Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sermon: "Speaking in Tongues"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 24, 2015 – Day of Pentecost
Romans 8:22-27; Acts 2:1-21

“Speaking in Tongues”

Many years ago, in a far away country, a group of men sat huddled together in a darkened space. 
They were hiding from an enemy who wished to do them harm.
Suddenly fire rained down from the sky and the sound of people shouting in many languages filled the air.
And then there was silence.
And in the silence something wonderful happened.
One by one, the men emerged from their hiding spaces and stood face to face with the people they most feared. 
Language was suddenly no longer a barrier…
…and they began to talk, and laugh, and sing.
They looked into each other’s eyes, and said, “Peace be with you….”
And peace was with them on that day.

This day that I just described was not the Day of Pentecost.
This was Christmas Day in the year 1914 on the western front of WWI.

Many of us have heard this story known as the Christmas Truce,
when British and German troops laid down their arms and agreed to a ceasefire for just one day. 
The soldiers met half way between their trenches and exchanged Christmas greetings and sang Christmas carols in English and German.
They even exchanged small gifts of food, tobacco, and wine.

One soldier described a scene in which officers snipped buttons off each others uniforms as souvenirs, and a British machine gunner, who fancied himself as an amateur hairdresser, gave haircuts to enemy troops as they kneeled at his feet.

This impromptu truce repeated itself a year later, on Christmas Day 1915, this time on the French side of the front.
A German soldier who took part in that ceasefire shared this account:
When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages behind the lines ..... something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over.

Another soldier wrote of the Christmas truces:
“It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinema film I should have sworn that it was faked!"

Truthfully, truces such as this were not all that uncommon during the early years of WWI, when entire battalions were deadlocked and hunkered down in adjacent trenches for months at a time.
British, German, and French troops would at times arrange a half hour truce every evening, to allow for the retrieval and burial of the dead, and the delivery of food rations to the front lines for both sides. 
During these truces men would climb out of their trenches and converse with the enemy openly. The men would exchange newspapers and ask how the local football clubs were fairing. And in the evenings, when they were safely back in their own trenches the men would often sing together, in English, German, and French.

As the war dragged on, these peaceful truces happened less and less often.
Commanding officers issued stern warnings against fraternizing with the enemy and eventually orders from above ended the practice all together.
It was becoming evident that men who became familiar with one another were less likely to kill one another.

17 million people died in WWI.
7 million civilians and 10 million soldiers.
German, French, British, American, Italian, Russian, Polish, Austrian.
In all 32 nations sent men into battle who never came home.
Among the dead were many of the participants in those impromptu truces. 
Men who once greeted one another and sang Christmas carols together eventually died at each other’s hands.

We might ask,  “Where was God?” when the sons of our nations were killing each other on the battlefield.
But we don’t doubt that God was present when their guns fell silent.
How else can we explain soldiers laying down their arms to sing songs about the Prince of Peace coming into the world?

The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways, we often say.

It was the Spirit that sent the disciples careening into the streets on the Day of Pentecost.
It was the Spirit that broke down the barriers of language and culture and belief that separated one from the other.
It was the Spirit that lifted them up out of their fear and set them down in front of each other so they could better greet one another in peace.

We call the Day of Pentecost the “birth” day of the church.
Because this is the day that God called us to step outside of ourselves and acknowledge that we share a connection with every human being in creation.

Not that the disciples weren’t already aware of this.
Most of them were raised in the Jewish faith. They were well versed in the law of Moses that commanded them to cause no harm to one another,
and they knew well the words of the Prophets Isaiah and Micah, who urged them to love kindness, to act justly, and to walk humbly with their God.
But when Jesus imparted his teachings to his disciples they seemed to misunderstand his words a good portion of the time.   We do the same.

Jesus said, “Love all” and we hear “love some.”
He said, “Welcome all” and we hear “welcome some.”
He said, “Forgive all” and we hear “forgive some.”

At times Jesus directly addressed this tendency we have to hear one thing when God intends for us to hear something radically different.
Jesus said, “You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye” but I say to you if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
This message is contradictory to the one we hear in the wider culture.
In the disciples’ time - and in our time.

We may wonder what it will take for these words to truly take root in us.
As we saw with the truces of WWI, once the peace and oneness of the Day of Pentecost died down it didn’t take long for people to return to their trenches and resume distrusting and fearing one another yet again.

In fact, only a few decades after Jesus’ death, the Jesus movement broke into two factions – One that believed all followers must observe the Jewish law in addition to committing to Christ, and one that believed it was not necessary for non-Jews to follow the law, because Jesus had instructed them to open the faith to all nations in fulfillment of the law.

If we know anything about Christian history, we’re aware that the divisions only continued from there.

On the Day of Pentecost it all seemed so clear.
The people who were there that day were literally engulfed in the Spirit in the form of wind and fire and voices all around them –
They were engulfed in the Spirit of peace, forgiveness, love and understanding – moving in them and through them.
This wasn’t just an intellectual “aha!” moment - 
It was a physical and emotional realization that this intangible force of God that we call the Holy Spirit is real and it connects us all to one another.

Paul attempts to describe this connection in his letter to the Romans:  
“The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now”
“In our weakness…the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Creation is groaning, the Spirit is sighing…as it molds and changes us.

Words escape us as we try to explain this presence of God in our midst.
Too often the words do escape us.
We often struggle to describe or explain how and when we’ve felt the Spirit of God move through our lives…
...and lacking the appropriate words to talk about it we may file the experiences away and assume they have no relevance to our daily lives.

We’re not unique in doing this.
It was not long after that Day of Pentecost that a kind of spiritual forgetfulness set in.
The peace and harmony the first believers experienced in each other’s company faded from memory.
The ability to understand and speak one another’s language was lost.
Old divisions and slights were easier to hold onto then the wistful desire to live as one.

Once a year, on the Day of Pentecost we Christians remind ourselves of the powerful presence and mysterious movement of the Spirit that connects us to God and to one another.
But perhaps we’re not reminding ourselves often enough.
Perhaps we’re not allowing ourselves to experience and express the emotions the help us to remember.

Earlier this week, I attended the final project presentations of some of our high school seniors.  One of our teens, Hannah, did her project on the effects of music therapy on people experiencing dementia.

One of the key symptoms of dementia is aphasia – the loss of the ability to recall names of objects and commonly used words.
This loss of ability to express oneself is frustrating to say the least.
As one of our seniors in our Woman’s Association recently said to me,
“Why is it that I can think of 18 words to describe the word I’m looking for but I can’t think of the word itself?”

 It’s been found that people with advanced dementia, who have all but lost the ability to communicate and have retreated within themselves - suddenly come alive when exposed to music.

Hannah experienced this firsthand when she took her guitar to a local nursing home and sang for the residents.
She noticed one particular gentleman who was slouched over in his wheelchair and essentially non responsive to any effort to engage him.
Then Hannah began to play Can’t Help Falling in Love by Elvis Presley and the man immediately began to sing without missing a word.

Neuroscientists say it is the predictable structure and rhythm of music – verse followed by chorus followed by verse - that is soothing to people with dementia.
But it is the emotional memories that we attach to music that help us to recall and sing entire stanzas to a song even if we no longer have the ability to speak the words on their own.
It is our emotions coupled with our physical experiences – sound, sight, taste, touch, and smell – that leave the most lasting impressions on our memories.

These deep rooted memories are akin to the memories we carry of the Spirit.
The memories of the times in our lives when we’ve felt God’s presence in a very real and visceral way. 
The times when we’ve felt overwhelming joy.
The time we’ve felt calmness in the face of fear.
The times we’ve felt a soothing sense of hope in the midst of heart wrenching grief.

It is these Spirit filled memories that keep us coming back to God.
Despite our tendency to forget the words we might hear here in church,
or our struggle to interpret the words we read in scripture.
Regardless of how often we disregard Jesus’ teachings or bend them to better fit the world around us.
It’s our experience of God that makes all of this real and meaningful for us.

The Spirit moves in mysterious ways.
It helps us to do things we never thought we were capable of doing,
and it inspires us to do things that strengthen our connections with one another.
The Spirit coaxes us out of the trenches we’ve dug and breaks down the barriers that keep us from communicating.

It doesn’t always take a rush of wind or a rain of fire to get us moving.
Sometimes all it takes is a song…and two who are willing to sing it together.

Thanks be to God and Amen

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