Sermon: Tongues of Peace

[Sermon given on Sunday, June 4, 2017 (Feast of Pentecost) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minn.]

I grew up in a Baptist church that became increasingly more and more Pentecostal and Charismatic as I grew older. If you know anything about these movements then you know that isolated instances of charismatic worship have popped up in Christianity since the beginning, but took on new energy and fervor in the early 1900s when William Seymour, a black preacher from Louisiana, traveled to Los Angeles where his preaching launched a three-year revival. You heard me right. Not three days, but three years. The so-called Azusa Street Revival centered the movement of the Holy Spirit who Pentecostals believe would empower people to preach, testify, faint, and sing and speak in tongues. People would come from all over to attend these revivals and then carry this religious movement back to their home congregations, where many were ostracized for their new religious beliefs.

I remember growing up feeling as though my church was somehow more special than others because we believed the way we did. Although it wore the guise of humility, there was a spiritual pride in belonging to a church that had somehow gotten it right when it came to what Pentecost was all about – inexplicable and ecstatic spiritual experience.

The, perhaps intentional, fruit of this type of belief was an increasing isolation from the things of the world. I didn’t quite grow up in a house where dancing, music, and movies were forbidden, but I certainly remember feeling as though I was living under a microscope of sorts, like God was watching my every move and taking careful, copious notes. We believed that we were called to be radically different, set apart even, from the world around us. Rather than drawing the world together, it appeared to me that the work of the Holy Spirit was actually doing a lot more work to divide us.

As I have grown older and as I witness the increasing polarization, terrorism, and alienation in our world, I become more and more sure of one thing: division is not of God. Peace is. Christ did not come to give us one more thing to argue about. God knows we have more than enough. He came not only that we might have an example of living a radically compassionate life, but also so that he could destroy once-and-for-all what St. Paul calls “the dividing wall of hostility between us”[1] and invite us into the unity and love of God and the compassionate community that flows from that reality.

Let me give you an example: a few weeks ago I was teaching a weekend course on systemic oppression at Bishop Kemper School for Ministry in Topeka, Kansas where I serve as a member of the faculty. When I shared with the class that biological race does not actually exist, that I share as much in common biologically with Donald Trump as I do with Barack Obama, they were astounded. But it’s true. Race was made up for all sorts reasons, but especially to give us permission to hate one another. There are no huge, biological differences between human; it is literally all just skin deep; but, for centuries we have piled more and more meaning onto, something that ultimately does not exist. The result it what we see around us: deep skepticism and suspicion, calloused hearts and close hands, debilitating pain, and seemingly intractable suffering.

But into that conversation, which is fraught with many dangers, I hear the call of Christ to remember our vocation as peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says, “for they shall be called children of God.”[2] Our call is to remember that the ultimate work of dismantling division and estrangement has already been accomplished by Christ on the cross. Our work is to follow in his holy wake; to carry the message of peace, and compassion, and love into the world; to point to the reality that the things that divide us, the things that cause us to fight, the things that break relationships, are not more powerful than the love and the power of God to draw us all together.

That’s what I hear in the Pentecost story: I hear of a God who destroyed the illusion of debilitating difference and invited the whole world – regardless of language, place of origin, and ethnicity –  to share the story of God’s divine love. Here’s the truth: the story of God belongs to none of us because it belongs to all of us. What makes us different ought to not make us enemies. In fact, our differences ought to make us curious friends, searching both for common ground and for growing edges where we might learn.

Walter Brueggemann has a poem that I believe captures this quite eloquently:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
our great redeemer’s name:
To sing beyond ourselves, extravagantly,
with abandonment
beyond all our possibilities
and all our fears,
and all our hopes…
to our redeemer dear, the antidote to our death,
the salve to our wounds,
the resolve of our destructiveness…
A thousand, a million, a trillion tongues,
more than our own,
more than our tradition,
more than our theology,
more than our understanding,
tongues around us,
tongues among us,
tongues from our silenced parts.
Tongues from us to you in freedom and in courage,
Finally ceding our lives and our loves to your good care.
[3]

I get questions all the time about how I feel about speaking in tongues as an Episcopalian who grew up as a Pentecostal. My answer is this: when it comes to speaking in tongues I am favor of speaking in the kinds of tongues that bring peace, and courage, and understanding, and redemption, and love. Tongues that transcend and transfigure our understanding of human differences and call us deeper into truthful and honest relationship into one another. Those are the tongues I believe God is concerned about, and those are the tongues the Church is called to speak in.


[1] Ephesians 2:14

[2] Matthew 5:9

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, 9.

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One thought on “Sermon: Tongues of Peace

  1. I love this post! I grew up an Episcopalian (still am an Episcopalian) with parents who became heavily involved in the charismatic movement during the 1960s and brought us children along with them. It was a rather strange upbringing being an Episcopalian and a Pentecostal at the same time. However, I often wish I could recapture that time when Christianity had not yet taken sides in partisan politics and, for me at least, represented security and love for all of God’s children. Twenty five years ago I taught in a Christian school affiliated with a charismatic mega-church but had to leave because I could no longer agree with their partisan politics and tactics. So I abandoned the Pentecostal/charismatic branch of Christianity precisely because it became associated with one political party and became so intolerant and insular and fundamental. Do I still believe in speaking in tongues? Yes, the same kinds of tongues that you so eloquently described in this post. Thank you.

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