Sermon:  “Beyond Words”

23 May 2010, Pentecost

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

May 23, 2010

Scripture text: Acts 2:1-21 is read aloud, with interpretation in American Sign Language

“Beyond Words”

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our minds and hearts here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

 Unfortunately I can’t remember anymore who said it, but I read once in a book about faith development that the soul’s journey toward God begins with the experience of awe.  Awe comes first, even before thankfulness.  We may learn to give thanks first as little kids – maybe saying grace at meals or giving thanks to God for mommy and daddy at bedtime – but the first step toward mature faith, approaching mature understanding and relationship with the Divine, is the first time we are literally struck dumb with wonder.

Today’s Pentecost text is one of those “wow” passages where we enter that into that original awe those first Christians felt – but it’s a little hard to relate to supernatural visions of flame or people speaking in tongues.  Not to mention all those foreign place names – Olivia, I congratulate you because I heard a guy with a Ph.D. in Biblical studies get all tangled up in that reading one time – but ultimately, our text today describes the gathered world church’s experience of true awe and wonder at the great unity of God, and gut-deep certainty of the powerful peace and amazing grace of the Holy Spirit. 

This communal search for the presence of God was the subject of our devotional discussion last Wednesday night at our final Confirmation class meeting with the Deacons.  As a prayer, we listened to a recording of my friend Vickie Crebbin’s song, “I’ve Been Looking For You.”  In it, she describes her soul’s quest for God, beginning with this line:

I thought I saw you in the rise of a granite peak
etched by a frozen hand in a language I cannot speak.


She was describing there what mystics call a “mountaintop experience,” where the transcendence of God is so palpable – it is truly beyond whatever words we can muster to describe it.  Remembering those wordless moments of wonder in my own life brought back to mind the first 4 verses of one of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 19: 

1The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

2Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.

3There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.


It’s hard to be an atheist when standing under the stars on a mountain peak.  For all creation sings God’s praises.  But it’s important to remember that we human beings are also part of God’s creation, and in it is in Christian community that we are called to gather and receive the Holy Spirit, as so many different nations and people did on the first Pentecost.  In Christ’s church, we are called to help one another keep the flames of those “Pentecost moments” burning deep down in our souls, to sustain us through the darker and colder times we all face in life – as a light calling us back to God.  Because into every life comes times when we’re tempted to wander off to “find where demons dwell,” as one of our confirmation hymns says. And that’s where the church’s rite of Confirmation is so important.  In prayer and the laying on of hands, we call the Holy Spirit to rest upon our young people, to bless them, and to stay with them their whole life long.  “Confirm” literally means “with strength,” and it’s strength that we pray the Holy Spirit will give them when they most need it in the days to come.

I talked to our Confirmands about that definition of Confirmation on Wednesday night, and we each shared our answers to the question:  “Where have you known the presence of God?”  Not everyone has a “mountaintop experience” on top of an actual mountain – but most of us do have other experiences of God to sustain us day-to-day.  Some of us told stories of knowing God in worship or fellowship with friends at church, or just from a sunny day in the backyard or from the love of a family member.  What’s more challenging is to sustain faith and remember to “love one another” when things get hard in life.  And that’s truly the purpose of the gift of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus has described it for us in John’s Gospel:

15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,
to be with you forever.
17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. …the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send
in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

~ John 14:15-17, 26

What we humans break apart, the Holy Spirit can put back together.  When God comes to us in Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, sin and death are conquered and the world is reconciled to God.  And the church, filled with the Holy Spirit, is capable of miracles and wonders.  The Holy Spirit given to Christ’s church is the “Superglue” of the universe, binding us in covenant as unlikely communities of faith that can heal broken souls, cast out demons of fear and hopelessness, and proclaim the Good News of God’s love in a thousand small ways that are truly “beyond words” – from the music of our bell and vocal choirs that can lift our souls to spiritual mountaintops to the sacrament of baptism, or the rite of Confirmation we celebrate later today, to the extravagant welcome of Open and Affirming or our Refugee Resettlement Ministry to the sharing of a simple smile or gesture as human beings greet one another in peace. 

I had a friend in seminary who was writing his Ph.D. dissertation on how it is we can see Christ revealed in the sacrament of communion.  One time I asked him what his favorite scripture was, expecting it to be possibly Paul’s famous passage in First Corinthians 11 on the importance of seeing Christ in The Lord’s Supper, or at least some passage from the New Testament.  But to my very great surprise, he said Genesis 11, “The Tower of Babel.” “The Tower of Babel?” I asked.  “Why?”  And he said, “Because tells when the human race let their pride take over and divide them into separate nations with separate languages.  And without that story we could never appreciate the miracle of the Eucharist.  In the sacrament, God makes physical and tangible the act of all of Creation’s broken people coming together again, as one family of faith at the one table.” 

We pastors and priests may say certain words of remembrance over the bread and cup, but what really happens there is a mystery that is truly beyond words.  At Christ’s table, we can see glimpses of heaven as we are invited to join him in his passion and victory. It is there that we are called to take the pieces of Christ’s brokenness into ourselves and go forth into the world to share in the fullness and wholeness of his love.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.



Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia, and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o”clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
19And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’



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