United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, PhD
Text: Acts 2
When is the last time you encountered someone who spoke a different language from you? It happened to me just this past week. It was my turn to work the concession stand at my son’s baseball game. Two other people were there. One was Nick who was working the grill. The other was Maria, who spoke with a Hispanic accent. The two of them had worked together before and had a teasing rapport between them. He would pronounce her name with an exaggerated accent, or sing her name with the notes of West Side Story’s “Maria.” And she would laugh and tease him right back. At one point she called him loco, which means “crazy.” He said, “I’m just a little crazy. How do you say that in Spanish.” I offered: “Locito?” Maria turned and looked at me with wide eyes. “Hablas Espanol?” Do you speak Spanish? I said, “Un poco, un poco.” Just a little. I had taken Spanish in high school and college and remembered just a little from those days.
The rest of the evening we tossed around different words, Spanish and English. Nick would ask, “How do you say French Fries in Spanish?” I said “Fritas?” Maria corrected me: papas fritas. Fried potatoes. I learned that Maria was from the Dominican Republic and how she came to be in our country with her three boys. Even though my son and hers were on different teams, we cheered for them. Whether they hit the ball, struck out, caught the pop fly or missed the ball, they heard us cheering for them in English and Spanish.
I can just imagine how it must have felt for the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Law on Sinai to the people of Israel, each of them speaking their own foreign language and coming into the city hearing this cacophony of languages. It must have been very disconcerting for them, the way it must have been for Maria and her family when they first came to America. Coming through the airport hearing not just English, but so many other languages, not knowing where to go or what to do, until they found someone who spoke un poco, just a little Spanish to help them find their way.
Imagine being one of those pilgrims coming to Jerusalem where the official language would have been Hebrew or Aramaic, and with all those foreigners, it would have been very confusing. But then they saw a gathering of people with tongues of fire over their heads, and a wind blowing all around them. They couldn’t figure out what is going on until they heard one of those men speaking their language and their ears perked up. And they listened to the disciple talk about Jesus, Jesus, Jesu Criste, and the love of God. What a wonderful feeling it must have been to go from being discombobulated in this foreign land to hearing someone who spoke their language.
I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine this week about the ongoing debate in this country on whether immigrants wanting citizenship should be required to know the English language. There are good arguments on both sides of the issue. Some say we should respect the culture and language of the immigrant and let them speak their own language. Others say that because English is the official language, they should be required to demonstrate a basic level of proficiency before being granted citizenship so that they can function as citizens in this country. I don’t claim to have proficiency in that area of government policy, nor do I have an answer to that ongoing debate. But here is what I do know: in God’s neighborhood there is no language requirement. The miracle of Pentecost is not that the Holy Spirit enabled everyone to speak one official language, but that the disciples were given the ability to speak in a language other than their own. They were able to make a connection with someone with whom they would never have made a connection otherwise.
We have so many different languages in our world today. There are approximately 6900 languages—nearly 7000 ways to proclaim God’s love in this world! These are all ways that we can be proclaiming God’s love for people in a language other than our own. And where did all these languages come from? Remember the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis Chapter 11, how humanity had become so proud and arrogant that they tried to build a tower up to the heavens. And they all spoke one language. Apparently there is something about having one language that leads a nation to feel superior, to lose their sense of humility before God, so much so that God confused the language of that civilization and scattered them across the face of the earth.
Isn’t it interesting that apparently God thinks it’s a good thing that there are different languages among human beings?
Have you ever tried to learn another language, taken a course in school or online? It is quite a humbling experience. You feel awkward and silly when you try to say these words that feel so different on your tongue. If you’ve ever encountered someone who speaks a language other than your own and you make the effort to try to communicate with them, it takes a certain level of humility and humbleness to put your security in your language aside and say, I want to try to talk to you and listen to you on your terms. I want to learn how they say things, how they put their thoughts together, how they experience the world and how they express themselves. When you learn how another person speaks, you start to learn how they think; you open your mind to another way of viewing the world. It takes a lot of effort, but when you humble yourself and try to learn un poco, just a little of another language, it tells the other person, I honor who you are. I honor who you are as a Child of God. And I honor God by trying to learn un poco, just a little of your language.
When Peter talks to that crowd of 3000 gathered on the day of Pentecost, he quotes the prophet Joel in saying, “Your young people will see visions and your elders will dream dreams,” as an indication that the Holy Spirit has come upon the people. This week I posed the question on Facebook if anyone has had any dreams or visions for our church. Kathy Guffey shared with me a dream she had a few weeks ago. She was in our church on a Sunday morning, and the sanctuary was packed with people. The pews were so full that people had to stand in the aisles. In her dream, it wasn’t a special occasion like a funeral or a wedding or a holiday. It was just a normal Sunday morning. But she said she looked around with her jaw dropped, just amazed that so many people were at church.
As a pastor, I got very excited that maybe the day is coming when this dream becomes reality. But as I was reading this text from Acts, it reminded me that if God were to bless our church with that kind of Pentecost moment, it would mean that there would be people in this sanctuary who look different than us, have a different skin color, speak a different language. When that time comes in our church, it will mean that things are changing and I will have to converse with someone who comes from a different family than I do, or a different country than I do. I began to ask myself, are we as a church ready for that vision to become a reality in this congregation?
I’d like you to ask yourself that same question this coming week: Are we ready for the Holy Spirit to come into our church and ask us to be welcoming in a new way? I’ve often thought that if churches really want to grow, they should determine what is the language—other than English—that is most commonly spoken in the community. And then offer classes for their members to learn that language, so that they can, like the disciples at Pentecost, be able to speak in la lengua de Dios, the language of God.
There is something about la lengua de Dios that translates into all other languages. Don’t be surprised if, in the coming weeks and months, you start to encounter people who want to know God, who are seeking Jesus, who want to encounter the Holy Spirit, and come to you, perhaps completely by surprise, and ask, in essence, Hables la lengua de Dios? Do you speak the language of God? And if that happens, you’ll be able to say un poco, just a little.
That’s all it takes – a little flame, a little courage, a little spark of welcomeness, a little bit of humility, a little breath of the Holy Spirit, and a little heart open to the greatness of God who has a vision of God’s entire neighborhood filling our churches in love to speak la lengua de Dios. Amen.