St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for Pentecost (May 15, 2016)

Liturgical Color: Red

Reverend Marie F. Fleming


Anybody Listening?

Some years ago while attending an adult Sunday School class, we had just read together the passage from Acts that we heard this morning when Eleanor Harry, a retired elementary school teacher and lifelong student of the Bible asked, "what if the miracle at Pentecost was in the hearing?"

LET US PRAY: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. AMEN

Anyone who has lived ever lived with another person will attest to the fact that communication is difficult. One of my favorite mis-communication stories took place one crisp November day many years ago. I was leaving the annual Christmas bazaar on the grounds of the United Methodist Village, a senior living Center in Lawrenceville, Illinois. I passed a small garden plot where a gentleman was digging his turnips. When I stopped to admire his crop he asked, "You want some?" I was about to refuse when my neighbor, Margaret Thacker, came along on her way home with an empty basket - because Margaret is the kind of person who goes to the Christmas Bazaar with her arms full and leaves with them empty. "Just drop it by the house when you're finished with it," she said.

The gardener placed several large turnips in the basket and asked, "Will that make a mess?" Now, where I come from, a mess is what one makes of one's room. A mess is what remains after kneading bread on the kitchen counter. Had my family fished- as the neighbors did - I would have recalled that during the Lake Michigan smelt run, it was possible to bring home a mess of fish. But we were straight up dairy farmers, so for us, a mess was just a mess.

I looked in the basket and saw that the dirt was dry. "No,"I said,"That won't make a mess." He looked at me kind of funny. Then he piled on a few more. "Will that make a mess?" he asked. I was touched by his concern for Margaret's basket, and I was beginning to wonder how we were going to eat all those turnips. "No," I said. "That won't make a mess." He put one more big one on top and said, "There!" I thanked him profusely and quickly left.

Even though he and I shared a common language and stood face-to-face, we failed to communicate. He used perfectly good words. I just didn't hear so well.

Knowing how tricky hearing aright can be, I too wonder at the Pentecost story and ask Mrs. Harry's question: What if the miracle was in the hearing?

A little background:

Some of you may be surprised to know that Pentecost was a major Jewish festival. Originally a harvest feast, by Jesus' time it had come to be centered on the gift of Torah on Mt. Sinai during the wilderness wanderings. The observance took place 50 days after Passover, hence the name "Pentecost".

Jerusalem at the time of this particular Pentecost celebration-this first Pentecost after Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension-was bustling with Jews from all over the known world. "Devout Jews" Luke calls them, in town on a Pentecostal pilgrimage.

Suddenly, through a storm of wind and fire reminiscent of Sinai itself and meaning that the Holy was on the move, something remarkable happened. The waiting band of followers received power they lacked until now-power to proclaim the Gospel so that those passing by on the street could hear it in their own tongue.

And the people, we are told, were amazed. They said, "How is it that we hear in our native language?" But not everybody understood, did they? Some heard only gibberish and suggested that the disciples had begun drinking a little too early in the day. So, even though the story says that those uneducated Galileans spoke the languages of all the visitors that day, there were some present who still didn't understand. It seems the speaking wasn't enough. The miracle was in the hearing.

Some suggest that what happened at Pentecost was the undoing, the reversal, of what happened at Babel - the Genesis account of when the whole of humanity was divided from a single, uniform language into a cacophony of many languages in order to thwart their designs on attaining the heights of the gods.

But if the disunity at Babel is reversed at this first Christian Pentecost, the reversal involves an interesting twist. Rather than restore a single tongue to all the nations, the Spirit preserves their distinctiveness. The Spirit's goal is unity, not uniformity. In a supreme act of divine hospitality, the saving Word of God comes to people in the language they can understand. No intermediary, no translator, necessary. And didn't the Creator of the universe do a same thing in sending a Savior in the language of our flesh and blood? Didn't God come to us in the language of human being, affirming the goodness and sufficiency of creaturely existence?

Such expressions of radical hospitality, however modest by comparison, occur in modern life.

Parker Palmer, the author and teacher, reports that he has struggled with depression at times throughout his life. During one particularly disabling spell, he was visited faithfully in his home by a friend who did nothing but sit with him and massage his feet. The relief Parker felt in the company of this sensitive and giving soul imparted healing like a balm. In the months and years that followed Palmer testified, "At that time in my life, the only language I was able to hear was the language of human touch and unconditional acceptance."

You will not be surprised if the language of gardening comes to mind on a day like today. On Saturday a week ago, there were perhaps 20 people on hand to help plant a small orchard in our Community Garden. The Bloomington Community Orchard Partner Plantings program provided 9 fruit trees and showed us how to plant them. On that day, we hosted a number of guests from the Hilltop Gardens Junior Master Gardener program, a program co-led by our own Maren Foley with Will as one of the participants, - the children came with parent helpers and younger siblings. In addition there were maybe 7 of us from St. Thomas. A couple of our neighbors from Mt. Gilead Road were there, as well as three volunteer leaders from the Community Orchard. We were Muslims, Jews, Christians and Nones (spelled N-O-N-E-S). We were many of us strangers to one another. But we were drawn together by a call of the orchard, a language many of us are still learning but the passion for which we most certainly share. Stop by the ECHO plant sale and eavesdrop on all the plant-related conversations, or join one yourself. Ask anyone to tell you about their gardening adventures and you will have found an instant friend. Among us, we have so many folk who are learning to be fluent in the languages of the land.

Lutheran Campus Ministry delivers Finals Week relief and relaxation in the universal language of "Puppy."

Our musicians carry us to places that span the gamut of the human heart.

If you have traveled in a foreign country you have perhaps experienced the appreciation that is evoked among the locals when you try even a word or phrase of their language.

Lyle tells of his first trip abroad during his college days. Landing in Paris and needing to get to Scotland for a term of study there, he went to the train/ferry ticket booth. In his high school French, he asked, "Do you speak English?" The woman smiled wryly and said, in French, "When I am in England I speak English. When I am in France, I speak French." Needless to say, Lyle got the message and stumbled through getting the correct tickets, all in French. At the end, as he wiped the sweat from his brow, the woman said again in French, with a genuine smile this time, "Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" He chose to say nothing, because he most certainly did not agree. But it was a minor victory, and clearly appreciated.

Teacher and early civil rights activist, Nelle Morton, asserts that "failing to take responsibility for the way what we say is heard is only a step from the refusal to care about and accept responsibility for the world." That French ticket seller could have just switched to English and sent the American student on his way. Instead, she performed the far finer service by teaching him a lesson that has served him all these 40 years since: "You are responsible for the way what you say is heard." In an age when communications move practically at the speed of light, anonymously, with potentially deadly consequences, it behooves us to heed these wise, prudent, loving words.

On this Day of Pentecost, 2016, we thankfully celebrate that the Spirit equips us fora hospitality that meets others on their own terms for the sake of the Gospel; that she fosters unity without forcing uniformity; that the act of listening well has the power bring healing. Bring peace. And that to care for the world is to take responsibility for the way what we say is heard.

"In the beginning was the Hearing" Morton wrote. "In the beginning was the hearing into which God spoke and called creation forth."

The spirit of God hovers over the creative chaos of this day just as she did on the first day of creation. Just as she did on that first Christian Pentecost.

Whether the chaos becomes a mess of blessing or a blessed mess might just hinge on the answer to one simple question:

"Anybody listening?"

 

 

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