By Rev. Joan Kessler
Acts 2: 1-4 Psalm 104: 24-34
Today is special to me. Today is the anniversary of my Ordination which was celebrated six years ago at McDougall United in downtown Edmonton. I cherish this day like any special anniversary, and I recall it often. In my humble estimation, coming from one who has attended my share of celebration of Ministry services, it was the best one yet. The service was a gathering of all the things that show the United Church of Canada at its very best. The church was packed that day with family, friends, and the wider church all coming together to hear and see and taste the gifts of that Spirit that showed up that day. There were Afro-Canadian dancers, Indigenous Elders, street people, trans people, cis-gender people, rural people, and urban people. There were retired people, young people; there were joyful people, fed people, strengthened people.
We sang hymns in different languages. We sang of building a house where all belong. We were reminded that God knows us by name and calls us to all sorts of amazing things – ministry and leadership, both ordered and lay. It took 20 mins to serve everyone communion that morning. This celebration of ministry service was an outpouring of the Spirit that is already there and here and everywhere … one that Is and Has Been and Is Still to Come!
The United Church of Canada has seen many changes since its inception and official coming into being in 1925. I think a big piece of the way it remains relevant and challenging is that it repeatedly asks and discerns three good questions: Who are we? Who is our neighbor? What are we called to do and to be? (Good questions for congregations too). Over the past nine and half decades, we have answered these ponderings by our ongoing commitment to racial justice, truth before reconciliation, affirming sexual orientation and gender identity of all persons within or without the church. The United Church of Canada does not have a bishop to decide for us; we are guided by our Moderator who provides spiritual leadership to foster meaningful conversations rather than being told what to think, what to believe, how to live.
I was asked the other week, by a member of the wider community what, in my opinion, separated the United Church from other denominations. My answer was that I believed we take scripture seriously but not literally. My faithful friend understood this response. And we agreed to disagree at the end of our conversation. Our stance towards scripture provides us with an opportunity to know and experience the Spirit that is always at work within us and around us, before and beyond us.
Sacred story is a gift of rootedness, like a tree planted by the water. This is the image that comes to my mind; it tells us of the journey of a people and their relationship to God and to one another. Scripture reads me perhaps even more so than I read it. I take the stories and experiences of others to help make sense of my own and deepen my faith and ask my questions. And conversations like I have had countless times over my ministry continue to grow out my edges of faith and it fosters an understanding even if we don’t speak the same language.
In our reading from Acts, we remember those early followers of Jesus, gathered together in a secluded, upper room to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Weeks. There, a chaotic scene unfolds. A violent wind that blows through the place and everyone began to speak their own mother tongue. There was a tremendous sense of togetherness and unity. They were not amazed and astounded at the sound of wind and the site of flaming tongues over their heads, or the foreign languages being shared. They were amazed and astonished by the understanding of what was being said, asking, “How is it we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
I am unilingual. I do not possess a second language. Identifying as hearing impaired, I have a deep appreciation for linguistics and the richness of speech and being heard. Language is a cultural identifier. It is so much more than the mere sum of its grammatical patterns, vocabulary, and syntax. Language carries the richness of its cultures, histories and spiritualities. Because I speak English, I orient myself in a particular fashion. And one who speaks Hebrew or French or Arabic would orient themselves in the world according to their language, unique and valued to each person.
Understanding diverse speech is what I celebrate this day of Pentecost. Being heard and understood doesn’t always mean agreeing. Having important conversations and creating those environments and opportunities is critically important work for the Church of the 21st century. This reading from Acts reminds me that the Spirit is not about uniformity but rather an honoring of the endless variety and creativity of human voices. One language and means of communicating is not enough. We live in the midst of pluralism, and we are but one strand on an interwoven tapestry of many colors. We know the intrinsic value of experiencing other ethnicities and their faith traditions. The United Church has made commitments to interfaith dialogue, becoming anti-racist and affirming of all humanity, not because it is the progressive or politically correct thing to do but because it is the work of the Spirit to be so.
Every week, I spend hours crafting a message to share with you all. There are times when I don’t know what I will say about a particular reading or something happening in our world or our local community. You could call it lack of advanced planning or procrastination but I have to wait for the ideas and the words to come. And they do come; this I attribute to the work of the Spirit within me. I want you to know this because it is important to our relationship. It is not a speech or a lecture I deliver to you in this space. It is not shared in some exclusive means that makes my theology and reflection the be all and end all. It is an invitation to a deeper conversation of the Spirit that surrounds us all. And I am so appreciative of how you reflect back to me what I say even if you do not agree or if it didn’t resonate with you on any particular Sunday. Words matter. Spirit is with us!
Later this week, on Friday, June 10, the United Church of Canada will celebrate its 97th birthday. On this day in 1925, an act of Parliament brought together the three founding denominations: Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Methodists to birth the United Church of Canada. The anniversary of my Ordination falling on the Day of Pentecost this year is time of reflection for me and the importance of faithful leadership and good worship experiences because what we do here sends us out of this building and into the world where we hear all kinds of voices. The Church is still speaking and is able to drive change and transformation for a better world. Remember to not only speak but to listen for the Spirit in your midst.
Happy Pentecost to you all and Amen.