A Sermon by the Rev. David S. Heald
Saint Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough
June 4, 2017
Day of Pentecost-Year A
Acts 2:1-21; Ps. 104:25-35,37; Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 7:37-39
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deed of power.
Last week, as I was reflecting on this morning’s readings, an interesting chapter in my life came to mind. I was in high school and a classmate’s mother had taken me under her wing, even though I had a perfectly competent mother of my own.
She was eccentric, wore long gypsy dresses with a gothic flair, was bedecked with jewelry, and had black hair that she wore in thick braids wound up on the top of her head; and, an enhancement to her mysterious feminine allure, she was intensely, passionately spiritual.
Perhaps sensing my own emerging spirituality, she invited me to attend her Episcopal church. The rector of Holy Trinity, Bridgewater, MA, was the Rev. Freedom Wentworth. Called to the parish in 1961, he soon radically shifted the tenor of worship, calling on his congregants to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.
Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, was the sure sign and seal that the Holy Spirit had alighted upon seekers. At mid-week services, scores of attendees were invited to come forward and receive the laying on of hands by the Rev. Wentworth.
Invariably, there were those who began to utter strange speech, many overcome and collapsing, caught from behind by those who accompanied them to the altar rail. Encouraged by my friend’s mother, I was one such seeker slain in the spirit; except that I wasn’t, really.
Feeling the pressure of the crowd all around and caught up in the emotional furor, yet intensely self-conscious, I faked speaking in tongues, gesticulating wildly, uttering words that I knew to be gibberish.
Rather than sensing intimacy with God, I knew I was an imposter; returning to my seat shamed, I feigned the heavenly glow of the born again.
Never the less, my friend’s mother and I sometimes prayed together in the little candle-lit chapel in her home in Hingham, still feigning flights of the Spirit but feeling embraced by the crazy love of that woman who looked for all the world like Morticia Addams.
For Paul, speaking in tongues is one of the gifts of the Spirit, and it is unintelligible speech. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes: Those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people, but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit.
Further on, he states that speaking in tongues is only efficacious if it can be interpreted for the greater good of the church.
As at Holy Trinity in the sixties and seventies, glossolalia continues to this day in Pentecostal and charismatic congregations around the globe. I don’t doubt it’s efficacy for those so gifted; I just don’t happen to be among them.
But in the book of Acts, speaking in tongues at Pentecost is very different.
As Marcus Borg writes, its effect was the opposite: Jews in Jerusalem from the many different countries and language groups of the Jewish diaspora understood, each in their own language, what the followers of Jesus were saying.
They marveled: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” Rather than unintelligible speech, it was supremely intelligible.
Borg grounds this part of Acts not in the early Christian practice of glossolalia but in the story of the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis. According to this story, Borg writes, the people of the earth once spoke a common language but were then scattered into different linguistic groups because of their prideful attempt to build a tower with its top in the heavens.
Indeed, the English word “babble” comes from the name “Babel.” Babel is the story of the fragmentation of humankind into separate and often hostile groups who do not understand each other, scattered by God abroad the earth.
Borg suggests that Pentecost is the reversal of Babel. In Acts, the Spirit inaugurated a new age in which the fragmentation of humanity was overcome.
Well, yes and no.
Other scholars—Walter Bruegemann, the great Hebrew scripture scholar foremost among them—have argued that the lesson inherent in the story of Babel is diversity, not sameness. As opposed to the fortress like mentality of Babel, grounded in fear and characterized by coercion, God’s will in scattering the people may in fact be a blessing. This is no self-serving unity but an embracing of the other, of those not like us.
Global community, unity within diversity, is God’s way of salvation for humanity and for the planet; unity within diversity; not one, not two, goes the old Zen saying.
Not one means that we cannot ignore the differences among us, what makes us unique. Not two acknowledges unity as our essential God-given nature, the way that things are meant to be.
Embracing both expands our awareness, enabling us to reach out to one another in a spirit of cooperation and compassion, all for the greater good. In the end, all fortress like mentalities characterized by coercive violence, whether of individuals or extremist groups or of nations, will be found to be morally vacuous and in vain.
To paraphrase and repurpose a recent David Brooks column, the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, of unity within diversity, of our common humanity, makes us yearn for righteousness, feel rage at injustice, disgust toward greed, reverence for excellence, awe before the sacred and elevation in the face of goodness. AMEN