One Tongue, Many Languages 6-4-17

I love this day. I love the celebration of languages and Spirit and community. I love the Pentecost carnation, Sweet William. Listen for the Word of God which started it all.

Acts 2:1-21

June 4, 2017

One Tongue, Many Languages

Eleven years ago or so I went with my family around this time of year to Nigeria. With the support of this congregation, we took our nine year old son intending to stay 3 months. It didn’t work out that way. And it wasn’t the greatest idea to take my son at that age to a place that scared him pretty good, but I had an amazing time there. I learned a lot – and some of what I learned was about Pentecost.

The folks we visited with in the city of Jos immediately asked me to serve as an assistant pastor at their church, giving me gifts that they couldn’t afford and I didn’t deserve before I did anything. Elijah, my son, was in fourth grade at the time and since we took him out of school, we tried to keep up with his schooling.

Ironically, the fourth grade curriculum focuses on US history, so we were reading about the founding of the US while we were over there, reading specifically about the Native American Indian tribes in this country, while we were learning about the amazing diversity of tribes in Nigeria right where we were staying.

I was asked to do a Bible study in the local church about Pentecost and I was glad to oblige, of course, since I love Pentecost so much. About 12 to 15 people came to the Bible study and we read Acts 2 together in English, since that’s the only language I understand. And I asked each of them around the circle, in honor of the holiday to introduce themselves and say a phrase, like the prayer we prayed in this service in their tribal language.

There were more languages spoken in that circle than there were people. Each person spoke English, Hausa, the regional language, and one to three tribal language. There are 350 local languages in Nigeria, a country about the size of California or Venezuela. 350 languages – and since there are so many, they usually speak in their common language of Hausa or English. Everyone knows 4 or 5 languages. And when we went around the circle speaking all the different languages, most of the languages sounded really different from each other, and they seemed almost as amazed as I was about the beautiful sounds and the diversity within their church.

And it struck me as I studied about the Native tribes of the United States that there were many more languages in this country when it was founded. There was just as much diversity here as there is now in Nigeria. Last week, when our confirmation class visited Ellis Island, we learned about the amazing diversity of people who passed through that New York port to come into this country. We saw examples of different kinds of dress, and language, and religious customs and cultures.

I have mixed feelings about these two realizations – sorrow at the loss of the cultures that were here before Europeans came to this land, and pride in the welcome and the diversity that is a strong tradition and heritage in our country. A friend posted on Facebook this week, “If the only times your church or ministry mentions the poor or oppressed is when they are recipient objects of your church or ministry’s actions or statements, then your church or ministry are agents of colonialism, not liberation.” It’s complicated.


Pentecost was a major feast day in the early church, modeled on the Festival of Weeks in the Jewish faith which is also being celebrated this weekend in synagogues, seven weeks after Passover, which happened this year at the same time as Easter. It is the early spring harvest festival, and a big celebration, comparable to Easter or Christmas at one time on the Christian calendar.

I love that we at St. Luke are recovering the richness and beauty of this holiday, remembering the power the entrance of the Holy Spirit into the 300 followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot, the festival of Weeks. This group of disciples must have felt whipsawed with emotion, first at the death of Jesus, then with the joy of the resurrection. Only 6 weeks later the tradition says that Jesus ascended, and they lost him again, though he had promised that the Holy Spirit would come to be with them always as a comfort and as a constant guide.

When that Spirit came into their midst, the church was born in a moment of ecstatic mystery and joy that they described as a whooshing of wind, fire alighting on each head, and a powerful way that they all of a sudden could understand each other, even though they were all speaking different languages. The Spirit had removed all barriers between and among them and created a new community of understanding and caring.

The early church was guided by the Spirit of understanding and caring for a long time. They seem to have been remarkably flexible in their willingness as a community to respond to pressure by listening for God’s voice, respond to adversity by sharing what they had, and respond to difference by offering a welcome.

At some point adversity overwhelmed their ability to live so flexibly by the will of the Spirit. They created rules and institutions that were a little more clumsy, but that made the way a little clearer when it was hard to hear each other. The same thing happened in our country when early settlers took land that belonged to people who were already there. There were times when they listened to the Indians and then times when they just couldn’t understand why these people who had welcomed them were so upset, starting to fight and threaten their peace.

The same thing happens today too when we feel threatened and under siege. Those are the hardest times to listen to the Spirit, to hear past the differences in language and realize we all have one tongue that all of humanity uses – one tongue which God creates in every human, one tongue which is guided by the power of the Spirit, reminding us always of our commonality in the community of the world, in our vulnerable humanity.

I know I sound naive and over-idealistic when I hold out the possibility that even in our divided and broken world that the Spirit could guide us to hear each other, even when we have harmed each other and rushed to our corners to build walls of protection and barriers of fear. But that’s what that whooshing wind does for us – it knocks down those walls, and challenges our fears and allows us to hear each other, to create a new kind of community that includes all of our children.

That’s why we share a meal today after church with people who are serving children all around this region. That’s  why we share a meal Tuesday with the Muslim community in the middle of Ramadan.

That’s why we share a meal next Sunday evening with people in the middle of Philadelphia at Arch St’s Grace Cafe. That’s why we share this meal which Jesus gave us, which is always and forever a vehicle for the Spirit – to ease our fears and reconnect us as God’s beloved community.