us believe that God acts only in the unusual.  Certainly, you and I have experienced or seen moments that were difficult to attribute to anything but the unique hand of God, for good or for ill.  On that Thursday afternoon a couple of weeks ago as that freak storm passed through our area, Jeannie and I watched in horror from our living room window as hail the size of large marbles pelted down from the sky bouncing off our cars parked out front.  Jeannie claims, though I deny it, that I was running around the living room pointing up to the sky yelling, “Stop it! Stop it!” as if the Holy Spirit, upon my command, would cease the hail pelting down upon my new Subaru and Jeannie’s car as well. I was hysterical, she says, hysterical. When the storm passed, I went out to investigate.  My heart sank. Both cars had suffered extensive hail damage from bumper to bumper.  Next morning I called Travelers Insurance. While I took comfort in the fact that my comprehensive insurance would cover the damage, I feared that Travelers might cancel my policy after payment for the repairs on two vehicles.  The representative from Travelers was very reassuring, however.  There would be no danger as she told me it was caused by an act of God and I was not at fault.  “An act of God?  I immediately responded, “A loving God would not willingly cause hail damage to my brand new Subaru or to my wife’s car! An act of nature, perhaps, but not an act of God!”  She laughed, yet undoubtedly was saying under her breath, “We’ve got a real nut job here.”  But how often to we think of extraordinary events of nature as acts of God.  Even in those events from which can come great good, we often expect God to act only in the extraordinary.  On that Day of Pentecost, God acted in an extraordinary fashion in that room with a mighty wind, tongues of fire and strange words coming from the people in that room.

 What happened in that room at Pentecost, is for most of us, at least for me, beyond understanding. And yet there is something else—indeed something else—that begins to become evident.  So much was happening that we can easily miss something that began to happen that was very important. All that chaos, the wind, tongues of fire, and strange words all lead to something that would become significant yet far less dramatic.  The point to which all of this flurry led was to the realization that in the words spoken in various languages, people were beginning to understand one another.  As the mighty wind died down, and as things became calm, they began asking, “How is it we hear, each of us in our own native language. . .  speaking about God’s deeds of power?” At Pentecost, all the sound and fury comes down to the fact that people began to realize that they could communicate across barriers. Could it be that this communication across barriers is the work of the Holy Spirit in a way that is no less significant than tongues of fire, the rush of a mighty wind, and the strange speech of many people in that room?

There is in our world today as ever there has been, the need to communicate across so many barriers.  As the  Rev. Francis Wade who served as interim dean of Washington National Cathedral said in a sermon for the Day of Pentecost, “We are divided for good and ill by race, gender, age, language, politics, culture, religion, education, and income to name only a few. Those divisions give us identity but make it hard to communicate with one another.  Genuine understanding between parent and child, men and women, Republican and Democrat, Muslim and Christian, is no less the work of the Holy Spirit than high drama.  The tongues that manifest the Spirit’s presence can be heard to say things like ‘I see… I never knew… Oh really’ as much as the deeds of God in Phrygian or Pamphylian.  Jesus once said that the kingdom of God was for those who have the ears to hear and we have all heard the Spirit’s words.”

There may well be times for all of us when it is hard to accept the role of the Holy Spirit as it calls each of us to see things in a new light.  Because of how our views have been shaped over time, we cannot imagine that God could lead us to new truth that expands our understanding and enriches and even deepens our experience of life, or even changes our minds. Every new idea, of course is not necessarily the work of the Holy Spirit yet the work of the Holy Spirit necessarily involves ideas that may be new to us so we must prayerfully seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This past Wednesday, Jeannie and I attended the funeral of a dear friend, Dr. Sandy Hamilton.  Sandy was on the counseling staff of VIPCare, the Virginia Institute of Pastoral Care.  Her untimely death is a loss to this community yet while she was among us, she gave so much to so many.  She had the incredible gift of being able to listen and then offer just the right counsel gently, firmly, yet unobtrusively.  One of the marks of her life was her determination always to grow in her own understanding of the working of the Holy Spirit especially in the quiet ordinary events that one encounters along one’s journey’s path. In so doing, by her example she has empowered so many others to grow in their faith and to see how the Holy Spirit moves in quiet ways in our lives.

So much of the work of the Holy Spirit takes place in the ordinary things we face in our daily journeys.  Genuine understanding comes when the Holy Spirit empowers us to communicate across the barriers that can sometimes  separate us.  To communicate across those barriers becomes our task and our duty as followers of Jesus, who, as he ascended into heaven has given us the responsibility  and the privilege to collaborate with God in being witnesses to God’s reconciliation, love, and justice in our time.

I want to revisit what our own Kris Adams said in his sermon from this pulpit two weeks ago.  As he was speaking, I remember sitting over there in that chair thinking to myself, “I wish I’d said that—indeed I shall, as it bears repeating.”  Kris spoke of how through the early church we are witnesses to the welcome, service, and forgiveness that mark God’s peculiar innovation for the world through Christ’s church. The question that is meant to haunt us from the examples of the early church, he said. is whether we are still a church that is innovative.  It remains a question of whether we have carried on the legacy of Christ by continuing to be innovative in our welcoming of those who are excluded and on-the-outs, by finding new and creative ways to serve those in need both in our community and beyond it, and by making forgiveness and reconciliation parts of our personal and social lives.

Here at St. Mary’s, for example, we now have what is called the PAC, or Parish Advisory Council, a group of our members chosen to work in collaboration with the clergy and vestry and all of us to find innovative ways to strengthen our mission and ministry and our witness to Christ, to give voice to our younger members as well as all of our members, and to engage them in the life of our parish that we may become more and more the church here in God’s vineyard that we are called to be. May the Holy Spirit guide us all here at St. Mary’s as we strive to be led by the Holy Spirit.

This Day of Pentecost is the Holy Spirit’s day, a day that in the midst of rushing winds and fiery tongues there emerges the quiet affirmation that God works in and through each of us to empower us to communicate across the barriers.  It is a day that can embrace what the Spirit does in our midst every day, and for that we give our thanks. Amen.