"Finding a Common Language"
Sermon Preached by Anne R. Ledbetter
Sunday, June 12, 2011
Acts 2: 1/21
Have you ever found yourself unable to communicate with those around you? The most obvious example might be visiting another country where most residents do not speak English. Perhaps you traveled in France, and knew about 20 words, including Je ne parle pas Francais. I do not speak French. We Americans can be so amusing trying to communicate with non-English speakers - we slow down our words, we pantomime our meaning, and talk a bit louder (we are looking for a room to sleep tonight) It's as though we know that we can get these people to understand our English. But the problem remains: they noa speaka Englaise. And most of us do not speak French, or German, Spanish, Chinese, Swahili or Chalubah!
Keith and I just returned from visiting our daughter Lea in Singapore - where thankfully English is the official language. However, they speak English with a decided accent. At times people had to spell words for us to understand what they were saying. It was embarrassing - for all concerned. When we flew to Cambodia for four nights, fewer people spoke English, but many did. Our tour guide Phalin began her time with us by apologizing for her English, encouraging Keith and me to interrupt and ask questions and to speak up when we did not understand her. We complied. When Phalin became apologetic for her English, we assured her that her English was infinitely better than our Cambodian. Indeed, not becoming fluent in a second language is one of my biggest regrets in this life.
Today's scripture passage from Acts describes this amazing scene in Jerusalem, on the celebration of Pentecost (50 days after Passover): the apostles are all gathered in Jerusalem when suddenly there was a sound like a great wind, and it filled the place where they were sitting. They seemed on fire, or at least filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages. (This morning's call to worship gave us a taste of hearing other languages,) but you may have been on the subway in DC or at a restaurant in NY, or at the zoo in San Diego, or in line at Disneyworld in FL and heard four other languages in conversations swirling around you. Language is a wonderful tool for any society as well as our world, and our varied languages may feel like daunting hurdles or looming roadblocks to communication, as well as potential bridges to better understanding.
Two weeks ago this past Friday, Keith and I flew to CA for our son Evans' graduation from San Francisco Theological Seminary. We arrived in time for the Baccalaureate Service on Friday afternoon, which the graduates themselves had planned. The Call to Worship included not only English, but Indonesian, Korean, and Vietnamese. The Seminary Singers offered a number of anthems including two rousing spirituals. During communion, we sang the Sanctus in Spanish, and when the professor presiding over communion led us in prayer, he invited us to say the Lord's Prayer in whatever language we are accustomed. It might as well have been Pentecost - we stumbled over our own familiar words as we felt immersed in the global church. It was one of those moments of getting a glimpse of the festive Feasting Table in God's Eternal Realm. Beautiful, crazy, inspiring.
Another experience while in Cambodia was visiting an artisans complex where they teach various skills -weaving, painting, carving - to young adults who are handicapped. Our guide noted that the language used with those who are deaf is American Sign Language. He then described how a group from (Germany) who had been touring the complex recently began conversing with several artisans in sign language, upon learning that they were deaf. Signing had trumped verbal language -as a universal language.
Do you remember the story of the tower of Babel in the early portion of Genesis? It sounds like a "just so" story, a story created to answer the question, "Why are there so many languages and peoples in the world?" It was after the time of Noah, when the whole earth had one language, and the people migrated to a plain, and learned to make bricks, decided to build a city, with a tower that would go up into the heavens. God comes along and says, "Look, they are one people, and they all have one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language so that they will not understand each other's speech." So God scattered the people and confused the language, and they left off building the city.
Pentecost seems like an intentional reversal of the Babel story. Instead of confusing and separating the people, God's Spirit blows through their lives empowering their speech, co-mingling their hearts, strengthening their faith, and uniting their mission to all the world.
And yet language is also challenging and tricky. For instance, if you do not believe English is a difficult language, just buy a desk from IKEA and work with the instructions for putting it together! Do you remember some of the signs seen at the Olympics in China? At times what was lost in translation was hysterical.
Learning another language - whether that of another country and culture, that of another generation or that of a specialized venue such as a baseball game, worship service, chemist's lab, backstage at a theatre, takes time and careful study. Moreover, learning another language requires us to listen and receive first.
In Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible, Nathan Price is an evangelical Baptist missionary who takes his wife and four daughters to Congo in 1959, and feels a deep necessity to save as many African souls as possible. Nathan first encounters the Poisonwood tree while planting his garden. One of the locals, Mama Tataba warns him not to touch the dangerous plant, but he contemptuously ignores her and ends up with painfully swollen arms and hands. Nathan's tunnel vision - seeing only his mission and ignoring the culture in which he resides - proves self-defeating. In the native language the word "bangala" can mean "dearly beloved" when putting the accent on the last syllable, or when accenting the second syllable bangala means "Poisonwood". Unable to grasp this subtle linguistic distinction Nathan preaches animatedly week after week, that Jesus is bangala, striving to make converts which he may then baptize. He is tragically unaware that instead of proclaiming to the locals that Jesus is beloved, he is yelling at them that Jesus is Poison like the local tree that can cause intense pain and even death. His thickheaded mistake stems from his unwillingness to learn anything about the culture around him, a symptom of his cultural arrogance.
As I mentioned earlier, our son Evans graduated recently from San Francisco Theological Seminary which is part of the GTU, or Graduate Theological Union in the Bay area, enabling students to take classes for credit at eleven different theological institutions in the area. During the graduation ceremony Rev. Dr. Arthur Holder, of the GTU, spoke to the SFTS graduates, asking them, "What other languages have you learned during your time in seminary?" He noted that the Presbyterians might say, "Well, there was certainly the Hebrew and Greek...." But Dr. Holder pointed out that some might also have learned a bit of Korean, Filipino or Spanish from their fellow classmates, for whom one of these was their mother tongue. Then Dr. Holder pressed on, saying, "But maybe you have also learned some Roman Catholicism, or Muslim, some Hindu, or Judaism, perhaps you have learned some Jesuit or Franciscan...." He impressed upon them that being messengers of the gospel is all about the language of love, for our love for God and God's love for us is the bedrock of faith, the bedrock of the Church.
At Pentecost, I do not know whether one disciple suddenly began speaking in Cappodocian, and another in Arabic, another in Farsi, or some other ancient language. But I do believe something came over those disciples, that is, the Holy Spirit; and they were consumed by love and joy and faith and strength and confidence and passion and conviction. God sent them to be healers in a broken and fearful world.
So whether we are trying to ask directions on the streets of Beijing or talk about curfew with your teenagers, whether we are trying to discuss changes to the Book of Order with a fellow Presbyterian or share faith experiences with a Muslim acquaintance, whether we are wanting to address a work issue with an insensitive supervisor or communicate care to a friend paralyzed by grief - in any and every situation, let us pause and find within ourselves the language of love and speak it boldly yet gently, with or without words! This amazing language has been given by God, taught by Christ, and poured into us through the Pentecostal power of the Holy Spirit. It's enough to change the world.
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