Before I went to seminary, I lived in Lincoln for a few years. I had just gotten back from the Peace Corps, and I was trying to readjust to life back in the US. Because of my experience teaching English as a foreign language, I quickly got a job with an organization called Lincoln Literacy. At Lincoln Lit, we worked with refugees and asylum-seekers and other immigrants – with and without documents – we taught them English and helped them find jobs and adjust to their new life in the US. I loved working there. Almost everyone I worked with – students and staff alike – seemed to feel in some way like fish out of water, just like I did.
We had students from all over the world: from Mexico and Guatemala and Venezuela, from Iraq and Afghanistan, from Bosnia, Sudan, Congo, China, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, all over. In our classes, you would see people of every color, people dressed in hijabs and blue jeans and saris and intricately woven fabric. During one particularly hot summer, one of my colleagues even showed up to work a few times wearing his wife’s skirts to keep cool – and no one so much as batted an eye. Everyone belonged, just as they were.
The only language we all had in common was English – and sometimes, we didn’t even have that. In fact, one of the first classes I ever taught was a beginner-beginner class full of tiny Karen people from Myanmar who spoke maybe half a dozen words of English between them. We communicated mostly through the language of interpretive dance. I still remember the sound of them laughing when we learned together the parts of the body – by singing Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.
But by far the most fun part of working at Lincoln Lit was when we all gathered together for potlucks. Just imagine for a moment how epic these potlucks were. Everyone brought a taste of their home country to share, and they filled their own plates with dishes that everyone else had brought. And everyone discovered new favorite foods. I remember watching a group of moms from Burma using Mexican tostadas to scoop up their noodle salad, and Lost Boys from Sudan dipping Iraqi stuffed grape leaves into a spicy Thai curry, and even little kids running around drinking sweetened hibiscus tea and eating hot dogs wrapped in tortillas.
The potlucks were always very joyful events. They were also very loud events. The air was always filled with the noise of people eating and laughing. And there was a cacophony of voices; at any given moment, you could hear people talking in perhaps a dozen different languages – or maybe even more.
Those Lincoln Literacy potlucks are the image that comes to my mind whenever I read through this passage of Acts that we read today. In this reading from the second chapter of Acts, the disciples are all gathered together in one place in order to celebrate the day of Pentecost. Now here’s a pop quiz to see who read my article in the newsletter this month: who can tell me the original Hebrew name of this festival – the festival of Pentecost?
Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which is also known as the Feast of Weeks. It’s a festival which our Jewish siblings still celebrate to this day. Shavuot is a day to remember the giving of the law on Mount Sinai – but it is also primarily a harvest festival, like Thanksgiving. Here in Nebraska, it probably sounds kind of strange to have a harvest festival this early in the year, but, in Israel, this was always the time of the wheat harvest. All of the ancient Judeans would have gathered in Jerusalem, bringing with them the first fruits of their harvest. It wasn’t exactly a potluck like we think of potlucks – but there was definitely feasting and sharing and celebrating.
So the disciples were already gathered for a joyful celebration. And then something happens. Out of nowhere, a violent wind rips through the assembly and flames appear above them. The disciples open their mouths to ask each other what in the world just happened – and they are all completely shocked to find themselves speaking in other languages!
This commotion attracts the attention of all the crowds gathered there – people from all those many countries that Sharan was kind enough to read out loud for us earlier. And they are all just as shocked as the disciples. “Amazed and astonished, they [ask], ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’” The people and the disciples are all so excited and overjoyed by this that some others watching even assume that they must all be drunk!
It was powerful – and so richly meaningful – for those present to be able to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in their own language. Our mother tongue reaches our hearts in ways that other languages usually don’t. For example, si yo les predicara así cada domingo, en español, ustedes no entenderían ni papa de lo que digo. Haha – I just said that if I were to preach like this every Sunday – in Spanish – that you all wouldn’t understand a word I say. And it definitely wouldn’t touch your hearts.
This is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised. And it empowers Jesus’ disciples to take up his mission. Last Sunday, we talked about Jesus’ ascension – he was taken up bodily into the heavens, and he told his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Now God has given them everything they need in order to actually carry out this ministry, just as Jesus promised.
The story of Pentecost is the story of the founding of the church. The task of ministry passes from the incarnate Christ to the incarnate church. God starts the church with a fiery bang and gives us a glimpse of the world as God longs for it to be. There is no expectation that the whole world learn Hebrew or Greek – or English, for that matter – in order to hear the gospel good news; instead, the body of Christ is empowered and sent to where people are, to speak to them in ways that they can understand. The story of Pentecost reflects God’s desire for a gloriously, joyfully diverse creation. It shows us that God does not just belong to any one language or culture or flag, but instead, that people of all languages and all places and all ways of being belong to God. The world, as God envisions it, is a place where everyone belongs, just as they are.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that all this will be easy. In fact, our first reading, from the book of Genesis, gives us kind of a word of caution – with the story of the tower of Babel. The people of the earth all spoke one language and had “the same words,” and together, they decided to build a city and a tall tower so that they would not be scattered. Contrary to popular belief, God was not necessarily angry about this. Instead, God actually seems to be impressed by all that they have accomplished, and God says that it is “only the beginning of what they will do.” But when God gave them all the ability to speak different languages – not unlike Pentecost – they suddenly stopped the building project they had been working on together. They found that it was hard to communicate and collaborate with each other across these new cultural boundaries. And so, instead, they separated.
We know this struggle all too well, especially in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We, the ELCA, hold the unfortunate distinction of being literally the whitest church in the country. Lord knows we have made it a goal to become more diverse, we have tried to reflect God’s diverse creation – we’ve said “all are welcome” until we’re blue in the face – but we still struggle to connect meaningfully with communities of color, to make space for other people whose backgrounds are different from our own.
But still Christ gives us the same insane commandment that he gave to his first disciples – that we are to be his witnesses in Schuyler, in Colfax County and Nebraska, and to all the ends of the earth. And here in Schuyler, we have a unique opportunity to connect with neighbors who are different from us, who speak a different language.
It can be intimidating. But, just like the first disciples, we can trust Jesus to keep his promise. We can trust that God will continue to pour out the Holy Spirit upon us and give us everything we need to carry out God’s mission. We are called to be witnesses – and co-creators – of God’s gloriously diverse and joyful kingdom. We are called to work toward a world where absolutely everyone belongs. And just imagine how epic those potlucks are going to be!