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Homily by Melinda Kearns

Pentecost, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 31, 2020

Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

‘Do you speak my language?’

Pentecost Sunday this year falls in the middle of Reconciliation Week, the theme of which is “In This Together”.

The Reconciliation Week artwork by Nikita Ridgeway is entitled “Reconciliation, a continuing journey of growth and togetherness” [see @sundayssuc]. I’m not going to liken our reconciliation to God through Jesus to Reconciliation Week, as I think that rather neat connection would ignore some of the glaring injustices and inequities that we with our human frailties are still struggling to come to terms with. One of the things that is important, though, in both of these stories is language – how we communicate, how we understand each other and the centrality of language in the formation of our culture.

When did you first see this amazing vision of Australia?

If you had a similar education to me, it wasn’t anything you saw at school, which is undoubtedly also because it was only published in 1994. I remember being handed a blank map of Australia and being told to write in the states and the names of rivers, rather than being made aware of our country’s incredible linguistic diversity and the tragic loss of nearly all of our Indigenous languages.

Embarrassingly, I became aware of it only recently when I visited the gift store at the Art Gallery of NSW. I bought copies for all the teachers I worked with in my English department. I started using the online version in my classes, trying to at least make my students aware of the extraordinary range of Indigenous language groups around the country. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies collects many resources from Indigenous cultures around Australia and this amazing map is only one aspect of the work that they do in preserving, celebrating and promoting the surviving languages of Australia’s First Peoples.

David Malouf’s short story, “The Only Speaker of His Tongue”, explores the meeting between a Nordic lexicographer and the last speaker of an Aboriginal language. The language “the words, the great system of sound and silence… a whole alternative universe, since the world as we know it is in the last resort the words through which we imagine and name it” exists only for the middle-aged Indigenous man, who has lived most of his life amongst people who will never understand this most fundamental aspect of his nature. The loss of culture is tied inextricably to the loss of personal identity.

While the lexicographer tries to record the language, he also reflects on his own isolation. In outback Australia, no one speaks his first language, and in the final moments of the story, he paces his hotel room naming the ordinary objects, just to hear the sound and feel the shape of the words for the objects in his mouth, as “we recapture on our tongue, when we first grasp the sound and make it, the same word in the mouths of our long dead father, whose blood we move in and whose blood still moves in us”.

The renaming of things, of people and of places, changes them completely. We can all point to innumerable examples where language is used as a destructive force – a tool of the law, the empire and the oppressor, where conformity to the dominant culture means the loss of our own culture or identity. Language is an aspect of God’s creativity – at the beginning of everything, in Genesis, God speaks the world into being, and before Jesus takes on human form he exists as logos, giving unity and meaning to everything in existence.

In Genesis 11, all the people of the Earth are described as having “one language” and they decide to build a permanent home for themselves after the flood that destroyed everything. God is annoyed by the advancement in human technology and innovation, as “now all they plan to do will be possible for them” (Genesis 11:6). Different languages are given, humans are dispersed all over the Earth and the Tower of Babel isn’t built.

Pentecost, coming after another time of fear, trauma and loss, is a time of renaming and new language. The coming of the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus before the Ascension, allows the disciples to speak in other languages, and those hearing them, “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs… hear them declaring the mighty works of God in [their] own languages!”

In the middle of cosmopolitan Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit knows the power of speaking to people in their native languages. The spirit speaks the language of all and understands our true natures. It reaches male and female, young and old, slave and free.

In the speech that followed on the day of Pentecost, Jesus’ friend Peter used his language to tell the story of who Jesus was, and in doing so started building the church that we are all part of today. Despite the significant cultural differences of those who heard him, the church added 3,000 new believers that day. The unity of their faith allowed them to “[devote] themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… [as] all the believers were together and had everything in common... And God added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42ff).

The language that the Holy Spirit speaks is our true first language, shaping and healing our true self. As we seek Reconciliation, we should remember that the Spirit spoke to us as individuals, in a language that we all understood. Amen.

Melinda Kearns