Two weeks ago I was on the subway on my way to church one morning when I was treated to the spectacle of a woman speaking in tongues. She got on the train, and began to preach, at first in English, and then as she got more worked up she began to babble in ecstasy, and leap around, and slam her hands onto the walls and seats of the subway car. It was fascinating, but she got so violent that some other women on the train began to try to intervene, asking her to calm down, asking if they could ask her questions to better understand what she was preaching about. She couldn’t respond in the state she was in, and just kept going until I got off the train, and I have no idea how much longer she went on uptown on the 4 train.
It got me thinking about how incredibly out of control the Spirit can be. Speaking in tongues is one of the gifts of the Spirit that is described in the Acts reading, and also listed in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It’s a gift that, as I understand it, bears no relation at all to how nicely and orderly we read in different languages earlier today, and resembles much more what I saw on the subway. Paul is suspicious of the gift of speaking in tongues—he doesn’t say if you have that gift you shouldn’t do it, but he does emphasize that there always needs to be someone to interpret what the person who is speaking in tongues is saying, or it is not a worthwhile gift. If no one can understand what you’re saying, then God cannot speak through you. The woman on the train obviously lacked an interpreter—which is part of what made it scary to see someone so possessed. Glossolalia seems to be attested to enough throughout history that I didn’t just want to write it off immediately as mental illness—perhaps it was, but perhaps I was witnessing someone was genuinely under the control of the Spirit. I’m pretty sure that I’ve never been as open to the Spirit as this woman was, if indeed it was the Spirit who was speaking through her. And that’s the tough thing about the Holy Spirit—it’s hard to tell. Just like the people who witnessed the Pentecost moment in Acts assumed the disciples must be drunk at 9am. When someone appears to be driven, it is hard to discern whether they are driven by the Holy Spirit, or by something else.
A few metaphors for the Holy Spirit are peaceful—the dove and the comforter come to mind. But all the rest run that line between danger and safety. The tongues of flame that descend upon the disciples signify that they are burning with the Spirit’s power—fire that is so ambiguous in its intent. Out of control forest fire (a la Arizona) or warming hearth fire? Then there is the sound of a rush of violent wind—the wind of a tornado or the cooling breeze that we wish we were feeling right now in this hot church? And water, the sign and symbol of baptism and the rebirth into the Spirit which we will bless and baptize with today is similarly ambiguous. Water is necessary for life—ask any of us who have lived in deserts—but is obviously also dangerous and frightening in its forms of floods and tsunamis and in its power to drown.
So the Holy Spirit is a power that dwarfs our power. Which probably makes it the most suspicious of the three parts of the Trinity for Episcopalians. God the Father is easy to place up in heaven, Jesus is confined to a human body and has stories we can read and study intellectually, but the Holy Spirit is a total wild card.
Being open to the Holy Spirit, though, doesn’t mean we will be speaking in tongues—at least not necessarily. It means we are open to the gifts of the Spirit that we have been given—which will be different from the gifts other people have. But whatever our gifts are, there’s an aspect of them where we allow ourselves to give over to the larger power of the Spirit—where we risk being out of control, at least a little, carried or driven by the Spirit to places, actions, and words that we weren’t planning on—something that comes from beyond ourselves. Inspiration happens—the Sprit breaths into ourselves and flows out again through our work and ministry—our vocations, our relationships, our artistic endeavors.
Part of this is developing the obvious gifts we have—we’ll see some wonderful artwork during coffee hour if it doesn’t rain made by some people who have visual gifts that they made during the “How does your garden grow?” group on Tuesday. If you’re an artist, develop that gift as a way of developing your relationship to the Spirit. If you’re analytical, develop that gift—I don’t believe the Spirit only gives soft and fluffy gifts—the gifts of discernment and questioning and organizing can be gifts just as much as preaching or teaching.
Developing what you’re good at—what you seem to be tempermentally suited for-- much makes a lot of sense. But part of being open to the Spirit is being open to following the Spirit even when the spirit is calling us someplace that we don’t expect—somewhere that does not seem a natural fit given our particular set of gifts. For myself, I have gifts of speaking and writing. I can be clear, succinct and powerful, hold the attention of a crowd. Which is precisely why the Spirit is often challenging me to listen and to read. Those are harder for me. They’re gifts which I need to have, and which I do have, but they take work. And they’re good gifts for all of us to consider on the day of Pentecost.
Eric Law is an Episcopal priest who is a native of Hong Kong who wrote a book called The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb about multicultural ministry in the church. He has a chapter about the Pentecost miracle, and he describes an epiphany he had when Walter Wink asked the question about the Acts story of Pentecost, “Is this a miracle of the tongue or a miracle of the ear?” Usually, the church has thought about Pentecost as a miracle of the tongue—the miracle is that the Spirit allowed a group of Jesus’ disciples to suddenly be able to speak in languages that they didn’t know. That’s certainly miraculous. But look at the second paragraph of the reading when the crowd says, “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” And they continue to understand Peter as he preaches alone.
The miracle isn’t just that the disciples can speak in other languages. It’s that Jews from all over the world could suddenly understand them. Not all can understand—some scoff and accuse the disciples of drunkenness. But some experience the miracle of the ear, and can hear.
Eric points out that in this context, it is the disciples who are a marginal group who would be unlikely to be listened to by the cosmopolitan crowd. Think of the hymn that describes them as “those happy, simple fisher folk” and remember the attitude of the people who said of Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Galilee?” The disciples are not a group who would be allowed to speak to people in power.
The crowd is made of powerful people—wealthy merchants who have travelled to Jerusalem for trade, study, and religious pilgrimage with the powers that be in the Temple. They are accustomed to having a platform to speak and be heard, to tell other people what to do. So the powerless group gets the glamorous gift of speaking in tongues; and the powerful group gets the miracle of the ear—the miracle of understanding.
Eric’s point is that in multicultural ministry, it is usually the people who belong to the more powerful group who need to experience the miracle of the ear, who need to stop speaking and start listening. And it is those people who belong to a traditionally oppressed ethnic group who need to experience the miracle of the tongue so that they can speak up.
So who are we? As a parish about to enter a period of discernment about where God is calling you as you eventually put together a parish profile to prepare for calling a new rector, it will be a good thing to remember the miracle of the ear and the miracle of the tongue, and to ensure that everyone is listening—particularly those naturally gifted with speech. Listening is not just about the ear, of course, it’s about listening with the heart to the whole person, hearing what is not said as well as what is said, hearing what is behind the words, listening to what the body of the speaker is saying as well as their voice. As individuals you will have to discern where you fall on the spectrum of speaking and listening—if you’re someone who usually is a speaker, who usually makes sure that your voice is heard and people know where you stand, I encourage you to develop your gifts of hearing. Which doesn’t mean you never get to speak, but it means to make sure that you have listened first. And for those of you who usually are quiet, who either choose not to speak or don’t feel confident enough to give voice to your thoughts, I encourage you to trust that the Spirit will guide your words and that they will be valued by others. As a community, we need both gifts, and the Spirit is present in each of them, and neither is greater than the other.
Today Genevieve will be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit. Who knows what gifts she will be given? We will mark her foreheard with oil of Chrism and say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” They do more chrismation in the Russian Orthodox church—there they would anoint his/her ears and say “May you hear with the ears of Christ” and anoint his/her lips and say “May you speak with the Words of Christ.” We won’t actually do that today, but that’s what the Chrismation means. We will be praying for her to have the gift of hearing with Christ’s ears, and speaking with Christ’s voice. And I hope that we will pray for ourselves as well, that we may hear with Christ's ears, and speak with Christ's voice. Amen.