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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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The Languages We Don't Speak

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: language, pentecost, anglican, episcopal

The Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity    Paris, France

Text: Romans 8:23b: “...for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

One of the great benefits of my ministry in the Convocation is that I am daily reminded of how much I do not know. It’s not just I am always discovering how much bigger, how much broader, how much more diverse our church is than I ever imagined growing up in Michigan; it’s not just that practically every hour delivers to me a new vocabulary word in one of the seven languages of our Convocation; it’s not just that I seem to have spent these past five years in an advanced seminar on the laws governing relationships between church and state in our eight different national jurisdictions. 

It’s all of that together, and then on top of it learning the ways and expectations of our many cultures and histories. The bishop who first ordained me, who was a monk, used to knock us down a peg or two by reminding us that just possibly the reason God has called us into ministry was not because there was something special about our spirituality, but because God had a lot more work to do to save us. And, well, for whatever blessed reason, I have ended up in a ministry in which I am well acquainted with the virtue of humility. 

So what I am about to say I would not say unless I truly believed it. But I truly believe that in all the Episcopal Church, all five thousand or so congregations spread out across eighteen nations of the world, there is simply no better place to celebrate the feast of Pentecost than this place. Your cathedral—our cathedral—is the cathedral church, the tall steeple and the encouraging parent, of all our Convocation of so many different languages and cultures and nations. You are the cathedral of what Bishop Curry described to me in some amazement as “the single most diverse judicatory in the Episcopal Church on any given Sunday morning.” Yup. As we say in Midwestern, you bet. 

All of the languages you just heard offering the Acts reading, that is sort of our signature feature, our flourish, in this place. And in practically every other church of the Convocation this morning, there will be a similarly varied symphony of languages heard today. Where I grew up, in a college town in the midwest, we used to bring over some professors from the Romance Languages department to help diversify the sound of our Pentecost Sunday. Sort of like asking the local farmer to bring over a horse for the Blessing of the Animals.

Languages are what we do. My beloved colleague Richard Cole, the deacon of our church in Geneva, is one of our true polyglots; his idea of a vacation is to travel to a part of Europe where they speak a language he doesn’t yet know, and to spend a week learning it. Un tel homme de la convocation!

But with all of that, you know, there are some languages we don’t speak in this church. I don’t mean by that some languages that we need to go out and collect. I don’t mean by this that simply adding to our roster of languages is the primary reason why we should go out and plant new missions in new places. 

No, what I mean is—there are languages we don’t speak because we are Christians. There are languages these new sisters and brothers of ours we will welcome today, people newly baptized or confirmed or received in this church, there are languages they must never learn—or, if they know them, are going to have to forget.

Let me explain what I mean.

We don’t speak the language of fear—at least, not if we are Christians. We don’t speak that language because we’ve been commanded not to. Both at the beginning of our story and at the end of it, there is an angel in the countryside who speaks these words: Do not be afraid. They are not words of comfort; they are words of command. We are not meant to speak the language of fear.

Today, as we gather here in this place, your sisters and brothers of Saint Nino’s in Tbilisi, Georgia, one of our mission congregations, are gathering literally and politically underground to worship according to the use of The Book of Common Prayer. 

This past week, a government there infected with the most toxic form of nationalism has chosen to pass a law that stigmatizes them, and countless others, as affiliates of a “foreign agent.” I am that foreign agent. And you are, too. 

But they are not afraid. I wrote to the leader of that congregation this past week to tell him I was worried and holding those people in my prayers, and this is what he wrote back to me: 

Dear Bishop Mark,

Sorry for the late reply. Our situation now is so complicated. I don’t have any words to say because we don’t know where the country is going and what will be next. I know my message is late but I will be thankful if the member churches of our Convocation will pray for us during Pentecost Sunday Services.

Yours in Christ,


Did you notice what he didn’t say? He didn’t say “we are afraid.” They are a lot of other things: suspected, harassed, even beaten up in the streets. But they are not afraid.

We don’t speak the language of intolerance. It took us a while to learn this. We ordained Absalom Jones, but we thought he should only be permitted to be a priest for African-American people. Fifty years ago we ordained the first eleven women to be priests in this church, but we did it in a less-than-orderly way. A little over twenty years ago we decided gay and lesbian people should have full access to the ministry of this church. And just nine years ago we decided they should have full access to the sacrament of marriage, too.

So this has taken some time on our part. And along the way we have lost some people who would prefer a church that draws lines between included and excluded, fully human and less-than-fully human—or, as we used to say it, clean and unclean. 

We decided that Jesus meant what he said when he taught us that we are all equal between the throne of God. We decided that Saint Paul had it right when he says in Galatians that the world-changing significance of the Resurrection is to break down all of the categories of difference we make to comfort ourselves—neither Jew nor gentile, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free; neither citizen nor refugee, neither gay nor straight, neither white nor black, but all of us one in Christ. 

We do not speak the language of violence. I have been traveling an insane amount this spring. I covered nine time zones in as many days this month. The only time I ever watch movies anymore is on long flights And I never watch them on the back of the seat in front of me—I always watch them over other people’s shoulders. Are you like that? Sometimes, if something seems really interesting, I’ll try to figure out what it is on my own screen and watch the ending, just so I know it turns out.

But if you’ve had anything like that experience, then you know that the survey of Western culture you get from watching movies over other people’s shoulders pretty quickly tells you that we have become addicted to horrific violence. Shootings, explosions, beatings—they are the basic fare of most of our visual culture. It takes a heroic effort of suspending judgment to believe that somehow this is not coarsening all of us, warping our culture—inuring us to living in a more and more grotesquely violent world. 

The church has spoken the language of violence throughout its history. Here in France there were no fewer than eight wars of religion in the sixteenth century, with thousands of innocents murdered in the mistaken belief that any one of us can know God’s truth so well as justify killing another person over matters of religion. 

Whenever the church has fallen into that error, the sacrifice of the cross has been betrayed and the message of Christ’s gospel made unintelligible to the world. Whenever we fall into the violence of words or actions, the violence of betraying trust or violating the sanctity of life, we fail the terms of our covenant. So we must give up speaking that language—even if it makes us strange and suspect to the world around us.

And—here is the most important thing—we do not ever speak the language of despair. Even now, in this moment when the ideals we have so long cherished seem to be falling under the shadow of authoritarianism and a kind of soulless populism, even now as the ideals we thought were the lasting fruit of years of bloodshed and war in Europe, and enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are being trampled on by dictators and demagogues, even now we do not speak the language of despair.

We do not speak the languages of fear, or intolerance, or violence, or despair. So you don’t have to learn those. But now there are other languages you’ll have to learn. 

Instead of fear, you’ll have to learn the language of faith—to believe, even in the absence of evidence, that God’s surpassing love is with us in any difficulty, and is able to overcome any hatred we confront.

Instead of intolerance, you’ll have to learn the language of compassion—walking with the rejected and the refugee, welcoming the stranger and the homeless, keeping vigil with the dying and the bereaved. Because those are the examples Christ gave us, and taught us.

Instead of violence, you’ll have to learn the language of wonder—a language spoken without words, more often than not. Wonder fluent enough to marvel every day at the beauty and majesty of God’s creation in the world around us. Wonder at the grace we can glimpse in the lives of the people around us.

And instead of despair, you will have to learn the language of defiance—of holding our ideals even in the face of catastrophe and challenge. You will have to have such a confident command of the language of defiance that with all of us, even at the threshold of death, your words will be Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Those are the languages we speak here, no matter what other languages you know. Welcome to our school of faith, and compassion, and wonder, and defiance. We have so much to say to you. We can’t wait to teach you. Amen.