Can I Say Something?

May 23, 2021


May 23, 2021
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Can I Say Something?”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 10:16-25

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

On my first trip to Malawi, Africa we did a tour of the northern part of the country visiting the various and sundry ministries of the church. We looked at education, water and sanitation, feeding programs, malaria, and AIDS. Along the way we would also venture into the bush often times driving hours down spindly dirt paths to visit remote villages.
Our driver and interpreter for this three-week trip was Owen Sangini. Owen was unflappable and knew every nook and cranny of villages and outposts and towns. When we were in more developed areas, Owen acted as a cultural interpreter as English is a common second language. To most of my questions Owen would smile and give a deep guttural grunt. “Uhhhhhh,” leaving me to ponder my own questions for a time. But in the bush, where the only language was Tambuka, he would translate what was being said verbatim.
On one such venture into the bush we found ourselves in a village that was deeply divided. One faction of the villagers wanted to devote all time and energy to repairing their water system. This was expensive but necessary as now all needed to walk a great distance to bring home less than potable water. The other faction of the village wanted an ambulance.
I heard about these projects because when a visitor from the U.S. comes to such a remote place it is a rare opportunity and thus a big moment to ask for help.
An ambulance in the village seemed odd especially when they described it as a housing crisis. Owen explained to me. It is common in Malawi, when a person dies in a home, to declare the house as cursed, unclean, unsuitable for future habitation. Bad air. This was 2005 and the AIDS infection rate in Malawi was roughly 13%, and higher when adjusted for cohort. A lot of people were dying at home in remote villages and thus housing was growing scarce. A lot of bad air.
The chief of the village greeted us and spoke for twenty minutes regarding their water shortage. Just as he was finishing a woman pushed forward and began to shout. She shouted and pleaded and cried and shouted some more for a good 10 minutes. When finally she stopped speaking, she stared at Owen and me. I leaned into Owen’s ear and asked, “what did she say?” Owen grunted but did not smile. “She said she is glad you are here.”
Speaking with and through an interpreter is a skill I have learned. It is as if every conversation has a second layer of listening. And with this second layer comes a very important moment, you know you don’t understand.
Not only did I not understand Tambuka, but I did not understand what it means to be a woman pleading for funds to buy a car to transport the dying so an impossible situation is not made worse. I also didn’t understand how it could be that such a desire for transportation could be more important than water. Owen went on to describe the woman’s words to me, more than just how glad she was about my presence. And in his translation I had the room to see more of how little I could understand, to even begin to fathom her peril.
Some might suggest that knowing Tambuka would have been an advantage to working with people in Northern Malawi, and there is merit to his. Yet, strangely enough, I believe there is a greater advantage for me in not knowing the language. For wherever I went, especially in the bush, there was an unshakeable clarity of not knowing. I cannot say I understand what it means to live in extreme poverty as a subsistence farmer facing persistent public health crisis’ in the bush in a hut with no electricity or running water. Owen helped me slow down enough to grasp how little I could understand.
On Pentecost Sunday I am always a bit frustrated. Some pastors struggle with the Fourth of July, others do not like the honoring Sundays of fathers and mothers, veterans and those who died in battle. For some reason I am fine with those. The Sundays I really struggle with are this one and the next, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. I do. I struggle with each of them.
It may be that red isn’t the best color for me. And I have never been a big fan of balloons. This might be the source of my struggle; I’ve tripped over less. But if I had to give a good reason it is more about the Book of Acts as a whole than a color scheme or decorations at Pentecost. I struggle with how this book is read.
So often the book of Acts is read as a guide to follow, instructions to emulate. I see it as the opposite. I read the book of Acts as a long prophetic challenge for the church, more consistent with the Judges and Samuel and Kings, prophetic history. In those books everybody is wrong. That is the point. We are to gain a sense of where not to go, not where to follow. Nobody should do what Saul did or David did or Solomon. But the disciples who could do nothing right in the gospels all of sudden in the book of Acts can do no wrong? Nah.
Pentecost, the event, is not wrong. Not what I am saying. How we read Pentecost . . . that can be wrong. Pentecost is often read as a story about speaking. The people spoke in tongues. But it turns out, all of the languages that were spoken, existed before Pentecost. Had there been a new language at Pentecost, now we are talking. The story of Pentecost is not really about speaking; it’s about listening and understanding. All of sudden everyone could hear and understand no matter the language; that was the miracle.
Perhaps one of the most pressing needs I see in our day is we fail to appreciate how little we understand. People are talking and talking and talking past each other, as if they were speaking another language.
And to make matters worse we believe people should understand us; we need only speak clearly. We are living far from the miracle of Pentecost, but we are expecting it to happen. We keep talking but people are hearing a message or meaning far from what we understand. More importantly, what I believe is a good thing is seen as a bad thing; what I take as a moment of sorrow is heard as a moment of strength; what inspires me brings trepidation to others. When we speak, it is as if our good news is bad news.
Again, we get a sense of this, but we dismiss it as ignorance or foolishness or a whole series of demeaning descriptions. Why can’t people understand? Why can’t people see this?
When Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim the good news, he warned them, not everyone will appreciate what you have to say. You are going to go from town to town and preach the good news, but people are going to take your words as blasphemy or a threat or a condemnation. What brings you joy will bring others sorrow.
Why I struggle with Pentecost is that so often we rush past this strange truth believing if we are speaking the truth, then people will understand us. If we are preaching good news, then it must be accepted. We fail to see Pentecost as a profound miracle, a moment so rare and unique it defies the reality of our lives. We can read the Pentecost story and expect this.
While I don’t see a lot of Pentecost moments right now, I do see a lot of moments Jesus warns us about. Even though you believe you are speaking from the heart, trying to bring hope born of truth, people will not understand it that way and may even respond with violence.
If you read over the list of dangers to be faced, there is not a lot of bad Jesus leaves out. Words like betrayal, hatred, floggings, death, accusation, and so on. You could look to our time right now and feel we are experiencing such things. People say terrible things about each other; there is a lot of hate that has come to the fore.
NY Times ran an article this week about a small town in Wisconsin that is falling apart over our division. A lot of hate. One woman said, I have lived here for thirty years and experienced a lot of subtle racism. But once I spoke out, spoke up there has been hate mail, people have said terrible things to me. You got a sense from her words that she was surprised by how little she understood her own community.
In the bush far from my world, sitting next to Owen Sangini and listening to the plea of the woman shouting in Tambuka, it was absolutely clear to me how little I understood. This was not my world. I don’t understand what it means to be this woman. It took while for this moment to reach my heart. It didn’t happen quickly, in fact it took many years to occur. When the shouting of this desperate woman finally reached my heart what I began to see was this: I so often do not understand my own community. People around me, here, when I looked at people on my block as if I was looking at them in Malawi, then I began to understand the warning of Jesus.
Understanding my lack of understanding sounds like circular logic, but it is really important. Trusting this keeps me from responding to hatred with hatred, to answer accusation with accusation, to betray as I am betrayed. Jesus offers his disciples fair warning, which is good. People will hear the good news as bad news. But there is also a deeper meaning. Jesus taught his disciples to turn the other cheek, to love in the midst of hatred. What I began to grasp in that remote village is this: in order to live out the teaching of Jesus about loving those who curse you, is that you need to first appreciate how little you understand and how likely it is you will not be understood.
There is a M.A.S.H. episode that always comes to mind on Pentecost Sunday. Frank Burns was trying auction off the trash of the camp to the local farmers. He was confronted by Hawkeye, “Frank,” he said, “none of them understand what you are saying. They don’t speak English. They are Korean.”
“Hogwash,” said Frank. “If you speak English slowly enough anyone can understand.”
The miracle of Pentecost is not the speaking in other languages; the miracle is that people understood each other. We keep trying to explain and convey our views and our ideals and so much of what we say is with an enormous amount of certainty. Like Frank Burns we believe if we just explain things clearly enough everyone will understand. What if this is just not true?
Jesus tells us there is no way around the anger and hatred of life. The kingdom of God has not come to offer an alternative world. We, though, are to love when hated, to bless when cursed, to offer mercy even to the merciless. Fair warning, Jesus said, folks aren’t going to like this either.
Pentecost, for me, is a miracle of understanding not an expectation. And like most miracles, the power of God comes to those who recognize what is broken and humbly confess what we need. We need to understand how little we understand. Amen.

Bible References

  • Acts 2:1 - 13
  • Matthew 10:16 - 25