Native Languages

It’s Pentecost again! Fifty days after Easter Sunday, we celebrate the Day of Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples. Read the story in Acts 2:1-21. (And if you read in your head, you don’t even have to pronounce all those place names!) I was really struck this year by the phrase “native language.” Maybe it’s because I was recently struggling to speak a non-native language. What languages are needed by the church today?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever been somewhere you don’t speak the language? At all? I felt that way when Tim and I were recently in France. I have four years of high school French, so I could communicate well enough. But I always needed to ask folks to slow down when talking to me and only use a very basic vocabulary. Of course, almost everyone we met spoke English very well, so we didn’t have any problems.

But on the streets or in crowded places, all of the conversations and words that I couldn’t understand just kind of faded together into a constant background hum of noise. Almost like a white noise machine. I was aware the sound was there, but nothing really stood out at all.

And then, when we were on a crowded subway platform, I heard it. Someone speaking English. And not just English, but a very American English. They were actually pretty far away from us, but the words cut through all the noise. My ears, my head, my attention, all turned toward this sound, unconsciously. Even though it was a couple being quite loudly confused about how the Metro worked, it sounded familiar and comforting to me.

Just imagine the Parthians, Mesopotamians, Cappadocians, Medes, Elomites, and all those other difficult words that Linda had to say. Imagine them as immigrants or visitors in Jerusalem, on this day of Pentecost. And suddenly, out of all the background noise of language that isn’t theirs, they hear clear as day, their mother tongue being spoken for perhaps the first time in years! Did each receive that homing beacon tuning the ear to its signal? Did they have the sense of comfort, and familiarity, and home?

Sometimes, we call Pentecost the birthday of the church. It’s the day the Holy Spirit falls upon the disciples and enables them to speak in many different languages. In a sense it is the birth of the church. It is the gift that Jesus promised, the gift that would sustain and uplift the disciples, the gift that would bind them in one, the gift that would be their helper and advocate. It is the beginning of something new for this group of Jesus-followers.

But this gift, this birthday present of the Holy Spirit, while it’s given to the church, it’s meant for those outside the church. It’s a spiritual gift given, not for the benefit of the disciples, but for the benefit of those outsiders listening in. The disciples could all speak the same language already—they didn’t need to speak in many different languages. But the people outside the building needed them to. And the Holy Spirit made sure that they could.

That’s where I see the real gift of Pentecost. Not the ability just to speak many languages, but the ability to speak the language the people outside the church need us to speak. What is the native language of those outside this building? What languages does the church need to speak?

We have confirmation today. I’ve spent many hours over the past two years with Katie, Alexa, Connor, and Chase—and let me tell you, sometimes they’ve had to help me learn to speak a new language. I’ve picked up some new slang words and learned a lot about how to communicate with just emojis and memes. Luckily for all of us, we already have these great young people in the church who can help us speak this language.

What other languages do we need? Maybe it’s the language of science. Or the language of music. Or the language of business. Maybe it’s a particular spiritual dialect, a language of the heart that speaks deeply into people’s lives. Can we ask the Holy Spirit to gift us with such native languages? Can we be willing to learn from those in church who already speak them?

To try to speak another language can be a scary thing. The first place we went in France was a restaurant, and I stared mutely at the waiter for so long that he just started speaking English. It probably only lasted ten seconds, but in my head were dozens of thoughts. I was trying to conjugate, to remember the polite form of address, I could hear my high school French teacher correcting my pronunciation. I was so paralyzed by worrying about making a mistake that I didn’t say anything at all.

It’s scary to speak another language. It means going outside of your comfort zone, making yourself a learner. And that’s just to speak another, actual language. To speak across barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, or politics is to challenge stereotypes and risk ridicule. It’s an incredibly brave thing to do. Are we willing to take the risk and put ourselves out there? To proclaim the faith that is in us, in whatever language the Spirit enables us to speak?

If we say we celebrate the birthday of the church today, we celebrate an incredibly special gift that has been given to us. Entrusted to us, really. The Holy Spirit is a gift of God given freely: to love us and comfort us, to help us and heal us. But, like all the best gifts, it is a gift that is meant to be shared. A gift that can’t be fully experienced unless it is shared.

At the end of the Affirmation of Baptism rite, we will rejoice with our confirmands, saying that “together we will proclaim the good news to all the world.” I don’t know exactly what languages we’re going to need to speak to do that. I don’t know all the vocabulary we’ll need to learn. I can’t promise that it won’t be confusing at times. But I can promise that we won’t be doing it alone. Never alone. We’ll do it together, and wherever we go God’s Holy Spirit will go with us. Leading and guiding us. Giving us new words to speak and new dialects to try out. So that all of God’s children might hear the good news of God in Christ in their own native language. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

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One thought on “Native Languages

  1. I was especially struck by two points in your sermon: One, that the gift of the Holy Spirit was meant for the people outside, looking in. I’m sure it was meant for the people inside too, but I never thought of it as being for outsiders, although I guess I should have. The other is that I loved your connection to the present day when you talked about what languages we need to learn. When I thought about it in personal terms, I realize I need to learn many: for Stephen Ministry, for my grandchildren, for my husband at this stage of our lives, for technology (I’m still struggling with that one!), and so many more. Thank you for making me more mindful of that.

    Like

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