Sermon, 6/5/22: Should we hold our tongue?

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Psalm 104:25 – 35, 37; Acts 2:1 – 21; Romans 8:14 – 17; John 14:8 – 17, 25 – 27

I state the obvious. Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Pentecost. Should we even initially not know anything at all about Pentecost, we can see visually that today signals a change. Our liturgical hangings and vestments, white since Easter Day, have been exchanged for vestments and altar adornments which are red. On the Day of the Pentecost, our lectionary speaks of the spirit of God as tongues of fire. And red has come to signify fire. Fire can be positive, but fire can be also destructive. Emergency exit signs in the United States are indicated not only in words, but in signs that are illuminated in red. So what is that we celebrate?

Recently, I read a book, The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship between American and British English, written by the linguist Lynne Murphy (NY: Penguin Random House, 2018). An American by birth (Rochester, New York) and a linguist by training, now residing in England, Lynne Murphy maintains, as well, a BLOG “Separated by a Common Language.” Although clearly not her intent, as an academic, she has deciphered what confounds people who ask the question “what does it mean when one talks about speaking in tongues?” Stated differently, why is language so important in understanding the significance of Pentecost?

Murphy’s work is not in the least theological, but nor is it laden with academic jargon. Although supported with historical data and plentiful footnotes, it is written in a language, laced with humor, understandable by the average layperson. Written to address similarities and differences between American and British English, her conclusion is applicable to language in general and, hence, in my mind, to our understanding Pentecost. I quote to you in its entirety her concluding paragraph.

But our Englishes being different doesn’t mean we have to be chauvinistic about them. We don’t have to devalue one to value the other. We shouldn’t guard them jealously from contamination. English deserves our love. But it doesn’t deserve our worry. We should let it go and see where it takes us. It may be a small world, but English is a big language.” (p.298)

It is perhaps presumptuous of me, when I say that the role of language—a tool, to restate Lynne Murphy’s thesis in my own terms—is to facilitate communication. I remain within the human species, although those who study communication among other non-human species have made us aware that some non-humans have indeed developed a vocalized system, with which they communicate. But, I focus on our species. Language allows us to share information. Language, like other tools, the hammer for example, can be used to enhance the advancement of ideas and structures which are beneficial to all. Language, like other tools, can be misused, as a weapon. There are those who use the tool in order to disseminate misinformation and disinformation, to the detriment of others. Pentecost addresses the distinction.

I begin at my beginning. As a Midwesterner by upbringing and as someone who then, as now, listens closely to how people communicate their thoughts, I heard sayings such as “hold your tongue, young lady,” or its equivalent “watch your mouth, young man!” Clearly, the intension of the speaker was not that the girl should hold her tongue in her hand; and nor was it expected that the boy should place himself before a mirror and look at his mouth. Such figures of speech could be heard when the girl or boy had engaged confrontationally or disrespectfully in conversation with an adult, who refused to countenance such speech. The adult sensed rightly that speech was and is behavior, carrying often as much weight as a physical action. And if the young person persisted, he/she would come to understand, perhaps even feel the consequences of that inappropriate behavior.

Such was the case, recorded in our Book of Records, when the citizens of Babel, or Babylon, today’s Iraq, decided that they should build a tower that reached into heaven, so that they be as gods and so that they would remain enclosed within their own tribe. Hear their rationale:

And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.”…Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
(Genesis 11: 3–4)

Theologians and linguists offer this passage from the Book of Genesis as an explanation how and why different languages came to evolve. And in contemporary jargon, when one often does not understand what another is attempting to say, the hearer will exclaim out of frustration or in derision “Stop your babbling, won’t you?” However, I suggest that the story of the Tower of Babel displays two fundamental assaults on the covenant of Creation. Firstly, the tower is a logical extension or development which began when the first beings did eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Having been banned from the Garden of Eden, their idyllic haven, with their knowledge and industry, they sought to regain that which they had forfeited.

Secondly, their arrogance violated a commandment placed upon them prior to their violation of eating from the tree of good and evil. In the first creation story, man and woman had been given a direct commandment and role in furthering the creation:
So God created man in his own image…male and female God created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…” (Genesis 1:27f.)

To build a tower would have placed the City of Babel in a position of dominance over those around them, thus leading to further dissension among the peoples of earth. Also, to build a tower was in rebellion against the commandment of God to inhabit and to share the earth. In religious terms, that was a sin, an affront to the will of God for the creation.

The wise men and women who have recorded for us in the Bible many tales, parables and allegories, as they attempted to sort out their own being and purpose on earth, are not accorded their due, as it were. If I were to suggest a more applicable and easily understood and accepted synonym for the word “sin,” I would suggest a longer word: “alienation.” Adam and Eve sinned against each other. That is to say, each accused the other, each suspected the other of unacceptable behavior. A trust that was in their DNA at the time of their creation no longer was there. Their DNA had undergone a radical change. Although they were a community of only two, they were alienated the one from the other.

That change led to further alienations. The first fratricide, the later genocides, the devastation of wars, the maltreatment and enslavement of other humans are all traceable to our desire to collect ourselves into groups and tribes, to erect wall and barriers, in order to exclude the Other. We do so to secure our advantage. Allegory or not, the direct declaration from the God of all being is to the contrary. We reject the stated reason for the creation, and even further we refuse to recognize, or have become incapable of recognizing the consequences of such actions, actions that are detrimental to our own wellbeing. It is not the existence of diverse languages which is the cause of strife among us. Rather, it is that flawed DNA, the inner language of our hearts that often prevents collaboration with and appreciation of the Other.

However, along comes Pentecost, a beacon, as it were, from a lighthouse on an ocean’s shore that warns vessels against the danger of pending disaster, that tribalism and isolation can be and should be rejected. The religious and theological implication of Pentecost has been emphasized over millennia. There is evidence in our Book of Records that globalization is not an invention or discovery of the Modern Era. It has become almost commonplace that communications can be completed now seconds, thanks to modern technology, to areas around the globe, which heretofore would take weeks, if not months.

However, globalization is not new. Evidence thereof can be found in the placenames culled from today’s first reading: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, Rome, Cretans and Arabs (Act 2:5f).

It is recorded that the people, who witnessed this earth-changing event, were “amazed and astonished.” In a sense, the male and female who were created in God’s image had succeeded in bringing creation farther than the neighboring village. They had resisted the self-centered inclination to keep to themselves. Language was not the problem any longer, or stated another way, the will of God, embedded in the hearts and minds of people, in the DNA from creation. “The Spirit of truth” can now be shared, as was intended from the beginning of creation.

The desire for freedom of expression and freedom of movement, while hindered for a time through disinformation, would not be obliterated, never completely exterminated. Pentecost fires up an inner urge, possessed by all, that longs to be free, to explore one’s creative nature and to share that creative spirit with others. The Biblical Pentecost offers us an image that there is a force which can cause us to say things and do things which will call the status quo into question, and cause others to take notice. Pentecost takes us outside our immediate tribe and the familiar.

Throughout the history of humankind, the spirit of God has been active, as evidenced in the lives of individual women and men who have risked their own physical wellbeing often for the greater good. Evidence of God’s creative spirit abounds in every aspect of human endeavor, in both the secular and sacred, the profane and the profound.

When, not so many years ago, women in this country, together with their male supporters, marched for women’s rights, authorities wanted to ban public gatherings (Seneca Fall, N.Y.). Even earlier in our history, slaves were strictly forbidden to assemble and to learn to read and write, and those who tried to assist them, if caught, were ostracized, or maimed or killed. Men, attempting to organize as unions, were routinely dispersed by legal authorities, and in our recent and too painful history, those who employed fire hoses, attack dogs, and billy clubs understood all too perfectly the power of Pentecost. When people are moved by a common goal, miracles happen. Chains are broken. Barriers are torn down. Wars are no longer perceived as the way to achieve lasting peace.

It should not escape us that the Holy Spirit came when the disciples were together. Had they had been praying privately in their home, or walking alone on the road, they might well have received the spirit, but I suggest that the outcome would have been different. Each, in the privacy of his chamber, would have thought his experience unique and limited to himself. The effect on the gathered community was astounding and amazing. Even attempts to discredit the effect of righting a wrong that has held us since creation were refuted by Peter.

Pentecost became the antidote to the virus which afflicted inhabitants of Babel. Pentecost, with its diverse languages—tongues, if you will—refuted the disinformation which caused people to attempt to build the Tower of Babel. Pentecost, then and now, with all its diversity, offers us the opportunity to eradicate the alienation—sin, should you wish to use that ancient term—which has hindered God’s creation from achieving that which God set before us at creation. Pentecost, with its globalization and the languages that unite, not separate us, languages that speak to the uniqueness of us all, gives us license and courage to live into that last commandment of God’s Messiah:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34- 35)


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