Tuesday, 19 May 2015

“People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening”: a sermon for Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21)

“People talking without speaking,
people hearing without listening”.
Sometimes language has its limitations. In fact, sometimes language is downright confusing.
Words frequently change their meanings.
  • In recent decades, the word “wicked” was high praise indeed in youth culture.
  • There are some people in politics and the media who oddly use the phrase “do-gooder” as an insult (as if, strangely, it is somehow a bad thing to do good things).
  • The word “gay” changed its meaning twice in most of our lifetimes. “Gay” once meant “jolly”. For many decades, it has meant “homosexual”.  Now, in some sections of youth culture, “gay” means “boringly pretentious”. In a sense, “gay” now – for some people - means the direct opposite of its earlier meaning of “jolly”.
Sometimes language has its limitations. In fact, sometimes language is downright confusing.
Sometimes, words can be used to conceal reality.
  • If a politician, a religious leader, or a media figure says that he (or she) is “pro-life”, it may not say much about their attitudes to war, to famine, to highway safety, or to anything else except for the fact that he (or she) is against abortion.
  • If some politicians, religious leaders, or media figures speak about “family values”, it may not mean that they want to make life better for families. It just means that they disapprove strongly of single parents, working mothers, unmarried couples, same-gender couples, and a few other people as well.
  • If a comedian describes her (or his) comedy as being “edgy”, it may just mean that she (or he) often deals in cruel comedy, adolescent comedy, comedy that makes fun of people’s suffering.
  • Many euphemisms have been coined to make it seem acceptable that some people lose their jobs as a result of boardroom shenanigans: “downsizing”, “restructuring”, and so on.
  • Other euphemisms were coined to make civilian deaths and injuries during war seem somehow acceptable: “collateral damage” and so on.
  • Then there’s the phrase “political correctness” (coined by some cynical smart-aleck in the 1990s) to lampoon the idea that people of all races, all religions, and both genders deserve to be treated with equal respect, courtesy, and dignity. 
Sometimes language has its limitations. In fact, sometimes language is downright confusing. 
In the area of people’s beliefs, there is further confusion. 
  • The word “evangelical” was once a lovely word, and a word belonging to all Christians. It came from the Greek word for “good news”. “Evangelical” once referred to the Christian church’s belief that Christ transforms human life for the better – both for individuals and for communities. But, in recent decades, the more rigidly narrow sort of Christians have tried to take over the word “evangelical” as if it applies to them alone. 
  • And then, there’s the word “humanist”. For centuries, “humanist” meant a well-read person of broad cultural sympathies, and a person who rejected racial and religious bigotry of any sort. But, in recent decades, the word “humanist” has become an “upmarket” term for an atheist or agnostic.
  • In the popular corruptions of these words, “evangelical” and “humanist” have become mutually exclusive words. Using the real meanings of these words, it is very possible for a person to be an “evangelical humanist”. (And, in fact, I personally believe that the community, the nation, and the world in general would be a far better place if there were far more “evangelical humanists”.)
Sometimes language has its limitations. In fact, sometimes language is downright confusing.
It’s like the statement made in the comedy series “Yes, Minister”, by the bureaucrat’s bureaucrat Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne. Sir Humphrey once described a bureaucrat as a person “who calls a spade a personal, hand-held domestic garden digging implement”. 
The experience of our culture:
  • our culture which speaks with acceptance of “downsizing” and “collateral damage”; 
  • our culture which lampoons normal human respect and decency as “political correctness”;
  • our culture which regards a “do-gooder” as a bad person; 
the experience of our culture is one in which a spade is frequently called “a personal, hand-held domestic garden digging implement”.
This experience of our culture was once described in the song The Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkle as:
  People talking without speaking, 
people hearing without listening …
This experience was once told in an old story from the Hebrew Dreaming, a story about a time when the world was young, when people all spoke the same language, and when people in their hubris wanted to usurp God’s godhood. They built a tower at a place called Babel where they could reach up to the skies and become godlike. According to this old story, God’s response to human hubris was to confuse the languages of the people, so that people could not “play God”. 
In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, one of the gifts of the risen Christ was to reverse the experience of Babel. A big crowd was in Jerusalem for a major Jewish festival: Shavuoth in Hebrew, Pentecost in Greek. The festival celebrated God giving the Law to Moses. It was an important festival. Jews still celebrate Shavouth now. The festival today includes the eating of cheesecake, so you know it’s got to be good.
While the festival was in progress, something happened to the disciples. God’s spirit gave them the courage and the strength to talk about what had been happening during the past few weeks, months, and years; about what had happened in the life of Jesus, how he had conquered death, and how his conquest of death was significant for us all. Not only did God’s spirit give the disciples the gift of courage to speak. God’s spirit also gave the crowds the gifts of sensitivity and openness to listen.
Think about these two stories.
The important thing to remember about the old Babel story from deep in the Hebrew Dreaming is that this division into racial, national and language groups was because people were getting a bit full of themselves. 
It was never part of God’s original intention: 
  • for races and nations to be divided from one another;
  • for people to speak with acceptance of “downsizing” or “collateral damage”;
  • for people to lampoon normal human respect and decency as “political correctness”;
  • for people to regard a “do-gooder” as a bad person;
  • People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening....
The experience of Babel was the experience of a broken world, a world that did not fulfill God’s intentions.
When the story of Pentecost was first told by the early Christians, it was told by – and it was told to – people who knew the story of the Tower of Babel very well. The presence of God’s Spirit that the first group of Christians experienced soon after the first Easter was explained in terms of a reversal of that old story from the Hebrew Dreaming, the one about the big tower.
  • In the Babel story, God confused people’s speech so that people who could once understand each other could no longer do so.
  • In the Pentecost story, God “un-confused” people’s speech so that people who once could not understand each other could now do so. 
If the Babel story tells us how racial and national divisions among people are a result of people being far too full of themselves, the Pentecost story tells us that being full of God’s Spirit, being God-intoxicated, can lead us to know that, from God’s perspective, all humanity is a single family.
And so may it be for us all. 

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