To hear this sermon as preached, press play below.
United Church of Jaffrey
June 9th, 2019
Most of you know that my father was a missionary in Thailand in the 1960’s, and it was there – in the northern city of Chiang-Mai, that I was born in the early days of November 1965.
Sounds exotic doesn’t it?
It was exotic. But it was more than that. You see, there was something else that made these circumstances unusual – something other than the exotic setting of Northern Thailand.
The Ameican Baptists and Presbyterians who’d had a presence in Northern Thailand since the 1830’s were all white men – tall, corn-fed Midwesterners, who literally towered over the local Thai people, creating a sensation for the curious wherever they went.
My father was not at all like this.
No other Christian Missionary looked like my father.
My father, Kosuke Koyama, was Japanese.
He had been educated in the United States, first at Drew Seminary, and then later at Princeton…
But there was no getting around the fact that when he walked into a room, my father was a Japanese man.
The last impression that the Thai people had of Japanese men was when Japanese troops occupied Thailand in 1941.
The Thai people were accustomed to Japanese men bearing guns and bayonets, not Japanese men bearing crosses and Bibles.
So you can begin to understand why my father felt more than a little apprehensive when one of the American doctor’s at McCormick Hospital instructed him to visit an aristocratic Thai woman who was nearing death.
“Your duty,” the doctor said, “is to offer her the good news of Jesus Christ before she dies.”
“Yes,” my father said, dutifully, “I will go and do that.”
The two scripture passages that I read earlier this morning are like bookends that encompass the majority of the Bible.
The first passage is from the book of Genesis – which is the first book of the Hebrew Bible – and the second reading is from the Book of Acts, which describes the events that took place after Christ, and hence takes its place in the New Testament after the four gospels.
As far apart as they are in the bible, though, these two passages are intimately connected.
Both passages are concerned with God’s manipulation of human language.
The passage from Genesis has a mythic quality to it. It begins with this astonishing claim:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.
The implication of this remarkable circumstance, is that humans, of course, start talking to each other – and as they do this, they begin to recognize their extraordinary capability:
“Come, let us make bricks…” They say.
“Come,” they say “let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves;
It should not be lost on us that there is a direct cause and effect connection between the ability to communicate, and the ability to get things done.
There can be no meaningful collaboration without the ability to communicate, and since language, is our means of communication, it is simple logic to conclude that, if all humans speak one language, all humans can collaborate. This, for humans, is a wonderful state of affairs.
In the story, the humans who all speak one language decide to build a “tower with its top in the heavens…”
The story is named after this tower – the Tower of Babel.
Today, we have innumerable towers that reach up to heaven. We do this without having one language. Imagine if we all spoke the same language today!
Imagine what we could get done!
According to the passage from Genesis, when God took a look around and saw what humans were doing with their ability to communicate with each other, God was impressed.
A little too impressed.
the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
Instead of celebrating human ingenuity, God seems to be stricken with a case of paranoia. In this story, at least, it seems clear that God wants to keep humans down.
And how does God achieve this purpose?
“Come, let us go down,” God says “and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
It just so happened that, in 2008, when my parents moved into the in-law apartment that Cary and I had had built for them, I was taking a class at the University of Massachusetts, that required me to make a video documentary.
I bought a video camera, set it up on a tripod, and started asking my father questions.
I did not know, at the time, how urgently important it was that I did this.
In six months, he would be gone — a victim of a hospital borne parasite.
It was during these interviews that I first learned about the visit my father made to that aristocratic Thai lady.
Since I have video footage of him telling the story, and I can transcribe it directly, I will let you hear the story in his words.
I went to the door, he said, and a servant came out and I was duly received and I met her. Eventually I started to talk about the good news of Jesus Christ and, of course, I did it in my very limited Thai Language that I had learned in Bangkok.
And she was listening to me, you know, and after some time she said:
“Can you speak my language?
And I said: “I am speaking Thai.”
And she said, “Yes, but that is not my language.”
It was strange because she said this in Thai. I was confused, and she was clearly frustrated.
At last she said: “You speak to me, as if I am from Bangkok!”
“Oh, you want me to speak Northern Thai dialect?”
And she said “Yes. That is my language.”
And know let us turn to the second of today’s scripture passages.
Here we witness the moment that is known, in our tradition as “Pentecost” –
And suddenly from heaven, the text says, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where the disciples were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.
This passage, from the Book of Acts, is connected to the Tower of Babel story from Genesis, because, in this story too, a divine intervention comes down in order to manipulate human language.
No sooner are the disciples filled with the Holy Spirit, then, the text says they began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
The Holy Spirit seems to do the opposite of what God did to the people who built the Tower of Babel.
Instead of taking away the power to understand, the Holy Spirit gives them the power to communicate.
The story includes within it a beautiful celebration of the ethnic and cultural, and of course, linguistic diversity of Jerusalem in the first century. The crowd of amazed onlookers all of whom now miraculously understand the disciples include…
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs…
Why would divine intervention take language away in one story, and give it back in another?
What is the difference between the two stories?
Perhaps the thing that distinguishes these two stories, is the intention of the human.
If the intention is a self-serving one – an ambition to build a tower to heaven and become like God – then God undermines this intention by garbling speech.
But if the intention serves God – if the intention, that is, is not self-serving, but acknowledges something of critical importance that is serves all – then then, perhaps, the intention is supported by God.
When he had finished telling about the Old woman, my father reflected on the experience, saying:
If you happen to be a person of religion, you must be able to speak the most intimate, people’s language. You cannot tell religion in some language that is not really the first language of the people. And you know I must confess that I don’t know anything about Chiang Mai dialect, you know. All I know is Bangkok standard Thai language. So I told her this. But she felt that…well, I don’t think she was insulted, but she felt it was very awkward. It was not acceptable. In certain ways she indicated that I should go home.
You know If I were to speak about fishing or weather or tree or agriculture, or something like that, then that is alright, but I happened to be speaking about religion and that person of religion should be able to speak the most intimate language.
And that was quite a lesson to me.
Though he spoke of God, my father had no tongue of flame.
He was not understood.
Was this, perhaps, because he was not serving the Old Lady? Was he serving himself?
Was this the lesson that he learned that day?
In the world as we know it, we are not given tongues of flame.
If we are to speak to someone from Northern Thailand, we must learn the language of that person from Northern Thailand.
We must do the work necessary to speak to that person using the most intimate language.
We cannot expect to be given the power to communicate in every language.
We must do the work.
I am content to see Pentecost not as a miracle, as much as a recognition of the great diversity of human language.
God can speak all languages.
We must do the hard work to learn the language of the people.
By learning this intimate language, we feel the Holy Spirit and come closer to God.