Monday night I was called out to Tampa General for an emergency anointing for a patient preparing to pass into God’s bright glory. When I arrived at the room, a very familiar sight greeted me. Kumbe! There was a pair of religious sisters I recognized as Benedictine Sisters from Tanzania. I attended to the immediate family, greeting them and offering some words of comfort. When I came to the Sisters, it was their chance to be surprised when I greeted them in Kiswahili. Their eyes grew wide, surprised that another person in this small room shared some of the sounds and words of their home a half a world away. We all let the surprise pass and gave way to the woman for whom I had been called.
It is moments such as these that we are reminded of the possibilities of reaching out to where a new kind of empathy and friendship becomes possible. When a person far from home experiences the pleasure of hearing an American speak their mother tongue, in those moments you realize that the distance separating “us” from “them” is not insurmountable. In those moments we are all less strange, less alien, less other.
To crossover to another people in language, culture, and possibilities is an act of generosity that challenges others to reconsider their long protective narratives about who they are. It is a moment of Pentecost.
Today, we celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit by fire, wind, and word. By any measure, it’s a remarkable story of the birthing of a church full of riveting details: tongues of fire, rushing winds, accusations of drunkenness, and yet an almost uncountable number of baptisms. But I am always captured by these verses: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim… At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” (Acts 2)
We Christians are “People of the Book.” We are people who love words and their power to create. In the very beginning, we read: “and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters, then God said: Let there be light, and there was light.” All the world came into existence because God spoke words. We believe words have power and so we profess our faith in the languages of liturgy, creed, prayer, and music. In short, we believe that language has power – to make and to change worlds.
On Pentecost, the Spirit showed the way forward and insisted that the Apostles cross over to a new world, a new language, to speak across all the barriers another language imposes: culture, history, spiritualties, and psychologies. It was the power to change their worlds in order that a new world be created. Silence was not a possibility. As people on spiritual fire, they were compelled to speak the foreign and creative words. Speaking words that the “other” was not able to ignore. The “others” had to suspend disbelief, drop their cherished view of the world, and opt for wonder instead of rejection. They had to widen their circles and welcome strangers with accents into their midst.
Something happens when we speak each other’s languages. We experience the limits of our own words and perspectives. We learn curiosity. We discover that the revelation of God is far too nuanced for a single tongue, a single fluency. And we discover that we have too long lived in a world where words are more toxic than creative; words are used to divide and tear down – and we are losing the art of speaking across all that divides us.
It is no small thing that the Holy Spirit empowers tongues to break down barriers on the birthday of the Church. In the face of these obstacles, God compelled his people to cross over. From the beginning, God’s call was to linger, to listen, and to believe. And then to heed the call to a new world where silence is no longer possible because you are on fire.