(a sermon for May 31, 2020, Pentecost Sunday, based on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21; a podcast version of this message can be heard HERE)To quote a line from an old movie – Cool Hand Luke, I believe – “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate!”
Would you not agree that at the heart of many of our problems lay issues regarding communication, or perhaps more to the point, the lack thereof? I know that as a pastor I’ve seen this countless times: when the core issue of some disagreement or conflict between couples, within families or even among church members (!) comes down to basic miscommunication and misunderstanding; you know, the old story of “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize what you heard is not what I meant.”
In truth, there is much that confounds our hearing and speaking and thus our understanding of one another: the tone of voice we use, our body language, the underlying emotion that shows forth the words we choose, not to mention our own preconceived notions of what’s being said to us! All of this, and much more, contributes to an occasional failure to communicate; and when you combine this with the fact that we’re all different kinds of people who approach things in different kinds of ways, it’s no wonder that oftentimes it seems as though we’re speaking totally different languages!
I remember years ago going with our youngest son Zachary and his 2nd grade class on a field trip to a nearby farm where maple syrup was being made. Now this farm was owned and operated by this delightful older couple who’d been tapping trees on that land for years. And when we get there the first thing that happens is that the wife leads us all down this wooded pathway to one of the big maples standing there and she shows the children how the sap is collected; she tells them about how native American children used to drink the sap like it was Kool-Aid; and then she pours some of the sap coming from that particular tree into paper cups so they could all taste it for themselves! And I remember that the kids were enthralled by what she was teaching them.
Well, from there we walk up to the sugar shack where her husband is waiting to tell us all about how the sap becomes maple syrup; and he proceeds to tell these 2nd grade children about the relative yield of syrup in relation to the sap collected, about the boiling point of sap and the type of firewood necessary to provide optimum and consistent heat, the different grades of syrup that gets produced, and even about the gauge of the stainless steel used in building the sap storage tanks! The man went on and on with this litany of technical data relating to maple syrup production, even as the children’s eyes were glazing over! In fact, I’ll never forget it; when it was finally done, and the man asked if there were any questions, one little boy just raised his hand and said, “You know, that’s a really big fire in there.”
Now I know he meant well, but that man might as well have been speaking Greek to those kids: they just didn’t understand! It goes to show how easily it can happen that we fail to understand what’s being said to us and moreover, how it is that so often, we fail to be understood; and it’s how a lack of proper communication can so often make or break any semblance of community we might possibly have together!
But it’s especially true, I think, as regards the church. Trust me here; after a lifetime spent in the church and nearly 40 years in pastoral ministry I can readily affirm that given all the diversity of thought and emotion and experience that exists amongst God’s people, it’s a wonder we even understand each other, much less have the kind of unity we seek! The question is, how can we truly be a community of faith if we don’t communicate with each other, and how are we to communicate with each other if we can’t hear and understand each other?
That’s why it’s good news indeed that God has given us that which we need to understand; what Walter Bruggemann refers to as “a fresh capacity to listen,” that is, a new ability to truly hear and to respond. It comes in God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, the miracle of Pentecost, that day which Bruggemann describes as “a veritable festival of listening,” involving people from the four corners of the world and every walk of life, each of whom hear in a clear and unalloyed fashion the good news of God’s love.
What’s interesting about our two texts for this morning is that they pretty much serve as mirror images of each other; the same story but with opposite conclusions. First, there’s the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, in which human arrogance and sin leads to a judgment of separation and confusion. Simply put, “in the beginning” God had given his people a common sense of understanding and the ability to speak the same language; it was ever and always God’s intent, you see, that we truly understand one another and that our lives be built from that understanding. But when those same people became wholly attuned to the sound of their own voices rather than to listening to each other and most especially to God (as evidenced by the building of “a tower with its top in the heavens,” which was built solely as a monument to themselves), God rightly determined that this “speaking the same language” thing could never end well. And so God “confuse[d] their language… so that they [would] not understand one another’s speech,” and then divided and scattered the people “over the face of the earth,” making it all the more difficult to understand and be understood! So what we have here is the judgment of God upon our own human tendency toward self-centeredness, isolation and alienation!
But then, in the Book of Acts we have God’s reversal of that judgment, when the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven with “a sound like the rush of a mighty wind,” through the streets of Jerusalem that were filled with “devout Jews from every nation under heaven,” all speaking all their varied languages unknown to each other. Except that now, by this miracle of the Holy Spirit, they heard… and they understood. All of them – no matter their background or experience or prejudice – had that “fresh capacity to listen” to the good news told by the disciples, to hear “in [their] own native language… about God’s deeds of power;” about God’s intention that his Spirit be poured upon all flesh. It was truly a miraculous day and a vibrant new beginning for God’s people!
One of the central gifts of the Holy Spirit is that because it is the real and living presence of God – one part of that “blessed Trinity” of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it enables us to truly hear and understand God’s Word with a spiritual clarity unlike ever before; I dare say that in many ways, it is that “fresh capacity to listen” that makes us the church, in that we are called together to attune our ears and our hearts to that Word. But what I want to tell you this morning is that there’s another part of that gift, one that we don’t always recognize: that in hearing and understanding God, by extension the Spirit also enables us to hear each other more clearly.
Maybe you’ve heard of the concept of “active listening.” It’s an essential component of all manner of caregiving, and what it means is that if we are truly listening to someone, then we need more than just our ears; it takes careful and special effort to be attentive and sensitive to the person speaking. In other words, active listening requires a “third ear;” one that listens with love in order to sense what’s really going on with that person; to go beyond the words spoken to get to the heart of what’s being said! To put this another way, and I suspect that most of us can vouch for this, when somebody truly listens to us, not just with the ears but with the heart, we are given a message that we matter; that we’re not alone in whatever it is we’re facing; and that we’re loved.
That’s what the Holy Spirit gives us; that third ear, that fresh capacity and great ability to listen to those around us with love. For you see, as our hearts are opened to hear God’s voice through his Spirit, we begin to listen to each other with a spiritual sensitivity; we begin to understand the language of the heart; a language much deeper than words as it proclaims the truth of the gospel even as we show forth our love for one another.
Friends, how many times in our relationships with each other have we come away from some kind of conversation or conflict thinking that we’ve totally understood each other, when in fact we’ve actually only heard a small part of what’s been said; for that matter, how often does it happen that we’ve heard only what we want to hear and little more? How often have we been guilty of “turning a deaf ear” to those who stand in the need of love and healing, even and especially those who are the closest to us? And why is it that all too often we’re far more set on what we think we have to say than what we need to listen to? It’s a “failure to communicate” that leads to that which is much worse; and let me just say here that if this is damaging for us as family members, friends or loved ones, how much more devasting is it when such behavior becomes a catalyst for hatred and violence in this world, as we are witnessing right now!
This is not what God intends, beloved, for our language or for our lives; but the good news in our texts for this morning is that God has never been content to allow us to “babble” on without any understanding. God sends us his own Holy Spirit so that we might truly listen with understanding, and respond in love.
On the day of Pentecost, the people of God were made to truly hear and understand as “the Spirit gave them ability,” and in doing so became the church of Jesus Christ. And today, in this time and place, you and I continue to be the Church as we seek to be attentive to that same Spirit in our lives: actively listening for the many and creative ways we can reach out in love and ease one another’s burdens, striving to dwell in unity and with true justice as we go about the work of God’s kingdom; on earth as it is in heaven!
But friends, our actually being the Church and living as true Christian disciples… all this starts with listening for, and then listening to the voice of the Spirit. And the beauty part is that despite all the other noise in this world that threatens to block it out God has given us all that we need – our ears and our hearts – for us to truly hear and understand what matters.
But, beloved, first we need to be attentive. For who knows what the voice of the Spirit will be saying next; or for that matter, what might the Spirit is saying to us right now?
Let us be listening for, and then listening to that Spirit, beloved… and as we do, may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.