I think one of the saddest questions that I ever get asked as a priest is, “Is this the right way to…” or “ Is it ok to…” Now, I can understand why people ask these questions, but that still doesn’t stop me from getting sad. I believe that these questions are asked because people want to be respectful of God and don’t want to do anything that is disrespectful. I can appreciate that. But what makes me sad is that in my opinion, it presents the wrong image of God.
It is not that God should not be respected. Yes! God should be respected! But it presents the image that there is only one way that God is willing to accept that respect. If we do not do that exactly right thing, then God is going to look the other way.
We have seen this attitude throughout history. It even has a name! It is called Gnosticism. Gnosticism says that there is a special way to get God’s attention and if we do not use that special way, then God can’t be bothered listening to us. But as I was writing this sermon, I just had to laugh at how wrong that all seems.
You see, I was sitting out in the “back yard” of the church while writing this. And while writing, there were all kinds of noises and things going on. Birds were singing, trucks were making noises, music was playing, and jets were passing over head. It was all kinds of noisy and, I believe, it was all praising God! And I had to wonder, since there were all kinds of things praising God in all kinds of ways, then something here must be WRONG! The Gnostics would have us believe that there is only one way to properly praise God, so that must mean that every other way has to be wrong.
I hope that last statement feels a bit uncomfortable to you. It should. Why would birds singing be a wrong way to praise God? Why would the music I hear be a bad thing? If God made the whole wondrous world, why would the sounds that come from it be unpleasing to God?
The writer of the Psalms was not caught up in the idea that God could only be worshipped in a certain way. The first stanza of today’s psalm sings praises for the abundance that we find in the world!
O LORD, how manifold are your works! *
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
The earth is full of your creatures! And all of these creatures are making all kinds of different sounds. Some moo, some croak, some chirp, and some talk! God created many incredible ways in which the creation can sing his praise! When I worked at camp, we taught a great song called, “All God’s Critters.” The first verse will give you a feel for the song:
“All God’s critters got a place in the choir/
Some sing low, some sing higher/
Some sing out loud from the telephone wire/
And some just clap their hands/
Or anything they got now!”
The message of the song is that we all have our way, our language for praising God! And no matter the way, our way has a place among the voices singing out to God.
If this weren’t true, we wouldn’t have the story of Pentecost. In the story of Pentecost, we are told that all the people heard the Good News in their own language. No matter how the people expressed themselves, God was sending the message to them!
Some people will say that the reason the populations were able to hear the message is because God opened their ears to the message; that the disciples were not really speaking in a different language. Well, I do believe that God will open the ears of those we speak to, but that would not explain why the people were hearing all kinds of different languages. No, I think we have a combination of the disciples peaking to the people in their own language and the Lord opening up their ears, and probably more importantly, their heart to the message. In the miracle of tongues that we see during Pentecost, God is once again saying “Yes” to all the various ways that people express themselves in the world.
Over the past weeks, we have been talking about how to spread the message. Christ tells us to go out and speak the word. We are shown where Paul went out and spoke to the women and their hearts were opened and their families were baptized. And today we are shown that Christ will rain the Spirit down upon us so that we may speak that word in a way that the world will understand. I think this is one of the challenges that face us as the People of Christ in the world. We always need to be aware of the message we wish to speak and also the manner in which we speak it. The right message in the wrong manner will be lost.
Some of you know my story about teaching an adult class in French. One of the people, who had just said that people should learn how we speak and do things if they want to be part of the church, got very angry that I was not speaking in a way she understood. I told her, in English, that if she wanted to be part of this group, she would need to learn French. My message was proper and true, it was just presented in a manner she could not understand. If there was nothing about it that she could latch onto, then the message was lost on her.
The same can be said about our world today. We need to look at how we are presenting the message. Is it in a manner people can understand? Is there a way we can alter our presentation so as to make it more approachable? I am not talking about changing the message, not at all! But I am talking about how the message is placed out in the world. If we are speaking French to an English speaking world, no one is going to understand. If we are speaking Ph.D. Quantum Physics to someone who has a Ph.D. in Philosophy, the message will be lost. If we are speaking at an adult level to a six-year-old, the six-year-old is going to be hard pressed to understand. And if we continue to speak to the six-year-old as if he or she were an adult, the child would feel totally left out and abandoned.
The miracle of Pentecost is not that one way of spreading the word is better than the others; the miracle is that God can use all kinds of languages to spread the word! And also, all kinds of languages can praise the Lord! It is not just Aramaic that God hears, it is also Greek and Parthian! It is not just King James that God hears, but also New Revised Standard! It is not just organ that God hears, but also keyboard, tambourine, and drums! God has given us so many languages to speak in, and God wants us to speak to the world in our own unique language!
As Episcopalians, we have a language, we have a way of speaking. And this is a good thing! But we also have a message that needs to be brought to the world! The question becomes, how do we keep the message but make sure we can spread the message. This is not always the easiest thing to do! But it is definitely worth the challenge.
A couple of suggestions that I will make are not that hard to implement.
The first would be to increase our understanding of our faith. If we do not understand the message, it makes it harder to spread that message. If I am not sure of what I am saying in English, I am going to have a really difficult time saying it in French! In the fall, I will be offering adult classes where we can together grow in faith and our knowledge of the faith. We can grow in our understanding and learn to articulate our faith so that others may come to understanding.
Second would be to increase the languages we speak. If all we speak is middle-class Episcopalian, then if we encounter someone who has a different language, we will be stuck. Even if we try to share the Good News, if we don’t have a feel for that other person’s language, it will be as if we are speaking French while that person only understands English.
And thirdly, but by no means the least important is to keep the lines of communication open between you and God! Daily prayer and meditation is a wonderful thing. Ask for guidance and for the words to say. Ask what God would have you do and then trust that you will be given the power to do it!
We shouldn’t have to worry about if something is “right.” As long as we are speaking our language in love, I truly believe that God will hear. God, as the ultimate loving parent, loves us and loves our effort to serve God. Even if our efforts fall short, I believe that God appreciates the effort itself and can take that effort and use it to God’s glory!
We are children of the Pentecost; we are the people of Holy Spirit! Let’s go out and spread God’s message to the world! However we can! With our hands, or paws, or anything we got now!