Here’s your sign. Bill Engvall, a comedian who was part of the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour,” has a routine about having signs to identify certain people. “Moving van in the driveway, boxes all over the walk, neighbor says: ‘Y’all moving?’ ‘No – we just thought it’d be fun to pack everything up to see what it looked like. Here’s your sign.’ ” In other words: That was a really stupid question, because the scene makes the answer obvious.
Here’s your sign – like the church sign out front, all washed and made shiny and clean and new – and this time it is the sign that is really obvious. And it is the question that is complex and beyond comprehension and invites further questions. Remember Thomas, who had the courage to ask questions? This might be a similar scene writ large. This might be a scene in which the sign leads to questions. This reading from the Book of Acts is one that we have heard many times.
Martin Luther tells us that the Bible is the cradle of Christ – that each time we go to it, it brings us the Living Word. When the familiar passages roll over us in readings, it is so easy to sort of hear them as white noise – a holy white noise, to be sure – but to receive the comfort of familiarity without really dwelling in the words and contemplating them to know what the living Word has for you and me.
If you like to reread books, or if you know a young child who likes to have the same stories at bedtime over and over again, there is great comfort in the familiar narrative. And how often comes the gift of the familiar narrative speaking to the reader, speaking to the one who hears, in a new way – a way that reframes the reader’s entire perspective on the story? All of which is to say that here is what stands out to me in the hearing, in the reading, of the Book of Acts chapter two for this day: There were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
It almost sounds like the semi-annual Furniture Market. Many thousands of people who were observant Jews were in the city for a religious festival, the Feast of Weeks. Shavuot, in Hebrew, which translates as listen. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Law to Moses on the mountain.
This is a different situation from picturing Jerusalem as a city full of migrants, which, as a capital, it certainly would have been and still is. The city was filled with these people who were in town for the religious festival. As the Pixar movie says, They come, they eat, they leave.
Devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. Maybe they were living there in the sense that a buyer will come in and rent someone’s house for ten days during Market. But that’s one of the lines that stopped me in my tracks out of that familiar reading. Living in Jerusalem. As in, dwelling. As in, abiding. How is it possible that they were living in Jerusalem when they were, well, from out of town?
One answer, a way of looking at the situation that invites us to understand the familiar in a new way, come from understanding how it is that they were abiding.
The people in town for Shavuot would have had an understanding of God that had to do with the presence of God dwelling among them. How does that change the Festival of the Pentecost for you and me if we understand that this scene around the room is a scene that we understand because our understanding of God has to do with the presence of God dwelling among us? In our homes, on our streets, not just someone we can reach out to when we pray but someone who lives where you and I live?
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under Heaven living in Jerusalem. They were all observant people of God. And yet they all spoke different languages, had different customs, almost certainly had different religious practices – “Jewish” is an awfully big tent – and could not understand what people from other regions and nations were saying. Yes – this sounds a lot like Furniture Market.
And then what happened?
When the Spirit of God filled the room, everyone had understanding of everyone else’s speech.
What happens for you and me when God dwells with us and the Spirit of God grants us an understanding of everyone else’s speech? Not in a language way but in a way of the heart?
What happens when you and I hear someone speaking a different language, and we might not comprehend what they are saying, but the Spirit of God rests in us, abides in us, and so our heart whispers to us, not: “Oh, I wish they would speak the language that I speak”… but: “These are people far from home, living in a foreign land. Why did they come here? What is their story?”
What happens when God dwells with you and me, and someone on Main Street with out-of-state plates gets snarled in traffic and instead of cussing and gesturing and thinking, “Oh, Market moron” … the Spirit of God abides in us and so our heart says: “Welcome to High Point. You’re helping the local economy. Stay safe.”
What happens when the Spirit of God dwells with you and me, rests on us like a divided tongue, as of fire, and we’re trying to get the creamer and get out of the grocery store and the person in front of us is taking forever because English is not their first language, Vietnamese or maybe Tibetan, and the coupons aren’t scanning and she has crumpled bills and carefully collected small change, and it’s not the money she’s used to and she doesn’t have enough and will have to put some back…
And instead of getting impatient, the heart, the Spirit of God, nudges you and me with a line from the Psalm for today: These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. And the Spirit of God, which dwells, which lives, which abides in our heart, reminds me – in line with my creamer and in a hurry to get home – that this is a person dwelling in a foreign land. And the Spirit reminds me of the times in the not-so-distant past when I had to count my coins and ask the cashier to put back the peanut butter or the gallon of milk. And that the Creator who made you and me and the woman in line – this God of ours fills us with good things. And I find myself slipping a five-dollar bill into the cashier’s hand to help the customer in front of me who is trying to speak a language not hers, a language that I might not comprehend but a language that sounds like birds singing.
What happens when the Spirit bears witness with our spirit, as Paul writes in today’s reading in Romans, that we are children of God, that we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him? What happens when, the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit, the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts, and you and I begin to understand this familiar passage – this holy white noise – in a new way?
Maybe you and I suffer with him not in the physical pain we endure from the hip replacement or the stroke or the vision challenges but rather in the sympathy and the empathy, in the gift from God of the ability and desire to see a person in a situation, to look at that person and to see God in that person. To offer a greeting like that of many from around the world. Greetings that go like this:
Namaste. Om shantih. Salaam aleyikum.
Lo sar bey tashi delek. Ma’ar es-salaam. Shalom.
The peace of the Lord be with you always. Response: “And also with you.”
And Jesus said: And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
The Spirit will dwell in you, the Spirit abides with you, the Spirit is living in Jerusalem, and the Spirit is living in High Point, and the Spirit is living in Archdale and in Denton and in Greensboro and in the grocery store checkout line and in the traffic on Main Street and in our Hindu neighbors up the street and our Manna Church neighbors across the street. The Spirit of God of which Paul speaks is, like the Word of God, living and active, dwelling in you and in me, so that we might recognize and greet that Spirit in one another.
Namaste. Om Shantih. Salaam aleyikum. Lo sar be tashi delek. Ma’ar es salaam. Shalom. The peace of the Lord be with you always. And also with you. Amen.