Mother Tongue

Preached on 9 June 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The Day of Pentecost, Year C

My grandmother passed away over thirty years ago.  Still, my ears positively pricked, a couple years ago when I was standing near a reception desk in a building in Glasgow.  I heard someone speaking with my grandmother’s accent; it was almost like hearing her voice again.  You see, she was from a place just outside of Glasgow.  She left there with her family when she was just a little girl, maybe eight years old; they came and settled here – on Beacon Hill.  That’s where my dad grew up.

My heart knew that accent like a baby knows their own mother’s heartbeat.  It was as if I was again in her presence.  Somewhere in my soul, I felt I had come home.

One of our family stories is about my grandfather, who died before I was born.  Now, unlike my grandmother, he was a highlander – from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.  His mother tongue was Gaelic – and so was his mother-in-law’s.  Well the story is, that he used to pick a fights with my grandmother just so he had an excuse to go up to the “big house” where his in-laws lived, so that he could chat with his mother-in-law in Gaelic, the language of home.

I wonder if that’s what it was like on that day in Jerusalem – to hear the message, the Good News of God in Christ, not in the common language of trade and travel, the language of the head that they might have to work to translate, but the language of their heart, the voice of their grandmothers, the one that speaks directly to their soul.  The voice that welcomes them home to comfort and rest.  This is the language that God chose to tell them, each of them, about Jesus.

Now, all language is symbolic.  Words are symbols of something that exists, something real.  And all language is limited.  How often do we find that words fail us, particularly when trying to describe our most profound experiences?  We use language to attempt to share our experience, our understanding and knowledge, our ideas – to transfer, so to speak, what is in our mind or heart or body, to that of another human being – despite the limitations of our words.

So, that’s one of the ideas I want to talk about today – the idea of God speaking to us intimately in the language of our heart.  Another theme, I’d like to touch on is that of Scattering and Gathering.

The story of the tower of Babel is often linked by Christians to the story of Pentecost.  Some interpret Pentecost as undoing the confusion of languages introduced in the story of Babel; others, however, disagree with that interpretation.  So, let’s take a brief look at our story from Genesis.

It comes right smack dab in the middle of the list of the generations of Noah, after the flood.  It tells of the sons of Noah and their sons; of where they went, who they became.  God instructed them to multiply and spread over all the earth.

But that list is interrupted by this story. Here we have them all gathered together in this city, building an immense tower into the heavens, trying to make a name for themselves.  They’re sure that there’s nothing they can’t do.

God’s not having it, though.  Before they can finish it, God scatters them, giving them different languages so they can’t understand one another.

Now, digging into the many possible interpretations and explanations of what God is doing and why; exploring why this particular story is preserved and placed where it is would be better explored in a Bible study than in a sermon.   So, I’m just going to talk about the gift of languages and the theme of gathering and scattering.

This story is just one instance of God scattering the people.  I will grant you that when God does, it is often understood to be a judgement or punishment for wrongdoing by the people.

So, here we have Babel – the people are scattered, perhaps because of their hubris, or perhaps because they didn’t spread over the earth on their own as God commanded them.

In the next chapter, the saga begins of the patriarch Abraham, son of Harran.  He and his family travel to Canaan where they settle and grow into a large clan and a whole people is formed.

Eventually, they are scattered when a famine comes and many of them go to Egypt where they live for many generations.  They are gathered again under Moses to return to the land of their ancestors, to the land of Canaan.

They are scattered when the Assyrians conquer the northern kingdom and again when the Babylonians attack the southern kingdom and take them into exile.  They are gathered back to Canaan when the Persian king, Cyrus, takes over and as the prophets promised, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Then I will gather you from the four winds and take you to your own land and you will be my people and I will be your God.’”

On Pentecost, we find believers from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem for the festival, the celebration of the gift of the Torah at Sinai.  And on this day, they receive a new gift from God, they hear the good news of God in Christ.  They each hear it in their mother tongue, the language of their home, the language of their soul, the language of comfort and rest.

And what happens next?  They scatter again, each going to their own home, their own country, where they can give what they have received; they will share the gospel they heard.

It has been said that it takes the whole world to tell the Good News, the gospel.

What happened on that day of Pentecost, was not a matter of overcoming a problem of a multitude of languages.  Rather it used the gift of the many languages, the diverse peoples gathered together in one place to expand the message of Christ beyond any one language.

What we say about the Good News is a limited symbol or metaphor for the reality of the good news, the reality of God with us, of God’s overflowing, unmeasurable, steadfast love and grace; a reality that cannot be contained or expressed in any one language.

It takes every language, every people, every culture, every era, every kind of human experience, every kind of human being to tell the Good News.

It takes each and every one of us.