The Right Rev. Eugene T. Sutton
Before I get started this morning I want to extend an especially warm greetings to my friends from western Michigan at Jenison High School. I went to college at Hope College, which is not far from there, and what I recall about Genison, which is right up the road, is that there more members of the Dutch Reformed Church than there were people. And as I look over, I think there are still a lot of Dutch around. Hope College is run by the old Dutch Reformed Church. Even though I was born and raised in the city, I finally made it to ‘reform school.’
We’ll see if it took any for the sermon this morning!
The sermon is based on Acts, Second Chapter, our first Reading, where Luke has these words. 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 a fire appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
Let us pray to God for inspiration.
Tell us what we need to hear, oh God. Show us what we need to do to become disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well, today, fifty days after the celebration of Easter, the Day of Resurrection, today is the Feast of Pentecost in the Christian calendar. It’s been called the “birthday of the Church,” since it is on this day that the Holy Spirit came upon the Disciples with power and might to proclaim the good news that God in Christ is in the process of reconciling all things on earth back to Himself.
It has its roots in the Jewish Festival of Pentecost, which was held fifty days after their Festival of Unleavened Bread. Jewish tradition held that God gave the Law to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai fifty days after the Passover in Egypt. Tradition also taught that God distributed the Law in seventy different languages so that each nation would receive The Commandments in its own language, in its own tongue.
The early Christians saw a significant parallel with the events that were recorded in today’s Lesson, in that just as the Law was given for all the world at Sinai, so the Gospel was transmitted to all the nations through the miracle of languages in Jerusalem. For there, gathered together in one place, waiting for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, that band, that first band of Jesus’ Disciples experienced the Spirit of God in all its power coming in through and among them, as tongues of fire above their heads. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages. This was not the experience of glassolalia, or speaking in tongues, that St. Paul would write about in his Letters, but rather the miraculous ability that God gave to the Disciples to communicate the Good News to diverse peoples and cultures in their own language.
The birth of the Church, then, was empowered by a new birth of speech. Words are all over this Gospel.
I read recently that something like 2,796 different languages are in the world, not counting that which is spoken by many American teenagers. But NTV and pop culture not with standing, it is amazing that the world is able to communicate at all with over 3,000 languages. And yet, we try.
About a half billion people speak English, either as their native tongue or as a fluent second language. English has become increasingly, the international language of commerce and culture, entertainment, law and diplomacy. It is the primary export of Anglo-American power and influence in the world. As Americans go around the world, they export certain attitudes. You know the stereotypical American tourist abroad who is convinced absolutely that if only he can talk very loudly and ve-ry slow-ly, then that person is bound to understand what he’s talking about. It’s amazing, isn’t it, that so many people around the world speak two, three, four, five or more languages, because they think it’s important to communicate with people around the world, but yet many of us do not see the value at all in learning another tongue.
I’m reminded of that piano teacher who was saying to the parents, “When I’m finished with your boy and this piano, he’ll be able to discuss such things as pianissimo, fortissimo, allegro, and pizzicato.” One of the parents says, “What kind of language is that?” “Well, it’s Italian, of course.” He says, “For $50 an hour you can at least teach him in English?”
It’s the power of language.
Without language, of course, there would be no civilization. There would be no education. There would be no business without persons able to have a language to do commerce. No government. There would not be marriage, for there would not be the words to communicate the state that we’re in. No family life. Worst of all, there would be no worship services in the Anglican tradition without words, according the Book of Common Prayer! …..And I wish more of you had laughed at that. Obviously, without language, there would be no preaching, and all of us would be happier.
But have you ever tried communicating with someone in a language other than your own? It can be frustrating; especially if what you are trying to say is very personal and not easy to convey even in your own vernacular. Dangers abound when you’re trying to communicate. You may not be understood. You may convey a meaning other than the one you intended. You might even look foolish, or give an insult.
And what about when the shoe is on the other foot? What’s is like when someone is trying to get through to you who doesn’t understand your language well? You may feel confused and not understand. You may be tempted to laugh at their mistakes. You may even resent their presumption in trying to speak your language. Or you might take offense, an insult they did not intend.
But what about this? Have you ever tried talking with someone of the same language, someone you thought you knew well, or were even intimate with, to discover that you only seemed to be speaking the same language? Who was it that said that the United States and Great Britain were one common people separated by a common language? You find at the worst possible time that what, for instance, she means by “love” is not what you meant all these years. Or what one person might think of loyalty does not have the same meaning of another in the group, of loyalty, or patriotism.
I wonder how many times have you sometimes given up with another person in saying, “well she just doesn’t get it; he doesn’t get it.” These differences in languages of life or emotional experiences are the hardest to overcome, and no dictionary in the world will help a man understand his wife. Or a parent, a troubled child. Or two brothers who want to hit each other at a Cathedral.
Sometimes it’s not a matter of semantics. What those who teach speech communication say is that most of language is body language. It makes all the difference in the world how someone answers that question put to them, perhaps at a church: “Do you have this man? Do you have this woman?” Even though the words may be the same, it would be different if one says, “I do!” Or, “I do?” Or, “I do.” The same words but different meanings.
Language is about what we try to communicate from the heart. It’s not just a matter of finding the right word. The right word sometimes does not convey meaning. Something else has to happen in order for there to be a connection between persons. Some sort of communication must happen. And by communication we go to the root word “commune.” Something must be communed, or those two or more must be in communion, in order for there to be meaning, true communication.
There are pitfalls. There are dangers and resistances to the real kind of talking and listening that will need to happen in order for communion to take place. But that resistance might be because of fear, fear that if we kept on talking, things might get worse. Or fear of attack. Fear of emotional vulnerability. And of course those fears are well founded. Talk can be destructive, as well as healing and progressive. Blaming, repetitive complaining, pontificating, gratuitous emotional stripping are only a few of the possibilities that people rightly fear when talking gets serious. And that is why creating a safe climate and sound ground rules is often useful in trying to communicate.
What we do here, for example, we have words that you have on paper. We search for a common language despite the various religious, let alone Christian, perspectives that are here. And yet we do that so that we may commune.
I spent some time preparing thoughts for this sermon in the hope that something will be communicated beyond the words even though you may not know what I’m talking about. And sometimes we don’t, even though we speak the same language. “Well, he’s a male.” “Well, he’s African American.” “Well, he’s liberal.” “Well, she’s conservative.” “Where he’s of this party and she’s of another,” how can we ever get together when even the labels themselves seem to separate?
Of course I say all that to say this.
When we enter into deep communication, that requires an act of faith. Faith that there will be an element of “in spite of”: In spite of our differences you feel one way, I feel the other. I believe God said this, and you believe God said that. In spite of it all, we will keep trying to talk and listen, in spite of the differences, in spite of our past failures, in spite of the injuries we have done to one another, in spite of how frustrating, painful or interminable it may seem.
This very weekend many have come to Washington, and many of you are out there because of this Memorial Day Weekend, and the events yesterday both here and downtown in dedicating the Memorial for World War II veterans — that “Greatest Generation.” Those brave men and women who gave their lives for freedom, not only in this country, but around the world. Yet we know the backdrop of those celebrations, commemorations and sometimes sadness, that we not now a nation as united as we were then when at war. There is division. There is questioning. We are not in the same place.
Of course, that may mean that we are in a dangerous place. Or it just may mean that we are ripe for a new Pentecost. We are ripe; we are waiting for a fresh wind of the Spirit so that we may be able to say to each other, in ways that are meaningful for us, how God is working in our lives and in the lives of the nation.
In the crypt level of this Cathedral, below this place where I am standing, you will find placed on one of the great stone pillars, columns in St. Joseph’s Chapel right below, a memorial plaque commemorating the internment of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy in the columbarium in that space. Do you remember the story? It’s told in the three-act play, The Miracle Worker, and later a movie based on the heroic efforts of Annie Sullivan to teach language and finger spelling to a young Helen Keller in the 1880s. The author of the play is William Gibson, and it’s based on a book that Gibson found containing the letters of Annie Sullivan.
At the beginning of the play that young Helen Keller is discovered by her parents to be without sight and hearing. Of course, these conditions also render her unable to speak. She is voiceless. Her parents pity the small child, and their pity turns into spoiling. They badly spoil her. Helen becomes a raging, undisciplined young girl of six.
The parents arrange for a young student to come and teach Helen, and thus arrives Annie Sullivan, herself, visually impaired. At twenty years of age she seems to lack the experience and wisdom that would allow her to be successful in the difficult situation to which she is summoned. Further, Annie, herself has lost her brother, James, and she somehow feels responsible for his death. Further, she carries this burden of guilt with her in life. Coincidentally, Helen’s half-brother is also named James, and he will be a major figure in Annie’s new life with the Keller family.
But conflicts soon develop between Annie and the Kellers. They were expecting someone more polished. Annie immediately challenges the family’s pattern of coddling Helen. This coddling masks the family’s sense of hopelessness concerning any kind of break through. Annie draws the line, and she heroically stands by her big, high expectations for Helen. And Annie rejects the easy path for Helen that would trap her into the way things are.
Well, through discipline, expectation and sometimes-tedious repetition, Annie finally breaks through, building a bridge between the repeated finger spellings and the experiences of the outside world. The moment occurs when Annie and Helen are at a water pump, filling a pitcher with water. She forces Helen’s hand to work the handle, and then she lets go. Helen continues to pump until the water pumps, and then Annie puts the pitcher in her other hand and guides it under the spout. And the water tumbling half into and half around the picture carouses Helen’s hands, the water, dripping everywhere. Annie takes over the handle to keep the water coming, and doing automatically what she has done so many times before, she spells in Helen’s free hand, “W – A – T – E – R, …. WATER. It has a name.”
Then the miracle happens. Helen drops the picture on the slab under the spout, and it shatters. She stands transfixed. Annie freezes on the pump handle. There’s a change in the sun light in the play, and that matches with the change on Helen’s face. This is the moment of power and light in the play. Helen has made a connection between things and language. She can break through. She can communicate with the outside world in such a way as to make meaning. This break through is like a gift of light, not only for Helen, but for the whole Keller family.
And so it is finally with us. The promise of this day is that if only you persevere in doing the things that connect you with God and with each other, and if you wait on the Lord, expectantly and prayerfully as did those Disciples on the Day of Pentecost, then the light of the Holy Spirit will come. The Holy Spirit will come in power and might, resting on you like a fire, reconciling you and all things, all things, unto Himself.
That is why we are gathered in this sacred space today, and that is why we celebrate Pentecost.
To God be all honor, glory and dominion, now and forever.