Sunday, May 28, 2023
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“A Hurricane of Tongues”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, May 28, 2023 - Pentecost
Reading: Acts 2:1-17

The Christian church is well known for our great holy days. Easter: the resurrection. Christmas: the birth of God in our flesh. Folks not even Christian or barely Christian come to these celebrations and we offer them our very best party. There is a third such feast, less well known. No secular mascot for this third celebration: no Santa, no bunny, no more attendance on this day than any other. Nobody’s figured out how to market it to get us to spend more than we meant to. It’s today. Pentecost. The birth of the church. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all peoples. Cue the parade.

Thursday night at Holy Blossom Temple on Bathurst Street, one of the attenders asked me if there was a special Pentecost greeting. Our Jewish hosts had such a greeting in Hebrew for Shavuot, our occasion for gathering. She looked at me eagerly, ready to learn something cool. I had to say, uh, no, there’s not one I’m aware of. Sorry. But maybe we’ll write one next year?

You heard the story, in several languages. Jesus has ascended back into heaven 50 days after his resurrection. And his disciples . . . wait. They do nothing. They don’t just do something, they stand there. You would think that witnessing the resurrected Jesus, hearing him teach again, receiving his forgiveness, would all be enough, they could take off and tell the ends of the earth about the new creation God is bringing. But no. They . . . wait. For what? They don’t quite know. But Jesus has commanded them sit there. Till when? You’ll know.

One of the most important commands God can ever give us is to do nothing. Stand still. Be at peace. Rev. Lori recently preached about God’s command to Moses at the Red Sea: the Lord will fight for you. You only have to keep still. Yeah, but keeping still is really hard! Especially when death comes barrelling down at you! Physicians and nurses know the Hippocratic Oath: the first rule of healing is to do no harm. Don’t make a patient worse, at the very least.

Doing nothing. When Japan invaded Manchuria in the early 1930s, two Christian ethicist brothers debated what the USA should do. Reinhold Niebuhr, the great ethicist of his age, said the US had to intervene. Geopolitically, maybe he was right. Japan was expansionist and dangerous. His brother Richard Niebuhr said, No. Wait. Do no harm. He wrote an essay called, “The Grace of Doing Nothing.” This is against every American instinct: we do stuff. We fix stuff. No, brother Richard said, let’s first do no harm. I so wish America had taken his advice in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. Or maybe done something the way Canada does: not just with force, but with creative talk.

A friend of mine lived in Palestine. He was walking one day, came upon a friend with a flat tire. The man was waiting for a wrecker. My friend said, “wrecker? Why? Let’s fix this!” This hadn’t even occurred to his Palestinian friend. You call an expert and wait. Americans don’t wait. We roll up our sleeves. Kind of our strength. And, my friend said, that’s what we did in Iraq. We said, “let’s hustle this!” The result was not good.

Wait for the Lord, scripture says. Those who are sick, and those who care for them, often have nothing they can do, but wait. For the doctor’s call. To see whether treatment works. Wait.

You can tell a lot about a person by figuring out what they’re waiting for.

Jesus says to wait for the Holy Spirit. He says you think I did good things? Just you wait. The Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh will do far more. Uh, more than healing the sick? Feeding the hungry? Raising the dead? Yeah, way more. You’ll see.

So, the disciples are all together in one place. And all Jerusalem is full of pilgrims. Jews from all over the world are there for the Feast of Shavuot, a celebration of the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. It’s what our Jewish neighbours celebrated last Thursday. We’ll hear Rabbi Yael from Holy Blossom preach for us in August. Jerusalem is chalk full of people from all over the world. You heard them listed in the reading. Now this is fun: some of the people listed in the reading don’t even exist anymore at the time when St. Luke wrote the book of Acts. These are pilgrims living and dead. When our Jewish neighbours celebrate Shavuot, they say every Jew ever is at the base of Mt. Sinai receiving the law, not just those who were there physically at the time.

And what happens? Well, there’s a profusion of images. An overflow of metaphors. A flurry of language. A giant wind. A hurricane. A phalanx of fire. A tongue of fire on each head. You know the gold domes on Eastern Orthodox churches? Those are for tongues of fire at Pentecost. And the disciples can all speak languages they’ve never learned. Jews from all over the world hear the disciples speak of Jesus in their own language. Not someone else’s.

Fire and wind are good metaphors. If you’ve been paying attention the last few months as we preached through Exodus, you’re aware of fire and wind. They’re signs of God’s presence. As the people gather at Mt. Sinai, they see fire on the mountaintop. As the prophet Elijah waits for God, on the same mountain, he hears a hurricane of wind, cracking rock. To be honest with you, studying up for today, I didn’t catch the reference to Mt. Sinai’s fire and wind, and I preached a lot of those sermons! I was fixated on the language. But speaking at Holy Blossom reminded me. Oh yeah, this is about Mt. Sinai, the law, God’s gift for how to live. God is a fire, a hurricane. Dangerous, but also compelling, fascinating.

But this sermon is on language. I was fixated on the languages because of Pentecostalism. In 1905 there were 0 people on planet earth who called themselves Pentecostal. In fifty or so years from now, there will be a billion Pentecostals. That’s not bad growth. What happened? Well, there was a revival in what was then quite undeveloped southern California. Most respectable denominations like ours said speaking in tongues was no longer a thing. But at the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 in Los Angeles they came up with something different. Charles Parham and William Seymour read the book of Acts and said, “why not here, now, among us?” What’s impressive is that Seymour was black. Parham white. And the Holy Spirit fell on the people in a new way. They spoke in strange languages. They saw miraculous healings. And black and white worshiped together in an America on fire. Even today we “respectable” denominations may look down our noses on Pentecostals for being less educated than us, more uncouth. But they’re still more interracial, despite our 60-odd years of effort on racial reconciliation in our denominations. Maybe if we really wanted more racial reconciliation in the United Church of Canada we should encourage speaking in tongues. Who’s with me?

Nobody? Okay. I get it. I’m not Pentecostal either. The Azusa Street Revival was a miracle. But it’s not what happened at the first Pentecost. In the book of Acts, folks can speak in languages they’ve never learned. This is not a private prayer language, gibberish to listeners. This isn’t ecstatic unintelligible speech, it’s perfectly clear speech in a language you shouldn’t know. That’s impressive. And hard to fake. The other person will just say ‘uh, no, that’s not actually Tagalog that’s just gibberish.’ I clarified this in Tuesday Bible study and one attender warned me, “no one’s going to believe that.”

We underestimate how important our native language is—unless perhaps we can’t use it. Our mother tongue—well named. The one our mom sang to us in while she was nursing us. Most religions have a holy language. Jews have Hebrew. Muslims Arabic. We Christians don’t. And this is for a reason. Christianity can be translated into every language there is. Bible translation is a radical act. It says, “your language is as good for carrying the gospel as any other.” The tongue your mom cooed to you in, is the one in which you can hear: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” There are some 6500 known languages on earth. 2800 of them have at least some of the Bible translated. That’s not bad. And some Bible translators say that when we get to all 6500, Jesus will come back and bring his kingdom in full. Here’s why translating the Bible is radical. Right now, in every little corner in Asia or South America or Africa, there’s a translator, usually a woman, trying really hard to learn her new friends’ language so she can translate the Bible. The typical such missionary these days is usually an African or Asian woman. And right now, in that same country in the capital there’s an executive with a map with pins in it, who wants those same villagers to learn English so he can sell them hamburgers. I hope she wins. Translating the Bible into a new language preserves that language against the onslaught of market forces. And it says God loves you enough to speak like your mom.

Learning a language is really hard. There are language savants out there. A friend picked up a poet at the airport who, she’d heard, spoke 18 languages. He learned she was from Brazil. Oh, good let’s speak Portuguese! And they did. These people exist to make the rest of us feel foolish. Just for the record, this savant only speaks to cats in Gaelic. The word “idiot” means, etymologically, you only speak one language. Most of us are. I minored in Spanish in college and can still only sort of speak it, as Ioseph and Luisa and Arsenio and Erwin will attest. Duolingo has so many users—300 million—because lots of us want to know a language. But I find I quit just when it gets difficult.

In Acts there is no difficulty. Just immediate fluency. Hard to believe, right?

When I was in college I studied abroad, visited Paris, as one does, sorry to be a stereotype. I wasn’t going to church at the time, again, not very creative of me, just being honest. If you want to be unique in college—go to church, no one’s doing it, it’s actually original. Anyway, when my friends and I visited Notre Dame, a French couple came up to us. This is rare. And they initiated conversation with us. This is even rarer. In pretty poor English they said today is Pentecost. Fire came from God, languages, Holy Spirit. Come into the church with us. And I couldn’t believe it, it took Pentecost to get Parisians to be nice to tourists. To get Catholics to evangelize American students. I’ve known French people who wouldn’t even speak French in Quebec: ‘their French is horrible here.’ But these Catholics were willing to stumble over English to tell us about the God of Pentecost. Maybe it’s all true: God speaks other languages to stammer to us about love.

Language itself is a miracle. We don’t usually stop to notice. I think something. I make sounds. They travel and hit your ears. You think about them. And then more or less what I intend to communicate forms in your brains. It happens in an instant, and we’re not even really trying. And that’s a proper miracle. If no one will believe in Pentecost’s languages, well, it’s hard to believe any of us manages to communicate anything to anyone else at all ever. And we do it all the time. Sometimes even successfully.

There’s great mythology around the first communication technologies. Because our age loves “advances” in gadgetry. The first telegraph message in 1844: “What hath God wrought?” sped for 40 miles from Washington to Baltimore and the world stood amazed. As one historian said, no one from Alexander the Great till 1844 could communicate any faster than a fast horse. The first radio signal. The first tv broadcast. The birth of the internet. Cellphones. All amazing. You know what’s even more amazing? Your kid can tell you she loves you. If we thought about it very long, we’d be dumbfounded at the sheer fact of human communication.

So, given that all language is a miracle, it’s not so surprising that some language becomes a little extra miraculous.

While on that college sojourn a friend and I went to Morocco and visited the Sahara Desert on camels. As one does. Our guides spoke only French and Berber, we spoke only English and Spanish (sort of). Still, they managed to have us dancing around a fire chanting with them (no alcohol involved—strict Muslims). Until one of our group saw a scorpion. They screamed. We all screamed. We suddenly wanted to go home. And one guide started lecturing us in a different tone, in a mess of Berber and French. I heard him name cities and he kept saying Allah over and over. And I told the others ‘oh, he’s saying he’s traveled all over this desert and nothing bad has happened because God protects him.’ They looked at me liked I’d grown another head. It was religious language he was speaking, and I knew that language. It’s how you ask for help when you’re afraid. Lucky for us, we had a guide who believed in prayer. Sorry, were you about to tell me speaking in tongues doesn’t happen? I don’t have to believe it. I’ve heard it.

Another example. Another part of Africa. Don’t know why more miraculous things happen the farther you get from Europe and North America, but it’s so. We’re dead set against the miraculous here. The rest of the world knows better. I was in Sudan with my beloved Old Testament teacher. There were 1000 people in the Anglican cathedral in Juba, 2000 more outside. And the Archbishop of Sudan said, “we don’t normally have laypeople give the benediction in Anglicanism, but my teacher is here, who taught me to love my Muslim neighbour rather than hate. So please.” And she stood up, like someone out of the Bible, like Sarah or Ruth or Esther herself. And she gave Aaron’s blessing in Arabic. Then Hebrew. Then English. I’m sobbing. And I say to her after at lunch: wow, I didn’t know you could do that in Arabic! She said I didn’t. I said uh, I just heard you, so did 3000 other people in their own language. She said no I can say Salaam Aleikum and a few other things. I just heard you. Okay, whatever. She doesn’t like me to tell that story, she thinks it didn’t happen. I think it did. And 3000 people heard Aaron’s blessing of old in Juba Arabic, the language their mom prayed over them in.

God’s still in the miracle business y’all.

Christians there in South Sudan asked western friends for help building their new country. We’re used to this in the west, so my home university asked, whatcha need? They asked for sustainable agriculture expertise. Done, what else? Biblical languages. Come again? Well, we’ve only had access to the Bible in the languages of our colonizers: English and Arabic. But we south Sudanese are good at languages. So, teach us Hebrew and Greek, and we’ll translate the Bible into Dinka, Nuer, and every other tribal language we have. Okay, Duke said, lets put the Bible nerds on the plane beside the ag people. Imagine who we would have planned to send. My fellow Americans always think of weapons first to send to the oppressed. Most of the west would say human rights people. Sudanese said bread first. Bible second—out of a love of language. I hope we westerners would again stop. Do nothing. And learn.

God can still take this gospel of Jesus’ resurrection anywhere. This promise that the Holy Spirit is birthing a whole new world. And tell people about it who don’t want to hear it. Who don’t care. Who are sure Christianity has nothing new or interesting or positive to say to them. Who’ve been told the only point of living is to choose between this mall or that website. There is nothing bigger. And God can say to their deepest heart, their most frightened place, in a language they trust, “I love you. I’m making all things new.” And they can believe it. And join us. And be changed. And we’ll be changed. You’ll see. One day everyone will see. Amen.