Understanding – May 23, 2021

by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh

Acts 2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

I have a sermon about understanding.

My friend Jan, who was born and raised in Belgium, is a part of my Circle 12 study group with the Franciscans, out of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. He told us of a time when he met God. He was on an adventure with his brother, when he was a teenager. He and his brother bought tickets for a month-long train ride, and they rode all over Europe, back when you could do that when you bought the one ticket. As Jan says it, they were two men coming of age, with hair out to here (Jan talks with his hands). He describes how he and his brother ended up in Greece; his brother went on an adventure in one direction, and Jan went in another direction. Jan was walking, in the gloaming, hungry, big backpack, without plans, and he went down a dark road, not sure why his intuition led him there. His heart was open. He came to a gate in a fence, and some instinct he had told him to turn in the gate. 

What he found down the road was a hotel, with fancy new construction. He knocked. Nobody came for the longest time. Finally, the gardener came, startled to see him there, and just stood there, taking in his pack, his hair, his quiet. 

Jan explains what happened next, in a way that sounds like he still can’t believe it. The gardener did not speak English, and Jan did not speak much English either then, and Jan spoke even less Greek, and the gardener did not speak any of the Dutch, French, and German that they speak in Belgium, so these two men did not have a common language. The gardener brought Jan into the empty hotel kitchen. And then he started to cook him supper. The way Jan remembers it, he began to prepare all of these Greek foods. The Imam Bayildi, the Spanakopita, the falafel, the grape leaves, the Avgolemono. Jan could not have imagined that they could have had such an evening together, tasting foods, laughing, so overcome by joy to cook and eat together. The gardener cooked for Jan all night. 

When Luke writes in the Book of Acts that they had gathered at Pentecost, they were there, ready to celebrate the festival of wheat and barley in Shavuot (feast of weeks, because it is seven weeks after Passover), and to bring the first fruits to the temple in Jerusalem (wheat, barley, figs, dates, grapes, pomegranates, and olives), to celebrate the gift of Torah—they were all there ready to do that, when the leaders suddenly got filled with the rush of wind and the tongues of fire and started speaking other languages, languages which all the people who had come to the center of the city to give thanks for Pentecost could understand. And they were stunned with this feast of understanding. Peter said it was exactly as the prophet had said, that there would be a day when we would understand each other, when all the groups would speak, and all would understand: when women and men, young and old and middle aged, slaves and free, would all speak and be understood, and the boundaries between us would fall away. 

I love this generous religious holiday from the book of Acts and how it overlaps with Jan’s feast in the absence of a common language. In Scripture, the leaders spoke and everybody understood in their own languages. And in Jan’s story, the language was food, and Jan understood it perfectly. Truly, each of us could tell a story of when we got to welcome a stranger, or a stranger welcomed us, and how easy the language was. Paul writes that the spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words, when we ourselves can find the words for a prayer. 

The word in Hebrew for spirit is the same word as the word for wind. I like to think that this means that they are in the same corner of your brain when you hear them. The word is Ruach, this concept of the breath of God and the breath of us. We breathe in the wind, we breathe in the breath, we breathe in the Spirit of God. Beatrice Bruteau would say God is hidden in these ordinary things like wind, that we might not even know were God’s. And this holiness, blowing around us and being breathed in by all of us, is holy understanding.

My neighbors Jill and Allison are working on their sidewalk this week, on Mineral Street: Allison is building cairns and digging in their tiny garden, planting so many sweet plants, and Jill is making a tiny museum out of a doll house, complete with gardens and glass balls and Buddhas and Modigliani paintings, cut out of catalogues and lovingly wrapped about tiny boxes. They are sitting outside their house, welcoming the folks who walk by, and inviting them to sit on an upturned bucket with a rug spread on top, like a royal chair, to enjoy the art and the garden. Jill offered to give some of it away, but not all of it. I was so happy even just to be there, I thought I would just take it in. I didn’t need any words. I could understand it perfectly. And it was a gift, offered in all of the languages of the world. Art is like food: you don’t need words. Gardens are like that too. Really, the planet is, if you stop for a year and pay attention to it. You don’t need words. You can just understand it if you listen.

When Jan finished the story, he said that the sun was rising, after all that food, and Jan wanted to sleep a little. The gardener said Jan couldn’t stay in a room or the gardener would get fired. So instead the gardener showed him a bench outside the front door, in the morning sunlight, where he could take a nap. Jan lay down and napped, and the gardener went back into the kitchen. And you know what happened next? The gardener cooked breakfast.

Often, when people are speaking languages we think we don’t know, we actually do know how to understand them. And then there is the mystical speaking in tongues too, that sometimes goes with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Because understanding is a gift – a sacred gift – and it is beyond all the ordinary kinds of intelligence. It is its own holy gift. And today is its feast.

In conclusion, I would like to sing you Peter Mayer’s Blue Boat Home, this new set of folk words about the understanding which Walt Whitman said was “Seeking the spheres to connect them”.  It is to the lovely old Welsh tune which Rowland Hugh Pritchard wrote when he was 19: Hyfrydol, which means lovely, pleasant, tuneful, delightful, pleasant, agreeable, harmonious. May our understanding grow in holiness, and may we be delighted by it, and may we find ourselves ever in communion, with each other, the land, the sea, and the sky. 

Though below me, I feel no motion
Standing on these mountains and plains
Far away from the rolling ocean
Still my dry land heart can say
I’ve been sailing all my life now
Never harbor or port have I known
The wide universe is the ocean I travel
And the earth is my blue boat home

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