Mother Tongue
May 21, 2024

Mother Tongue


Text: Acts 2:1

I know that many of you have done lots of traveling abroad. I wonder who among us would consider themselves fluent in a language other than English. [Probably a few] Maybe a few more could at least hold a simple conversation. I do know several of us have lived abroad for extended periods of time. And maybe you, like me, know the feeling of being surrounded by people speaking in a language or languages that you don’t understand. Or that you need to work a little harder to understand. 

In my stays abroad I have always lived with my immediate family or other English speakers, but I have heard from SALT volunteers who stayed with host families, or exchange students the energy and effort it takes in that learning phase when the language doesn’t yet come completely naturally. How exhausting that can be - even if it’s a welcome effort.

With those experiences in mind, I wonder if any of you can identify with me in that feeling of surprise and curiosity and also relief, when I’m surrounded by non-English speakers, to suddenly hear my mother tongue. I’ve lived abroad both in Asia and in the Middle East and I still have a fondness for the cadences of Arabic and of Korean, even though I have a pretty limited ability to understand them. 

So this is not a slam against non-English languages and cultures. But I definitely have an almost muscle memory of the feeling of being in a public space and perking up at the sound of English. Or struggling to communicate with my limited language and being both slightly embarrassed but also relieved to have the person I’m speaking to respond to me in English. To be addressed in my own language - as comfortable as I might be in the place where it is not spoken - feels like an extension of welcome, to understand and be understood.

I have all this in mind as I think about the story of Pentecost because Acts 2:5 says, “There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” Living there. These folks were expats! They were people living away from their home places and mother tongues in the city of Jerusalem.  There for the same reasons that people move away from their homes today: family or business or learning or safety. 

I had until now been thinking that because Shavuot - the Jewish name for the holiday that the disciples and other Jews are gathered for - is a pilgrimage holiday, that it was people coming to Jerusalem from all over the ‘world’. All over the Mediterranean. 

Those expats were gathered. They were probably all perfectly capable of communicating in Hebrew or Greek or Aramaic. Likely they were multilingual. But then they see and hear these Galileans speaking their language. Luke, the write of Acts, says that they were surprised and amazed. And I wonder if they experienced that same sense of relief and gratitude.

Luke doesn’t remind us that the disciples are Galileans by accident. They are presumed to be hicks. Rubes. Uneducated. Backward. I wonder if an apt comparison might be the way we liberal elites stereotype southerners or southern accents. The Galileans have been empowered by the Holy Spirit, who has shared the ability of language. The ability to offer the feeling of home, of invitation, of reaching out across a boundary. 

It would be very rare for Pentecost to line up with Mother’s Day, which we celebrated last week, but it would be appropriate! The Spirit is the one ‘person’ or aspect of God’s nature that many folks are comfortable thinking of in the feminine. It is her gift that allowed this hearing and receiving of God’s Good News, “each in our native language?” according to Acts. In other words, each in our mother tongue.

The pouring out of the Spirit through language prompts some to mockery, but it also becomes a bridge and an opportunity. An opportunity for Peter to share a reminder that the gift is truly for every one for all people. 

We skipped over it in the reading of scripture, but Luke shares what is essentially an exhaustive list of all the countries in the known world where people are gathered from. All these language groups are experiencing the outpouring of the Spirit’s gift. And it’s not just language groups but people of ever age and gender and economic status. Peter quotes from the prophet Joel:

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.

Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days

The miracle of the immediacy of understanding was sort of temporary. But in many ways it is still available to us. We just have to work a little harder to access it. Although maybe we should start calling Google Translate the Holy Spirit. 

God’s Spirit continues to invite us to reach out across barriers and boundaries in welcome and hospitality. I confess, I am very shy to try using my minimal language ability to try to communicate across language barriers. I worry about sounding silly or not being understood. I don’t want to offend anyone. But I think making the effort is probably worth it - to make a connection, to build a relationship, to experience the good news of God alive in language and culture other than our mother tongue but in that of another.

I’ve had the privilege in different settings of being able to worship in Mennonite and ecumenical churches in many languages other than English. In Strasbourg in French, Asuncion and Guatemala in Spanish, in Amman in Arabic, Seoul in Korean. In some ways worship is its own language. And in particular, ritual is its own language. One of the gifts of the ritual of communion is that it is its own language. 

I have a very clear memory of experiencing communion in Korea. Naomi was three and sitting on my lap. As the pastor raised gave thanks for the bread and broke it and share it, and then poured the cup and gave thanks and shared it, I translated for her in her ear. I didn’t know the literal words that the pastor was saying, but the Holy Spirit was working through that moment of ritual, reaching out in welcome and hospitality and giving me - and all of us present - the understanding to connect us around the table of Christ.

And it is with that that we come to our own time of celebration.


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