On What Words Carry
June 5, 2022
Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.
Acts 2:1-6, 43-47
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And 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.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous
hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number.
*** Today’s sermon is titled, On What Words Carry.
We begin, this morning, with a poem by Carl Sandburg, from his book titled Wing Song.
Little girl, be careful what you say
When you make talk with words, words- For words are made of syllables
And syllables, child, are made of air-
And air is so thin- air is the breath of God-
Air is finer than fire or mist, Finer than water or moonlight,
Finer than spider-webs in the moon, Finer than water-flowers in the morning: And words are strong, too,
Stronger than rocks or steel
Stronger than potatoes, corn, fish, cattle, And soft, too, soft as little pigeon eggs, Soft as the music of hummingbird wings. So, little girl, when you speak greetings,
When you tell jokes, make wishes or prayers, Be careful, be careless, be careful,
Be what you wish to be.
The words we speak are dangerously accurate in representing who we really are and yet what are words, really, but an invisible cooperation of sound and air? So what gives words their power? The speaker’s intention gives power to words and that power can draw in and lift up or that power can push away and divide.
We are given a story today from the book of Acts that has everything to do with the power of words and the work before us is to imagine what could have been the intention, what could have been the reason behind this event that is so strange and wonderful that we have one Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, set aside to consider this one miracle that forever defined the trajectory for what would come to be known as Christianity. (We have about 14 minutes to figure it out so stay with me here.)
As with everything, knowing the context is essential. Here we are today, seven weeks after Easter Sunday. Since Easter, we have been studying the book of Acts and learning about what was going on with the disciples in the aftermath of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. There have been miracles of healing, stints in prison, death for the disciple Stephen, visions that call for radical shifts from traditional Jewish practice, and big questions about the scope of who to include. Was Jesus’s message of liberation only meant for the Jewish community or was it meant for everyone? We may think we know the answer, but to fully appreciate the impact of the
events described in this story, we must place ourselves in the time period when the events
unfolded; that time period is approximately seven weeks after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Seven…penta, as in seven sides of a pentagram, Pentecost Sunday marks this miracle of understanding. Words were spoken by Galileans, words with meanings unintelligible, but there were Jews gathered from fifteen different regions, each with their own language and each was able to comprehend the meaning.
The scriptures tell us it was the work of the Holy Spirit; Jesus foretold of the coming of a Holy Spirit, an Advocate, a Comforter. In the book of John, chapter 14, Jesus says, “The Holy Spirit, who the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” The disciples would have remembered Jesus’s words. Some of them may have also remembered the words from the ancient Psalm we read today, “O Lord, my God, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.” (We have the red altar cloth to honor the fire and the flame as ministers of God.)
So what are we to make of these disciples filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking of God, each in a different language, with flames of light above their heads? What was the intention of this miraculous event? We can only guess. I found insight through this following quote from Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he merely understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
One possibility is that through this miracle, any question about who was intended to receive the good news of Jesus’s ministry was forever put to rest. Further along in the scriptures of Acts we find these reassuring words from the Apostle Peter, “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, for everyone…” (Acts 2:39). Theologian Michael Jinkins shares a similar interpretation; he writes, “Pentecost represents the inbreaking of God’s purposes for all humanity, bringing humanity together in understanding, despite their differences.” Perhaps this was a miracle of inclusion. Perhaps this was a miracle of everyone experiencing a sense of belonging. Perhaps this was a miracle of the highest order of love…a love that transcends all differences, a love that transcends all fear.
I like this answer. And I like to think that some day in the future of humanity, people will still be studying this story. Perhaps those people will also look back at pictures from today, pictures
from the turn of the twenty-first century and they will marvel that there was a time when rainbow flags were flown from houses and buildings as a sign that in that place, people were not discriminated based on sexual preference or gender identity. I like to think that humanity in the future will be so far past that.
We are making way for that caliber of kindness in humanity to arise. The Holy Spirit is at work; we know it because we are learning a new way of speaking. We are learning a way of speaking that is inclusive, respectful of our differences, and mindful of the power our words carry. Yes, there are plenty of sources where words are spoken with hate, with judgement and with divisive intent. That is precisely why we must be even more intentional in the way we speak. The scriptures record Jesus saying, “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart.”
In closing, I hope that this story serves as a reminder to us that what we say is a reflection of what resides in our hearts and if we allow the Holy Spirit of God to work in and through us, our hearts will expand, our words will convey that expansiveness, and we will change the culture of humanity, one kind word at a time. So be it. Amen.
God of sunlight and God of rain, we are here with all our complexities…our mix of hope and fear, trust and worry, health and illness, acceptance and resistance. Help us, Lord, to bring the disparities of our emotions ever closer together, so that we may move through the joys and challenges of our lives with equanimity, balance, and serenity. We pray your healing presence be with us and with all those in need. May we be ever attune to the ways we can serve, with sensitivity and effectiveness and in the spirit of Christ. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the Apostle Paul in the book of second Corinthians, chapter
13: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Amen.