Preached at First Congregational Church, Loveland UCC
By Craig Bialy
Scripture Passages: Acts 2: 1-18, 43-46
"What Language Do You Speak?"
Good morning. Here we are again; together, outside on a beautiful day, in a beautiful place that God made for us all to enjoy. And we’re here together. It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday or what you’ll do tomorrow, which channel you watched for Thursday’s town halls (if you had the stomach for either one), doesn’t matter who you’re going to vote for on Nov. 3rd - we’re all here together today for the same, common reason. To worship Jesus, listen to a common message and share the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
OK, so… let me start off by apologizing for being about a half a year off schedule with today’s scripture. But the story of Pentecost has elements that are so very relevant in these times.
I remember being on a family vacation in Nova Scotia when I was 13 years old. My maternal grandfather’s family immigrated from Nova Scotia to CT when he was a teenager. My uncle Geoffy and aunt Cerita lived across the street from my Mother’s house and I had a few other aunts and uncles also living in CT. Geoffy and Cerita had inherited the family homestead in Nova Scotia and they spent a lot of time up there during the summer. It was on a nice piece of property on St. Mary’s bay. Another aunt and uncle owned another family home nearby. We stayed with Geffy and Cerita, and on our second or third night there, the family got together for a dinner. The dinner included what was apparently a very tasty rabbit stew. It was a traditional dish and part of the culture of the family’s French Canadian heritage. Now, I was raised as a purely American kid and our immediately family weren’t what I would consider “fully immersed” in our cultural heritages and rabbit stew wasn’t something I had ever eaten. When I tried the stew, I could immediately tell it was something I didn’t like and I asked aunt Cerita “What is this?” She said “It’s rabbit. Tastes like chicken, no?” to which I remember replying. “No, it tastes like rabbit and I don’t think I like rabbit.” Then I shut up and ate around the rabbit. Here I was, with my own relatives and not completely connected with their culture. After dinner, my mother announced that I was taking French in school (can’t remember if that choice was based on my family. Spanish would have actually been much more useful.
So my aunt Theresa began to speak to me in French using simple phrases that an 8th grader would understand. It was in French, or should I say the version of French that was spoken in rural Nova Scotia. The dialect was so heavy that I could hardly make out what she was saying, soooo.. being the outspoken kid that I was, I told Mom “I don’t know she’s speaking, but it isn’t French!” We all had a good laugh and had some dessert. Here I was again with my family, and even though we all spoke French, it still wasn’t really the same language.
In the second chapter of Acts, we find Jerusalem filled with people gathered together, just like we are today. They were there to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. People from every nation of Isreal had traveled there, bringing with them their own cultures and their own languages. They hear the Holy Spirit come roaring down in the form of fire that settles onto the Apostles. Naturally, a crowd forms. And this crowd of people, from a dozen different nations are amazed when they hear the Apostles, who were all Galileans, speaking in the 12 languages of everyone present. Even though Hebrew was the “right” language, the official language and the one holy language of the day, each one of these people were hearing the voice of God talking specifically to them in their own native languages. Each of them hearing the same message with the same complete clarity and unfiltered purity. This was clearly a sign that something extraordinary had occurred!
Author Alastair Roberts explains the powerful message behind the story of the Apostles’ speaking in tongues. He says:
“In place of only one holy—Hebrew—tongue, the wonderful works of God are spoken in the languages and dialects of many peoples. The multitude of languages is preserved—a sign of the goodness of human diversity —and human unity is achieved, not in the dominance of a single human empire, or in the collapsing of cultural difference, but in the joyful worship of God.”
But it sure seems different today. There are many different “languages” spoken here in the US, but it’s no longer just the languages of different homelands. Today’s languages are driven by the starkly different social cultures. And these aren’t ethnic cultures like food or music or clothing; these are cultures of opinions, of biases and of politics.
These opposing cultures are what push today’s different narratives. Cultures of left vs. right, a disturbing culture of white supremacy, a culture of socialism, and even a dangerous culture of denial. And the resulting galvanization has created canyon, with no way across. And we have people shouting, in their culture’s language from each side of the canyon. Shouting at each other instead of listening to each other. Shouting even louder when they don’t get the response they want.
The Israelites all knew that the blessing of the Holy Spirit was coming; they just didn’t know it would be that day of Pentecost. The Lord had delivered them from evil and they were gifted with the promise of eternal salvation. Because they had all come together that day, with the same common goal. But as Americans, we can’t even come together with the common goal of fighting a deadly common enemy – COVID 19.
It hasn’t always been like that. Our nation has undeniably been united behind a common cause – more than once. We came together in ww2, after the attacks of 9/11. We had unity in our purpose… and we all spoke the same language.
Why is it so different with COVID? During World War II, Americans had to learn to deal with rationing. They were asked; no they were told - in no uncertain terms - that they would make do with less, or even go without in order to help the country through that difficult time. And we stood together, united as a nation, together for a common purpose of stopping an a deadly enemy. We had each others’ backs. The US fought for nearly four years in WW2. We suffered hardships at home - and we lost over 400,000 lives in that time. Today, we’re fighting another war. A different kind of war.
And we couldn’t be less united if we tried. What sacrifices have we made, what hardships have we endured? Other than maybe toilet paper or a shot and a beer at the local watering hole, we haven’t had to go without much of anything. We’re being asked to wear a mask to help fight this common enemy. Even where there’s a government mandate to wear a mask – we can really only “ask” people, lest we be assaulted, shot and sometimes murdered… simply for reminding someone that they should be helping protect American lives against a brutal enemy attacking us on our own soil. Instead, we’re teetering on the brink of a second civil war.
And sadly that division is being stoked by those in power. The ones with the power to be pulling us together are instead creating divisiveness and then fanning the flames.
In WW2, We lost over 400,000 American in 4 years. In 2020, we’ve lost 220,000 American lives in less than nine months to COVID - because we can’t even come together, wear masks to protect each other from harm and fight against a common enemy! So how can we not ask the question – “In all of this, where is the Holy Spirit? the one who promises unity and love for each and every of our fellow humans?”
It’s there, people… The blessing of the Holy Spirit is still there. We just can’t hear it any more because there are so many people shouting at each other. And we’ve forgotten how to speak that language, how to push the same narrative, how to share that same culture of radical inclusivity and universal love.
Yes, there are too many competing languages today in the US. Languages of divisiveness, hate and exclusion based on race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, or whether or not you wear a freakin mask. Thankfully, there is still that one language of radical inclusion – inclusion of everyone - regardless of who you are, what color you are, how much money you have or which side of the canyon you stand on. Where all voices are equal, listened to and respected. And I don’t mean just the inclusive language of the UCC; I mean the radical inclusion of language and culture that the crowd in Jerusalem was witness to on that day of Pentecost.
But we’re a pretty long way from that right about now.
Massive division … left and right … black and white, rich and poor, between those in power and those without any power in our society.
The crowd at the Pentecost feast had just witnessed the ultimate display of unity. And they had some difficulty understanding what had just happened or how it was even possible. But Peter reminded them of what Joel had foretold. That God would pour out the Holy Spirit on all persons. Not just the Apostles, or the religious powerful. No, this was also for the common, ordinary people. Even the weak and the powerless. Especially the weak and powerless. Because, you see, the Holy Spirit lifts all people to an equal footing in the eyes of God.
It did that even in the days when the Priests and elders of the church decreed that they were the only ones with the supreme privilege to interpret God’s words. Not for the common people who were so far beneath them. I guess that just goes to show that the culture of supremacy isn’t a recent invention. But that radical inclusion that God showed us through the life and death of Jesus removed that privilege enjoyed by the elite and redistributed the power equally across all people.
There is no privilege, no oppression, no canyon so wide that can’t be bridged by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit speaks the only language that really matters.
So how do we determine what is America’s language, America’s narrative, America’s culture? That seems to be the front and center question as we approach election day. Standing on either side of the canyon, shouting at the other side doesn’t seem to be working. And shouting the same message even louder just makes it worse. Too much talking at other people and about other people, instead of talking to other people, and with each other. The Black Lives Matter movement and the protests against police violence and racial injustice bring this issue into sharp view. On one side of the canyon are people proclaiming that the protests are absolutely necessary until the injustice and brutality end - because years of peaceful protest haven’t changed a thing. On the other side are people shouting “BLM is a terrorist organization seeking to sow anarchy and chaos! They must be stopped” Sadly, the shouters don’t have a clue about what the issues really are. They don’t seem willing to learn the language of the protestors in order to understand the roots of the issues causing the protests. We need to move away from angry tirades, unnecessary fear and divisiveness to a respectful and productive dialog. among equals - not the powerful talking over the powerless - if we’re going to begin tearing down walls and begin building bridges. And it needs to be done in the language of the Holy Spirit, in which all people are equally loved, respected and embraced.
The closing verses of this scripture go on to describe how the Spirit of the Holy Spirit had come to life in the hearts of that diverse group of believers gathered for Pentecost. Á deep sense of awe came over them all, and they met together and shared everything they had. They sold everything they owned and shared the proceeds with the needy – Just as Jesus had taught us during his ministry on Earth.
But that doesn’t fit neatly with our Capitalistic society - where cultures like “I’m only looking out for #1” and “The one who dies with the most toys wins” and my favorite “sucks to be you” drive the language around economic disparity. The striking difference in wealth between the top 1%’ers and the average American family is obscene. And a study by the Brookings Institute reveals that the net worth of a typical white family is almost 10 times greater than that of a black family. Talk about being powerless.
I think it’s pretty hard for most Christians to truly wrap their heads around Jesus’ message of sharing everything and taking care of each other. If you described it to some people, they might say it sounds a lot like socialism, but it’s really not. Socialism is when the government comes knocking on your door to demand tax money to pay for social programs. What Jesus wants us to do is share whatever we have, whether that be money, food, clothing, shelter, emotional comfort, or just human respect. To share our blessings with “the least of his brothers” so they too can feel truly loved and cared about – which is the promise of the Holy Spirit. We are all one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord and we pray Dear God that our unity will one day be restored.
So maybe, if we truly want to restore some type of unity then we all need to just sit down, shut up and listen. Listen to each other, and listen together for that sweet sound of the Holy Spirit. That’s the only way we’re going to bring people together .
So tell me, what language do you speak?
© 2020 Craig Bialy, all rights reserved.