Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
May 23, 2021
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. A nd 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.
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. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
Both the scripture passages today tell us about moments when language fails. In the famous story of Pentecost that Nancy read, Peter and the disciples have gathered to talk about their new faith in Christ to a group of pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire. But without warning they begin to babble – they speak in a kind of multilingual nonsense, in the midst of rackety wind and unaccounted flames. At first it sounds like gibberish, worse than our Sunday morning cacophony, but then suddenly the listeners realize they can understand. They are hearing the message about God’s love directly and not in translation. The baffling words have given way to something mysteriously true, and that day, as we hear later, about three thousand are baptized.
In the Letter to the Romans too, we hear of a strange way of prayer – not by talking to God, but by letting the spirit speak for us. Paul – the one who was never at a loss for words – observes that there are times when our faltering, groaning attempts to express what is in our hearts just have to give way to silence. He promises that in our silence, the spirit will intercede – also not in words but in sighs too deep for words. This may sound like a bit of arcane theology, but it is actually just practical advice. When you need to pray, and cannot, just moan a bit and know that God hears what you cannot even say.
This is a helpful recommendation for young parents, and today we think of Emily and Nikhil. When you have small children, you can’t help noticing how much of our life is lived in regions not covered by language. The cries when something is wrong, of course, but also the shouts of delight, and the exploration of food textures, and garden bugs, and nostrils, the feel of certain clothing, the sound of water splashing, the touch of a fevered brow, the slurping delight of ice cream, and the soft buzz of a child’s snore. We rejoice in the beautiful sound of a baby’s gibberish as they make their way into language. But we live in a world that is not all words, and children help us remember that. Both the deep fatigue and the deep love of parenthood lies beyond what we can say. The invitation to let the spirit pray within us is what every exhausted mother or father needs.
During the covid pandemic we have entered many strange new worlds of feeling and experience. As the months go on, and the virus brings devastation to one country after another, anxiety and fear have touched us all. [And we think especially today of Kieran’s family in India]. Along with the distress there is boredom, and loneliness, and sometimes anger – and really how many times can you go on another healthy walk or ZOOM get-together while you wait for this to pass, praying that your loved ones will be safe. Will get better. I am languishing, writes one author, while another says no, not languishing but dormant. Or here is a 17th century word – latibulating, that means hiding in a corner until conditions improve. Everyone is trying to describe it, but ultimately, our words give way here too, to the inexpressible mix of sadness and compassion and worry. The spirit is sighing within the whole world.
And what can we say about the pain of Palestine and Israel, where words have failed again and again, through more than a hundred years? If the purpose of language is to make it possible to understand each other, we must observe that there is no sign of it. The inarticulate rage that fuels the conflict there seems bottomless, as creation itself in that holy land groans. When words give way to violence and cynical manipulation, all the innocent lose.
This week we will mark the day that George Floyd died one year ago. As his words gave way to silence, the spirit sighed, and still sighs.
The miracle of Pentecost was not so much the speaking but the hearing, and so we pray not for tongues but for ears. Ears to hear the word of God expressed in all the strange languages of fear and anguish and love that echo in the voices of humanity. Ears to hear the small whispers of hope buried deep in the sighs of the spirit. Paul reminds us that there isn’t much point in hoping for what you know – instead, hope for what seems impossible, he says, hope for what you can barely imagine. Be ready as the spirit prays in you to be cared for, and strengthened, and set on the path that leads beyond our words.
May we travel in good company. Amen.