“Imaging a New World” Sermon Preached at Riverdale Presbyterian Church, Hyattsville, MD
Acts 2:1-21 with Genesis 11:1-9
Can you remember the last time or anytime you were in an environment where you spoke a different language than everyone else?
It could have been on an international trip either to the US for the first time or abroad, even something as simple as getting someone to clean your house or mow your lawn who originated from another place.
What did it feel like? What did you wish for? What do you still remember about such a time?
Over the past two years that my husband, Kevin has served as the President of an international relief and development organization called Feed the Children—a non-profit working in all 50 US states and in 10 countries around the world, we’ve done a lot of traveling. I mean A LOT of traveling! We’ve visited education programs and dedicated new feeding centers and built relationships with new friends all over the world. We’ve become the outsiders in communities.
The experiences no matter where we are in the world are similar. As we approach a community in need where Feed the Children has a school or a water project or a health clinic and begin to meet with parents and kids, it is a paralyzing feeling. Most of them, English is not spoken at all. And as for me, I can’t communicate beyond the basics of “Hello” “Good Morning” or “Nice to meet you” in the language of the community (if that!).
Not only this, but later when we sit down for lunch, I don’t know what I’m ordering on a menu. I don’t know what others are saying around the table. I don’t know how to tell new friends that I’m so impressed with the strides they’re making to help all the kids have brighter futures.
I rely on smiles, handshakes and hand motions— all geared toward making a point the best I can with my body language. I hope that this finds a way to communicate love somehow.
I do the best I can. But it is frustrating nonetheless. I wish I knew Spanish. I wish I knew Swahili. I wish I spoke French.
As we begin to study our Old Testament lesson this morning, we read an experience of completely different proportions. Those gathered on the earth at this time had never experienced such a problem. They all spoke the same language. They gathered together as one.
It was a glorious time in human history. Translators were never needed. Everyone got along so well.
But the problem came when those gathered became a little too confident in their unified powers. They believed, Genesis 11 tells us that “they could make a name for themselves” by building a tower high in the sky with bricks and mortar. They wanted to be the ones completely in control of what came next, not God.
From what we know of God, we can imagine how well this went over . . .
In response, the Lord says, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” You see, God said such hubris would not do. Their punishment became separation from their human brothers and sisters. No longer would everyone speak the same language.
Folks began migrating, scripture tells us, from this moment on in groups of those who spoke their same language. Colors and skin tones began to divide from one person from another person. “Where are you from?” became an identifier making one person different from another. The world became full of not only different languages, but also different tones of voice and accents that continue to this day.
Ever gone to Mississippi or Boston or even Detroit and have a problem understanding what they’re saying?
Two weeks ago, for Memorial Day I visited my in-laws in South Georgia and was asked at 11:30 am to come to the dinner table and had no idea what was going on. Wasn’t it the middle of the day? South Georgia translation: dinner = lunch. Even if our official language is English, there are still a thousand ways that we can be DIVIDED in speech from one another.
But was this the way that God intended for us to live? Was the Tower of Babel and all that went down there the end of the story of language and how we live together in community?
It wasn’t. And to begin to understand God’s vision for our world, even as human pride sought to destroy every good thing that God intended, we must go to Easter—that liturgical season we just ended last Sunday with the celebration of the Ascension.
For it was on Easter, the day of resurrection, that Jesus, yes, Jesus ended his journey on earth with complete hope. No longer did division have to be the final word. When the women at the tomb heard from the angel that “Jesus was risen just as he said” it was a NEW day on earth. All were now welcome into God’s family, not just those who followed the practices of the Jewish faith.
This was the earth shattering truth: Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed).
But with any MAJOR life changing revelation, it needed fleshing out. It needed time to settle into human hearts and minds. It needed a season or what we call the church, Eastertide—50 days from then until now.
And this now is our reading from Acts 2.
The day started out pretty normally other than the fact it was a festival on the Jewish calendar and everyone was gathered in Jerusalem for worship and celebration. The disciples of Jesus, in particular were all together. They were still trying to figure out what to do with their lives, what would be the next steps for them in this post Jesus world. But then, verse 2 of Acts 2 tells us that, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.”
What could it be???
I could imagine that the abruptness of this interruption was frightening.
But even more what could be named, qualified or even described, the Spirit of God was on the move and the world would never be the same.
Scripture even has a hard time describing it using vague language like, “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.”
As the people gathered tried to describe what was going on were their actual tongues? Was there really fire? Probably not, but the author of the book of Acts knew only dramatic image would do because of what came next. Verse four tells that that all of them, “began to speak in other tongues (or languages) as the Spirit enabled them.”
And though we in the church world can easily get caught up in verses like this wondering, “What is tongues?” “Does this mean we are to speak in tongues?” “Are those believers in Jesus who say they’re speaking in tongues today more holy than the rest of us?” (All of these questions are best saved for a Church History class).
What is truth is this—the Spirit came and those who received the Spirit understood one another in ways they’d never had before. Suddenly, you see, it became a world where LANGUAGE was no longer a divider.
Through the Spirit people heard one another in ways in which they NEVER had before!
About a year ago, I journeyed to Guatemala alongside the Feed the Children staff from the home office based out of Oklahoma. It was my first visit to this country and I was eager to see the beauty of the place I’d only read about in textbooks years before!
As the week came to an end, I was notably aware of the language divide. Many of the rural communities that we visited were full of residents of Mayan decent (many of whom live on less than $1 US dollar day, by the way and have not completed a grade school education). Thus, at each stop, the mothers and children spoke a different dialect of a tribal language unique to their Mayan heritage.
The Spanish-speaking Guatemalan staff did not even understand what was going on! Together we relied on the Mayan children who’d learned Spanish in school to translate their tribal language into Spanish. Then the Feed the Children staff that spoke Spanish and English translated for Kevin and I. While it was good to be among these beautiful and hospitable people, the communication was exhausting. Double translation as you might imagine took a lot of time.
But, when it came time to say goodbye at the airport to the directors of the program, Altagracia and Ricardo, non-English speakers themselves, but leaders full of kind hearts and deep love for the children of their nation, I found tears rolling down my cheeks. Though we’d never spoken directly from native language to native language, I knew these the hearts of these two. I knew they loved God and sought to serve the Lord in all they did. They loved and appreciated me and wanted me to know how happy they were to have my visit to their country. I felt the same about them.
Together we stood on holy ground.
And the frustrations of communication that we’d experienced over the last seven days seemed to pale in comparison to the hugs we exchanged and the smiles that beamed across all our faces. It has been good to be together in partnership and we all knew it. God had done a work among us—a work that was changing and is changing children’s lives in Guatemala forever!
Such was a moment of the Spirit transcending, resting upon us, and interceding for us if I’ve ever experienced one.
For while my friends did not suddenly understand English and I did not suddenly understand Spanish, something about our hearts connected in ways that could have only come from God. Something opened that had been previously closed before.
Biblical Scholar N.T. Wright has said: “Those in whom the Spirit comes to live are God’s new Temple. They are, individually and corporately, places where heaven and earth meet.”
Or, as I like to think about it, on the day of Pentecost a new world comes to be. Heaven really does come to earth!
A world where the words I speak do not keep me from my neighbor, but can join us together. . . .
A world where it matters not where I came from, but only where I am willing to journey in the future . . .
A world where the color of my skin does not make me better than or less than, but merely a beautiful part of God’s brilliant mosaic . . .
They call this day in the liturgical calendar we follow, the birthday of the church. Or in some churches a good excuse to have a cake at coffee hour after worship . . .
It’s the birthday of the church because with the giving of the Spirit, all of us were given the tools we need to make our community life together possible. You see, in Jesus, we are given the purpose. Remember the message of Easter. Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed). But with the Spirit, we are given the means to share the message.
I want to ask you this: when is the last time you sat in a church committee meeting or a Bible study and thought to yourself, how in the world do I go to church with these people?
I bet all of us could relate.
Church, in our modern expression is a crazy thing. People of all kinds of backgrounds and cultures and ages and opinions and education levels and life experiences and on and on gather because we love Jesus and want to follow Him, but in actuality, living it out can be one the hardest thing that we’ve ever tried to do.
And if you’ve been around church for any length of time, you know what I mean. We naturally are going to disagree. We’re going to go through seasons when we don’t get along. We are going to even fight with our words from time to time (and hopefully not with our hands!)
We may want to walk away from church sessions and throw up our hands and say, “What’s the point?”
But, today we remember the gift of the Spirit. We remember the great tool God gave us in the Spirit. We remember that the Spirit is what enables us to come together as one, as Jesus prayed that we would be.
Lauren F. Winner, one of my professors from Duke Divinity School and author of God Meets Girl writes, “The Spirit is the reason we can build a church and have confidence that we will get it at least a little bit right.”
Because of the Spirit, you see, we can imagine a new world. We can imagine a new community. We can re-imagine this community and the next chapter that God has in store for it in all its potential.
We don’t have to let our language divide hold us back—whether that be actual spoken languages as God brings non-English speakers to our front doors. Or when God brings us folks who hail from different parts of our country with strange ways of doing things or even when the different “languages” of our hearts seek to divide us.
For today is the day of Pentecost. Today is the day of new winds of the Spirit. Today is the day of the color red—the color of the refining fire. Today is the day of imagining a world where we are all not only welcome at God’s table, but heard and understood.