Saturday, May 26, 2012


A while ago I saw a TV documentary about the difficulties faced by school teachers in the Western Desert in Central Australia.  As most educators agree – and as Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has powerfully pointed out – one of the most important determining factors in equipping this generation of Aboriginal children to gain employment and good housing when they grow up is a decent education – in English.  But out in the Western Desert, this documentary pointed out, most of the children could communicate only within their own language group.  They only spoke the language they learned at home.  They weren't learning English because they weren't going to school, and they weren't going to school because at school they didn't understand what was being said.  And the teachers of the Western Desert were making an important discovery, which was that the kids learned English better when they learned at least half the day in their own language.  Unfortunately the bureaucrats hadn't quite got that yet, the funding for teaching resources in the languages of the Western Desert wasn't being made available, but the point was clear.  The kids were not learning because the learning environment excluded them, but when they were addressed in their own language, when they were able to respond and learn in their own language then they knew they were being heard, that their experiences and where they came from were important and valuable – and they were empowered to learn other things that were new.

Today we celebrate the miracle of Pentecost, which is commonly acknowledged as the birthday of the Church – the high-octane day on which Jesus' followers are transformed into men and women in ministry, and a mega-church appears in a single morning.  A day traditionally celebrated with red-coloured cellophane and pyrotechnics that brings the high drama of Lent and Holy Week and Easter to a conclusion with a satisfying flourish.  A day in which, as the disciples begin to speak the local languages of everyone present, we witness the miracle – not of incomprehensibility and confusion – but of comprehensibility and inclusion.  And today I want to suggest to you also – that this miracle of comprehensibility is fundamentally a signpost to the demand for justice that shapes from the very beginning what the Church of God is supposed to be about.

The story as St Luke tells it begins – as so many of the post-Easter stories begin – with the men and women who had followed Jesus all sitting together inside.  In a holy if not very effective huddle.  It ends of course with them all outside – in a rush and on a mission – but we'll take it one step at a time.  And this is one of those stories where we need to listen very carefully to the words that Luke, the master storyteller, uses, because his language is not only colourful but also metaphorical.  There is a noise, he tells us, like a powerful wind – although the word he uses for wind is the same as the word for Spirit.  We could just about translate this sentence by saying that the house is abuzz with a powerful spirit of excitement!  And then our English translation tells us that divided tongues rested on them like fire – from which we get generations of Sunday School pictures of disciples running around with their heads on fire.  Except of course that the word for tongues in Greek – like tongues in English – means languages, and that is what this story is about.  Fire is another metaphor that Bible writers use to talk about the spirit of God, and it can also mean – in Greek as it does in English – a spirit of enthusiasm and excitement.  So as one commentator literally translates it – 'various languages descended on them like fire' – the disciples realised the divine gift of language and excitedly began to use it.  It's not my intention here to deny the general miraculousness of this, but simply to get away for a moment from the mental image of tornadoes and hovering flames and back to the central point of what is going on in Luke's story.

The Pentecostalist Church – which of course takes its name from this event – has got the right idea that the implication of the Pentecost event is that the Holy Spirit empowers us for ministry, because this story tells us that through the Holy Spirit God speaks to each one of us personally and directly.  This of course is the opposite of fundamentalism, the idea that only if we can read something in the Bible, literally word for word and preferably in 16th century English, can we be sure that God really means it.  The God of Pentecost isn't so easily confined.  On the other hand, Pentecost is widely misunderstood by Christian Churches who draw from it the idea that we should all be 'speaking in tongues' – by which is meant what psychologists call glossolalia, or ecstatic speech which sounds as though it should be but isn't actually any known human language.  Because Pentecost is the opposite phenomenon – at Pentecost the assembled people all hear themselves addressed in language they can understand, because it is their own native language.  St Paul as always sets us straight about this.  'I would rather', he pointedly tells the Corinthian Christians who are easily impressed about such things – 'I would rather have the gift of interpretation, of helping people understand, than the gift of incomprehensible speech that, well, God might understand but nobody else does'. [1]

The people come from all over.  Palestine during the time of the Roman occupation was a multicultural and multilingual place, and Pentecost – or Shavuot, the Jewish Festival of Weeks, was a big religious occasion when the local population would also have been swelled by crowds of pilgrims.  We of course live in a multicultural and multilingual place ourselves – which means this story tells us something very important about ourselves.

But the Festival of Weeks was one of those festivals that carried a load of meanings.  Primarily, it was a harvest festival, celebrating the annual miracle that the earth provides for the people's needs and thanking God for the everyday blessings of soil and sun and rain, for the miracle of growth and the goodness of creation.  Which makes Shavuot a happy festival – an occasion for eating and drinking and laughing, for flirting and dancing and enjoying life.  But hand in hand with celebration and thankfulness – is the demand for justice.  This is the bedrock of the Jewish faith, the network of social obligation that comes out of the covenant the people make with God.  The Book of Leviticus contains the instructions for how the festival is to be celebrated, with offerings of grain and drink and the sacrifice of bulls and lambs, and a day off work for everyone – and then it says –

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God. [2]

This is in fact the world's oldest system of social security, the provision for the poor who would follow the farm workers gathering the heads of grain that they missed, arduously gathering just enough in a day to feed their families, and God's people are directed to provide for their needs by not harvesting their land to its fullest extent.  Why? Because they were to remember that they themselves were once poor and landless and nomadic, and that God had led them then and provided for their needs.  The harvest festival, Pentecost or Shavuot, commands God's people to practise - not charity, but justice - to remember the needs of the poor and refugees and all who are excluded.

And I think that it is against this background that we need to read the miracle of language in St Luke's story.  Because to be addressed in our own language is to be included, to be made visible.  When you are not heard or addressed in a language you can understand, then you are excluded and made invisible.  The first thing that springs to mind is the situation of an immigrant – somebody who is isolated not just by the barriers of language but also of culture and experience.  The first thing to do when you migrate to a new country is to learn the local language and the local ways - but – as the educators of the Western Desert discovered – in order to learn you need to feel connected.  When somebody addresses you and understands you in the language you first learned, then the walls of disadvantage are suddenly not so high.  In this congregation, and to a larger extent within our Diocese, we have in recent years welcomed brothers and sisters from all parts of the world who – it seems to me – have enriched and enlivened our worship to precisely the extent to which we have learned to welcome and communicate across the boundaries of language and culture.  This should lead us also to think about sub-cultures within our own community that – while technically we share the English language – we find mutually incomprehensible.  For example the language of youth – if you are over a certain age – is one that requires us to listen intentionally.  And vice versa.  The language and life experience of people living with disability is one that challenges our ability to listen with empathy.  The miracle of Pentecost, it seems, challenges us to learn new languages and new perspectives in communicating with people whose experiencing the world is different than our own.  It pushes us, in other words, outside our comfort zones, as the Spirit of God always does.

The lesson of Pentecost, then, is the reality that God 'gets' us in our own terms, whether we speak Urdu or Malay or English or all at once – whether we wear a sari or a hijab or tattoos and body piercings, God speaks our language.  This makes us, not just individually but collectively – together – into God's people no matter how we got here or where we came from.  But Pentecost also teaches us as a Church what we do next - the lesson of pushing down barriers, the lesson of welcoming diversity, of learning to communicate and empowering those whose differences so often make them invisible and unimportant in our community.  It's a good lesson for Reconciliation Week, the week beginning on 27 May each year when we are invited to think about the milestones that have been achieved in joining together as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians – and of course the challenges that still lie ahead in learning to speak a common language and understand one another's perspective.

I believe St Michaels Cannington has come a long way in learning to be a Pentecost Church.  Let's give thanks that, and work even harder to be a Church that celebrates the gift of human diversity.

[1] 1 Cor 14.9ff

[2] Lev 23.22