Others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
You and I probably know a few of those sneering others. Maybe we heard them say things like “those are just a bunch of coastal elites.” Or “they voted for crooked Hillary,” or even—tragically if falsely—“Get off the bus and get out of the country because you don’t pay taxes here.”
But no one side of the political spectrum has a monopoly on the snark. Sneering others have also been known to send mocking tweets about covfefe, decapitate a sitting president in effigy, or—less graphically bit no less sneeringly—make disparaging remarks about people who might have voted for him.
The sneering other might have been you. It certainly has been me.
Thanks be that ours is a God of second chances. So when I catch myself sneering—which I have done even this very week—I can repent, and commit myself to do better. Because we have choices other than to sneer in the face of something we don’t understand. We can, for example, adopt a stance of curiosity, which some evidently did on that peculiar Jerusalem day that we now think of as the birthday of the church. That being the day when a bunch of terrified hillbillies—for real; the disciples were from a poor and mountainous area of Judea—suddenly found the authority to teach as Jesus had taught them. “How is it that we hear in our own native language?” asked the curious hearers, whom our scripture describes as alternately amazed, astonished and bewildered. They were, I imagine, the first converts. Because when people risk asking questions, rather than sneering or categorically disregarding, we can learn new things and be transformed in our understanding.
I hope to avail myself of some transformative possibility every day, but most especially during the weeks when I am preaching. Because I have to approach these ancient texts with curiosity—and sometimes stubborn persistence—if I am to avoid making negative generalizations. For example, I have to ask myself—and God in prayer—why the Letter to the Ephesians would admonish wives to obey their husbands. It might be satisfying to sneer at St. Paul—or possibly a theologian of his school writing under his name—as an irrelevant old sexist. But then I’d miss the invaluable cultural lesson about patriarchal Roman household codes, and how they were transformed by the teaching and witness of the church. So, with God’s help, I stay curious.
Some of my questions about today’s lessons resemble those of the cosmopolitan polyglots gathered in Jerusalem. They had come to the city to engage in sophisticated theological discourse, and were probably little interested in the enthusiasm of a bunch of hicks from eastern Oregon. Uh, that is, Galilee. Like them, I would want to know exactly how this crazy conflagration of voices worked. And the ones among them who did not preemptively dismiss the sudden street preachers did what curious people do; they inquired. “How is it that we hear?” It’s a great question, and one I myself might have missed if didn’t read the text carefully. Because my own first instinct would not be to ask “how is it that we hear?” but rather to ask “how is it that they spoke?” How did these uneducated, unsophisticated Galileans suddenly become compelling multilingual orators?
Over the years, I suspect that our reading of the Pentecost story has been influenced by all manner of superficially similar but unrelated phenomena. One obvious example being what the church calls glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. But the tongues of fire mentioned in the text have nothing to do with speech, per se. Although we don’t know exactly what they are meant to symbolize, New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen has pointed out that the Roman Emperor was often depicted on coins with a divided tongue of fire over his head. So perhaps the tongues were a sign of the authority of believers whom Peter called “a royal priesthood.” And while ecstatic speech—glossolalia—was a cautiously accepted as a form of prayer and prophecy by the early church, that is clearly not what was going on in Jerusalem. The burning question posed by our lesson from Acts is not how to interpret unintelligible speech, but rather how the disciples were able to speak so intelligibly. That’s the miracle, right?
Or maybe not. Walter Wink, another New testament theologian, points out that all those urbane internationals who heard the good news of Jesus in their own language had experienced a miracle of the ear. That is, the work of the Holy Spirit was not fundamentally about tongues of fire or the way that that the artless disciples spoke. The miracle of the Spirit was that the sophisticates were enabled to hear.
Recently I have been listening to Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime, on an audiobook. You may recall that Trevor Noah—the current host of the Daily Show—is South African. So the title of his book is legally accurate: he was a mixed race child born under a regime in which sexual relations between people of different colors was forbidden. Like as if that kind of law ever worked: news flash to white supremacists everywhere! But the fact that Trevor was classified as colored at birth—technically a slightly higher apartheid status than his mother who was classified as native—only complicated his illegal life. There’s a happy ending to his hard story, of course. Like many people who are socially marginalized, humor became his survival skill. So now Trevor Noah has a hit show on Comedy Central, and his memoir is as hilarious as it is serious.
One of the serious stories Trevor recounts in the book involved his torment at the hands of the various colors and categories of South African children who always perceived him as other. He was terribly lonely, but… he also happened to be multilingual in several of the dozen official languages of his country. Which is how he discovered that people would accept him if they could understand him. That is to say, even if other South Africans had already decided he wasn’t one of them because of his inscrutable coloring, when he spoke in their own language, he was no longer alien to them. So he used his gifts to speak in ways that others could actually hear him.
Happy Birthday, church! And thanks in advance to Charissa Simmons and her family ministries team for planning a great party in Kempton Hall after this service. We have plenty to celebrate in the very fact that the church is still here, challenging and comforting us as the Spirit of Jesus is known to do. And we still have plenty of need for the Holy Spirit’s particular gifts of cross cultural communication. In a week when the effects of hateful speech threaten to further divide our social fabric, it surely takes a mighty deed of power to avoid the preemptive sneer and ask ourselves “what is really going on here?” In an era when rich and poor, urban and rural, educated and uneducated are growing further apart from each other, it takes a mighty deed of power to show up and listen to the other, most especially to the ones we are tempted to sneer at. It takes a mighty deed of power to learn the languages of people unlike ourselves, but—as Trevor Noah discovered—that’s when the miracle of the ear can overcome the prejudice of the eyes and the mind.
Let me say that none of this countercultural behavior is easy or obvious, just as it wasn’t in Jerusalem some two millennia ago. Which is why Jesus breathed on his disciples and promised them the abiding gift of the Holy Spirit; our birthday present even now. It’s a gift that can transform the temptation to sneer into genuine curiosity, belligerent speech into deeper listening, and enmity into genuine friendship. We continue to celebrate this Pentecost birthday of the church year after year, waiting—as we Christians are—on the great and glorious day of the Lord. Which—whatever that may be—is surely not the private party of a few. Our scripture reminds us that everyone—everyone—who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. There’s a lot of people out there—and in here—crying out right now. In pain, in grief, in bewilderment. Maybe not in words that we yet understand, but we know for sure that the Lord hears their voices. With the Spirit’s help, let us go and do likewise.