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What's My Number?

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 19th of the 5th Month, 2024

Speaker: Jay Marshall

A few years back Judi and I began looking for meaningful projects we could support as part of our Christmas celebration. One year, word of that led to a visit from Emma Condori, whom many of you know, during her time at ESR. She proposed a project to help the Potosiños, a mostly poor indigenous group located south and west of the highlands.

The Potosiños had a practice of briefly migrating to LaPaz and other cities during the holidays. They came in hope of finding work, food, and Christmas gifts for the family. Theirs was a difficult life, often ignored and sometimes rudely treated. Wouldn’t it be nice to provide their families with a gift basket of staples like rice and beans and so forth?

We agreed to help. The products were purchased. The youth of Emma’s church assembled baskets. Then came the task of imagining and organizing the distribution. A truck carrying the gifts parked a couple of blocks over from where the group congregated. Someone went to invite the Potosiños over to receive the gifts. At first, they refused to believe the message. No one ever did nice things for them, they said. After a bit of back and forth, they agreed to send two scouts to see if it was, in fact, true. When those scouts relayed to the people that the offer was genuine, there was suddenly a horde of people running, surrounding the truck and small staff.

The gift givers had an action plan ready for the crowd’s arrival. Different ones were fluent in English and Spanish and Aymara. They were shouting instructions to the people – “take a number. One per family. Line up. Wait until your number is called. . .” In this midst of a rather chaotic scene, they heard a frantic voice saying – in yet another language – “I don’t know what my number sounds like in that language.” She wasn’t the only one. The Potosiños primarily spoke yet another indigenous language. Isn’t that the worst? The needed gift is in sight. You’re trying to follow the rules, but you can’t figure out what is being asked of you so that you help facilitate the process.

Fortunately, Emma’s group quickly found someone among them who spoke that language and added that person to the group relaying the message. The baskets were successfully delivered, and for at least a moment, the Potosiños knew that someone had cared about them.

That memory resurfaced as I sat with the passage from Acts. Theirs wasn’t Pentecost, but a move prompted by the Spirit stirred a commotion, caused some confusion, complete with multiple spoken tongues. And it reminds us that the presence of the right language – your language – sounds that make sense to your brain – are an essential piece of communication, whatever the purpose or topic.

There is just something about your own language that eases and brings comfort to conversation. Even after over three decades in Indiana, I can hear “North Carolinian” being spoken two or three blocks away, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, it will be music to my ears. Hearing it in your own language can be the catalyst between a rich and rewarding exchange or just noise that largely makes no sense to you.

For those who follow such things, today is Pentecost Sunday. It is an occasion when the Church remembers God sending the Spirit just as Jesus had promised. It is connected with the creation of the church. It is a story whose features provide lasting symbols of wind and fire to help interpret the occasion. Particularly as Friends, we can appreciate the importance of the presence of the Spirit as an indication of Divine Presence and impetus for movement. But in my reading of it for this day, the emphasis fell not on the wind and fire, but upon impact -- the message delivered. As verse 12 describes it, they were declaring the “wonders of God, each in their own language.” Parthians, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia and more.

My seminary Greek professor loved to emphasize the importance of the kerygma in the New Testament. Whenever we encountered it, we’d get an impromptu mini-lecture on its importance. It was a word translated as preach. Since that is a word we think we understand, we may not go any further in refining our definition of it. But groups treat preaching differently. Some depend upon it in their theology. The preaching of the Word is the central part of corporate worship. Others reduce its centrality. It is a piece but not the most important. Still others minimize it.

I’ve noticed that Friends often seem hesitant to even use the term “preach” to refer to their speaking. More often, I hear references to “bringing a message” than preaching a sermon. Perhaps that is a remnant to our allergy to the idea of hireling ministry, or represents a hesitancy to claim too much about our words or a desire to distance ourselves from stereotypes we dislike.

But here is the thing to remember. Kerygma is not about three points and a poem, or bible waving or finger pointing. But it is about proclamation. The word doesn’t actually occur in this Acts passage, but that is what they are doing. Speaking of the wonders of God is a proclamation. I think Pentecost isn’t just about the arrival of the Spirit. It’s not just about the creation of the Church. It is about the cause and effect, the fire and the fuse, that lead to expression, sharing, communication of what we know about the wonders of God. The remainder of the chapter recounts the content of that proclamation. Peter gives us the gist of it in a single sentence. “God has made this Jesus who was crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

When the Spirit falls upon us, what shall we proclaim? I think the church’s proclamation of the Gospel often resembles a game of telephone. You probably know the game. The first person starts with a clear statement. They whisper it to the next person, who whispers to the next person, who whispers to the third, and so on. Frequently the message that arrives at the end of the line bears little resemblance to the original message.

Jesus was messiah. No, he was Savior. Probably a revolutionary. Well, maybe a teacher. He is a friend. Or perhaps it moves in reverse.

By his death we are redeemed. By the shedding of his blood we are saved. It was something about satisfying an angry God. It was an example of holy obedience, to inspire us to live accordingly.

Such is the cost of communication, isn’t it? It is a near certainty with efforts to interpret and explain what we have heard. Such is the price of transmitting the faith from one generation, from one neighborhood to another, or even one person to the next. But at the same time, such is the beauty of being met in your own language, on your terms, in your own condition. Such is the blessing of someone helping you know when your number is being called, so that you can participate in the sharing of God’s gift baskets every now and then.

Such is the blessing when the Spirit comes with wind and fire into your inner sanctuary of the soul. You feel it burn and your knuckles turn white. You think perhaps you just might burst. And suddenly you know it is your turn to proclaim that kerygma, that kernel of the Gospel that has possessed you.

When that moment comes, when your number is called, what is the language with which you are prepared to communicate? What are the groups you are best prepared to serve? How shall you participate in making evident the wonders of God?

Pentecost is one (and in the manner of Friends, one, not the only!) occasion to be reminded of the power the Spirit ushers in. It’s a moment to revel in its ability to create chaos and yet bring meaning and transformation from the experience. And most of all, to know that it is all done in service to the kerygma, the proclamation of the wonders of God.

Walter Brueggemann sums it up accurately when he writes: “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial and express hope in a society that lives in despair. “

On Pentecost, let us not only remember the account of the coming of the Spirit. Let us give thought to the power and place of proclamation, and consider just how the Spirit prompts us to share the wonders of God.

New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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