Rev. Scott Summerville
How many of you speak the English language with an accent?
So some of you think that you do; some of you apparently think that you don’t; and some of you are confused.
Actually this is a trick question.
There is only one place in the entire world where the English language is spoken without an accent. It is a village in upstate New York north of Schenectady named East Glenville. That is where I grew up. The people there speak the English language without an accent. I learned as a child that wherever I went: Pennsylvania, Canada, even other parts of New York State, people spoke English with an accent.
I thought it was strange that I had been born in the only place on earth where people did not have accents. To this day, when people say to me, “You’re from upstate, aren’t you? I can tell by your accent.” I correct them. I tell them, “Yes, I am from upstate New York, as you can tell by the fact that I do not have any accent whatsoever.”
Why is it that we think that everyone else has some sort of accent, when the truth is that we all speak with an accent; even if some of us do not realize that we do?
Christians traditionally regard the day of Pentecost as the day that the church began. The story is told by Luke, the author of the gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts in our New Testament. Pentecost is actually an ancient Hebrew harvest festival; it was on that festival day after the Passover festival when Jesus was killed, that the church received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came with a an odd sign. People from different nations, speaking in different languages, were able to understand one another.
(Acts 2) 1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place… 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. … the crowd… was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
In spite of their different dialects accents and even languages people were able to be understood by one another; so it was on the day that gave birth to the church.
The Christian Pentecost experience is one in which the barrier of language is broken – human beings are able to speak and be understood regardless of the language they were speaking. This mysterious sign was the first sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church. How strange.
Our children attended public schools where there were children of many different ethnic backgrounds; many different languages were spoken in the homes of their classmates. One afternoon when our son, Thomas, was in the third grade he came home from school and reported on the events of the day. He said, “The teacher left the room for a while, and two children at my table got into a fight. One was shouting in Russian and the other child started shouting in Spanish. I learned a few Spanish words.” Hmmm… our son’s first language lesson: cursing in Russian and Spanish. I imagine that those two children had a pretty good idea of what they were saying to one another, despite the language difference. They were having a Pentecost experience
We are a Pentecost church. We all have accents – each of our accents is different – reflecting all the places we and our ancestors have been. How many here today grew up with English NOT your parents’ first language? As you see, we are indeed a Pentecost church – we are gathered from many nations, many regions, many different life experience. We are infants and octogenarians and even nonagenarian – we are female and male – we are different in so many ways – yet by the spirit of God among us we are one family with a hundred accents.
The world has been confronted in the last week with a dreadful spectacle: a natural disaster resulting in a human disaster of unimaginable magnitude and then a government preventing aid from reaching its own devastated population. Who can fathom such suffering and such evil?
When such events unfold even when they are on the opposite side of this planet from where we live, our own hearts are touched. Devastation strikes this place where probably none of us has ever been, and the ripple goes out across planet Earth –– electrons and microwave signals transmit news, photographs, sounds, and video imagery of human loss and suffering.
Across the networks of human communication – satellite and Internet phone and television – a part of the earth – a part of humanity – is struck; the world is affected, and the human family seeks to respond. For the church, from the perspective of Pentecost, this is an entirely natural thing. Because from the very birth of the church we have declared that the Holy Spirit breaks down the divisions between human beings; the Holy Spirit creates a universal community and inspires a universal compassion.
When tens of thousands of lives are swept away, extinguished – girls, boys, women, men, infants, great-grandparents, students, teachers, fishermen and their boats, farmers in their fields, students in their classrooms, so many people in the midst of the ordinary events of daily life, and so many other creatures, wild and tame – suddenly all this life swept away. Then one considers the conditions faced by the survivors. It is something that is very difficult to grasp, and something that is very difficult to come to terms with morally and spiritually.
While we are called by our church and by our own consciences to respond by acts of giving, there is also the matter of the heart – how does the heart take in such an immense tragedy?
My friends, rabbi Harold Swiss, died last year – he was a wonderful teacher –– of course the Jewish word Rabbi means teacher. I learned much from Rabbi Swiss about Jewish tradition and Jewish spirituality. One of the things that Rabbi Swiss taught me was how to be sad. That may sound odd, the idea that someone might have to teach us how to be sad. But think about the way you were brought up. Were you taught how to be sad? Did your parents or other adults around you express sadness with tears, with prayers, with gentle touch? Did they speak of their sadness, or did they conceal their sadness?
In your childhood, in times of hurt and loss and disaster did people steel themselves and give an outward image of composure and strength? When a child does not see the adults in their world expressing sadness, they may not learn how to be sad. We may need to be taught later in life how to be sad.
Rabbi Swiss was a man who could sparkle with laughter one moment and weep the next; he had no inhibitions about expressing either joy or sadness. And when he sang the Jewish prayers or sang the Torah or the psalms, he poured all the pain of his life as well as the a sweetness of life into it; he did not hold anything back.
So I, as a 50-something white Anglo-Saxon male Christian clergyman (with no accent at all), who grew up in the grin-and-bear-it-stiff- upper-lip approach to life’s troubles, was taught by an aging Jew (with a rich lower East side accent) how to be sad.
In the USA, we are a can-do people; we are an optimistic culture. In our religion the idea has crept in that if you are spiritual, you are always happy. If you are spiritual, you are always come contented. A Christian is always positive and upbeat.
Where did we get this idea? The rabbis, the prophets, and Jesus himself – they teach us to sing with joyful hearts, and they teach us also that there are times when it is right to be sad, to lament, to acknowledge that one’s heart is breaking.
There is a time to sing alleluia! And there is and to cry out with the voice of the psalms:
“O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”
A couple months ago as part of our Lenten program many of us heard Rev. Andie Raynor read from the book that she will soon have published. It was a book that started to be an autobiographical narratives weaving together two themes: Andie’s work as a hospice chaplain and her experience as a morgue chaplain at Ground Zero after 9/11. The writing project was interrupted when she got cancer. When she emerged form her treatments and was well enough to resume work on the book, the book evolved into a narrative weaving together those two strands and adding a third: her own personal journey of sickness and healing.
Andie is a wonderfully gifted speaker and writer; listening to her you can be distracted by the artistry of her words. One of the things that was so moving about listening to her, and one of the reasons I’m looking forward to this book getting into print, is the way in which she has been able to enter completely into situations of terrible pain – terrible loss and suffering – without dressing it up and making it look pretty, and at the same time finding dignity, and love, and tears, and even humor in the midst of pain.
This book will help people to take their life experience as it is; it will help people to take it as it comes, and let the sadness be truly sad, and let the happiness be truly happy, and not feel they have to force their emotions through some preset formula that says, “This is the way I should always feel.”
Pentecost is about overcoming barriers so that we can hear one another and enter into one another’s experience. Pentecost is about the compassion that we feel as human beings for one another, even for people we have never met and will never know personally. Pentecost is about people with all their differences being able to come together in a common spirit.
Pentecost is the sweetness of fellowship in Christ, the pleasure of encountering people with different accents and different life experiences and connecting deeply, loving and being loved with that love Scriptures call agape, that love of sister and brother in Christ.
Pentecost is deep sorrow at the staggering suffering of the people of Burma (and now also China), and Pentecost is the universal compassion that brings forth actions to try to ease that suffering.
Pentecost is a person standing in the sanctuary singing praise to God and offering prayers Sunday after Sunday for sixty or seventy years worshiping along side a child who is just learning to read, or beside someone who is new in the neighborhood, or someone just experiencing Christian worship and fellowship for the first time –– and being there as equals, as one body in Christ.
In a world that stresses human differences and divisions, here we celebrate the Holy Spirit that binds us together, and the Holy Spirit’s gifts of communication and reconciliation and compassion.
Blessings to all of you.
Blessings to mothers and families on this Mother’s Day.
May there be a Pentecost spirit be in your home and with you and your kin – sometimes those we are closest to we can be farthest away from.
May God bless and strengthen every bond of family and friendship on this Pentecost Mother’s Day.
Grace and peace to you.