I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on June 9, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John.
I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost, also called Whitsunday: so, a little bit of background. Feel free to take notes. If pressed, I’d say it’s the third most important holiday in the church year, after Easter and Christmas. (And yet somehow Hallmark forgets it.) It is symbolized by a dove descending, representing the Holy Spirit, and — as you know, I like to point out church fixtures to illustrate a sermon — this symbolism is found in the center of the chancel cross. (It’s hard to see, so you should come up and look for yourself after the service.) It is also in the second of the lower windows; the lower windows recount the history of the Christian church, and the Universalist church in particular.
The first window, with the menorah, recognizes the Jewish roots of the church. Which is perfectly sensible and today uncontroversial, but its installation follows the Leo Frank lynching, the publication of anti-Semitic screeds by Henry Ford and the resurgence of the Klan. And that’s just the terrors in the United States. So it’s good to know what side of history you want to stand on, and then put it in stained glass. Pentecost, today’s holiday, also rests on a Jewish existing holiday: Shavous, to use the Yiddish name, which is both an agricultural festival, and to commemorate the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai. Hallmark missed that one, too.
Pentecost’s name comes from the Greek, meaning “fifty days” and Greek-speaking Jews in those days would have called Shavous Pentecost, also. Pentecost (as we know it) is described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Pastor Gatton read a part of that in the opening words. A multi-ethnic and multiracial group of Christians came together — Shavous was a pilgrimage festival — and God’s spirit descended upon them and gave them a common speech that they understood. But this wasn’t a linguistics symposium: people on the outside looked at this congregation and thought that they were drunk.
They were filled with the spirit. The godly kind, not the distilled kind. Conventionally this coming of the Spirit is identified with the birth of the church. A bit more exactly, it is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that his people would not be left helpless; that he would send an advocate for us: the promise that we heard in the lesson today in the Gospel of John.
And those gifts given to that congregation on the day of Pentecost is what gives the Christians called Pentecostals their name. For they are distinguished for signs of Spirit dwelling in among them, most distinctive of which is the ecstatic speech known as tongues. Similarly, charismatics who have some of the same ways of the Spirit but in other churches get their name from charism, the Greek word for “gifts.”
And this is the way you usually preach about Pentecost. I could stop here, if you like. And if Pastor Gatton or next year’s Pentecost preacher mentions some of these themes that’s perfectly fine; I’ve done the same myself.
But I wanted to look at the charisms — the gifts — the Universalists have, and what we add to the story, so I’m going to assume a Universalist approach (or at least my Universalist approach) from here on.
And I wanted to look at the Genesis text, the Tower of Babel story. This is the last of the stories in Genesis that seem like pure legend, along with the Garden of Eden and Noah and the Ark. Stories that you can’t pin to a particular place and time, and seem universal in scope.
You can imagine the questions people had. What caused there to be different human languages? Why don’t we understand one another? Why do we fight one another? Did we do something wrong?
If those are your worries, then the add in the image of a Babylonian ziggurat, and you have this story. Indeed, the image of the Tower of Babel that Laura Dely sent out with the newsletter this week is the standard image of human hubris in the face of divine majesty, which we pay the price to this day.
But it also reminds me of one my strange habits. I have a confession to make: I am an avowed Esperantist.
Esperanto is a constructed language meant to be a universal second language, a common language.
I first started studying it back in college, but picked it up again in 2010 when the national meeting was to take place in Bethesda, and this time it stuck. I study it every day.
It was invented by Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, a Yiddish and Russian speaking Jew, born in 1859 in Bialystok, now in Poland, but then in the Russian Empire. He introduced the language to the public in 1887 under a pseudonym, Doktoro Esperanto — Doctor Hoper — and the pseudonym gave the language its name.
Nobody knows how many people speak it. Estimates suggest tens of millions have taken lessons like I did in college. There are a few thousand native speakers of the language, the controversial financier and philanthropist George Soros being the most famous. So the number of Esperantists is somewhere in-between.
Here’s what Esperanto sounds like:
Sur la tuta tero estis unu lingvo kaj unu parolmaniero.
. . .
Kaj la Eternulo malleviĝis, por vidi la urbon kaj la turon, kiujn konstruis la homidoj.
. . .
Ni malleviĝu do, kaj Ni konfuzu tie ilian lingvon, por ke unu ne komprenu la parolon de alia. (Londona Biblio)
That was some of the Genesis lesson in Esperanto. Maybe you heard a word or two that you could kind-of make out. If you speak English or German or one of the Romance languages, Esperanto has the sound of words seeking understanding. A craving for understanding that’s just out of reach, but approaches you. I’ll leave that as a metaphor for the work of the Spirit itself.
As for Esperanto, what Zamenhof had in mind was a practical, alternate way of relating to one another.
It’s like he wanted to undo the curse of Babel. Not literally, but spiritually and politically, even though to accomplish this he insisted on a policy of complete neutrality. And for good reason. He grew up in that Babel. (And if like biographies and you’re looking for an interesting figure to read about, he’s your guy.)
In a letter (1895) Zamenhof wrote:
The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies.
His own home bridged two of those communities, after a fashion: his father was a Yiddish censor in Imperial service. He knew the power of language. There was already international interest in a language that could be used alongside one’s mother tongue; that is as an auxiliary language. But everything proposed to that point was too complex, or obtuse, or hard to pronounce. Zamenhof’s language was easier to learn and had a simple and regular grammar. Anyone could use it, but no one person could own it, including Zamenhof itself.
In the words of the Esperanto hymn — yes, there’s a hymn, and we’ll be singing it later in Esperanto. (No, we won’t be singing it later.)
In the words of the hymn,
On a neutral language foundation, understanding one another, the peoples will make in agreement one large family circle.
And perhaps, even a bit more to Zamenhof’s project. It’s a optional piece, a spiritual thread that some who are drawn to the language accept, and others reject. (Forcing the point wouldn’t be “neutral.”) That is has an “internal idea” — a hopeful spirit that will draw us together, friend by friend, across miles and cultures.
To tell you the truth, when I think of Pentecost, I think of Zamenhof.
And when I think of the church, I think of the internal idea.
But no good dead goes unpunished. And I don’t mean the fatal persecutions that Esperantists faced under Hitler and Stalin. (In fact, most of Zamenhof’s descendants died in the Holocaust.)
Rather, I mean the indignity of having a good idea turned on itself, again maybe a metaphor for the church: when Esperanto touches popular culture, it’s used to represent “the other.”
Long before television and film producers commissioned linguists to develop realistic “alien” languages like Klingon (for Star Trek), Na’vi (for Avatar) or Dothraki (for Game of Thrones) Esperanto stood in for European languages when it was politically inexpedient to use a natural, national language.
So, in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a parody of Nazi Germany, signs in the ghetto of oppressed people were in Esperanto, not Yiddish.
In the 1939 Clark Gable/Norma Shearer anti-war comedy, Idiot’s Delight, Esperanto stands in for the language of a belligerent country that’s borders Switzerland, but is absolutely not Italy or Germany. Members of an Esperanto club were used as extras.
But the strangest stand-in use for Esperanto isn’t on film but from the U.S. Army.
After the Second World War, the United States feared a rise of right-wing power in Europe: the smoldering embers of Fascism plus Franco’s Spain bursting back into flame. And so created a simulated army opponent to fight in war games. As late as the 1980s, the Army simulated a country known as Aggressor — subtle that — and the people of Aggressor spoke Esperanto.
Judging by the surviving public information films, they spoke very bad Esperanto. So it comes out as one of those little ironies of life that thirty and forty years ago people were learning Esperanto — a language of peace and mutual understanding — from surplus army manuals describing it is the tool of war games.
But the longer you live, the more that kind of thing happens. As a Christian, I’ve had to live with rotten people using its spiritual, economic and political power to reinforce terrible things, and we’ve talked about them at length there. I didn’t see them at the Capital Pride Parade yesterday, but then I don’t give them my time.
I suppose the best thing you can say about the diminishing power of the church in American life is that it can’t be used like that as much any more. Those rotten people — in Esperanto, we’d call them fiuloj — will leave the husk of the church behind and find something else to exploit for their purposes.
So, instead of worrying about them, let’s flip the script. Let’s see what opportunity there is in a smaller, leaner, tighter church world to make some good for ourselves, our friends, our enemies and the world.
For one thing, at its best, the church is a place of temporary liberation and not just an extension of society. We don’t have to wait for the great hereafter to experience what God has in store for us. That’s the reason Esperantists host so many conferences, to create if only for a few days an Esperanto-speaking, perhaps even an Esperanto feeling place. Places called by convention, and in English translation, “Esperantoland.”
We need a place of the spirit that remembers the rest of the world, cares about the rest of the world, loves the rest of the world, but is not confined to it.
The spirit gives people, and people in the church a kind of freedom and an arms-length distance from the everyday.
A place, at least, temporarily escape the roles were assigned, the limitations we suffer, the dreams we have to defer. In church, at least, we should be able to live in our full lives and anticipate with joy and courage what that means for the rest of our lives.
That’s why prayer and the communion table are such powerful signs. In prayer — deep, sincere prayer — we present ourselves to the Source-of-all-that-is without pretending that we can or should hide anything. And there, we ask for link between the everyday, the workaday, the unimportant and forgettable — a link between that and that which is eternal, just, gracious and true. We ask for that spirit to come and help us remember forgotten dreams and shape new ones. We ask for that spirit to let speak in new words, and shout out new ideas.
And that’s what I hear in the gospel when Jesus says,
This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:24-26, NRSV)
This Spirit pleads with us to be free.
The spiritual gifts have to be nurtured, even though they are not ours to hand out. Paul described the “fruit” of the spirit, in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 5), in contrast to the vices of attending only to one’s own desires. The spiritual fruit are
love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. (KJV, vv. 22-23)
Each of these need support, and they need to be developed. Some other time (trust me) we’ll talk about what we need to cultivate them.
But until then, listen for that Spirit from God which “goes where it will” and makes all things new.
May God bless you now and forever. Amen.