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A common language

Rev. Harry Currie

May 19, 2024

Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21

One of the challenges a preacher has is trying to find a common language that everyone speaks.

       And I don’t mean English. I mean a common cultural language of poetry, prose, images, icons, metaphors, history, culture and everyday reality.

The Preacher is tasked with sharing the gospel, translating and interpreting 2000-year-old language, metaphors, images, history and culture into words, phrases, metaphors and mental images that make sense for people living in the twenty-first century.


But we don’t all share the same history, the same culture, the same education, the same likes, the same metaphors, the same first language, the same experiences, the same thinking.


Maybe a hundred years ago nearly everyone who sat in this church came from a Scottish cultural background, spoke English as their first language, grew up in Sunday school, and went to schools and studied British literature and poetry.

Ministers quoted the bible, quoted literature and poetry and Shakespeare and talked about things that most people were acquainted with.

There was a real homogeneity not only of the spoken English language, but the cultural language of history, metaphor, story, morals and faith.


These days when a minister preaches and refers to a novel, a poet, a movie, a story, a particular event in history, a sporting event, a metaphor, a superhero, an advertisement, or other images, the minister wonders how many people in the congregation even understand what the minister is talking about.


Some of you know that I have watched lots of movies and television and often have used movie and television illustrations in sermons. In part, that is because of my culture, my life, my experience…

…but it is in part because television and movies have been a pretty universal part of North American culture that while not a perfect universal language it is one that a lot of people can relate to…

Most of you watch television and movies.

Listen to some famous lines from television and movies and see how many you recognize.       Lucy, I’m home. Or, Lucy you got some splaining to do.

       To the moon, Alice.

Go ahead, make my day

Live long and prosper.

       Here’s Johnny

       It’s the real thing.

Book em, Danno.

Deal or no deal?

       Dyn o mite!

Good night, John Boy.

I’ll be back.

       Cowabunga dude.

Let’s be careful out there.

       No soup for you.

Smile you’re on Candid Camera.

This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.

We’ve got a really big shew!

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.


Many of you will recognize phrases that were made famous and become part of the cultural language of people. And if you come from other countries, they may mean nothing.


One of the most interesting attempts to create a common language of unity through the magic of light television entertainment is something called Eurovision.


Back around 1956 in an attempt to build post-war European unity, the idea was conceived of building unity around the idea of a Song Contest where countries put forward one song and hold an event and crown a winner.


Eurovision has grown from seven European countries competing to a point where over 52 countries have competed in Eurovision.

Eurovision is a musical and visual spectacle. It is an eclectic mishmash of Finnish heavy metal, bearded drag queens, bubble-gum pop, power ballads, and it runs the gamut from goth, to gauche, to cutting-edge, to over-the-top.

       This year’s winner, Nemo, who identifies as non-binary came from the neutral country of Switzerland

       This is one of the ways the world tries to unite by trying to find a common language… in this case a common language of pop music, through the medium of television.


Other attempts are the Olympics, or World Expositions or the United Nations.


But one could argue Eurovision’s attempt for unity is just the continuation of war by other means.

Controversies over the years have been around flags. For instance, is the LGBTQ Rainbow flag acceptable. At times the Palestinian flag was not allowed, nor the Basque flag, or the black flag of Isis.

Is Russia allowed to participate? This year commentators said that the British entrant in the competition finished near last because of the unpopularity of Brexit. The Israeli contest was booed. A Contestant was disqualified for inappropriate behaviour. There were protests over the goings on in the Middle East.


And so, one wonders if the whole thing is just another Tower of Babel event where humans band together to build unity and end up wobbling, falling apart, scattering, and failing again.

Our efforts with the League of Nations and then the United Nations, Olympics, World Expositions have not produced world-wide unity and peace.


Is there a common language, a common something that we can all hold onto as humans and bring peace and love?


I think not. At least at face value, I think not. I think the Tower of Babel story is a story to tell us that when humans band together often bad things happen instead of good things.

       Let me speak to what I will call the Myth of Unity.


When young inexperienced people fall in love, they often think they have found their one soul-mate who is exactly like them. And sometimes they do the same things, wear the same clothes, eat the same food, watch the same movies and play the same games, and think that they are made for each other because they think and act the same.

       But they don’t think and act the same. They are in love and blinded to the fact that they are two different independent people with different identities, different histories, different likes and dislikes, different morals, beliefs and ideologies.

       And they will come into conflict. It is inevitable, as sure as death and taxes.

       The Myth is that unity means that we are alike.


       And sometimes people think that we should be moving to unity in the church and since we have the same God, the same Jesus, the same Spirit, the same scripture, that we should be one church with all the same beliefs.


       That is a myth. And that is not what Jesus is meaning when Jesus himself talks about unity.


       Often when people come together and try for unity, bad things can happen.


       Colonization happens, and stronger cultures, assimilate or even exterminate weaker cultures.

       People lose their language. That is sometimes the physical language they speak. There are well over 500 languages that have gone extinct, and we are in danger of losing three thousand more languages, in the next ten or twenty years.

       But people also lose their cultural language… their stories, their history, their metaphors, the language of their faith, their meaning, their moral compass.

       We in Canada have seen the horrifying consequences of putting indigenous children in residential schools and not only taking away the language they first spoke, but taking away their histories, their stories, their meaning, their morals, their culture and trying to impose someone else’s cultural language on them.

       When people come together in unity, there is always a huge power gap and those who are the leaders, the power brokers, the controllers, the elite, get stronger.

The strong take power, and take money and take resources… and control the narratives, the stories, the histories, the wealth, the meaning, the message, and usually use legalized violence and propaganda to do it.

       We see it everywhere and find it everywhere in history from the Greek Empire, to the Roman Empire, to the Third Reich, to the Russian Empire, to the controlling Church. We see it in Capitalism and Communism, in Dictatorships and even in Democracies.

       The Myth is that one day we can all be one, and act the same, think the same, dress the same, worship the same and live in peace and harmony by all being the same.


       Those in power like us to be the same. They like the status quo that keeps them in power. They like to quiet dissident voices and different expressions and disparate groups who want free expression and freedom to be who they want to be.


       Seeking unity in a Tower of Babel does not work. Humans will always screw it up, always hurt, always disagree, always split, always practice injustice, and there will always be those in power, who will seek to impose their cultural, economic and moral language on others.


       The crazy thing about the Tower of Babel story is that the supposed metaphor of the story is about coming together in unity, but…and it is a big but… the real crux of the Tower of Babel story is not unity. It is about power and control.

       And while the scriptures say that is God who supernaturally confuses them and scatters them, God really doesn’t have to do that. Humans do that all on their own.

       Just as a six-day literal creation is not too likely, so too, a divine supernatural scattering of people is probably not how languages first came into being.

       Please don’t over-literalize the story.


Take the Tower of Babel story as a giant metaphor, that when humans come together, they talk about unity, but often the real thing that is going on is not love, but pride, control, dominance, empire building.

       The Myth is now exposed. Those who control the Unity, don’t want real unity. They only want a unity that let’s them dominate and control and hurt others.

       The Myth of Unity is that sameness does not bring unity.

       Real Unity is not us all being the same, but being different and loving each other anyway.


       That is what makes Pentecost so unique, so counter-cultural.

       Just think of it. The Spirit blows and all kinds of differences happen. It is different people and different cultures and different voices and different languages all praising God.

       This is a fire that doesn’t consume people, use people, burn people, take from people, but forges and creates diversity and respects people.

       This isn’t a wind of destruction but a wind of tolerance, respect, appreciation, kindness, compassion and inclusion.


       Not inclusion because you are like me, but inclusion because you are different than me, but equally of value, and equally deserving of divine love.


       But if we stand under the wind and the fire and appreciate the fact that God loves us for our uniqueness and in spite of all our differences, we come to learn that our differences can becomes Towers of Babel if we elevate them to supreme significance and power.

       Followers of Jesus are not all the same. They are different and diverse and those differences are blessed by God…

       …But…. no longer do we need to define ourselves by our cultures, our groups, our associations, our history, our sexuality, our Facebook followers, in order to be loved, to be accepted, to belong, or to give to those in need.

       No longer do we need to belong to a particular group in order to have access to power.

       The power of God’s Spirit is available to all who surrender to the divine.

       Interestingly enough Pentecost was a Jewish festival fifty days after Passover. It was also called the Feast of weeks, or Shavuot. It was a harvest festival.

       You read in Leviticus 23

       “And from the day after the sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation-offering, you shall count off seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord.”

       This was to celebrate the abundance of God, the abundance of the land, and to celebrate one is thankful, repentant and worshipful.

       But then there is a specific and even curious turn.


Leviticus 23:22 reads, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.” 

The phrase, “I am the Lord your God” is a frequent reminder to the People of Israel of God’s hand in rescuing them from slavery and bringing them into a land of abundance.


In Deuteronomy chapter 16, when the celebration of Pentecost is described you will find these words in verse 11.

       “Rejoice before the Lord your God—you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, the Levites resident in your towns, as well as the strangers, the orphans, and the widows who are among you—at the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.”


       The vision of Pentecost is that the abundance is for all. It is for the poor, the different, the stranger, the ones who are vulnerable and have no protection, no name and no family and no inheritance.


       So, what an amazing thing that the Holy Spirit of all, the wind and fire of diversity and inclusion, comes on the day of abundance for all, the day of Pentecost.

       On the day of Pentecost in Acts they were all together and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. They were all filled with the abundance of God.

       They went out into the street and then all who were there, heard the good news in their own particular language, their own cultural background, their own diverse uniqueness.

       The Spirit is a Spirit of abundance who is for all, no matter how needy, how different, how alienated, how disenfranchised.


       What is amazing is that the Spirit speaks a new language. A language of love that transcends the barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, history and politics.

       And it sensitizes to the fact that when we speak, we speak from our particular language, history, culture and biases, and try to speak to those who have different languages, not only different from English, but different history, culture, and biases.


       But what the Spirit is teaching us is to listen to one another. Truly listen to one another. And if we let the Spirit live in us then something miraculous will happen.


       We will start listening to people with different stories, different ethics, different cultures, different religions, different histories, different metaphors… and start to understand them

       And with the Spirit’s help we will say: “How is it that we can understand one another?”

       And we know the answer. It is God. It is Jesus. It is Spirit. It is love.     Amen.

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