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Mother Tongue

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

June 9, 2019
Acts 2:1-21

A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

I always get a little bit nervous reading this Pentecost story, not because of the power of the Holy Spirit — though perhaps we should be because of the power of the Holy Spirit — but just because this story has so much pronunciation. “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia…” It’s a good thing we read this story every year because it takes me about that frequency of repetition for me to make it through the list without becoming coming unglued. And what makes it a bit trickier is that it doesn’t feel like the story needs that degree of specificity. “There were Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” That seems sufficient. But the writer of Acts is not content just to gesture at this diversity. Instead, we get a detailed inventory. “Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.” It’s rare in the New Testament that we have something that so resembles an attendance sheet.

Of course some of the names on that list will sound more familiar than others. Cappadocia, Judea, Asia, these words still have meaning for our modern geography, not to mention of course Egypt or Libya or Rome. But other of these nationalities. It won’t surprise you to learn that you don’t meet a lot of Phrygians in the New Testament; by the time these stories come along Phrygia itself was a kingdom of the past, by then a prize for conquering empires. Speaking Phrygian — this old tongue brought over from the Balkan states in a time before anybody could remember — it would mean identifying with a nation-state that had already mostly disintegrated. It would mean embracing a culture that was more or less extinct, and doing so in the face of the culture imposed by Roman occupation and Jewish religious practice. It would mean speaking in a language almost equally strange to everyone who heard it — or perhaps not speaking it at all, lest you be marked as different or dangerous. We don’t know enough about how intercultural relationships worked in Jerusalem to make any hard-and-fast conclusions. But I think we know enough about human history to make some bets. And I’ll put a dollar on “being Phrygian in Jerusalem wasn’t any fun at all.”

Except, maybe, on this Pentecost morning. This Pentecost story is a few stories wrapped in one — the story of the Holy Spirit first appearing before these disciples and chasing them out into the world; the story of Peter first preaching to the gathered multitudes; the story of the church coming into this new part of its life. But Pentecost is also a story about culture, and therefore of course a story, of course, about language. There’s another Biblical story about language that Krystal read, the famous story of the Tower of Babel, where all humanity speaks one language and has one culture and builds one too-high tower and God gets a bit jealous and scatters us to the four corners of the earth. It’s a fairly regular practice that these two stories are read together. But in many ways, they could hardly be more different. Because the story of Babel laments for a time when we could all have been united, one language, one people, one culture. But no such ghost haunts this morning’s reading from Acts. On this Pentecost morning, this difference is a cause for celebration. The Spirit does not make them all to talk the same. Instead, the Spirit gives them ears to hear one another, in their distinctiveness.

Because I love to cook and because I love to eat I do by extension also love a really good grocery store, and of course it did not take me long after moving to Texas to develop an irrationally protective love of H-E-B — seriously, I’ve never seen corporate attachment work that well in my life. But as much as I love H-E-B I also have to say that it pales in comparison to my favorite of all grocery stores, which is the Dekalb Farmers Market in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, the Dekalb Farmers Market is something of a misnomer — it’s not really a Farmers Market in the modern sense; it is really a warehouse in the suburbs, right there on Ponce de Leon Avenue, a warehouse large enough that the produce section is bigger than most grocery stores I’ve ever been to and the seafood counter is bigger than most fish markets I’ve ever been to and it must measure its foot traffic in the hundreds of thousands per week and for more than forty years now Atlantans have gone there to find everything that is edible on God’s earth.

As a kid growing up there, I would go with my father and watch him discover somewhere in the produce section every week, some fruit that he had not seen since his childhood growing up as a missionary kid in west Africa. As an adult, I can still go there and find things in the produce section that I have never heard of in my life and I have watched a lot of episodes of Chopped. And of course I know that there’s nothing for sale at the Dekalb Farmer’s Market that might not be for sale a year later and for twice as much at the Whole Foods down on Lamar. But what is most remarkable about the Farmer’s Market isn’t the variety of food. It is the variety of people. Flags from 180 countries hang from the ceiling. Employees of about fifty nationalities walk around the floor, each with name tags identifying countries of origin and in many cases three or four languages of fluency. To walk around the floor of the Market is to feel like you are navigating a truly global space, where the chefs for fifty restaurants cooking from fifty different culinary traditions could all standing in the same check-out line,  equally satisfied.

It is not one culture. It is one warehouse, where a thousand cultures stand equally and distinctively. Which means that whether it wants to be or not, that the Dekalb Farmer’s Market is also a kind of protest. After all, it stands there on Ponce de Leon Avenue, so named for the conquistador who brought Spanish culture to Puerto Rico and in so doing erased quite a bunch of what he found. It stands there in the Atlanta suburbs, not far from monuments to the Confederate generals who fought to defend an institution that had forcibly removed people from their own cultures, never to be reunited. It stands there in the heart of America, on land once traveled by the Cherokee and the Creek, in the heart of the America burdened to be the melting-pot where cultural divides would disappear, this America that forgets that in that process some folks get more melted than others. In the middle of this America, this America in 2019 overcome as we speak with racial bigotry and nationalist fervor and fundamentalist violence, in the middle of this America is my favorite grocery store that says, as loudly as any grocery store can, that this is a place where you do not have to erase where you came from in order to be valued and welcomed and fed.

“Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,” all of them living under the shadow of Roman occupation, all of them navigating that constant work of trying to figure out just how much of themselves they have to leave at home in order to survive here on the other side of the world. God only knows whether they have even heard their own language spoken in weeks or months, or whether they have had a chance to speak it themselves.  And then the Pentecost moment strikes, this invasion of the Spirit, these tongues of fire, this frenzy of wind and flame, and in this whirlwind each of these far-flung pilgrims gets for this sacred moment to be fully themselves, fully known, fully recognized, fully heard, fully at home, fully included in the wonderful frenetic cacophony of the Spirit. No wonder they stick around for the sermon. No invitation is as compelling as an invitation from someone who wants to know you, fully, entirely, authentically, beautifully as you are.

To be sure, this is just one moment; to be sure, the Book of Acts will not always display such cultural sensitivity, nor of course will the church whose birth we witness today. Not ten verses later Peter addresses the crowd as “You Israelites,” calling these scattered Jews into their religious heritage but also ignores all of the beautiful specificity that just preceded it. And to be sure, Acts itself will quickly enough adopt the sort of “us vs. them” mentality that lingers for how many thousands of years of Christian missional theology. There is no small dose of irony here — that the colonists who came with Ponce de Leon, the settlers who seized the land once traveled by Cherokee and Creek, the conquering zeal that has erased cultures all around the globe — the Bibles on those ships all had this passage. They all had this passage screaming back at them, preaching back at them, witnessing back at them, witnessing for us in no uncertain terms, screaming that this Pentecost, this Spirit-filled-place, this gathering, this kingdom, this sacred body, this moment, this church is supposed to be a place where you do not have to erase who you are in order to be valued and welcomed and fed.

After all, we all come for the same thing, in all the congregations of God’s church gathered in the presence of the Spirit on this Pentecost Sunday. We are not the same, but we come for the same thing. We’re not all from the same place, but we come out of the same instinct, this need to be the presence of the Creator. We don’t all speak the same language— how boring it would be if we did — and yet we do speak this one elemental language, this pre-verbal language, this language born before the foundations of the earth, this language called worship. We all come to be fed. We all come hungry. If you do not come to the Dekalb Farmer’s Market hungry you soon will be. It’s a good thing they also serve a mean lunch, inspired, as all good things are, from all the corners of the globe. Miso next to masa, dumplings next to dolmas, every tradition I could imagine, more than a few I cannot. And you can stand in that line with folks from every corner of God’s earth, and you can hear on their lips more languages than you thought the world could hold, but all of those people are there for the same thing. No meal on this side of the kingdom I think is quite so satisfying.

Of course here at UPC in this little sliver of God’s church on this Pentecost Sunday, we don’t come from quite so many places nor do we speak quite so many languages. But we do all hunger. And we all will have lunch, today, after worship, in the courtyard, a celebration of this church on this Pentecost Day and a celebration of all of the voices that gather inside it. And so my charge today is that as we take this time for fellowship that we also take the time to embrace one another, fully, entirely, authentically, beautifully as we are. As you eat, ask your neighbor who they are. As you eat, ask a friend who they are. Listen with open ears and open hearts and open arms. Listen as they tell you, each in their own language. Listen, and you will hear. From strangers and friends. Students and teachers. Rich and poor and gay and straight and young and old and young at heart. You will hear from deep-rooted Texans and sojourners in a strange land. You will hear from deep-hearted Presbyterians and wandering pilgrims. You will hear from Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, and Round Rock, and Buda, and Manor, and Dripping Springs. Ask them who they are. And you may hear something of the kingdom.

Thanks be to God. Amen.