Sunday, May 15, 2005

Body Language (Sermon for Pentecost)

A sermon preached on Pentecost,
May 15, 2005,
in St. Paul's Episcopal Church, St. Joseph, MI
by The Rev. Jason A. Fout

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Misunderstandings can sometimes seem like our lot in life.

Take, for example, Yogi Berra, the hall of fame catcher for the New York Yankees. Yogi is known for his odd witticisms and general mangling of the English language. One day in the Berra household, they were having trouble with one of their window treatments, and so they called in a repairman. Later, his son came up and told his father that the man was here to collect for the Venetian blind. Yogi replied, “Well, go into my wallet and give him a few bucks for the blind kids to get rid of him."*

I’m sure that the blind citizens of Venice were grateful.

Or consider a story told by author Rodney Clapp. Two friends of his moved from a northern state to Dallas in the late 1940’s. After spending a day moving into their new home, they decided to catch up on their laundry. So they loaded up and headed out to find a Laundromat. They soon found one, but to their shock and amazement it had a sign outside saying, “whites only”. But being new in town, they tried to put a good face on it. They dutifully entered the place, sorted their clothes, and washed only the whites. With a bit of grumbling, they packed up their half-done laundry and set out to find another Laundromat. Sure enough, driving back to the apartment by a different route, they found one, this time advertising “coloreds only”, where they went in and finished up what they thought would have been a simple chore. It seemed a strange way to run Laundromats.

But it was not long after, talking with locals, they realized “how foolish and troublesome the signs and the social practices behind them really were.” **
As odd as they thought it was, it was nothing compared with the truth of the matter. This is one case where misunderstanding was bliss.

When we’re lucky, misunderstandings can be funny. Perhaps just as often, though, they can be frustrating or even dangerous, whether at work or school or in the home. And yet misunderstandings seem to be our lot in life, as words fail us or ambiguities abound. So we need constantly, patiently to return to our words and gestures: to elaborate, to clarify, to assure. Really, this is just a matter of caring for others.

Continue reading Body Language

And when we think about it, we’re pretty lucky. Many of us, most of the time, can get by speaking just one language. When you add another language or two to the mix, the potential for misunderstanding can increase exponentially. A French teacher I had in high school described the time she was in Spain and wanted to explain to her hosts that she was embarrassed. Choosing what seemed the most likely word, her embarrassment increased substantially when she realized that she had just mistakenly told everyone that she was pregnant!

But a great many people in the world negotiate across language and cultural barriers every day. This was certainly true in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. Jesus himself and his disciples most likely spoke Aramaic. Priests of the Temple and rabbis would speak Hebrew. Many Romans spoke Latin. Everyone spoke Greek. And in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see a wide variety of people gathered from all around what was then the known world.

I imagine that folks have long reflected on the seeming curse of misunderstanding that arises from different languages. In the Old Testament the story of the Tower of Babel portrays humanity in its pride attempting to build a tower which reached up to the heavens. As punishment for their hubris, their language becomes confused, so that one person can’t understand what the other is saying. It’s a mythical explanation for the frustrating inability to communicate clearly.

Yet in today’s story of Pentecost from the book of Acts, we see a dramatic overcoming of this curse as the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples. It’s not that one language is restored to earth, some kind of Heavenly Esperanto, but rather, that the disciples are given the miraculous power to speak to others in their own language.

This isn’t a neat parlor trick, a conversation starter. Nor is it only a gift of the Spirit to communicate the good news of Christ to others – although it’s at least that. No, in a very large sense, this is the beginning of God’s new creation, inaugurated in Jesus Christ. This is the beginning of the renewal and redemption of the world. Just like some crazy Cubs fans tried to do a couple of years ago, here we see the Holy Spirit at work to reverse the curse.

But something funny happens here, at least at first. People start hearing the disciples speak in different languages, and they are consumed with the question, “Wait! Aren’t these just some untutored rubes from Galilee? How can they be speaking other languages?” In a passage just after what we read today, someone suggests that perhaps the disciples had been drinking a bit too much. It’s fascinating that these people were most interested not in what the disciples said, but in the fact that they were saying it. Again one is tempted to say that misunderstanding is our lot in life.

But the disciples hung on and kept talking. Eventually, further along in the story, Peter stands up and talks to them at length to clarify what God has done in Jesus and is doing at that moment. Peter, speaking for the disciples, patiently returns to their words and gestures, elaborating, clarifying, assuring, all for the sake of caring for those others.

And so begins the church.

The Holy Spirit was given that day so long ago to birth the church into the world. And we see in the story from Acts and also in the gospel that the Spirit given to the disciples did two different things: the Spirit gave them power and sent them out.

Through the Spirit, God gave power to these mere mortals, whether the gift of helping others to hear in their own language, or the humbling power to forgive or retain sins. And also, through the Spirit, God sent them out: no more were they to remain in the upper room, or behind locked doors for fear. No, their mission was to the crowds, the people, the same folks that Jesus himself hung with – and also to those people in power who had hung Jesus.

But there was one thing that God, in his wisdom, did not impart to the disciples through the Spirit: perfection. Of all those disciples in the earliest days, to all those baptized through the years until now – even those we recognize as saints – none of them were perfect. And of course our imperfection is often demonstrated in our miscommunications and misunderstandings.

Too often we become embroiled in misunderstandings of our own. Yet as Paul points out to the church at Corinth, also caught up in disputes and confusion, the Spirit at work at Pentecost unites us all in one body through baptism. There might be differences, disagreements, and misunderstandings, but we have been made one body – we need each other. And so in the church, we need to speak to each other, to use grace and patience and love as we talk and clarify for each other, whether in the parish, or in our denomination, or with our sisters and brothers in other churches.

To this end, we might apprentice ourselves to skilled and gracious speakers in the body of the church, perhaps especially people such as Desmond Tutu or Rowan Williams or others we know locally.

Yet we must also remember that the direction, the power of the Spirit drives us out: out of the upper room, out from behind our locked doors, out from behind our fear. And the Spirit empowers us to proclaim and participate in God’s new creation. Of course, just as much as communicating within the body, this work requires patience with the other and painstaking care in our words and gestures. But in the Spirit, that is where our mission lies. And it is in that mission [later] this morning that Isabel Schlabach joins us, as she is baptized in the one Spirit into the one body.

Friends, we hope in God for that time beyond time when all will be clear and everything will be made new: the lame will walk, the blind – yes, even the Venetian blind – will see, and people will live together, white or colored, and we will all be washed clean. But in the meantime, when it seems that misunderstanding is our lot in life it is incumbent upon us, in the Spirit, to continually, patiently, return to our words and gestures as a church: to elaborate, clarify, assure, all for the sake of bearing with and caring for the other, and especially those others who are not here. With God’s grace and our care, may we become fluent in body language. Amen.

* I can’t find the reference.
** Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People, p. 129.


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