Language

A Sermon for 15 May 2016 – Pentecost Sunday

A reading from Acts of the Apostles 2:1-21. On this Pentecost Sunday, perhaps you’ll find these words very familiar. Listen anew for God’s word to us.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But 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. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

So there’s this sit-com with the plot line about a young woman who had been held captive in an underground shelter in Indiana by some crazy self-proclaimed prophet who captured these four teens and told them for like fifteen years that the end of the world had happened and they are the only things left. Then one day, they’re rescued. The teens now are full-grown women and one of them decides she’s moving to New York City to finally begin living. The thing is: she’s been secluded underground for the past several years. And though she’s nearly thirty, she still has the mannerisms, clothes preferences, and language from her days as an eighth grader. Her new New York City housemate tries to help her get a clue about life today. Like: she has no idea what a selfie is – because in fact, she hasn’t ever heard of, let alone had a cell phone. She’s read only one book over and over again for the past fifteen years so any life lessons she’s come to know are through that one pre-teen story. And worst of all, she still uses expressions that were popular in her junior high prior to her captivity in the underground shelter by the crazy self-proclaimed prophet of the end of the world. Like, there was a time and place when it was so cool to say things like “Groovy!” – or so I’ve been told. But not in New York City in the year 2016! Her housemate keeps a notebook entitled: “Things People No Longer Say.” Every time she blurts out such an outdated expression, it gets recorded in the notebook. As if teaching someone about language is that easy.

Language really is a funny thing. I mean, you can tell a lot about a person by the language they use. I’m not talking about dialect or accent – though those certainly place us as well. But just the particular words we use and how we use them. . . . Remember just a few years ago? It was so confusing to hear the younger generation say things like: “That’s sick!” Because when I was a kid, we really meant it was sick – like gross. Disgusting. Something you’d want nothing to do with. Not amazing, awesome, and incredible as the kids were using it. . . . Language can be really confusing. It’s part of what defines a group. A part of a group’s culture. Just like the rituals, traditions, celebrations, and songs that mean something to a particular group of people. Certain language resonates with some because it signifies something those people value. Something a group tacitly has come to agree represents something about them. Language matters significantly.

Which is part of what makes the readings for Pentecost Sunday so incredibly fascinating. This year we hear of the day of Pentecost coming against the backdrop of that great Genesis story of the tower of Babel. A lot of really bad exegesis has been done on both of these texts over the years so that somehow lots of people came to believe that God punished the people for pride over the tower of Babel by confusing their language and dispersing them all across the land. Then, thank the Lord Jesus, at this first Christian Pentecost, God finally changed the course and re-united the people with the Holy Spirit that allowed everyone to once again understand one another – to reverse Babel and allow everyone to finally speak the same language. The only problem with these interpretations of both of these texts is that they’re not at all what the texts record! Of Genesis 11, one commentator writes: “The goal of the building project was to keep the community in one place, lest they be scattered over the surface of all the earth. Hence the people with one language wanted to stay in one place.” They wanted to establish “an identity that will endure . . . to perpetuate a single culture – the human race speaking one language and living in one place” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Ralph W. Klein, p. 3,5). I guess it made no difference to them that the command from God at the beginning of creation was to: “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). In fact, according to the story, it’s the very first thing God tells us; that is after blessing us and reminding us how beloved we are. We are to fill all the earth – this grand creation of God’s that God intricately made in vast variety. If God wanted everything the same, one kind, one culture, one location, and one language; then God would have made it that way from the start! We’d all be women or we’d all be men. The whole world would just be fish or birds or creeping things – not all of them and so much more. And then in such diverse array of types. . . . The beauty of anything is to behold it in all its vast array. Color pops when there’s all different shades of black and blue and green and red and purple and yellow. It really means something – moving to our spirits, I think, when we can reach beyond our own little boundaries – our own little ways – and connect with someone or something so very different from ourselves. When we can understand one another – what the other values and yearns for in this life – across the different words we use. Despite the varying languages we speak. Like that children’s book by Mem Fox that reminds us that laughter is the same and tears are the same and blood is the same. Love is the same whoever you are, where ever you are all over the world (Whoever You Are, Mem Fox, 1997).

That’s what happened when that first Pentecost occurred after Christ’s resurrection. It wasn’t one unified language the disciples started speaking so that everyone finally understood. And it wasn’t some sort of glossa or speaking in tongues as some believe. It was, according to the text: “In other languages” (Acts 2:4). That’s what absolutely amazed the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. As the text records: “In our own native language” we hear the disciple speaking to us (Acts 2:8). Somehow the Spirit caused the first followers of Christ to speak the language of the people who were right around them. To communicate in words that meant something to those who were listening because the words used were exactly what they could understand. Pentecost reminds us that we must learn the language of those we want to hear of God’s amazing deeds of power. We must speak in a way that will connect with what they already value – what they already know that they too might come to trust the good news we have to share.

In the beautiful book Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen explains in his introduction that a much younger, secular Jewish friend named Fred once asked him – an older, Roman Catholic priest and professor of Yale Divinity School – to write for him and others like him. Nouwen explains that he finally undertook the writing of Life of the Beloved in the early 1990s because Fred had asked: “’Why don’t you write something about a spiritual life for me and for my friends?’” . . . After a while Nouwen came to see that: Fred’s “own experience and that of his friends required another tone. Another language. Another spiritual wave length.” Nouwen writes: “As I gradually came to know Fred’s friends and got a feel for their interests and concerns,” (not to mention the chaotic, demanding, isolating ways they lived), he “better understood Fred’s remarks about the need for a spirituality that speaks to men and women in a secularized society.” Nouwen writes: “Much of my thinking and writing presupposed familiarity with concepts and images that for centuries had nourished the spiritual life of Christians and Jews. But for many people, these concepts and images had lost their power to bring them into touch with their spiritual center.” Nouwen confesses that “Fred’s idea that I say something about the Spirit that his friends and he could hear stayed with me. He was asking me to respond to the great spiritual hunger and thirst that exist in countless people who walk the streets of big cities. ‘You have something to say,’” Fred kept telling Nouwen. “’But you keep saying it to people who least need to hear it. What about us? Young, ambitious, secular men and women wondering what life is all about after all.” Fred asked: “Can you speak to us with the same conviction as you speak to those who share your tradition, your language, and your vision?’ . . . It became the plea that arose from every side.” Fred begged Nouwen to: “’Speak to us about the deepest yearnings of our hearts. Of our many wishes. About hope. Not about the many strategies for survival, but about trust. Not about new methods of satisfying our emotional needs, but about love. Speak to us about a vision larger than our changing perspectives and about a Voice deeper than the clamorings of our mass media. Yes, speak to us about something or Someone greater than ourselves. Speak to us about God. . . . You can do it,’” Fred said. “’Look attentively at what you see (among us) and listen carefully to what you hear (among us). You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.” Nouwen’s spiritually hungry friend told him what the masses today still plead: “Speak from that place in your heart where you are most yourself. Speak directly, simply, lovingly, gently, and without any apologies. Tell us what you see and want us to see. Tell us what you hear and want us to hear. Trust your own heart. The words will come.’” (Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen, 1992, from the Introduction).

Isn’t that exactly what Pentecost teaches us: to tell what we see and want others to see. To tell what we hear and want others to hear. To trust our own hearts; for the words will come. That’s the work of God’s Spirit in us all. . . . For the sake of us all today – those who hunger and thirst and those who believe they’ve got it all figured out: let us speak, let us speak the words of Life. The language of our hearts.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

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