I suppose I was about six years old. I don’t remember the exact age but I had started school, I know that. And, I was under the kitchen table in my grandmother’s kitchen.
As I reflect on that time - that particular memory - I think I've come to understand a bit better at least some of what happened at Pentecost.
I was hiding there, under that kitchen table. I remember seeing legs – lots of legs. And shoes. Men’s legs. Men’s dress shoes and sneakers.
Women’s legs, every one of them clothed in what my mother always called “silk stockings” even when they were clearly no longer made of silk; but the kind favored by the women in my family still had the distinctive black seam up the back.
And, high heels. No square proper Episcopal heel for the Medeiros women, but not exactly stilettos either. And, they favored the open-toe style worn by their sheroes, Betty Davis and Rita Hayworth.
I loved these people – my uncles
and aunts and cousins. They were my family. But, in that moment, I was ashamed
of them. Because, I was ashamed of me. I was ashamed because they were all
talking in a mixture of Portuguese and Azorean.
There was some English spoken by my younger cousins but it was discouraged so my grandmother could understand what was being said. Over in the corner, my uncle’s mother-in-law and his wife, were having a conversation in Syrian and then that was translated, back and forth, between Portuguese and Syrian and some English.
I was under the kitchen table
not because I was afraid but because I had to be there – it was required, the 11th
Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Miss a Family Gathering – but I was ashamed. Deeply,
I had just started school and my English was deemed to be insufficient for the comprehension necessary for the level of my classmates.
So, I was placed in a “special needs” class. No, that’s not what we called it back then. Back then, the school system used words like “low functioning” and “retarded” and they had been mandated to provide public education for that demographic of children.
Clearly, no one liked that new mandate. And, it showed.
The school system didn’t know what to do with immigrant kids like me so they placed us in the classroom with the kids who were otherwise functioning at levels on lower par than the rest of the kids.
I remember my parents being
told about my class placement. I remember my parents being FURIOUS. I remember my parents being ashamed.
My mother declared, right then and there, that even though we lived in the
apartment above my grandmother, henceforth, furthermore and For Ever, in HER house, we were going to speak only
English. No Portuguese speaking allowed.
And, so it was.
I was hiding under the kitchen table because I didn’t want to speak Portuguese, or have my Portuguese translated to Syrian. I didn’t want to talk because I was ashamed to speak. I knew my role was to live out The Great American Dream for my family and I felt deep shame that before it even began, my academic career was an enormous failure.
Remembering that time in my life has led to an insight about our reading this morning from the 20th chapter of the Gospel of St. John.
We are told that the apostles were hiding in that Upper Room with the door locked for fear of the religious leaders of Israel.
Oh, I’m sure they were afraid. Shocked. Stunned, no doubt, and they also wondered, I’m sure, if what had been done to their Lord might also be done to them. Never mind fear! Oh, the horror! Oh, the sheer terror.
But, I suspect that there was also some shame involved. I have a feeling they suspected that they had failed in their mission. They were supposed to be part of the building of a whole New World, one where the highest standards were love and peace. Instead, they had watched in horror as their leader was led to his death with intense hatred and violence.
Could they have done anything to stop it? Why, oh why, had they fallen asleep in The Garden? If they had had a clue, would someone have considered the betrayal of Judas and talked him out of it? If they had been on guard, might they have seen the soldiers coming?
Fear, yes. Of course. But,
more. Guilt. Shame.
So, when Jesus says, "Peace" to them, not once but twice, I’m sure he was saying that not directed so much at their fear as their shame. I think this is why, after he breathed the Holy Spirit on them he said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
And, there it is: Absolution.
No guilt. No shame. No fear. Just the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I remember two moments of absolution for my shame and fear and guilt. The first was from my Aunt Jackie, the wife of my Uncle Gilbert who was the youngest and the shortest which led some of his brothers to call him “Runt” but everybody else called him “Shorty”. He was, affectionately, "Uncle Shorty".
My Aunt Jackie had been
looking for me. She liked talking with me and I with her. She found me interesting. She liked
my ideas. She liked the books I was reading, took the trouble to read them too, and took me to the library to get new books. She understood
my sense of humor.
Suddenly, the table cloth swooped up and she came crawling in under the kitchen table and sat down next to me.
I said nothing. Mercifully, neither did she.
Then, she leaned in and said to me in a low voice, “Hey, kiddo. Your mom told me what happened to you in school. Well, you are going to think I’m crazy for saying this but, when you are older – not too old, maybe even before you are my age – you are going to see that this may have been the best thing that ever happened to you.
I raised my eyebrows and my mouth opened in disbelief.
“I know, I know,” she said. It doesn’t seem that way right now, but I’m telling you that right now you feel sad and I understand that. But, listen to me. You haven’t let anyone down. We know you are smart. The teachers at your school are not smart enough to figure out just how smart you are. They will. You wait and see. Because of this, you are going to be kinder and will work harder to be smarter. Your family is very proud of you. I am very proud of you. You’ll see. This will all work out just fine.”
And then she put her arm
around me while I wept. When I stopped, she got up and left and returned with a
plate full of all my favorite foods. She and I sat under the kitchen table in
my grandmother’s house and ate all of her Portuguese delicacies and spoke only
I felt forgiven and understood and ready to face school on Monday.
And, that’s when I got my
My teacher’s name was Miss Kelleher. I can still see her kind face and sparkling eyes in front of me. She had silver-gray hair which she wore in the style of Mrs. Mamie Eisenhower. She always wore silky shirts with a loose bow that fell on her chest.
She pulled me aside and said,
“Listen, I know you feel bad for being in here, but I’m going to help you. And,
you are going to help me to help these kids. So, I’m going to work with you at every
break and, if you want, after school. By the end of this quarter, you’ll be
back in your regular class. I promise you. Until then, you will help me with
some of these kids who need extra attention. Is that a deal?”
Oh, boy, was it ever!
Miss Kelleher was absolutely
right. I did pick up correct English and comprehension very quickly and I was
ready, actually, by mid-quarter to go to the regular classroom. But, beside
English I had learned a few other languages and I wanted more time to practice.
The kids I worked with were great teachers. They taught me the language of compassion. They taught me the language of kindness. Thing of it is, while there were a few words to the language of kindness and compassion, none were really required. The fewer the better, in fact. Better a squeeze of the hand, a pat on the shoulder, a warm, authentic smile.
As I worked with kids who were compromised intellectually and/or physically, I also learned the language of patience. I’ve never really mastered that one, though. I’m much more patient with others than I am with myself, but that’s another story for another time.
My Pentecost moment, like that of the apostles, came when I was able to feel forgiveness, not just from others, but able to forgive myself for all my shortcomings and perceived failures.
That moment of Pentecost has come to revisit me and that has inspired other moments of forgiveness and unity as well as compassion and kindness, understanding and peace.
The history of the world, like the history of the church, is filled with stories of people who refuse to listen to strange tongues, Christians who refuse to learn from different ways of being.
Pentecost offers us a different way, where the Spirit affirms our differences, speaking in ways that each of us can understand—and yet drawing us together, around the same table, into communion.
That’s how the day of Pentecost ends, with all these strangers eating together. “So those who welcomed [the] message were baptized, [and] they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer” (Acts 2:41-42); “they broke bread from home to home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).
The miracle of communication
that happened on Pentecost birthed a miracle of communion, to open ourselves to
the Holy Spirit and hope for the miracle of knowing God in a meal, in each
other – just as I knew God in my Aunt Jackie bringing me a plate of my favorite
food for our own picnic under my grandmother’s table, and the way Miss Kelleher
helped me to learn English during snack break at the lunch table in first grade.
Communion is an invitation to come together around a table and to let Jesus stretch us into relationships with one another, with people who are the same and different, as we struggle to understand God, as we struggle to understand each other.
In Luke’s reporting of Pentecost,
red tongues of flame landed on everyone’s head and although different languages
were spoken, everyone understood. That’s because the language of God is the
language taught to us by Jesus and that language is the language of love.
The love of God, in the words of the poet Angi Sullens, which “comes to collect your failures, one by one, making honey from the bitter/making music in the void / making wings where there were wounds.”
I hope you commit to learning a new language this Pentecost – the language of the Love of God which can cross any barrier of culture, dissolve any wall built by fear, open any door locked by shame, melt any heart frozen by guilt, and lead us to that peace of God which surpasses all human understanding.