Sermon, 5/23/21. Pentecost: What Tongue Do We Speak?

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Psalm 104:25–35, 37; Acts 2:1–21; Romans 8:22–27; John 15:26–27, 16:4b–15

     “In vino veritas”, “in wine is the truth.” Zenchio, Greek Philosopher

     Others said contemptuously, ‘They have been drinking!’  Acts 2:13

But does such an accusation make the truth any less valid or applicable?  It was an almost too casual comment, which my almost 13-year old grandson in Hong Kong made during one of our typical weekly check-ins, a comment that triggered a recollection in my own mind of an event, now some forty-plus years prior.  It was a comment that places the celebration of the first Pentecost in a glaring light.  Neither [my grandson nor I had been drinking—he, almost 13 years old and at 8:30 p.m., Hong Kong; I, because of allergic reactions to alcohol and at 8:30 a.m., beginning a day that he was concluding].  But a Pentecostal truth was revealed.  

Yes, our liturgical celebration of an event that none of us witnessed in-person is no less potent, relevant, and challenging today as it was then.  And if we, those of us who march behind the Christian flag, give heed to the purpose of the Pentecost, we shall not rest easy.  We cannot take our ease for there remain those who would say that we are drunk with new wine as we seek to proclaim what is the foundation on which the Pentecost rests, which is none other than the Good News of Christ. 

And, yes, we talked about the usual: classes at school, his tennis skills, hiking with his sister and father, enjoying the view of the South China Sea from his bedroom window.  And then our conversation turned to the item that is global: the Covid-19 pandemic and how it has caused a dislocation in our family.  We have been barred for almost two years from in-person visits.  We chatted, he and I, about the accelerated pace of vaccinations under the new U.S. government administration, and about the noticeable slow pace of vaccinations by the government among the general populace of Hong Kong. And when I asked if one could ask why the relevant authority was so slow, he remarked: If one now questions the government, one could be arrested for criticizing the government.  One could be incarcerated for thinking out loud.  Speaking out, speech, was perceived as a potentially threatening, dangerous weapon.  Mandarin, Cantonese, and English: speaking in tongues had become dangerous.

Our conversation revived the memory of a similar experience some 40 plus years ago, which I will never forget, even if I do not think about it everyday.  It was a simple thing, really, yet one which under the day-to-day living in western society, where at least on paper, we lay claim to freedom of movement and press.  This “it” occurred in Prague, Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic.  We were young then, my wife and I, still living in Germany.  As a budding professor of German literature, I took advantage of my western passport, in order to take a trip behind what was then called the Iron Curtain.  We visited Prague, Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic.  The Czechs were known to be partial towards westerners, despite the clamp down by the occupying Soviets of what was termed “the Prague or Dubczek Spring.”  We went, not to challenge the then political powers.  Rather, I wanted to see the oldest German university, the Karl University, and to visit the house in which the German author Franz Kafka had lived and produced literary works, which were at once both interesting and disturbing.

While in Prague, we had the good fortune, thanks to a Jesuit friend, to meet a Czech family and, thanks to them, I experienced a challenge to the Pentecost.  As our hosts were showing us the Old Town and Wenceslas Square.  I observed that there were everywhere public address speakers attached to poles.  Having never seen anything like that before, I inquired.  Our hosts observed: Whenever three or more individuals gathered in a location for longer than 10 minutes, an announcement came from some unknown and unseen location that the group should move on.

Later over dinner, I inquired about recent literature, current periodicals, and newspapers.  Our hosts, both trained academic professionals explained: Officially there was only the state-run paper.  But, there were a few underground ones.  Government officials had confiscated even all privately owned typewriters and mimeograph machines that they could locate.  Let us not forget that those were times prior to the Internet and the smartphone.  Because I had owned a typewriter since my high school years, I found this odd regulation bewildering.  Their response was a simple one: Typewriters and mimeograph machines could be used by underground resistance groups against the occupying forces, and such possible resistance had to be eradicated at all costs.  Speech, whether in verbal or written form, was a threat to governmental control.  Even in one tongue, namely Czech, was a challenge that had to be squelched. 

Why, you may rightly ask, do I, on the Feast of the Pentecost, share with you a personal conversation with my grandson—and without his permission, I must add?  Why do I dredge up an even more chronologically distant personal recollection?  Constrained by the pandemic, but aware of the unrelenting if slow persistence of a restricted people—the Czechs, to advance their freedom—I contemplated the possibility of  returning to Prague in the years ahead; and it was in thinking about such a trip that the significance of Pentecost took on new and contemporary meaning.  Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent restrictions have produced some heretofore enormous unforeseen consequences.  One such consequence has been our isolation from a broader social intercourse.  However, that physical isolation has quieted our voices.  We have retreated into a form of silence, out of which we will emerge, but over time.

The essence of Pentecost is overwhelming, unsettling, frightening even, for that essence is none other than the actualization of the Gospel of Good News. When, not so many years ago, women in this country, together with their few male supporters, marched for women’s rights, authorities wanted to ban public gatherings.  Slaves were strictly forbidden to assemble and to learn to read and write, and those who tried to assist them were ostracized at best or killed and maimed at worst.  Men and women, trying to organize as unions, were routinely dispersed by legal authorities; and in our too-recent and current history, we know of those who employed fire hoses, attack dogs, and billy clubs, and tear gas and rubber bullets, those who understood and understand all too perfectly the danger of a true Pentecost.  When people get together and are moved by a common goal, the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth happens.  Chains are broken.  Barriers are torn down.  Communities, damaged by rumor and discord, or by forces of nature or at human hands, are built up again.

Thus, we Christians are compelled to see the Pentecost as more than a liturgical act of beautiful processions and the reading of the gospel in various languages within our congregations.   It is important that we turn our attention to Pentecost, the event described in our Book of Records, for that event symbolizes, teaches, and reminds us that there is an inner urge, possessed by all, that begs to be set free, to explore one’s creative nature and to share that creative spirit with others.  Pentecost, as a positive force, can wreak havoc, be unsettling, and become a life-changing moment.  We discover that there is a force greater than our individual selves that can cause us to say things and do things that will call the status quo into question. And when we do that,  others sit up and take notice.  We discover that we are taken outside our immediate group, charged to go beyond the familiar.  And so I raise the not-so-theoretical question: Was this not the soul of the mission of God’s Messiah, namely to liberate us from an imprisonment, from restrictions that prevented us from expressing our creative nature?  And does the Pentecost not empower us to go out and share that liberation with all of humankind?

It should not escape us that the Holy Spirit came when the disciples were together praying.  If they had been praying privately in their home, they might well have received the spirit, but I suggest that the outcome would have been different, for each, in the privacy of his chamber, would have thought his experience unique and limited to himself.  The effectiveness on the gathered community was astounding, and was not loss on the crowd gathered over 2000 years ago, just as it has not been lost in subsequent social, political, and ecclesiastical circles since.

And that the message of the Risen Christ was not to be constricted, but shared, it is surely no accident that all the then-known nationalities are enumerated among those amazed at how they could recognize their native tongues, i.e. languages, being spoken.  From Cretans to Arabians, representing the extremes from northwest to southwest, the point is that by the power of the Holy Spirit, the newly born church would reach to the ends of the earth.  So the contagious spirit results in an ability to communicate the Good News of Christ, which serves to bring together previously divided people.  For “the tongues, as of fire” to be distributed and resting on us is to catch and to share the Spirit of diversity, a diversity in fact and metaphorically, that was represented in the languages spoken at the first Pentecost.

Pentecost 2021 has its own special meaning, as we begin to emerge from the restraint of a challenging pandemic.   We must truly listen to what the Spirit is saying to us, in order that we may be open to the same risk that confronted those disciples of yore, and that we may be prepared with limited numbers to carry the Good News from this place.  The Christian message speaks of a universality, of an expansiveness, of a wideness in God’s mercy.  That is our challenge, not to give cover to those forces that would restrain the hope embedded in the Good News.

Such a Pentecost for me would be a true “living under the influence.”  It is essential for us to come enthusiastically “all together in one place,” helping each other to communicate in ways different from pre-pandemic, to become more aware of how to let the gospel control all other influences around us, to allow ourselves to take risks, as did those first disciples at that first Pentecost, and “passing it on” in the name of God’s Messiah.    AMEN