June 8, 2003   Daniel S. Wall
  When Ears Can Hear

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray using words first penned in 1950 by American poet ee cummings.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of allnothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

XAIPE, 65 (1950)

On the day of Pentecost, a motley band of defeated, cowering followers of the martyred Jesus were gathered in Jerusalem. For a few days, they were emboldened by reports that their Galilean leader was alive, miraculously resurrected. They now heard that the son of Mary and Joseph was gone again, dashing their hopes for political victory a second time.

Suddenly, they were empowered. Beginning with the imagery of divided tongues of fire, the book of Acts says, "All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…." Ruah, the breath of God (feminine gender in its native Hebrew), was no longer somewhere out there. A "tongue" of the fire "…rested on each of them." The power of God that brings creative and liberating life out of chaos made a dramatic entrance on the day of Pentecost, and continues to reside in each of us as an inner voice calling for change and renewal. Our Quaker cousins call this the "inner light," or the "spark of the Divine." That is the gift enlivened on the day we celebrate today as the birthday of the Church.

This new surge of energy in the followers of Jesus occurred during the Feast of Shavuot (sha-voo-ote), the two-day Jewish festival celebrating the gift of the Torah at the end of the barley harvest and beginning of the wheat harvest. Cosmopolitan Jerusalem was already diverse, and on this feast day included Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Asians, Phrygians, Egyptians, Libyans, Cyrenians, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs. Make a few substitutes in the list of countries of national origin, and you could have almost any city of size in California.

When the embryonic Christian Church emerged from its sanctuary, those previously uninvolved were "amazed and astonished." The question of the hour was "'…how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?"

A few years ago, I was shopping on vacation in Amsterdam. It was the vacation of a lifetime, and I determined to purchase more socks and underwear at Magna Plaza rather than waste time finding a Laundromat. As I stood on queue at the department store checkout, what I heard amazed me. There were three people forward of me. The first person spoke Dutch; the second, German; and the third, Spanish. As the clerk in the department store greeted each customer, she slipped easily from language to language—including perfect English to me. I was increasingly amazed and astonished.

Although we have many languages represented in multicultural California, very few of us individually are proficient in more than two languages. We hear many native tongues spoken around us, but most of us do not have the gift of understanding. Earlier in our liturgy, we approximated the experience of the cacophony of languages at Pentecost—but few of us understood in more than one language being read.

The real miracle of Pentecost is that everyone understood. Communication happened. The target audience heard, comprehended, and took action—three thousand were baptized and added to the Church that day. I can only wish that the marketing campaigns I have conceived were so successful. Language is sometimes a barrier. Braniff Airlines invited its passengers to Fly in Leather—the Spanish translation bid passengers to "Fly Naked." General Motors was chagrined to learn too late that Nova means literally "doesn't go" in Spanish. Coors Beer once used an English slogan Turn It Loose, only to discover that the phrase in Spanish means, "suffer from diarrhea." The disciples at Pentecost did not have to translate—they were heard and understood.

Today we celebrate Pentecost on the church calendar, and Gay Pride Sunday on the secular calendar. I am delighted to learn that you were the seventh parish in all of Methodism to become a Reconciling Congregation, affirming and accepting lesbian and gay people in spite of the Methodist discipline's hateful language. That took courage, and I am both proud and humbled to be invited here today to worship with you. As we seek understanding, reconciliation, and justice together, I believe that effective communication is the lesson of Pentecost for today.

First, be clear on the message. The disciples waited quietly in the upper room until they got the point. Power is in the positive. Change is threatening. For many years, I have worshipped in the Episcopal Church. For God's "chosen frozen," there are two mantras: we've always done it that way, and everyone else is doing it. Change is compelled when there is good news. In the early days of HIV/AIDS, I was part of a very conservative congregation that cared for two members when they became ill. We were frightened, and empowered. The message of the Church is often "yes, but…." The but gets in the way. "Yes, and…" persuades.

Second, listen first. Novelist and screenwriter Margaret Millar once said, "Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness." That clerk in the Amsterdam department store used a technique that makes so much sense—she waited for her customer to speak before she spoke; consequently, she always articulated the right language. When you understand the position of your audience, even an audience of one, you can then use their perspective to convince and persuade. Even Peter in today's Scripture begins his discourse with reference to his audience's derision that the disciples were drunk.

Third, know your limits. When I was earning my living from professional ministry, I sometimes despaired when parishioners did not get my message. I would find myself repeating the old saying, I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant. A few years ago, a former parishioner from North Carolina contacted me in Chicago where I was living. She was coming to Chicago on business, and wanted to have dinner. She began our conversation with "Do you remember when you said…," then proceeded to tell me how much impact it had on her. Not only did I not remember, I was certain that I had not intended the meaning she interpreted. Then I realized that this frail messenger sometimes has to trust a higher power to translate the language so it can be heard