May 15, 2016
They’ve been calling the wildfires in Alberta a “perfect storm.”[i]
the type of trees involved,
the way the fire is moving,
and even the time of year
have come together to make it an extremely difficult fire to fight.
The blaze has forced almost 90,000 people
to evacuate the city of Fort McMurray,
including 9 newborns at the local hospital.
A friend of mine in Buffalo, Wyoming could smell the smoke
at a distance some 1100 miles away.
An estimated 2400 homes and buildings have been lost.
Insurance losses could top $9 billion.
Although the fires have now passed through the town,
large areas have lost electricity, water and gas.
It won’t be safe to allow people back in for several weeks.
And yet, in the aftermath of the destruction,
there are signs of hope.
This is prom season everywhere
and a Facebook page popped up
where young women can donate prom dresses
to teenagers in Fort McMurray who lost theirs.
The acts of kindness displayed by strangers
lessen complete despair,
the potential devastation by fire is frightening
especially for anyone who’s been through it.
For years after there was a fire in my office building,
I had palpitations whenever I smelled smoke.
What happened on that Pentecost day (as it is told in the book of Acts)
was not tame.
It was not gentle.
It was powerful – even frightening!
Wind rushed through.
Tongues as of fire appeared.
And there was the sudden cacophony of people speaking in languages
they had never been taught!
Jerusalem was crowded with people.
They had come to the city for the festival of Pentecost.
Jews celebrated this as a harvest festival as commanded in the book of Exodus
It was one of three harvest festivals.
Exodus says that men are to come to worship the Lord,
come to the temple 3 times / year…
and one of those times is Pentecost.
So Jerusalem was crowded with Jews from all over
fulfilling their religious duty.
Galilee, the area where the disciples were from, was north of Jerusalem.
It was a small area with small villages.
Some call it the backwater region – the sticks.
Jesus’ followers from Gaililee
were fishermen – they weren’t travelers or traders.
There was no way they could have learned to speak
these languages that were heard that day.
And yet in the midst of the wind and the fire,
there was noise – people talking in a United Nations of languages.
And yet it wasn’t just noise….
the miracle is that travelers from all over the world could understand.
It was as if Peter was speaking to the Medes
and Andrew was speaking to the Cappadocians
and Bartholomew was speaking to those from Mesopotamia…
and it was like they were home again.
Travellers in a foreign city,
worshipping God…and then suddenly something unexpected happens…
they hear God speaking back to them
in language they can understand.
that’s what happened that day!
Last month I was in Germany.
Before going I listened to some Pimsleur lessons in German in the car
for several weeks
so I could learn some words and phrases.
It turned out to be a good thing,
because not as many people spoke English as I thought might.
Near the end of our trip, I was walking with my sister somewhere in downtown Berlin
and behind me was a couple who were talking to each other.
All of a sudden, as we were walking –
I realized I could understand what they were saying!
I was thinking – Wow! these Pimsleur classes are really good!
I stopped and turned around…ready to try out a little spoken German…
and that’s when I realized, they were speaking English!
Pentecost isn’t about us all speaking the same language.
It’s not some hope that everyone will speak English or that
someday there will be one universal language.
When we all speak the same language,
we become like the people of Babel building towers
that are about us and how great we are.[ii]
Pentecost is about the fact that
the church is a gathering of people of many languages,
of many backgrounds.
The church is a gathering where
the Holy Spirit enables us to listen and understand one another
in our differences.
When we cross boundaries…
when we enter into others’ realities,
when we form relationships with those who are different from us –
we are the church.
This is a compelling story for our time.
It’s hard to engage people who are different from us.
Those of us in the United States, are anticipating
a nasty presidential election.
The temptation to retreat rather than engage is particularly strong.
Why bother to understand…much less to speak…
the languages of those with whom we have nothing in common?
with whom we disagree?
Because the Spirit pushes us forward…
The Spirit pushes us into the fire…
I’ll tell you one group of people who will not retreat
From the election this year…
Yesterday, I was with some women from Guest House.
When I meet with the women at Guest House,
Often I feel like I’m from Galilee –
Some hick town where I’ve never learned anything about how life really is.
They teach me in all my naiveté what it’s really like to be poor,
what it’s like to be a single mother,
what it’s like to grow up in the midst of drugs and chaos…
And what it’s like to be an ex-felon…
receiving voting rights for the first time.
Yesterday a couple of the women were filling out their voter registration forms.
They are excited to speak this year!
They are excited that their voices will count!
The Holy Spirit breaks down barriers on the birthday of the church.
The Holy Spirit says “speak” when we’d rather be silent.
The Holy Spirit tells us to engage when we’d rather retreat.
It can be frightening…but into the fire we go!
[ii] Joelle Colville Hanson