Year C, Pentecost
Once there was a great and powerful chief who loved to eat. He rejoiced in exotic delicacies. One day he said to his head cook, “Bring me the most delicious cut of meat that you can find in the market. That is what I will have for dinner.” That night the cook brought the chief a beautiful and delicately sliced piece of meat in a wonderful sauce. The chief did indeed think that it was the most delicious cut of meat he had ever had. “What is this?” said the chief to the cook. “It is tongue, Great Chief,” said the cook. “Oh, my,” said the chief, ”Who knew that the tongue could be so flavorful, so rich and savory in taste!”
The next day the chief got to thinking….what might be the worst cut of meat in the marketplace? He decided to be adventurous and set his head cook to the task of finding the worst and more distasteful cut of meat for his dinner that evening. When the head cook brought the chief his evening meal, he took a bite and almost spit it out! “Aaagh! This is terrible!” cried the chief. “You have done well in finding the worst cut of meat anywhere. What IS it?” The head cook answered, “It is tongue.” “Tongue?” said the chief, “but didn’t I have tongue yesterday that was delicious and delicate?” “Yes,” said the cook. “You know as well as I, sir, that the tongue can be an used to bring great delight. It can inspire imagination and creativity, compassion, healing and peace. Or it can be used to bring about cruelty and divisiveness. It can bring hate and poison to everything around it. We must always be careful to be the master of the tongue.” (A folktale from Africa, possibly Nigeria.)[i]
Tongues can be confusing things. Tongues, language, words are so necessary to building our lives together in harmony and peace. Yet language, words, the use of our tongues are arguably the source of our most destructive conflicts. The tongue can be a wielded as weapon as well as an instrument of healing and connection.
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”(Acts 2:1-4)
Perhaps it is ridiculous to use a simple folktale like the one above to consider the powerful use of “the tongues, as of fire,” sent from the Holy Spirit. We want our sermons this week to have weight and worth that inspire our congregations, to wake them up, as Peter inspired the gathering of Jews from around the known world at Pentecost. We want to convey the urgency of the gospel of Christ as Peter did.
Perhaps the story prompt us to ask “What are the “tongues” our congregations speak in?” Tongues of connection, tongues seeking understanding of differences, tongues of compassion and peace-making, tongues of trust and transparency? Or tongues of secrets and gossip, tongues of divisiveness and distrust, tongues of fear and scarcity, tongues that obscure rather than make clear? Do our congregations need to be open to the gift of new tongues from the Spirit in order to discern how God is calling them to build the kingdom of God?
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. … Then [the people] said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…’ And 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. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city” (Genesis 11:1,4,6-8).
It might be worth asking ourselves, “What are the tongues being spoken in our congregation that are not being heard?” Are we all really speaking the same language? In the story of the tower of Babel, God humorously confuses the people’s languages or tongues because in speaking only one language – no diversity? – they are forgetting that they ultimately depend on God. They are not greater than God. As my mother used to say, they were getting too big for their britches! I wonder if there were any dissenters in Babel who were warning about trying to build a tower to the heavens? Are there dissenters in our congregation who need to be heard? Not nay-sayers who are never happy and who do not want to change, but people who genuinely have new or different opinions. (And we always must listen to nay-sayers. Everyone wants to be heard.) God may be speaking through dissenting voices in a language we are not used to hearing.
There is another story from Africa, a Swahili story, that tells of “tongue meat.” In this story a chief has a wife (or children) who are not thriving. They are sad, listless and unhappy. He sees a poor man with a wife (or children) who are plump and happy, always smiling. The chief asks the poor man what he must do to help his wife (or children) thrive. The poor man tells him, “Feed them the meat of the tongue.” The chief has his cook prepare the tongue meat of every animal in the marketplace for his wife (or children) to eat. But to no avail. When this fails the chief is angry. He returns to the poor man and demands that they trade wives (or children). The poor man obliges. However, the chief’s new wife (or children) begins to grow thin and unhappy while the poor man’s new wife (or children) thrive. Finally the chief confronts his now thriving former wife (or children) and demand that she (or they) return to him. When the wife (or children) refuse the chief learns that “tongue meat” is the manner in which the poor man speaks to his family, with kindness and compassion, telling them stories that are wondrous and funny, loving them with his words. This is why they are thriving. The chief learns he must change the ways in which he relates to his family if he wants them to thrive.[ii]
This story of “tongue meat” invites us to ask our congregations and ourselves if we are really open to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our midst. ARE we willing to learn a new tongue, a new language of love? The followers of Jesus were waiting and praying in anticipation of this gift. Do we wait and pray for the Spirit to empower our congregations or are we caught up in the “same old same old” not expecting the in breaking of such a power for ministry?
Psalm 104 leads us in rejoicing in the ever-present Spirit of God present in all creation. Do we remember to rejoice? Paul reminds us in Romans 8 that we are not to live in a spirit of fear but a spirit of rejoicing for we are joint heirs with Christ of God’s spirit. Yes, we may suffer with him, but we will also rejoice and be glorified with him. In John 14 Jesus assures his disciples that they can trust in the Advocate, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Are we open to the wildness of the Spirit’s gifts?
How will you and I receive the gifts of Pentecost? Are we open to receiving new tongues to inspire and challenge our congregations?
Blessings as you tell your Pentecost stories this week,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2016 and beyond. Commentary and photos may be used only with permission.