In Our Own Language (#WelcomingToAll)

By Rev. J.C. Austin – June 9, 2019

The city of New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the world. I would argue it has the richest and most distinctive culture of any major U.S. city. Known as Creole culture, it arose in New Orleans as a rich stew of nationalities that lived in New Orleans in the 18th and early 19th century, primarily French, Spanish, African, and Native American. You can literally hear and taste the complex and complementary way those traditions and identities have fused together through Creole culture’s two biggest contributions to the world: its music, especially jazz, and its food, such as gumbo, jambalaya, and the like.

This past week, though, has been a tough one for Creole culture: two of the greatest living icons of its food and music have died. Chef Leah Chase, the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” died on June 1, and Dr. John, a legendary New Orleans musician, died on June 6. Dr. John’s funeral was held first, though, and he received a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral. Jazz funerals arose from the black communities of New Orleans and involve funeral processions accompanied by a brass jazz band. During the procession from the funeral service to the burial site, the band plays slow and sad music. But after the burial, the band plays celebratory, up-tempo jazz and the procession turns into what looks like a mobile dance party, a catharsis of music and movement that celebrates both the gift of life and the promise of resurrection.

If you are friends with me on Facebook, you might have seen me post a clip from Dr. John’s celebratory procession. It’s an extraordinary five-minute segment in which literally hundreds of people are playing trombones, trumpets, tubas, saxophones, drums, tambourines, and more in a raucous and surprisingly tight version of the classic gospel hymn, “I’ll Fly Away.”  As the person filming pans their phone around, you see that the musicians, singers, and marchers are a glorious pastiche of New Orleans residents: black and white, men and women, adults and children, poor and middle class; and every one of them is singing, dancing, or playing their hearts out, or all of the above, swept up in the spirit of the occasion. Everyone is on rhythm and on pitch, the musicians are wildly improvising yet all in the same key, smoothly managing the chord changes as if they were a regular group that regularly practiced together rather than a musical mob that had never performed together before and never would again in the same way with the same people.

As I watched it, I thought at first that the scene resembled the Pentecost story that we heard this morning. On the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ’s remaining disciples in Jerusalem, just as Jesus had promised it would before he ascended into heaven. When the spirit does come, it sounds like a “violent wind” rushing through the house, which is fitting since both the Greek and Hebrew words for “spirit” also literally mean, “wind.” As the Spirit alights on each disciple, small apparitions that look like tongues of fire rest upon each of them, and suddenly they are tumbling into the street, a raucous parade of individuals suddenly preaching their hearts out, literally swept up in the spirit of the occasion, all speaking extemporaneously (improvising) but in the common key of the gospel of Jesus Christ, acting like they’ve been preaching for years but in reality had never preached together before and never would again in the same way with the same people.

Onlookers, like me watching the video, marvel at the sight and even more at the sound, because they hear the disciples preaching in almost every imaginable language from all over the Roman Empire. The crowd is stunned; how could this ragged collection of mostly Galilean hillbillies possibly be able to speak so many different languages? “What could this mean?” they say to each other, except for the scoffers, who sneer about them drinking too much new wine, which would be a reasonable thing to expect from Galilean hillbillies in their minds, though I’ve never understood why those people thought that too much new wine would improve the disciples’ ability to be clearly understood. Peter then explains that nobody’s drunk, but rather this is a miracle of the kind that was prophesied long ago about the Spirit being poured out onto all flesh.

It’s important to play close attention to the miracle, though. It’s actually not all kinds of different people coming together to speak the same language, like the amazingly diverse crowd in New Orleans around the common language of jazz music, though that’s the way Pentecost is often talked about. But the Holy Spirit did not enable the crowd to miraculously understand the language of the disciples; the Spirit enabled the crowd to hear the disciples speaking their own language. It’s a subtle but very important difference if we are truly going to live into the second core value of this congregation: being welcoming to all.

Nelson Mandela, as you probably know, spent 27 years in a South African prison for his role in fighting the appalling system of institutionalized racism there known as apartheid. During his long confinement, he decided to learn Afrikaans, the language of the majority of white South Africans and particularly those who controlled the political and security structures in apartheid South Africa. His fellow prisoners were astonished and even offended to see him speaking Afrikaans to his captors, which is hardly surprising. Afrikaans was considered by black South Africans to be the language of their oppressor; so for Mandela, of all people, to willingly learn and use Afrikaans himself was utterly shocking.

Mandela responded to his questioners, though, by saying: “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. But if you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” And he believed deeply in that, so much so that he frequently spoke in Afrikaans to F.W. de Klerk, the President of the apartheid state, as they negotiated the eventual transition to a racially inclusive democracy that has frequently been called “the South African miracle.” And one of the hallmarks of the democratic state’s constitution is that it has eleven official languages, including Afrikaans, so that everyone may speak in their own language.

That’s what happened at the first Pentecost: the reason that literally thousands of people responded so enthusiastically to the gospel is that it spoke to them in their own language, and it went to their hearts. And if we truly are going to be welcoming to all, we need to speak to people in their own language rather than expecting them to learn ours. Which we are already committed to do and are actively doing in many ways. It’s why we normally have two worship services on Sunday mornings, for example, one with a contemporary style and one with a traditional style, because the gospel burns in the hearts of some through the soaring notes of Bach’s cantatas, and for others through the power chords of praise songs.

It’s why we strive to be a community where, when we hear children in worship, we rejoice in their presence rather than grumble about them disturbing the service. It’s why we work at being accessible for people with disabilities or mobility issues when they are here at the church, and why we take the church to them when they can’t be, through visitation, online sermons, and home communion. It’s why we want to be a community where we don’t assume or expect or demand that people share our political affiliations just because we are part of the same congregation. It’s why we use the pronouns people prefer for themselves, regardless of which ones we think they should use. It’s why we define the “family” part of family ministries as single-parent households, blended families, LGBTQ couples, grandparents raising grandchildren, and so on, not simply heterosexual married couples with biological kids.

It means, in short, that “all” means ALL when we talk about welcoming people; that we understand that if we make conditions or exceptions to “all,” we are altering the gospel itself; and that we are called to speak to people in their own language, not simply teach them ours, so that they feel not only welcomed but experience the good news of Jesus Christ going to their hearts.

Sometimes that kind of welcome is pretty easy. Sometimes it’s difficult because it’s so easy to slip into the languages and codes that we ourselves find most comfortable and comforting. And sometimes we find that our own boundaries and defenses are more prominent than we had imagined, and we have to do some thinking and listening of our own. Sometimes we get it wrong, sometimes we don’t get it at all; sometimes we don’t even realize there’s something that we’re not getting.

But that just means we’re no different than the church from its earliest beginnings; the early church struggles mightily later in the book of Acts with what to them was a mind-boggling, world-changing question that nobody even thought to ask at first: whether the gospel of Christ requires full adherence to the Jewish Law, even for Gentiles. Which is why Jesus promised and sent the Holy Spirit in the first place: not so that we could be certain that we “get” everything that’s important, but rather that we could be certain that God’s Spirit has got us.

Our job, then, is to continually listen, and hear, and follow where the Holy Spirit leads us, even and perhaps especially into things we couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise do; bearing God’s Spirit and Christ’s gospel as gifts that we receive and share rather than anything we wield or control. That is our Pentecost blessing and our Pentecost calling. Thanks be to God.

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