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Acts 2:1-13 (Women’s Lectionary, Year W)


Let me tell you about the time that I was schooled by a Texan street preacher.

Back in 2010, I led a group of 60 teenagers on a mission trip to Galveston, TX. We were doing some rebuilding and recovery work following Hurricane Ike — which was a few years before. As I would always tell the youth, and as I’ve always experienced, the most rewarding part of these trips is getting the chance to talk to the folks whom we are serving — putting a face and a name to the work, working alongside homeowners and others.

One of the sites we worked at was a community kitchen called Streetscape Ministries. The man in charge of the kitchen was this guy named Steve — six foot something, built like a linebacker, and heavily tattooed — you gotta watch out for those tattooed guys! He spoke with a heavy Texas twang, and you could almost hear him censoring out colorful language as he spoke to the group, reflecting on his ongoing journey to, as he said, “get right with the Lord.”

Steve had spent much of his life as an active user of hard drugs. He had a number of run-ins with the police and was currently on probation. Like so many folks we met, Steve was eager to share his personal story of transformation and salvation and to convey to us how knowing Jesus had turned his life around.

I spent about an hour talking with Steve. Whenever he’d recall God’s in-breaking into his life, he would recount how God met him at his lowest and loneliest places, how God would speak to him directly and say, “Big boy, you gotta stop this stuff.” And, “Bubba, you know what you’re doin’ ain’t right.”
Every time he would talk about God speaking to him, God would address Steve as “Big Boy” or “Bubba.” Sometimes when recounting how he spoke to God, Steve would address God in the same way — Big Boy, Bubba.

Now, I’m not the most reverent Reverend you’ll ever meet, but this was striking me somewhat odd. To my theologically-trained, Connecticut Yankee ear, God calling Steve “Big Boy” and “Bubba” and Steve using those same nicknames for God wasn’t sitting right for some reason. So finally, a little incredulous and probably a whole lot condescending, I asked Steve: “Is this really how you and God talk to each other? Does God really call you Big Boy? Do you really call God Bubba?”

Steve quickly replied: “Oh yeah! God knows how to speak to me. God knows how to get my attention. Ya see, Chris, God knows how to talk you in a way you’ll understand!”

And there I was, schooled by this street preacher. It should’ve been obvious. Of course God did not say to Steve, this down-home Texas boy, “Hark my child, thou must ceaseth thine foolishness!” No, that wouldn’t make sense.

The voice of God that not only spoke to Steve, but spoke to who he was had to be like: “Big boy, bubba, you gotta stop all of this BS.” That was a divine message that Steve could understand, spoken in Steve’s language. Because God speaks to each one of us in a way that we can and will understand.

In the second chapter of Acts, we have the Disciples in Jerusalem gathered in a room to celebrate the Jewish holy day of Pentecost. Our Jewish siblings are observing that same holy day this weekend with the celebration of Shavuot, 50 days after the Passover. It is a holy Day with multiple purposes, one of which is the celebration of Moses receiving the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai, 50 days after the Israelites’ liberation from the Land of Bondage. The 10 commandments signaled a new covenant between God and the people, just as the long awaited arrival of the Holy Spirit signals a renewed covenant between God and the followers of Jesus. Jesus had promised to send an Advocate — the Holy Spirit — in his place after his ascension. And finally that day had come.  

When the Holy Spirit arrives, immediately the disciples begin to proclaim this Good News — yet, in a curious way. Each one of the disciples began speaking in a language that was foreign to them, as Galileans. There would have been many other faithful Jews from neighboring nations gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, and a crowd formed when they heard the commotion coming from the Disciples’ house.

A Judean came near and heard his language. A Cappadocian heard the words in her native tongue. An Elamite heard the familiar words. A Mesopotamian, a Median, Createns, Arabs, Romans, faithful Jewish disciples and gentile on-lookers — all hearing the words of their own native language spoken by these disciples, proclaiming the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the Good News of the love of Christ.

And they were bewildered — after all, the disciples were a group of uneducated back-country bubbas that couldn’t possibly know all of these languages! Yet, each listener, both locals and those from distant lands, heard the words in their own native language — because God speaks to each one of us in a way that we can and will understand.

I like the response of some of the folks in the crowd. Skeptical and cynical, they say the disciples are just babbling drunks. Peter defends them with what I find to be one of the most hilarious lines of scripture: These men are not drunk; it’s only 9 in the morning! 1

Rather, Peter continues, what the crowd hears is the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that the spirit will be poured out on all flesh — sons and daughters, young and old, enslaved and free people — the spirit will dwell among and within all people of all lands. 2

Through the message of Pentecost, the truth is revealed that God’s presence and the saving love of Christ is not just for a select few of a certain race or ethnicity — God’s love is universal, for all of God’s children throughout all of God’s creation. What’s more, God does not speak in a language foreign to ours; God uses the language that the listener will know and understand.

As it turns out, God does not speak only in American English or in the antiquated English of the King James bible, or even in the Latin of the old Catholic Mass — God is well-travelled and well-versed in all forms and dialects of language. The sheer number of bible translations attests to the truth that God and God’s love is to be made accessible and universal.

Friends, I find language to be incredibly important. It is essential that we speak with God, to God, and about God in ways that can be both broadly and uniquely understood by folks in their own language — and not only in one’s in actual language, but in a way that can be understood. How we speak with God, to God, and about God greatly and directly impacts how we experience God in our lives.

In my opinion and experience, being constantly mindful of this is essential to my effectiveness as a preacher and as an ordained church leader — as someone who is given the honor of helping others learn about, perceive, experience, and know God. Because if the language I use does not help you access God but rather further obscures God from you or even sets up a barrier between you and God, then I am failing at my call to proclaim the Good News.

Follow me for a minute:

If I was to stand up here and give some long lecture about eschatological reversals and the hermeneutic of suspicion, you might rightly tune me out, and I have then obscured God from you. But if I shared the Good News that Jesus came to turn everything on its head and make the lowly holy, and urged you to read scripture in a way that is mindful of the context of the scripture and considers who is missing from the stories, then that might speak to you.

But it’s not just about the language spoken and the vocabulary used. We also know the importance of being mindful about gendered language. I believe that the story of Pentecost gives us scriptural grounding for what we call “Inclusive Language” — the effort to expand our image of and language for God beyond the traditional male or masculine constructs in order to remove potential barriers and make God’s presence more clear and identifiable to a broader range of identities.

Not many of you likely need convincing about this, but stick with me for a minute and think of it this way: If I referred to God using only male pronouns, how would those of us here who do not identify as male see the presence of God within ourselves? Scripture provides us with a multitude of images for God — traditionally masculine images, traditionally feminine images, and images without specific gender. So I must be both inclusive and expansive in how I speak about the One who is the name beyond all names, the One who encompasses all that is, all that was, and all that ever will be.

And this goes beyond our language for and about God. It extends to how we refer to one another. If I referred to all of humanity as “man” or “mankind,” that excludes a significant portion of the population. If I called all of you “my brothers in Christ,” then am I saying that I don’t consider women to be in the Christian family? I would be putting up a barrier between me and my fellow Children of God.

Just the same, if I referred only to “my brothers and sisters in Christ,” how would folx who are non-binary or gender-variant — those who experience their gender identity as neither male nor female, or as both male and female — feel a sense of kinship with me?

And there are further commonly used terms and images that require our careful and respectful reconsideration — expressions in the Christian lexicon that unintentionally construct a barrier or turn people away. We must be mindful of our word and image choice around the holiness of light and the cursedness of dark, and how that might be heard by people with darker skin.

Christian language and imagery can also be quite ableist. We must consider the impact when we say we were “blind” to something, but now we “see,” how that might be experienced by someone who is actually blind. Even when we celebrate the birth of a child and give our thanks that “God has blessed us with a healthy baby,” might the parent of a child with disabilities then believe that God has cursed them?

See, the language we use can invite and include and it can turn away and exclude.

How we speak about God is vitally important. How God speaks to us is a whole other matter, which brings us back to Our Bubba, who art in heaven.

While God and Steve the Texas Street Preacher might’ve called each other Bubba and Big Boy, those images just don’t work for me. And that’s OK, because it worked for Steve. I speak to God in my own way, I hear God in my own way, and I bet you do, too. I believe that God is speaking to you, in your life, in your language, right now.

God does not always speak to us in words — for words too often fall short of the glory and grace we experience. Sometimes it’s as clear as a voice spoken in stillness from inside our own minds. Just the same, sometimes it’s the embrace of a loved one or the sense of belonging in a community. That is what it’s like with the Holy Spirit: this entity that you just cannot grasp or really explain, but you know when you experience it. All of this is the language of God, speaking to us in ways both understandable and beyond our comprehension.

There will be times we hear the words of God, even if spoken in our own familiar language, when we might be like some of those in the crowd hearing the disciples, scoffing and saying this is all gibberish — meaningless drunk-talk. Sometimes we might be the ones speaking the words of God and God-inspired words, others will dismiss it as nonsense. But we remember the words of the Prophet Joel, proclaimed by Peter, that in the days the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh — and the spirit dwells among and within all people of all lands. This is the power of God’s love and God’s presence in our lives. To each in our own native language, God speaks. And we are called to listen.

1 Acts 2:15
2 Joel 2:28-29