Different Languages and Misinformed Assumptions

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 19, 2013 (Pentecost)

Acts 2:1-13 GNT

The day of Pentecost.  A day, at least as Luke (the author of Acts) relates it, that gave energy and impetus to the movement that Jesus had founded.  On this day his followers experienced something that gave them the drive and encouragement to take his message into the world.  Since Luke alone left us a record of that happening, we have no other source to draw from for the events of that day.  As Luke tells the story, the post-Easter Jesus had instructed his little band of followers to wait in Jerusalem until they received “power from on high” (Luke 24:49).  Luke says they did.  Then 50 days later, on the Jewish festival of Pentecost (a religious celebration that brought Jews from different parts of the then known world), Jesus’ followers, who had given themselves to prayer, felt the Spirit come upon them in an extraordinary way, accompanied by the signs of a mighty rushing wind, fiery tongues, and the ability to speak in other languages.  Did things really happen exactly as Luke describes them?  Or, perhaps, was Luke attempting to describe an experience that was really beyond description?  And we need to remember that Luke was a storyteller, and he wrote this story some 50 years after the fact.  Stories tend to become embellished over time.  But obviously something happened that had an impact on the lives of those early disciples.

But one of the points that jumped out at me this week as I read again this somewhat mysterious story was the fact that onlookers misunderstood what was taking place.  Those outside the circle of Jesus’ followers who were observing all that was happening stood in amazement, wonder, and confusion.  Perplexed, some of the onlookers mockingly shouted, “They are filled with new wine!”  In other words, “These people are drunk!” (Acts 2:13)  Without really knowing what was going on, those outside drew hasty conclusions and formulated false assumptions.  We don’t want anything to do with those fanatics! They no doubt exclaimed.  Why, they’re nothing but a bunch of drunks!

When it comes to religion, it is easy to draw hasty conclusions and formulate false assumptions about what we don’t know, isn’t it? We tend to fear, and possibly even malign, what we are not familiar with.  And this becomes the basis for religious persecution, fighting, and even religious wars.  History books are filled with sad stories of religious persecution based on false assumptions.  Many religious groups have been misunderstood and persecuted over the centuries, starting with the early Christians themselves.  Usually those who are misunderstood and persecuted are the smaller groups that are in the minority, whereas the persecutors often are the majority group that is in control.

One of the most persecuted Christian groups was the Society of Friends, or Quakers.  Quakers often were beaten, thrown into prison, and victims of vandalism and arson, because those who did not know and understand them drew false assumptions about them.  False assumptions led to fear and distrust, and fear and distrust to persecution.

Some religious folk in America that have been misunderstood in recent years are the Sikhs.  I spoke about the bombing of the Sikh Temple some months ago and how that everything the Sikh religion stands for is against religious violence and acts of terrorism.  But in the eyes of many, any man who wears a turban on his head is immediately suspect.  So, one of the pertinent truths for us is we should be careful about drawing hasty conclusions and formulating false assumptions about other religious groups, simply because we don’t know them.

But another side of misunderstanding and false assumptions has to do with the way that outsiders may perceive us here at the United Church.  My guess is that a large percentage of the Oak Ridge population may not have any idea of what we are about here.  The fact that we are a non-denominational, non-creedal congregation may raise red flags in the minds of a lot of people.  It may be assumed that because we are non-creedal, then we are non-believing.  But nothing is further from the truth.  In fact, someone shared with me soon after I came here that the perception of some outsiders of the United Church has been, “Oh, that’s the church that doesn’t believe anything.”  Because people don’t know us, they may draw hasty conclusions, and their assumptions are false.

But I am convinced that if the Oak Ridge community really knew who we are and what we are about, they would have a much better perception of us.  And I am also convinced that a lot of people are looking for the kind of church community we have to offer, if they really knew us.  Which means, each of us has a big job to do in letting the community know who we are.  But such starts with one-on-one personal relationships, as we interact with others on the soccer field, at the fitness center, doctor’s office waiting room, civic clubs, or wherever else we might find ourselves to be in the community.  Each of us has a role to play in reversing false assumptions.

The other point that jumped out at me from Luke’s Pentecost story has to do with the different languages that were spoken.  As Luke tells it, all the onlookers from different parts of the Mediterranean world could hear the believers speaking in their own native tongue.  It is presented as a miracle and a reversal of another mysterious story, the Tower of Babel story, where the languages were confused and no one could understand what others were saying (Genesis 11:1-9).

In contrast to the Pentecost story where the miracle of communication occurred and everyone could hear the word spoken in their own language, today there seems to be a lack of communication as everyone is speaking a different religious language.  Red States and Blue States.  Conservatives and Progressives.  Fundamentalists and Liberals.  There seems to be so many different religious languages in America today.  There often is a failure to listen, failure to hear, failure to try to understand what others are saying.

I have relatives—cousins and such—with whom I find it difficult to communicate when it comes to religion.  And I am guessing that some of you do too.  We speak a different language.  One of the most unfortunate conversations I ever had occurred many years ago when I was young and allowed myself to be dragged into a religious argument with my aunt and uncle.  And one of the most difficult days I have ever endured was the funeral service of my grandmother when a relative was totally inappropriate in the way he conducted himself and the religious words he shouted that were very divisive and hurtful to many who were in a state of mourning.  Since that day 17 years ago, we have not had another religious conversation.  We don’t speak the same language.  It is sad, but I don’t really know what to do about it.

So, what is the solution?  What can we do about the fact that we speak so many different religious languages in our community, our families, our country, and our wider world?  The most obvious answer, it seems to me, is to try to listen and learn.  Sometimes this is hardest with those closest to us, as in the case of my cousins.  And sometimes such a religious conversation is simply not possible.  But often it is.

And just because we are willing to listen to someone who speaks a different religious language doesn’t mean we have to agree with them.  But the willingness to patiently listen to someone tell their religious story without feeling attacked, without interrupting or arguing demonstrates both maturity and wisdom on our part.  And when we truly and uncritically listen to someone tell their religious story, we might actually learn something.

The Dalai Lama, who is Buddhist, of course, contends that being open to learn about someone else’s religion can make us appreciate our own religion even more.  The Dalai Lama is one who is willing to listen and learn from other religions of the world.  And his aim is not to convert Christians to Buddhism (he makes this quite clear), but to encourage Christians to become better Christians.

Being willing to listen to others who speak a different religious language doesn’t mean that we have to compromise what we believe or how we practice our own faith.  We may find that as we listen and dialog with others of different denominations or religions that we have more in common at the core of our faiths than we had previously imagined.  And it has been my experience that my conversations with those of other religions and denominations have led me to fine tune my own faith.

So returning to where I began, Pentecost and the different languages can become a metaphor for true religion and the heart of true religion.  Religion that brings people together, rather than driving people apart.  That’s what Pentecost is all about—bringing people together.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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