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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Pentecost Sunday, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 24, 2015

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104; John 15:26-27;16:4b-15


I recently completed a song lyric begun three years ago. Drawing on psalms 25 and 31 the lyric begins: “Let me not be put to shame.” It’s a song about communication and miscommunication. “Your words were a low humming/ My mind, a rolling wave, washed them away/ ... And the words that fell from my hands/ Lay broken in the backyard with the bricks ...” The final verse stages a panic attack on the part of someone who feels estranged from another, estranged from land, culture and language: “You were born here and you live it/ The country dear to your spirit/ I staggered a long way back from the start/ I reclined close by your side/ I wasn’t ever sure how you’d hear it/ I was deep in a trance, it really took a toll on my heart/ My heart, how hard it tried/ Blood loud in my legs and loud music/ In my arms, numbers tumbling in a drum ...”

One allusion is to Indigenous wisdom, connection to land, the aspiration a day of justice, respect, understanding (the future of our country depends on it). The biblical allusion is to the story of Babel/babble (Why can’t there just be one language so we can all understand?), the aspiration the coming of a “Spirit of truth”, a Spirit of translation, cross-cultural listening and speaking, understanding ... communication and community. God be with you ...

A Korean colleague once told me the history of the Korean written language. That under Chinese rule for many years, Chinese characters were used by Koreans (mostly the upper-class people). The Korean language was an oral language only. In the 15th century Se Jong King, of the Lee Dynasty, invented Korean characters so that the Korean language could be written. This written Korean, called “Unmun” was gradually adopted by the people, though the upper-class looked down on it (calling it a “shameful” script) and continued to write in Chinese (the cultured script). It has taken over 500 years for the Korean script to be adopted by all (people of South and North Korea)! A sign of hope, perhaps, that understanding will come to a nation divided.

This year marks the 70 anniversary of the division of the Korean peninsula. Today a group of women peace activists in the “demilitarized border zone” hope to draw attention to the need for a permanent peace treaty to replace the armistice that halted but technically never ended the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Such stories call to mind others in which language is a source of conflict, difficulty, division or struggle.

In the Book of Judges (chapter 12) we read that the Gileadites slaughtered 42,000 Ephraimites when the latter were unmasked as the “enemy” for pronouncing the word “Shibboleth” incorrectly as “Sibboleth”. In Acts 6 Greek-speaking Jews complained that the Aramaic-speakers overlooked their widows in distribution of food. In the years of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, thousands of Bibles printed in German, Italian or English, that is, in languages other than Latin, were burned.

In today’s text, it is remarkable that human language (one of the most salient and ambiguous characteristics of human nature) is used to symbolise the inbreaking reign of God. “They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as she enabled them.”

“Pentecost”, literally “50” days after Passover (the slaves freed from captivity in Egypt), was/is a Jewish feast at which Jews from all over the Empire gathered in Jerusalem. It was a feast (also called the Feast of the Harvest) to celebrate divine providence, in particular the provision of the Divine Law (including the ten commandments) at Mount Sinai God’s Word/Wisdom to unite, and enable loving relationships, a loving community.

Luke tells us that something happened in Jerusalem at Pentecost to cause a stir. Believers, still coming to terms with the absence of Jesus, were filled with the Spirit in such a way that they spoke and truly heard one another (a miracle) in spite of cultural divisions.

Pentecost, for Christians, has come to signify the birth of the Church, the beginnings of a new community of God’s people under the rule of Christ people from many cultures and nations. From Pentecost on, the Church grows in confidence and numbers worshipping God as the Trinity of Love interrupting the selfishness and the violence of the world in order to transform it.

Luke’s story celebrates this by way of rich and colourful symbolism. Fire links the story to God’s fire on Mount Sinai. The new community of the Spirit celebrates, incorporates, and then transcends barriers of race, social stratification, economics, ethnicity and gender.

Here is an ancient image of the Church, perhaps the most ancient image: diversity without division, and unity without uniformity. [The Eurovision Song Contest might be regarded an echo of this.]

Pentecost, it is said, reverses the curse of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), where human language divided humanity in a cacophony of confusion. At Pentecost the God of Sinai acts again to restore communication and community.

Indian-American theologian, Sathi Clarke, writes that Pentecost is about the “sacramental nature of language” language restored to “sacramental power”. In and through human words, the Word of God is spoken and heard to touch and to heal.

One thing we might do at Pentecost, then, is to affirm and to celebrate those we notice taking great care to speak graciously and truthfully (“filled with grace, filled with truth” John 1:14), which means also/always taking great care to speak creatively (“Through the Word all things came into being” John 1:3).

I think of oft-cited obfuscations (examples of destructive “unspeak”): “surgical strikes” (high-tech bombing), “collateral damage” (death of civilians), “illegal arrivals” (asylum seekers fleeing danger), “irregular migrants” (Rohingya migrants fleeing Myanmar, stranded at sea in south-east Asia); and misleading terms: “Bible-based Church” (fundamentalist congregation), “Reconciliation” (justice for Indigenous Australians, peace for all in Australia) ...

I think of someone like our friend Sione whose faithful presence here each Sunday fills our hearts with grace and truth; Sione whose eyes, ears and heart try hard to follow our English liturgies; Sione who knows precisely when to bring the bread and chalice to the table, and just how to bring them with respect and love; Sione who speaks the English words he knows best with care and feeling; whose participation creates more than a passing peace.

How better to complete the homily together than in affirmation and celebration of friendship with Sione? And with a commitment to re-learning some relevant words in the Tongan language? … Emeni.

kaume’a: friend
malo: thank you
kataki: please
malo e lelei: hello
ofa: love
kainga lotu: brothers and sisters in the Gospel
omai: come
Sisu Kalaisi: Jesus Christ
Laumalie Ma’oni’oni: Holy Spirit
Otua: God
tapuaki: blessing
falala’anga: dependable
nekeneka: exceeding joy
tui: faith
tutu e te’elango: light the candle
fanongo: listen
sio!: look!
kataki: patience
famili: family
nofo a: goodbye
kita: guitar
fale: house
Fefe hake?: How are you?
Ta’u fiha enu?: How old are you?