“What We’ve Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate!”

~ Genesis 11:1-11/Acts 2 ~

It’s Pentecost, which means that it’s been fifty days since Jesus resurrection. The day was actually a Jewish festival celebrating the spring harvest, and the revelation of the law at Mount Sinai. But on this particular Pentecost a new happening. Luke tells the story here in chapter 2 of the book of Acts:

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…

Thus, Luke tries to describe, with verbal pyrotechnics, how the disciples, gathered together virtually in hiding, suddenly were emboldened to tell the world about the Jesus who had died, was raised from the dead, and then ascended to heaven. Loud rushing wind, flames of fire dancing over everyone’s heads, “filled with the Holy Spirit” – over-the-top verbiage for certain; verbiage that, frankly, is a bit scary for us staid Presbyterians, too enthusiastic!

Yet, despite the fact that Luke’s description is what we usually focus on in our observance of Pentecost – ‘red’ to signify flames, the ‘breath’ of God like a wind, the Holy Spirit dove hovering – that really isn’t Luke’s point in telling the story. No the point is what follows next:

 …and [they] 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.”

The miracle of Pentecost was not the supposed ecstatic Holy Ghost experience of the disciples. It wasn’t even the seeming miraculous ability of the disciples to speak multiple foreign languages simultaneously (I won’t even try to explain that!). No, it was the fact that the gospel, the good news of Jesus, was now open to everyone, fully inclusive, full diversity; everyone, no matter what their ethnic group, no matter what language.

Thus, Pentecost and the birth of a now diverse Jesus community reverses the curse of the tower of Babel, described in the Genesis reading (which is why it shows up in the lectionary on this Sunday). Luke’s story deliberately connects to those first pages of the Bible when God inexplicably used language to divide humanity into a cacophony of confusion. Now, God is doing a new thing by bringing clarity out of the confusion.

And those peoples gathered in Jerusalem that day, peoples of many, many different cultures and languages, heard the message. And they were “bewildered” to “hear, each of us, in our own native language?”  So, to finish our reading from Acts 2:

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Yet, despite accusations of public drunkenness, the disciples were emboldened to speak forthrightly and with confidence. Peter, the one who had cowardly run away from Jesus earlier, stands boldly with the eleven, raises his voice, and proclaims the good news to the people. And they listened. As a result, Luke reports, that about three thousand that day welcomed the message and were baptized. Whew!

St. Francis of Assisi famously said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” Except that he didn’t say that. As much as it sounds like something St. Francis would say, there isn’t any evidence he did. In fact, it can’t be traced back beyond 1990. The fact is we use language to articulate our faith. As Christians, we place great stock in language. In words. Like our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, we are People of the Book. On Sunday mornings, we profess our faith in the languages of liturgy, creed, prayer, and music. In short, we believe that language has power.

Yet, language can be misused, sometimes terribly, often in oppressive ways. Sometimes language is used to confuse and obfuscate rather than enlighten and clarify. Communication does not happen. We  might find ourselves contemplating that iconic movie line from Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Well, maybe you haven’t thought about but I did which is why it shows up in my sermon.  

As I contemplated this over-the-top story of the birthday of the church, I wondered, what is the connection between language and God’s Spirit? Indeed, as we observe the birthday of this particular church, Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church, I wonder how we are to communicate God’s Spirit to each other and to our neighborhood? How do we live out the message we’ve received? Do we speak it? Or do we only act it out? What might this story about God’s Spirit filling the people with courage and confidence to proclaim in words what they had experienced, teach us?

Language can be weaponized to divide, exclude, demean and hurt. The childhood adage, “sticks and stones may break by bones, but words can never hurt me,” just isn’t true. Words can and do cause considerable harm. Language is used to exclude, such as “English Only” sentiments and “they must learn English if they want to come here.” Language divides “us” from “the others.” Language is used by the powerful to oppressed the powerless; bullies those who are weak or don’t have a voice.

The alternative, I believe, is having a voice. Giving space for and encouraging people to have a voice is the key to a spirit-induced use of language. Looking back at our passage from Acts, God’s action, if you will, was to respect all those with different sounding voices, different languages. The people listened because they were shown the respect to be addressed in their own languages and by extension their own cultures. It opened the way for a back-and-forth communication.

I have to admit I’m one of those Americans who only does English. I tried Spanish and French in junior high. That didn’t take. I’ve sung in German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and French but can’t speak a lick. Whenever we’ve been in France Linda urges me not to try to order in French; I slaughter the language. When I’m in other countries, I’m glad when we encounter people who speak English. When it comes to other languages, I’m a klutz. However, I truly have an appreciation for other languages and cultures. I’ve learned to be respectful.

In 1982 Linda and I found ourselves in Southern California. We had come to start a new church somewhere in Los Angeles (we didn’t know where yet). In the meantime we got involved in a church in Santa Ana. In the wake of the Vietnam War thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia settled in Southern California. We learned that there were 500,000 Vietnamese living in Orange County!

Our work at a local Baptist church was to teach a Sunday School class called “The New to English” class. We had a Chinese couple, Jimmy and Amy who, when they met couldn’t communicate with each other because one spoke Mandarin and the other Cantonese. We had a Japanese woman, a man from the mountain peoples, called the Mong, a Laotian. There were two Vietnamese teenage girls who had escaped the country by boat and had terrifying stories of being attacked by pirates on the open sea. There was the Cambodian young man, who had swum across the Mekong River with a bullet in his shoulder. He was on the run because he was a Mercedes Benz mechanic, making him too “Western” for the communist regime there. It was quite a mix of languages and cultures. All of them spoke just enough English to barely get by.

The class worked like this: It was a bible study that also helped them improve their English reading skills. I would have each of them read verses from Genesis 1 in their own language translations out loud and then they would take turns reading the English. We would then talk about the commonalities and differences between the various language versions. For instance, did you know that the Chinese word for “firmament” gives a much fuller understanding of the word than the English does? My take away from it all was a higher appreciation of the richness of languages. I just hoped my students got something out of it as well.

I discovered that giving my students a voice made for good communication, despite the language limitations. They took the risk of opening up because they were respected. That, I think, is a take away from our Pentecost story from Acts. Both sides had to take risks. The disciples who spoke had to brave languages far beyond their comfort zones. They had to risk vulnerability in the face of those differences. They had to risk being awkward or inadequate or even silly in trying to communicate the message.

But, likewise, the crowds who listened had to take risks as well. They had to suspend disbelief, drop their defenses, and receive in wonder this new lifegiving message. They had to welcome the strangers who some claimed were drunk. But the bottom line is that some people spoke and some people listened and into that cauldron of mixed up languages, God breathed fresh life.

We live in a world where words have become toxic, where the languages of our tribal enclaves threaten to divide and destroy us. In our global world, if we don’t learn the art of speaking across boarders that separate us, we will destroy ourselves.

It is no small thing that the Holy Spirit loosened tongues, so to speak, to break down barriers on the birthday of the Church. In the face of differences, God compelled the people to engage. Despite the sordid history of the church in the intervening centuries to try to squelch that Holy Spirit, we are called to once again let the Holy Spirit loosen us; to be called to press in, linger, listen and speak to one another, with compassion and empathy. When we learn to hear and speak each other’s stories in words that matter most to us, then we move toward being one.

So, last week when I suggested that there is no such thing as Christian unity. Well, I was wrong. It is here where we experience unity, where we lean in to each other and listen. That is how we become one.

Yesterday Bill Jackson and Linda and I had the opportunity once again to hear the incredible music of the Young Woman’s Choral Project, of which Arlena is a member. They closed the concert with Sisi ni Moja or We Are One. I close my sermon today with these words:

We all laugh. We all cry

We all feel hunger, we all feel pain.

We all love. We all hate.

We all hope, and we all dream.

We are one world, one people.

And we all breathe the same.

A tribe of many languages. A group of many heartaches,

Fighting for peace among the land.

Now we stand here together and lift our hearts in song

To the rhythm of this moment in our lives:

We are one.


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