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What Language Shall We Use

a Pentecost homily based on Acts 2
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Language is an interesting thing. I was with a young couple from our congregation this past Friday night. They both had spent some time in Wisconsin and knew the Minnesotan language well. Being from Minnesota, I was delighted to hear "yah, sure. Oh, you betcha." (Even my computer doesn’t understand Minnesotan-suggested instead of you betcha, I try "bet you, batch, botch, or batcher.") While with friends in Louisiana, I discovered a word I didn’t know: "r-a-t-c-h-e-e-r." Heard it a long time before I finally figured out what ratcheer means. For instance, when Juliet calls down, "Romeo, Romeo, where art thou?" he responds, "Why, I’m ratcheer in the bushes." When Pepsi Cola tried to use their slogan, "Come alive. You’re in the Pepsi Generation," over in China, it came out "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead." Language, according to one linguist, is the soul of a people. Pulls us together, gives us identity. But we have to know the rules of the language to be a part of the community. If we don’t, we can feel left out.

I remember telegraphing Bela, my interpreter in Hungary once. I wrote neatly that I would arrive at 7:00 am in the morning in Budapest. Got there the next day at precisely seven am and no Bela. Did the telegraph arrive? Yes. Had he received it? Yes. So where was my interpreter? Then it dawned on me. In most of Europe, a seven has a slash through it. My telegraph was written without a slash which Bela interpreted through his community’s rules as a one, so at precisely 1:00 am in the morning, Bela had arrived bleary-eyed wondering where the crazy American was, while I arrived seven hours later and wondered where crazy Bela the Hungarian was. Ever try to survive in Hungary when the only words you know are egan (yes), hallelujah, and Coca Cola? I discovered that if we don’t know the language of the community, then language-which was invented to help us communicate-can actually keep us on the outside.

Today we have two stories about language. As you hear these stories, try to discover what God might be telling us about our language.

Story number one. The year-who knows? That’s not important. But it’s at a time when most everyone speaks the same language, more or less. The leaders decide it’s time to build a name for themselves. They know language. They want to build a huge tower called a ziggurat, and enclose the community from the outside. Here’s what they say:

Let’s build a city with a tower that reaches the sky,
so that we can make a name for ourselves
and not be scattered all over the earth.

With language they communicate quite well amongst themselves. And so they insulate themselves from the world by using their language to build walls and towers. According to the blueprint, their tower should reach all the way up to God--they’ll even have a corner on God! So they begin to build. "Pass me a brick," "One brick coming up."

Well, God is quite aware what this language thing is leading to: an exclusive club. It’s like this community is building an ancient Six Flags Park with the gates welded shut to outsiders.

God is not pleased. Language was supposed to be a gift to help us make friends, to resolve differences, and to grow together in peace. But this clearly is not happening in this language group. Watch what happens!.

God changes their grammar books on language. One morning they wake up only to discover that no one can understand what anyone else is saying! They’re all speaking gibberish! They themselves know what they’re saying, but no one else has a clue. The guy now yells down from his scaffolding in his isolated language, "I need a brick ratcheer." "A what?" the guy below wonders. So he yells back, "Ya sure, you betcha." Needless to say, the whole project collapses because no one knows what the other is saying. Everyone stomps off muttering to themselves in words only they can understand. That’s the first story. Genesis 11. People using language to build a great name for themselves and in the process isolating and excluding those who don’t speak their language.

But what do you think about the second story? Goes like this. Over one hundred folks have crammed into an upstairs room awaiting something Jesus promised would come to them. Unlike the folks in the first story, these folks are not arrogant at all. Instead they’re praying for the Spirit to work among them. Then it happens. God erupts with the force of a wind tunnel. Tunics flutter like flags on a windy day. As they offer their morning prayers, they just can’t seem to get the syllables out right. Within moments, it seems everyone is speaking gibberish-weird sounding babble.

But haven’t we just heard a story like this? We know what’s going on here. God is not pleased and has changed the grammar books again. The story should end with the project collapsing and everyone stomping off muttering in their own arcane language. But Luke throws us a curve.

As we might have guessed, one hundred people all speaking different languages create a mess. Those who have come to Jerusalem for Pentecost are shocked. "What’s this commotion all about?" Then the town stand-up comic tries to laugh it away. "Why this Babel crowd is drunk."

"No, we’re not drunk," Peter rebuts, "it’s too early for that! No, what you’re hearing is what God has promised us-that ‘in the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh-sons, daughters, young people, and older adults-they’ll all receive some of my Spirit.’"

And then what? "And then they’ll begin to speak in every language group the same thing-the powerful good news about God."

I’m going to stop the story right here. Do you see what’s going on? It’s astonishing! We’ve got over a hundred people waiting for God. But while they can’t see God, they know when God walks in the room, because God speaks their familiar language-Hebrew. Hebrew was the sacred language of Palestine-next to it, everything else was barbaric.

But God goes and messes everything up. At Pentecost, God comes to them in non-Hebrew languages. How interesting! God comes to them in "other tongues," in languages that sound a lot like babble to folks on the inside, but in the ears of outsiders those tongues tell them about God’s power. The words that tumble out of their Jewish mouths are Arabic and Palestinian, Puerto Rican, Zulu, Albanian, rap, rock, and street language, theologically speaking. They are filled with the Spirit, and begin to speak about God, but in fresh, new languages. And so the story ends with a small group that suddenly mushrooms from a handful to a neighborhood full of Christians because God gives them new languages through which to communicate God’s love.

When you put the two stories together as our lectionary does, and as Luke seems to do too, what do they say to us? I wonder if the two stories are two forks in the road. Language, of course, can refer to more than just words. It is the way we communicate through words and actions.

One of the roads we can choose to travel down is the Babel Brick Road. Lots of company on this road. We only need to speak one language and once we’ve got it down, we’re in. Used to be Latin. Sang in Latin. Read Scripture in Latin. Prayed in Latin. Preached in Latin. We kept on speaking that language even thought the rest of the world had moved on to new languages. Same thing happens to worship when we’re traveling down this road. Once we’ve got worship style down, we just keep doing the same thing.

Problem is, the further we travel this road, the more insulated, isolated, and out of sync we are to everyone around us. We get so used to only one way of communicating faith and conducting worship that eventually we can’t change our language.

The other road moves us toward the other story. Traveling down Luke’s road are far fewer pilgrims. This road requires that we learn new languages, that we always seek to be in vital contact with those who don’t speak our language. I wonder what would happen if alongside our beautiful liturgical language we began to speak the languages of drama, bright banners, jazz, folk, praise choruses, liturgical dance, choral readings, and moments for spontaneous words of faith-sharing?

My suspicion is that word would get out that inside SUMC, something strange, but very wonderful was happening! New languages, fresh air. Transformation of lives. But through all of the languages, the most important language-our mother tongue-needs to be heard loud and clear. And that is the language of love.

Let me close with a story of language. About two years ago, Jim sat in my office between services. He had made some bad choices-was at the bottom of his class, in and out of jobs, a father at sixteen. He had come for help.

"Jim, I want you to know that this church is going to stand with you. We’ll be there celebrating the life of your little baby - nourishing and nurturing it as a gift of God. We’ll help you in your faith struggle."

Then, before we ended I invited this kid to help me in the communion for the second service.

So there we were, standing in front of everyone offering communion. Jim with his body jewelry and tie-dyed tee shirt, with that weird symbol of chaos emblazoned on the front. His head was shaved on either side except for the Mohawk pony tail. On the other side was a properly attired church member. Meet the odd couple!

I knew there would be some grumbling among some. And I was not disappointed. One man and his wife over lunch expressed their anger and disgust. "What do you think you’re doing, letting that punk stand up there in his bizarre clothes to hold the cup? You made a mockery of Communion, that’s what you did."

I tried to tell the person that of all persons, this weak member needed grace. And what better place to be than at the Table serving and receiving grace? Have to tell you, I felt pretty discouraged that week. Around Wednesday, I received a letter from an older man. "Oh no, another disgruntled member," I thought. Here’s a close paraphrase of the letter.

This is a messy church, we never know what’s
going to happen next it seems.
Just want you to know that I was so taken
with that kid up there serving us at communion.
It reminded me why I come here.
Because this place like no other,
is where grace happens every week.

What language are we known for? I have come in part, as a language teacher. I’m learning to speak new languages even as I teach them. We’re going to struggle with some of the syllables, because we’re not used to speaking such ways. But as we learn together to speak new languages in our worship and work, the word on the street will be that SUMC is speaking "my language." And this church will once again be filled to capacity. Because its time. Time to be filled with the Spirit and to speak the language that effectively communicates to our friends, God’s love. Amen.