May 14, 2018
Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord,
with all your graces now outpoured
on each believer's mind and heart;
your fervent love to them impart.
Lord, by the brightness of your light
in holy faith your church unite;
from ev'ry land and ev'ry tongue,
this to your praise, O Lord, our God, be sung:
[Evangelical Lutheran Worship #395]
The readings for this coming Sunday, June 9, the Day of Pentecost, are as follows:
I love languages.
That's one factor that fuels my fascination with the story of Pentecost, which takes center stage this coming Sunday, June 9.
Spanish is my native tongue, and I learned English rather quickly after my family moved from Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania when I was seven years old. My father insisted on speaking Spanish in our household, so I grew up fluently bi-lingual. I recall that when I enrolled in a Spanish class in junior high, my friends accused me of trying to pull a fast one because I already knew the language. What they didn't take into account was that even though I spoke it, I couldn't read or write it well, since I only went to second grade in Puerto Rico.
As an adult, my knowledge of Spanish has given me advantages that I never imagined, and even detoured my plans for ministry. I had envisioned serving in an urban setting, until my bishop at the time, the Rev. Marcus Miller, told me that we had no ELCA presence anywhere in the Latino community in Northeastern Ohio. The rest, as they say, is history. From that one comment, the Latino mission of Iglesia Luterana La Trinidad was conceived.
Often when people learn my background they are amazed because I speak without any discernible accent. I also don't fit many people's classic notion of what a Latino should look like. Obviously, they don't watch much baseball, where a significant number of Spanish-surnamed ballplayers are darker-skinned.
My mother, on the other hand, spoke broken English until her death. Though she never let it deter her, there were times when the language barrier became insurmountable and she would become frustrated by the inability to make herself better understood.
I dredge up all this personal history because when I read the story of Pentecost in the book of Acts, I am always struck by the question asked by the crowd who heard the disciples speaking in other languages, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?"
Galileans weren't considered the sharpest tools in the shed. Galilee was dominated by foreigners for centuries; so culturally, linguistically, racially and religiously, they were looked down upon as not being "real" Jews.
Recall two other vivid instances in which the Gospels speak of Galileans in demeaning terms:
"Can anything good come out of Nazareth," asked Nathanael in John 1:45? (Nazareth is in Galilee)
Just before Peter denied Jesus a third time, one of the bystanders identified him by his speech."Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you." [Matthew 26:73]
That Nazarene went on to become Savior of the world. And Peter, well, he along with his other fellow Galileans went on to proclaim the good news to the ends of the earth.
But in today's story we find these low class Galileans, speaking foreign languages. And all those people passing by from other countries understood them. No wonder they think the disciples are drunk. What else could explain it?
A lot has been written about religion and language. Although not exclusively limited to that topic, one book I found riveting was The Politics of Jesús, by Miguel A. De La Torre, professor of Social Ethics and Latino/a Studies at the Iliff School of Theology.
De La Torre contends that we create Jesus in our own image, often shaping him into a privileged and oppressive figure who is used to justify all manners of political dominance and subjugation, cultural bigotry and prejudice. Those in the privileged class can't conceive of a person of such meager status doing something better than they.
Scripture, however, paints a different portrait of Jesus.
We should not be so quick to gloss over the question and go directly to the miracle of speaking in tongues, but rather ponder the question more fully.
"Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?"
Two thoughts arise for me out of these inquiries.
I would argue that the miracle of Pentecost wasn't that the disciples were speaking in tongues, but that the Spirit chose them, these lowly, common, not well thought of Galileans, to be the bearers of the message of God's love, in a language that people understood!
As Peter says, echoing the words of God through the prophet Joel, "I will pour out my Spirit upon ALL flesh," not just a privileged few.
To De La Torre's point, even the language we speak is a means to marginalize, believing ours to be superior to the other. If you are a native English speaker, what is your reaction when you hear someone else speaking Spanish, or Arabic, or any other language you don't understand? How do you respond when you hear someone speaking English with a thick accent, or a regional twang?
The other thought that comes to mind is the emphasis on understanding.
To many people, the language of the church is a foreign language itself. Our church language, or our language of worship, uses words like doxology, parament, narthex, pew, matins, vespers, benediction, salvation, the liturgy, communion, the Creed, baptism or confirmation, Gospel, Jesus, God. The list is endless.
To those who don't go to church, we may as well be speaking Greek! Whether intentionally or unwittingly, we marginalize those who need Jesus in their lives but don't want to approach the church because they feel they don't belong, or they don't understand all this religious talk.
Imagine what would be if we break our language of faith down to common experiences, as for example, Jesus did with his parables; if, suddenly, we were able to speak God's word to our friends in all the languages of our daily life; if we were able to communicate the good news of the resurrection, the unending love of God, in more languages than just 'church'?
The story of Pentecost holds a more important and more meaningful lesson than the ability to speak in tongues. The gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon
flesh, gives us - no matter who you are - the power to speak, to overcome language barriers, to tell all the world the meaning of God's love, forgiveness and grace.
On Friday and Saturday, June 7
th and 8th, I will be attending the Southern Ohio Synod Assembly in Springfield, as they hold a bishop election. The Rev. Suzanne Dillahunt is the current bishop and has made herself available for a second term. It is the custom of the regional bishops to attend synod assemblies to support their colleagues at the time of election.
This coming Sunday, June 9, at 6:00 p.m., I will be with the people of God at Zion Lutheran Church in Youngstown for the Eastern Conference Confirmation Service. This is one of my favorite worship services of the year, as dozens of youth from the congregations of the Eastern Conference affirm their baptism.
By way of a reminder, the Northeastern Ohio Synod Assembly is next week, June 14-15. Please be sure to register if you are a voting member. The assembly is also open to visitors, but registration is a must. Online registration closes June 9. For more details, please refer to our Northeastern Ohio Synod Website. I look forward to our time together in assembly.
This week and always, may you sing to the Lord as long as you live; may you praise our God while you have your being.
+Bishop Abraham Allende