“Speaking in Tongues”
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Pentecost, June 4, 2017
About a month ago, I read a news story about the actor Chris Pratt. He was in the news because of an apology that had gone viral. Earlier in the week, he had posted a video on social media and encouraged people to turn up their volume and listen to the video rather than just scrolling by and watching the subtitles. A few people helped him see that this was problematic for those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. They rely on subtitles to understand videos online and can’t just “turn up the volume” to listen to words.
Mr. Pratt had choices about how he might respond. I won’t ask how many of you have been called out for cluelessly offending someone different than you, but I have had this happen to me often enough that I seem to have a predictable response. First, I feel the heat rise in my cheeks. I get so embarrassed that I’ve messed up. Then I sometimes get defensive or angry, wondering why they had to bring it up in a particular way or wondering why I was so clueless. If I’m lucky, I can move myself into a position of thankfulness - thankful that someone cared enough about me to teach me something new; thankful that they saw me as a person who would actually be willing to listen and learn; thankful for new knowledge; thankful for the chance to do better in the future. Somewhere along the way, I am able to apologize for my mistake, and that’s just what Chris Pratt did, too.
The apology was what I saw first and it caught my eye because he chose to apologize in American Sign Language, with subtitles, in a silent video. It seems from the video that ASL is not one of Mr. Pratt’s native tongues - that he probably learned it just for this. His decision to reach out to the people he may have offended and speak to them in their language spoke volumes.
There is something sweet about hearing or seeing our own native tongue. Those who have traveled extensively or lived in places where their primary language isn’t spoken regularly know the sweet, sweet feeling of familiarity when the language suddenly comes with ease. Even beyond actual languages, things like accents and regional dialects make us feel at home. When we lived in Indiana I met a person and it took me a while to figure out why I always felt comfortable around him. After knowing him for several months, I finally figured out it was his accent and I asked him where he was from. Turns out he was born and raised about 15 miles away from where my father is from in northwest Oklahoma.
He was speaking my language.
On Pentecost Sunday, we join with Christians around the globe in remembering what some have called the Birthday of the Church. Soon after Jesus’s ascension his followers were gathered together in Jerusalem for the annual Jewish Festival of Weeks. Fifty days after Passover (which, you might remember, happens to coincide with Jesus’s execution by the Roman Empire) faithful Jews celebrated harvest and the gift of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
This year, as Jesus’s followers gathered they had to have felt a little lost. Sure, Jesus had told them that their job was to be his witnesses in Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the Earth, but he didn’t exactly leave detailed instructions on how to make this happen.
As they were gathered together, a rush of wind came and filled the house where they were gathered. Whatever happened next must have been inexplicable because I still can’t get a good visual in my head for “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them.” They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues….sort of.
If you’ve ever been in a worship service where people were speaking in tongues, you’ve probably heard Glossolalia - at least that’s been my experience. So that’s when people start speaking “in tongues” and it’s incomprehensible. It’s not a language that anyone knows. That’s not what happened in Acts.
In Acts, the followers of Jesus started speaking in other KNOWN languages. And as they did so, immigrants from other parts of the Roman Empire came to see how these Galileans were speaking their languages. These were “devout Jews” who were living in Jerusalem but were originally from other parts of the region - north, south, east, and west of the capital.
And just like that - in an instant - those who were following Jesus had a new identity. The followers of The Way started to form an identity as multicultural, multilingual, diverse, global. When the Holy Spirit came, they began to understand what it meant to be witnesses in Jerusalem (the capital), but also Judea (the south), and Samaria (the north), and to the very ends of the known world.
Sadly, of course, as Christianity solidified and spread, it transformed from a group of rag-tag underdogs to a global powerhouse.
Over the years, the Church lost its way. We forgot our birth story - the story of the beauty of diversity of culture and language. The ability to speak in other people’s languages, so that they can really hear. We forgot that it is good to put ourselves out there, to make ourselves vulnerable.
Over the years, the Church has participated in unspeakable crimes against humanity like cultural genocide and murder. The Church has helped create the mess we are in today - a nation where hate crimes are committed daily. And the Church is complicit because many who say they follow Jesus have sold - and continue to sell - this violent lie that “good people” all look or sound the same.
But the truth is right here in front of us: followers of Jesus speak every language. And the gift of the Spirit should make us able to hear one another across human-imposed boundaries.
Earlier this week I read the words of the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, a biblical scholar. She notes that when the followers of Jesus began to speak of God’s marvelous deeds, it’s important to note that they “tell of the glories of God, not in the language of the empire but in the languages of the people subject to empire.”
Those who lived in the Roman Empire had a common language (“We speak Greek in the Roman Empire! Go back to your own country, you Parthian, you Mede!”). Greek was the language of commerce, the language of government. It was a language imposed by an occupying force.
But even as this language knit people together across a vast global empire, they maintained their own identities. At home, in private, where it was safe - they spoke their own native tongues. Babies were sung to sleep in the languages of “Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia”. Words between lovers were whispered, not in Greek, but in the languages of “Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene.”
And when the Spirit arrived - when she blew in as a gust of holy wind and flame - it seems to me she had a choice. Would the holy stories of God’s power and might roll off the tongue in Greek or some other language?
The Spirit did not choose to speak in the language of the Empire. She chose, instead, to come to the people gathered and speak to them in their own native tongues. She chose to boldly, loudly, proudly proclaim God’s deeds of power in languages that the Empire had attempted to silence, tone down, erase.
Holy One, may our ears be attuned to your voice as it arrives in tongues unknown to us. May those of us who currently live in the shadow of Empire open our hearts, our ears, our very selves to your arrival in the languages of those who have been marginalized. May those who have been tossed aside, told to blend in, told to shrink, quiet down, calm down boldly find their Pentecost voices - not just today, but every day.
And may the Church remember our call to listen, sing, shout, dance, preach, laugh, share in every conceivable language. May we remember that your native tongue is Love, is Justice, is Peace, is New Life, is an Ever-Widening-Circle of Creation. Amen.