Sunday, May 23, 2021

Sermon: "Speaking in the Spirit", Acts 2:1-8, 12-13/Ezekiel 37:1-10 (May 23, 2021--Pentecost)

When we think of the story of Pentecost, we usually think of the dramatic visuals: the individual tongues of flame alighting on each person; the confusion of the crowd; the jeering of the unbelievers. When we think of Ezekiel and the “Valley of Dry Bones,” we likewise think of the incredible imagery: the deserted low place full of dry, sun-bleached skeletons; the spectacle of these bones suddenly becoming covered in sinews and flesh and skin; the great earthquake that accompanies this miracle. If you close your eyes, it’s easy to picture these events. They’re two of the most vivid scenes in all of scripture. No wonder we’re drawn to them.

But there’s a more mundane aspect of these stories that we often overlook. The tongues of flame aren’t really the main point of the Pentecost story; the dancing skeletons aren’t the important part of Ezekiel’s vision. They’re just ornamentation. In each of these cases, the miraculous visuals draw us in, but the heart of the account lies in the words spoken aloud by human beings. In Acts, the crowd’s attention is captured by the apostles prophesying to them in every language, and in Ezekiel, the bones reassemble in response to the prophet’s words. For all the emphasis that we place on the visuals of these stories, the real lesson lies in the words spoken aloud: divinely inspired human prophesies that bring life and truth to others.

I often emphasize our actions as meaningful expressions of faith (after all, faith without works is dead), and convention tells us that actions speak louder than words. But then again, we also know that the pen is mightier than the sword—and I suspect that this adage applies to more than just written words. Our words are far from meaningless. In the right circumstances, they can be just as powerful as our actions. In fact, these two passages of scripture seem to suggest that our words are an important vehicle through which the Holy Spirit works. If we claim to devote our whole selves to God, this includes the things that we say—our words should also be offered up freely for God’s purposes. We readily envision ourselves as the hands and feet of Christ, so why wouldn’t we also seek to be the voice of the Holy Spirit?

After all, words are a foundational aspect of our faith tradition. I’m not just talking about the way worship has developed over the centuries; I mean that in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, God SAID, “Let there be light,” and there was light. I mean that in the beginning, the Lord SAID to Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great.” I mean that in the beginning WAS the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. From the beginning of our faith, words have acted as manifestations of God’s presence, giving life, forging connection, and bestowing wisdom on humanity.

As we celebrate the “birthday of the Church” today, we remember how the apostles’ words brought the gospel to three thousand people in one fell swoop by speaking to the people in a way that they could hear and understand. We remember how Ezekiel’s words brought life back to the long-dead—the house of Israel—by communicating God’s promise to them. We remember how very sacred and spirit-filled words can be. When our words are infused with the Holy Spirit, miracles happen.

Now, that’s all well and good, but it’s not always easy to discern whether what we say is actually inspired by God. We know how easy it can be to falsely claim God’s authority, intentionally or not (we’ve even been given a specific Commandment addressing this issue). In everyday life, it doesn’t always feel any different to prophesy than it does to place an order at a McDonalds’ Drive-Thru. Certainly, if we begin to speak in tongues or if our words breathe life into dry bones, it’s a good sign that there’s something other than just ourselves at work. But we don’t see that very often these days.

That doesn’t mean, however that the Spirit isn’t still speaking through us. This week, I’d planned to prove this point with one or two illustrations about lives being profoundly shaped by someone else’s simple (perhaps even offhanded) words. I solicited examples from friends and colleagues, hoping for a few good examples to choose from. But friends, the responses I got (and there were many) were so moving that I couldn’t choose just one or two and plug them into my sermon as an afterthought. I could tell that these words were filled with something inexplicably holy, despite seeming entirely ordinary on the surface. They didn’t belong just to the person who’d uttered them, but to God. It was clear to me that not only had the Holy Spirit been present when these words were first uttered, *she was still speaking through the recounting of these transformative words.*

I realized that instead of using these sacred prophesies as incidental sermon illustrations, I needed to get out of the way and let the Spirit speak for herself. So I want to share a few of them with you. Although some of these words might sound inconsequential to you, remember that every single one of them has changed at least one life in ways that have echoed through the years. I suspect that as you listen, you may feel the Spirit stirring in your heart, too. I don’t know which of these messages you need to hear today…but the Spirit does.

Some life advice:

“If you don’t like where you are, move.”

“Live your life in such a way that a free cookie makes your day.”

“Just because it’s written down—even in a textbook—doesn’t mean it’s true. Always question the perspective of the author.”

“If you can expect the worst, then you can expect the best too, because they both have an equal likelihood of happening.”

“Don’t forget to be grateful for all the things your body DOES allow you to do.”

“I regret that it took me so long to feel comfortable in my own skin. You should choose to wear whatever you like, and not worry too much about other people’s opinions.”

“Just because you’re not willing to hear something doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

Some reassurances that you’re not alone:

“I believe you.”

“You’re not crazy.”

“Just choose a path and don’t look back—God will be wherever you go.”

“Nothing you did caused this, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it.”

“This was not your fault.”

“Your past doesn’t scare me; I’m not going anywhere.”

“Your own worst pain is your own worst pain is your own worst pain.”

“There is always hope.”

Some reminders of who you are:

“You have more to give to the world than you realize. So believe in yourself. The rest of us need you to.”

“You are beautiful inside and out.”

“Don’t deprive the world of your personality.”

“I don’t see you as a weak person.”

“You deserve to experience the same grace and love that you offer to others.”

“Try seeing yourself the way your dog sees you.”

“Just remember: you’re good at this!”

“If no one else tells you today, you’re important and I’m glad you’re here.”

“You’ve spent so much of your life trying to make other people happy. You deserve to be happy for once.”

“God called YOU, so be you.”

“Remember who you are and whose you are.”

“There’s nothing you can do to make God love you any less, and nothing you can do to make God love you any more. There’s nothing that will separate you from the love of God.”

What words have been a sacred gift to you in your life? Not just kind or encouraging words, but genuinely life-changing words? Maybe you can still hear them echoing in your head. Maybe you don’t remember the specific words themselves, but their message has burrowed deep into your heart and stayed there. Maybe the words were from someone you admired, or maybe they came from an entirely unexpected source. Maybe you’ve expressed gratitude for them, or maybe the person who uttered them has had no idea of their impact. Did you recognize the Spirit’s presence in those words?

We don’t always know how our words will impact others—if they’ll bring life to dry bones or be written off as the effects of “new wine.” But if we leave ourselves open to the Holy Spirit every chance we get, if we welcome her into our hearts and minds and lives—even just a little bit at a time—we’ll find ourselves invited to share in these sacred moments where words are transformed from a basic exchange of information into holy wisdom with metamorphic properties. And that can be a life-giving experience for both the speaker and the hearer.

Traditionally, Pentecost has always been a day that God’s people celebrate the gifts that they’ve received from God: it was originally a festival to express gratitude for the harvest; it later became a time to commemorate the giving of the Ten Commandments; today, the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the ecclesia. As we remember and give thanks for God’s many gracious gifts to us, consider how your own words can be a gift to others. We may not find that our words can reanimate dry bones, but with the Spirit’s inspiration, they can just as surely bring life to others. May we choose them carefully, may we share them liberally, and may we receive the gift of God’s Spirit to inspire them always. Amen.

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