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The Rev. Frank Logue
King of Peace Episcopal Church
Kingsland, Georgia
April 8, 2001

What Language Does God Speak?
Luke 22:39-23:49

Luke’s Gospel brings us today to Golgotha, the place of the skull. The reading from Luke shows the length that Jesus was willing to go to in order to reconcile all creation to God.

I want to shed some light on this bleak picture with a story from East Africa[1]. Like a good East African tale, my story will not begin right with the point. But if you will journey with me, I promise that our path will lead us back to the darkness of Golgotha for another look at today’s Gospel.

In the summer of 1998, I journeyed to Tanzania to take part in a cross-cultural internship sponsored by the Seminary. I worked in western Tanzania in an Anglican Church led by a Tanzanian priest. While there, I was asked several times, “What is your mother tongue?” You see in East Africa, everyone speaks Swahili, and many people speak English. But these are not the languages of home. Among their own tribe, their own family, most East Africans speak their tribal language. This language is their mother tongue. Whenever I explained that English was my mother tongue, people always felt sorry for me. They knew that I was a much poorer person for not having a mother tongue, a special language spoken only among my own people.

This concern about a mother tongue is reflected in a story told in East Africa of a man from the Dodomo district of Tanzania named Msafiri. Msafiri followed the traditional African religion of his people, the Wagogo. He believed in one God, the creator who is the source of all good things. Msafiri approached God by praying to his ancestors who he believed still watched over their people.

An Anglican evangelist came to his small village and began teaching the people about Christianity. Msafiri listened to the evangelist as he told about God sending his son Jesus to live among us. The stories of Jesus life, his death and resurrection touched Msafiri and he converted to Christianity. He studied with the evangelist and was baptized, taking the name Simon, for Simon of Cyrene, the African saint who had carried Jesus’ cross to Calvary.

Simon Msafiri went to church faithfully, always attending the Wednesday fellowship meetings and Sunday services. Gathered with the other Christians under the grass roof of the mud-walled church they had built together, he learned the stories from the Bible.

Simon Msafiri prayed to God in Kigogo, the language of his own people instead of the Swahili that he used in town with others. This was Simon’s mother tongue and was part of Simon’s ties to his extended family. Simon knew that God understood him when he spoke Kigogo, but he decided that God, too, must have a mother tongue—a language that was God’s own language from before time. Simon wanted to learn to pray to God in God’s own mother tongue. One day he asked the evangelist, “What is God’s mother tongue?” The evangelist thought for a moment and then said that God doesn’t have a mother tongue—all languages are the same to God.

Simon listened and thanked the evangelist. But as he went home, he began to wonder about the evangelist’s answer. Everyone Simon knew had a mother tongue they learned as a child and used among their own people. If the people Simon knew had a mother tongue, then God must as well. He decided to ask some of the elders of the village to get the answer to his question. One man said that God, as the great ancestor, must speak the language of their ancestors, Kigogo. Another said that surely God’s mother tongue is Swahili. These answers didn’t sound right to Simon and he decided to set out on a great safari, a journey to find his answer.

He traveled around Tanzania and everywhere he went, he asked people his question—“What is God’s mother tongue?” When he traveled to the west, he was told that God spoke Kisukuma. He turned north, crossing the Malagarasi River and was told that if God’s mother tongue isn’t Kiha, then perhaps the language is English. In the northeast, an elder told him that God’s mother tongue must be Kichagga, while another was equally sure that God’s mother tongue was the Latin he had heard spoken in the Catholic Church. Everywhere he went the answers changed, but in a way they were always the same, people often thought that their own mother tongue must be God’s mother tongue as well. Simon knew that this couldn’t be the true answer to his question.

As certain as ever that God must have a mother tongue, Simon decided that he should go on a pilgrimage to Israel to find his answer. Surely there, where so many of the stories from the Bible took place, he could find the answer to his question. As he walked north, he continued to ask people, “What is God’s mother tongue?” In Kenya, he was told Kikuyu. As he traveled further north, many people told him Arabic.

Finally Simon arrived in Israel. Late one afternoon he walked through a large stone gate into the old town of Jerusalem. Here he used his broken English to ask people again about God’s mother tongue. Most of the people he spoke with insisted that God’s mother tongue is Hebrew. One man carefully explained that Moses Law was written in Hebrew, so that had to be God’s own language. But another man was equally emphatic that Jesus had spoken Aramaic, so that must be God’s mother tongue, while still others said that God must speak Arabic.

Simon was confused and disappointed. His pilgrimage had brought many answers, but none of them seemed to be the one true answer that he sought. Tired from his journey, he walked out of the gates of the city as darkness was falling. He went to a nearby olive grove and fell asleep among the trees.

As he slept, Simon had a vision. In the vision he was on a hill outside the old city of Jerusalem. But unlike the olive grove where he fell asleep, the hill of his vision was a barren, rocky place. The road from town passed by the place where he was standing. Simon was alone on the hill, but he could hear a commotion at the gate, where he could see a crowd leaving the town. The violent mob yelled loudly as it stormed up the hill.

The crowd stopped and then parted. Simon saw a dark-skinned man come forward and lift the beam off a shapeless clump of fabric. Simon knew what his vision was. The barren hill was Golgotha, the place of the skull. The clump of fabric rose and took shape. Simon could see that Jesus was rising again after the cross was pulled off of him. Jesus’ back was bloody and on his brow, was pressed the crown of thorns. Blood trickled down across Jesus’ face.

Simon wanted with all his being to reach out and help his Lord. He wanted to help, to somehow stop the madness. But he couldn’t. Simon was powerless to do anything. He could only look on in shock. Simon saw the crucifixion and though he had heard about Jesus’ death numerous times in church, the crucifixion was so much more grisly, more horrifying in his vision. The whole scene was all too real.

Tears poured down Simon’s face as he watched the soldiers strip Jesus and lay him across the beam. He saw them nail Jesus to the cross and then raise him up into the air. Simon didn’t want to watch anymore, but the vision continued. Simon saw Jesus looking down at those who crucified him and at the jeering crowd. Jesus saw the anger of the mob and looked at them in love. He said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.” The words were in a language Simon could not understand, but in his mind he heard them in his own Kigogo. Then Simon understood his vision. Deep inside his being Simon understood that this was the answer to his question. God does have a mother tongue, God’s own unique language from before time. The mother tongue of God is love. And on the cross, Jesus spoke volumes about the love of God, not just with his words of forgiveness, but with his actions as well. Jesus stayed on the cross, experiencing the worst humanity had to offer in return for love and yet did not give up on his love for us.

The Romans intended the cross for shame and death, but through Jesus’ words and actions, the cross has become for us a sign of God’s love. Through the cross, Jesus speaks to us in God’s own language of love showing the length God will go to in order to reconcile all creation to Godself.

Amen. 

[1] I have taken my own artistic license with this East African tale. Another version of the story (with the pilgrim’s epiphany taking place at the nativity as he speaks to Mary) is found in Joseph Healey’s collection of African stories What Language Does God Speak (Nairobi: Kenya, St. Paul’s Publications-Africa 1989), from which I borrowed the title of my sermon.

 

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