Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sermon, Pentecost, Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21

Words.  Words are vitally important.  Words give life to our ideas.  Our words shape how people think of us.  And words help us to communicate effectively.

In the high school football rules book, the most important rule, and the rule every new official is told to study first, is Rule 2 – Definitions.  It’s the definitions that give shape to the game and allow the officials to talk with each other in a precise and correct manner.  It’s how we determine how and when balls are loose or dead, the differences between fouls and penalties, catches and recoveries, muffs and bats, and so much more; because if we don’t, or can’t, communicate with this precise language, the game devolves into Calvin Ball.

Some words get hijacked or misappropriated in an effort to redefine them for a particular political gain.  In our religious context, and with the general issue of inclusivity and the particular issue of the equality of GLBT persons as the lynchpin, “orthodox” and “Anglican” have been so misused.

Orthodox, or orthodoxy, is defined as right belief as contrasted with heresy.  An orthodox faith proclaims the Trinity, a fully human and fully divine Jesus, the Resurrection and Ascension.  In short, an orthodox faith is defined by the Creeds.  This word, however, has been hijacked by certain Christians in an attempt to prop themselves up as the members of the “true” faith over and against people who don’t believe exactly as they demand.

Anglican, and Anglicanism, is in the same boat.  An Anglican church is one that utilizes the Old and New Testaments, that takes the Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of Christian faith, that uses well-defined words and formulas in Baptism and the Eucharist, that recognizes a locally adapted Historic Episcopate, AND (and this is important) is in communion with the See of Canterbury.  We are Anglicans, but breakaway groups have hijacked this word, in addition to orthodox, in hopes of identifying themselves to outsiders as the “true” Anglicans.

The people doing the hijacking have attempted to redefine these words and turn them to their own favor, while at the same time ignoring their traditional meanings.  They keep saying and publicizing that they are orthodox and Anglican.  Over and over the breakaway groups cry louder and louder that they are orthodox and Anglican hoping, I suppose, that people unfamiliar with the words will treat them as legitimate.  To paraphrase Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride:  You keep using those words.  I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

The use of words also determines how other people think of you.  That’s why I tried to get my daughter to spell correctly.  Imagine my surprise when I saw on her Facebook page that she was studding for finals.  It’s one thing for Yogi Berra to say, “Baseball is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical,” and quite another for the President to say, “One of the great things about books is that sometimes there are some fantastic pictures.”

Words help us to transmit ideas, communicate accurately, chart political courses and shape our image.  Words do all this; but it is our responsibility to make sure our message is received.  Like I tell my daughter, “It’s your job to make sure people understand you.” 

When we can’t understand each other, when we don’t take the time to get clarification from other people, when we don’t make an effort to find ways for people to understand us, chaos can reign and we end up living in a state of Babel.

Commenting on the story of Babel, Ephrem the Syrian pointed out that the new languages made the people foreigners to each other, incapable of understanding one another.  In his interpretation of this story, it was the division of languages and perpetual misunderstandings that gave rise to the wars between nations.

This is not a bad interpretation, as it hints at the disparate goals of God and humanity.  In this story the people come upon a plain and settle there.  They build a city and a tower and desire to make a name for themselves in fear that they will be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.  Their goal is to create an insular society, protected from the outside, safe from Others. 

They do this because they fear being scattered over the whole earth.  They fear intermingling.  They fear the Other.  And it is that fear of the Other that gives rise to the wars which Ephrem referred.  They wish to stay in their own safe, homogenous society in opposition to God.  And we see this same behavior in a variety of religious and political contexts in which we want people to be just like us; which is, again, in opposition to God.

God’s goal isn’t based on insularity, homogeneity or fear of the Other.  God’s goal is to bring all people into a loving relationship with him.  That goal is, in fact, accomplished through a scattering of people.  We see it in Genesis 1:28 where people are commanded to fill the whole earth.  We see it in Genesis 12:3 where God tells Abram that all the families of the earth will be blessed through him.  We see it in Isaiah 19:18-25 where Israel, Egypt and Assyria worship God within their locally adapted contexts.  We see it in Matthew 28:19 when we are instructed to make disciples of all nations.  And we see it today, the Day of Pentecost.

In the story from Acts, we hear that the apostles spoke in other languages.  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappodocians, Asians, Romans, Cretans and Arabs all hear the apostles speak in their own native tongue.  God, through the apostles, does not say, “You can be here as long as you look and speak just like us.”

Instead, God, through the apostles, reaches out to scattered people through scattered languages to bring about disciples in scattered nations.  In the last days, God will pour out his Spirit upon all flesh – all flesh, everywhere, scattered throughout the earth.

Words are vitally important.  They give life to our ideas, shape how people think of us, and help us communicate effectively.  But we must not be so focused on ourselves that our words have no meaning for anyone but us.  And we must not use words to create an insular society that fears and excludes Others.  If our words reflect a goal of making everyone just like us, then our goal is not in line with God’s goal.

If these readings from Genesis and Acts teach us anything, it’s that we need to speak the Word of God to scattered people in scattered places; because it’s not about protecting ourselves from the outsider, it’s about opening ourselves up to welcome and include the outsider.

On this Day of Pentecost, what words will you use to communicate effectively with those Other people outside our walls?


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