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A Spirit Who Needs You (Yes, You)

St. John’s Lutheran Church
19 May 2024 + The Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21
Rev. Josh Evans


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“I grew up with two languages,” Isaac Villegas reflects on his childhood – speaking English at home with his parents and sister, while being absorbed in the native Spanish of his Costa Rican grandparents during the day when his mom was at work.

“To grow up in two worlds,” he writes, “to feel one push into the other, to feel at home in both and in neither, to belong somewhere in between in a linguistic borderland – that was my experience as a child of immigrants.”

It’s the way he feels when speaking English and scrambling through his mental lexicon for the best word for a given situation when the only one that feels right is a Spanish word.

It’s the way “[his] head throbs as [his] mind purges English from [his] thinking” when he returns to visit family in Colombia or Costa Rica and he “ease[s] into a world of Spanish.”

It’s the way he remembers being scolded with another Latino kid for “playing with our Spanglish” at a summer camp when he was 10 years old.

***

Despite having grandparents on either side of my own family whose ethnic origins reach back to Germany and Italy (among other places), the native tongue was long lost by the time my generation came to be. Growing up with more than one language is an experience I’ll never know firsthand.

Even so, the experience of learning a language later in life and being abruptly immersed in that language, despite seven years of high school and college classes, is prone to offer its own sort of tension and anxiety – my mind simultaneously thinking in English and frantically translating into Spanish in real-time, as one of the interpreters on our mission trip in El Salvador insisted “solamente en español” — when, in fact, truth be told, her English was (and is) far better than my Spanish.

The confusion is enough to make one yearn for the time when our biblical ancestors building the tower at Babel were “one people” speaking “one language.” How much easier life would be! If only that kind of “unity” didn’t feel like an impossible dream …

It’s often been said that the story of Pentecost overturns or reverses the story of Babel – that bizarre story in Genesis, only nine verses long, when God confuses the one language of the earth and scatters its one people into many places and tongues.

Now, suddenly, at Pentecost, the confusion brought on by Babel becomes clarity and understanding.

Except … that’s not exactly what’s happened.

Listen again to the story of Pentecost, retold by writer and poet Cole Arthur Riley:

“It began with a strong wind. Then something like tongues of fire began to divide and rest on each person gathered. I can’t tell you if they were afraid, if their eyes widened and hearts raced. If they thought to hide, be it from the fire or from one another.

“But I can tell you that in mystery and all at once, people in the room began to utter tongues unknown to them. An utterance that went out to the multitude, people from every nation, as the sacred sound drew them toward one another. They heard themselves in the sound – not the language of their oppressors or people who believed themselves to be closer to the divine than others. They each heard their own language and understood.

“What words were spoken remain as mysterious as the tongues that bore them. But together, even in the presence of doubt, people from all nations remembered their ancestors. Those who had an imagination for a miracle such as this. The image of God, a sacred multitude, gathered in the midst of a cosmic power shift.” (Black Liturgies, p. 264-265)

***

Something big happened at Pentecost. But it wasn’t a reversal of Babel. It was a perfecting of it.

For Isaac Villegas, growing up bilingual primed him to perceive the gifts of Babel and Pentecost, as he writes:

“In the Babel story, God responds to the people’s unified language with multiplicity. God diversifies their tongues. God’s no to the tower is a yes to the irreducible variety of creation.”

It’s the same at Pentecost – a continuation of God’s “no” to sameness and God’s “yes” to a brilliantly diverse creation, and a human diversity reflected in the very image of God’s own being.

The gift of the Holy Spirit – set into motion at Babel – is only intensified and sanctified (made holy) at Pentecost.

The Spirit doesn’t swoop in to magically restore a common language – as easy as that might sound. Instead: The Spirit animates a diversity of languages, embedding God’s good news into the diversity of humanity, embedding diversity into the very DNA of the early church.

At our best, Christians like to say we’re “better together.” Not because each of us is the same, but precisely because each of us is different – each of us a reflection of a different facet of the indescribable God.

***

When I got on a plane earlier this month to head to Chicago, I noted on Facebook that it was the start of a month of church anniversaries.

Two Sundays ago, I celebrated the 150th anniversary of my home congregation, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, in Lakeview, where their building now stands on the corner of Addison and Magnolia, two blocks west of Wrigley Field.

Today, in Albany, as we gather for worship, our Lutheran siblings across town, in the Delaware Avenue neighborhood, celebrate 50 years of ministry as the Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit, itself a body formed from the rich history and diversity of its predecessor congregations.

And later this afternoon, many of us will gather to celebrate the monumental anniversary of First Lutheran Church – tracing its history back 375 years to the very first Lutheran immigrants to settle the Upper Hudson Valley.

St. John’s own history – while not a nice, neat multiple of 25 – falls somewhere in the middle, marking a no less impressive 167 years of ministry.

Reflecting back on Holy Trinity’s 150 years in a recent sermon, Pastor Craig Mueller says, “I am drawn to the history of our earliest years … [and] moved by the faith and determination of our Holy Trinity ancestors.”

Before Holy Trinity was officially chartered, their first church building was destroyed – after only four years – in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, along with many of their members’ homes.

By the time Holy Trinity was formed three years later, they did so with a mere 37 members on their rolls and $5.80 in their treasury. Perhaps not surprisingly, financial struggles forced them to move from their beloved downtown Gothic church building – bringing them to their present neighborhood in Lakeview, where they have been ever since.

At multiple points along the way, I imagine it would have been much easier to give up and call it quits.

I imagine the same could be said of our Albany congregations – whether they’re celebrating 50, 167, or 375 years.

I imagine the same could be said of virtually every congregation that has ever existed and that continues to exist and persist and commit itself to faithful ministry.

The truth is, none of our congregations – no church community – has been without its trials and tribulations.

What unites us is not only our struggles, losses, and setbacks, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit:

The same Spirit that set God’s people into motion – literally – at Babel, scattering them abroad over the face of the earth.

The same Spirit that blessed God’s people – in all their linguistic and cultural diversity – on Pentecost, enabling each one to hear God’s particular good news for them.

The same Spirit that “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies” the church today – over two thousand years later – a diverse people, each of us bearing the image of God, entrusted with sharing the good news of God in Christ.

***

Friends,

Whether you have been here for two months or two generations …

Whether you are young or young-at-heart …

Whether you are male, female, or nonbinary …

Whether you speak one, two, or seven languages …

Whether you feel like you belong and have something to contribute, or not:

The church needs you.
St. John’s needs you.
We need you.

God needs you:

To be a part of God’s kingdom-building and love-sharing, on earth as it is in heaven, in your community as it is in my community, as it is in our communities.

The Spirit of Babel and Pentecost needs you, in your particularities, for the sake of the church’s diversity:

To be a part of liberating the Word from being so bound to any one time and place …

To be unleashed into all the world …

Revealing God’s good news in every time and place.

Alleluia! The Spirit is here!
The Spirit is here indeed! Alleluia!

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