My sermon for Pentecost yesterday focused on the importance of communication and listening in our life together. What I find most miraculous about the Pentecost story is not necessarily the speaking in many languages, but rather the fact that people took the time to listen to each other. How often could so much confusion and hurt be avoided if we really listened to one another.
Listening involves more than the mechanical act of hearing someone else speak. It involved respecting the other person, trusting the other person, believing the other person. If someone tells you they are hurting–don’t discount them. If someone tells you they see the world differently than you–don’t write them off. Really listening means taking someone else’s humanity seriously. Treating them as an equal. It doesn’t mean agreeing. If you are listening to someone, and you hear something hurtful, something racist, or sexist, or homophobic, listening then requires a reaction. Listening requires standing up and speaking out when we hear hate.
Do you find it hard to listen? I know I do sometimes. I am either wrapped up in my own concerns, or assume I already know what’s going to be said. Or assume I know better. It’s hard sometimes. And that is when we can pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us.
This past weekend was the annual Synod Assembly of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. It is a gathering of over 150 Lutheran congregations in the five county area. This year there were over 500 people registered—either pastors, rostered leaders, or lay delegates from congregations. Agencies, seminaries, and camps send representatives to make presentations, there are booths, tents, videos playing, music playing, people reuniting. It’s a really energetic and loud environment.
This year, because I have trouble saying no, my husband Tim and I were signed up to help with registration. What I thought would be a chore was actually pretty fun—being at registration meant we saw every single person coming through the doors, and were at the center of the hubbub before assembly started.
It was in this crowded, noisy environment, while I was explaining where to find refreshments to one registrant, that Tim passed me a sheet of paper on which a woman had written down her name. I stopped, momentarily silenced, not sure what this was. Then he pointed to the woman across from him. She was a member, I realized instantly, of Christ the King Deaf Church, one of our congregations in West Chester.
She smiled at me, and pointed to the paper, then to herself, and I quite stupidly smiled back and said, Good morning, how are you? Then became very embarrassed, and busied myself with finding her nametag and getting materials for her. While I composed myself, I experienced an overwhelming desire to be able to communicate with her. To not have to point to the release she needed to sign, and hope she understood. To be able to say welcome, I’m glad you’re here.
I couldn’t. I can do my sign language alphabet. I can sign Jesus Loves Me, although that doesn’t help in real life situations. But what I could do was say thank-you. It’s like this. And so I did. When she handed me back her form, I said thank-you in a language that she understood. And she said thank-you back. Then she was gone again, into the crowd of noise that she couldn’t hear, and the conversations she couldn’t understand.
We have interpreters at synod assembly, and over the years the entire synod has learned to applaud in sign language. It’s jazz hands. When Christ the King was recognized at one point, the entire auditorium of 500 people applauded together in sign language. It was a beautiful sight.
But my encounter with this woman left me realizing just how much I take communication for granted. And it makes me think of that first day of Pentecost—when the disciples were surrounded by people speaking so many different languages. They were probably used to it—Jerusalem was a very cosmopolitan city. But imagine—they had this fantastic news to share—and weren’t able to communicate. Or imagine being one of the travelers. Maybe you and your group of five or six are the only ones who speak your language. How disorienting. How alienating.
And then suddenly you hear someone proclaiming good news, and you can understand them! Imagine how that voice, your language, words that make sense, must cut through all of the other noise that is just babble to you! What an amazing gift is communication.
And we’re blessed with so much of it: we can email, text, facetime one another. We can be connected to someone across the world almost instantly. If we’re in a foreign country, we have Google translate to help us out. Our ability to communicate with one another has never been greater.
And yet, the gift of Pentecost is not simply one of communication. The disciples were able to communicate thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit, but what was even more miraculous was that people listened. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit to be able to listen to each other, to be able to hear each other.
While our ability to communicate is better than ever, I’m not sure our gift for listening has kept up pace. When we are inundated with news and words and opinions from all sides, sometimes we get tired of listening. What if, this Pentecost, we made it our goal to listen to one another? We don’t even have to speak other languages to do it. But we can spend time in conversations, not just planning what we’ll say next, but truly hearing what the other person is saying. Not assuming we know what they’re going to say.
Because Pentecost wasn’t just a once and done event. It wasn’t a ‘missed it and you’re out of luck’ moment. When we have these festivals, it can seem like we are celebrating past events. And while in some ways that is true, we are also always asking that those past events become present realities for us today. That we too, experience our own Pentecost, our own knowledge and gift of the Spirit.
That same Spirit—that Jesus prayed for and gave to his disciples, that swept through the crowd like winds and tongues of fire—that same spirit is present with each and every one of us. It is the spirit that enlivens our church, the spirit that pushes us out of our comfort zones. The spirit that reminds us of the needs of our neighbors and God’s unfailing love and support of the poor and down-trodden.
It is the Spirit we will invoke today, as we confirm six ninth-graders. We will place hands on their heads, and pray: Lord, stir up in (Zoe, Paul, Helena, Anna, Lexi, Maddi) stir up in them the gift of your Holy Spirit.
Lord, on this day of Pentecost, stir up in all of us the gift of your Holy Spirit. The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord the spirit of joy in your presence…. And not just stir up the gift, but let us truly listen to what that Spirit is saying. What it is saying in us, and what it is saying in others. Let us listen to what the spirit is saying in our young people, what the Spirit is saying in our church. For the gifts of speaking and hearing, we say “Thank you.”