Tongues of Fire

Genesis 11:1-9Acts 2:1-21

Language. It’s the way we communicate with one another. It’s also the way we mis-communicate with one another. As an illustration, I’d like to invite you to close your eyes. I’m going to say a word, and I want you to form an image in your minds. Mouse. How many of you thought of a computer?

Language takes center stage in our two readings today. First is the story of the Tower of Babel, the tale of the almost limitless power of unified human communication and the pretensions to divinity to which we are tempted. God breaks the tower apart and scatters the people, and the result is a diversity of languages. From this story we seem to learn that our inability to communicate clearly with one another is a result of our human condition, a sinful rebellion, a brokenness that permeates every aspect of who we are.

The story from Acts, which becomes the main actor in our play this morning, seems to undo the damage of Babel. The disciples are once again hiding in the upper room, waiting for something to happen, when the Holy Spirit bursts in upon them with these divided tongues of fire and gives them this miraculous ability to speak in a multitude of languages. They head out into the streets in the middle of the Pentecost feast, where all nations are gathered in Jerusalem. And all of these people hear the backwater Galileans speaking in their own language. The curse of diversity of ancient Babel is reversed into a unity through the Holy Spirit for the sake of catching the people’s attention. Peter speaks, God is proclaimed, the church is born.

At a second look, however, the Acts passage isn’t as simple as all that. A complete reversal of Babel would look very different, where all languages are brought together in one simple language, kind of an ancient version of Esperanto’s utopian visions of a worldwide language. And unlike the modern-day Pentecostal manifestations of speaking in tongues, which becomes a brand new language unintelligible to most except for those blessed with the gift of the Holy Ghost, this first Pentecost has the disciples speaking and being understood by all of these nations under the heavens in their own languages. There is no need to translate, no need for a single unified language. The gift of the Spirit at the birth of the Church becomes a blessing of that very diversity of tongues and nations that begins at the ancient Tower. There is a richness within this gift for us, a variety and diversity of races and nations, of languages and cultures, that find unity in God’s Spirit which continually creates and re-creates the Church.

Last year’s Pentecost was my first as your pastor. And I took the opportunity, as the Church around the world remembers its birthday, for me to offer my perspectives on where I see this church at the corner of Lanier and Woodrow. I would like to do that again this year, once again recognizing that my perspective is just that – it is mine, and mine alone. I don’t claim any divine sanction for what I see, nor any kind of gift of prophecy or ability to see into the future. Instead, I offer these words in my own language in hopes that the Spirit will translate them in such a way that we hear them together as a gift of unity for this place, a word of comfort and of challenge as we look to the road ahead.

Before I do that, though, I want to mention this one side note: as I prepared my thoughts for today, I looked back at those words from a year ago. And I was deeply pleased to see how much we have accomplished in twelve short months. So these words to you today come not only with the hopes of days to come, but also with the joy of the journey thus far.

I want to touch on four brief points. The first is that of congregational care. A year ago, we were still talking about a deacons’ ministry. Within a few weeks, we will be starting that ministry of expanded congregational care. This is exciting news for us. Ours, I do believe, is a unique intergenerational fellowship. In a world where young and old alike are more and more sequestered from one another in retirement communities and youth activities, churches are one of the unique places where many generations come together in one roof, perhaps even speaking different languages, to praise God together and to learn more and more what it means to grow in faith.

We continue to learn how to welcome new friends as we bid farewell to those whom we hold dear. This past year has been no exception. Since January, we have wept for Jean, Andy, Blanche, Deloris, and Arthur, as we have wept with those who love them. It is one of the most honorable things that the Church does, marking these moments of passing, celebrating memories of grace and love, and knowing God’s promise of resurrection for those who have come to an end of their journeys. As your pastor, I am especially grateful for this honor, of knowing these dear saints and praying with and for them.

I am also aware that we need to be intentional about those who are at the beginning of their journeys, whether newborns in life or in faith, those who come into our fellowship seeking God’s face and mercy in their lives. How is it that we welcome children and their families? How is it that we create the space and time for life-changing conversations that get to the core of who we are and whose we are? My hope is that these questions will stir us during the coming year as we continue to be a special place of intergenerational connection.

The second area I wish to touch upon in Stewardship. We typically think of this as the church word for money, and there is a certain bluntness about Christian stewardship that is refreshing and important. But stewardship is a broader category, whereby we take a closer look at all that we have and all that we are in light of our responsibility to care for these things. As Carl reminded us last week, this is a place where the individual can make a difference, and that is most certainly true of our ministries of stewardship.

I have become aware of our ministry of stewardship as it comes to our property. We have a certain ethic of generosity about this large space, opening up our building to a variety of ministries of healing and witness. From the desperately needed hope and growth of groups like AA and Al-Anon to the wonderful ministry of Pastor Carlos Manjarres and the Hispanic Fellowship, our building is a place where ministry happens far beyond those things in which we participate.

We have also begun to speak of our environmental stewardship, our responsibility to recognize and honor God’s creation and to be aware of our particular role within that creation as agents of care. In this conversation, we have only begun to share ideas about how we might be better stewards. I look forward to seeing the creativity within us as we continue to explore ways to take a more responsible role in our use of resources.

And our conversation of stewardship must touch on this question of our financial resources. Once again, I was blessed to look back at last year’s reflections, remembering the challenges that faced us of a potential budget shortfall of $60,000 and how, by the end of the year, we finished a few thousand dollars in the black. Well, the challenge is before us again. Your Session has challenged us with another budget that projects a use of reserves around $40,000 at year end. So far, we are ahead of that, and have remained in the black for much of the year. But we are behind where we were last year, and a best guess does put us at having to use quite a bit of our reserves by the time December rolls around.

Even so, I continue to believe that the time is ripe to begin to talk about a larger capital campaign. The roof above our sanctuary is in desperate need of repair. Our building is replete with physical barriers for those in wheelchairs and strollers. That being said, I look at this past year and note the new signs, ramps, the improved sound system, and the ongoing work to upgrade our office computers, and I know that we are already meeting this challenge head-on. OPC has been a place of characteristic generosity, and I know that this will continue to be true for the road ahead.

The third topic I wish to touch on is the church around the world. Again, I look back to last year as we had just begun our English as a Second Language program and were discussing hosting an Immigrant Fellowship in our chapel. Our ESL program has continued to thrive and grow, and as I have already mentioned, our Fellowship is doing wonderful ministry in the limited facilities of the chapel. I want to challenge us to continue to explore ways to interact and share in ministry with Pastor Carlos and his congregation. Our kick-off was wonderful, with shared worship and fellowship around the table. On this Pentecost day, however, it seems fitting for us to acknowledge the blessing of other tongues that proclaim the gospel no less eloquently than we do.

I am also convinced that we are being called – not just as a congregation, but as a worldwide Church and as individual Christians – to seek relationships, intentional friendships of integrity, with those of different faiths. My own life has been richly blessed by Muslim and Jewish friends, my own faith challenged and strengthened in ways I would never have imagined by conversations which were refreshingly honest and clear, getting to the core of faith. I wish the same for us all.

Having said this, I want us to hold this piece of interfaith relationship in tension with my fourth point: I do believe that, for the whole Church, particularly in this culture, we are challenged to know more clearly what it particularly means to be Christian. My hope for the coming years is that we would continue to explore what it means to be part of the church, to lay claim to this identity which holds us, this word “Christian” which calls us to explore our own relationships with the one called Christ. And doing so, our lives should strive to reflect that character we see in him, challenging, comforting, sacrificing, forgiving, exhibiting grace, mercy, wisdom, and healing to this broken world in which we find ourselves. I do think that it is this piece that must continue to shape all of our ministries: from Worship to Christian Education, from our Mission to our Stewardship of time, talents, and treasure. May all of it reflect the Spirit of the One whom we seek to serve.

Friends, this is not an exhaustive list of the places where I see God already alive and at work at OPC, or challenging us and reshaping us: time does not permit me today to share this all with you. I share these thoughts with you about our ministry not as gospel, but as my own flawed discernment of the Spirit at work in our midst. I look forward to how our common wisdom will shape us for the journey ahead.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we discern together where the Spirit is calling us, as we share this holy wisdom with one another, let our tongues be as those of fire, set aflame by the Holy Spirit, dreaming dreams and seeing visions. Amen.