“We All Mix:” A Gullah Sermon on Pentecost
Christ Church United & Lao United Church of Christ, Lowell MA (Special thanks to Host pastors Ted Rasakham and Peter Lovett. During the multi-cultural, multi-generational service, we sang two Gullah songs “Kum Ba Yah” and the amazing “Open the Window” arranged by Elise Witt.)
Sunday May 31, 2015
Let us pray…
Ebry poson beena say wa de Holy Sperit wahn um fa say.
This is not an easy story of our faith. I fear we have domesticated the story of Pentecost. We’ve made this story understandable, easily-consumed. We call it the birthday of the Church, with sweet pink birthday candles flickering atop the heads of the disciples. We’ve removed the chaos, the fear, the confusion, the unmistakable scent of singed hair. But make no mistake, Church, the day of Pentecost was chaos.
The disciples, left alone after the ascension of Jesus, have gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Shavuot. The town is full of visitors, tourists for the holiday. There’s no room at any inn. And as the disciples huddle together, the Spirit swoops in. No knocking, no polite entry. Forcefully, violently, without invitation or warning, the same Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness, enters without asking. It must have been chaos. Were there chairs knocked over? Did glasses shatter as they hit the stone floor?
We tend to envision the Holy Spirit like a gentle dove, but this scene seems more to me like a wild turkey let lose in your living room.
And then, as if a wind that breaks into your home, envelops the room, hits you in the middle of the chest and knocks you down isn’t confusing enough, then fire appears? Fire appears. Fire appears, splitting, cleaving into tongues of fire, alighting atop of each head? We sing “Breathe on me, breath of God…” without being prepared for the Spirit we are inviting.
Perhaps we’ve made Pentecost become so familiar, so safe, so far from that pent-up wild bird Spirit because we think it is too darn hard to follow the Spirit and learn a new language.
“Ebry poson beena say wa de Holy Sperit wahn um fa say.” Or , in the New Revised Standard Version, “4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
It took 26 years, but the Spirit gave them the ability. Vernetta Canteed was on the bible translation team for 26 whole years before the American Bible Society published De Nyew Testament, printed in the Gullah language. It took 26 years and generation upon generation- because Gullah was discredited for a very long time. People said it wasn’t a real language. People said, it was just broken English. People didn’t recognize the rich mix of West African and indigenous languages coming together through the enslaved Africans sent to work the rice farms of the South Carolina lowcountry and Georgia Sea Islands. It took generations and generations and 26 years to publish the New Testament in Gullah. And when that Bible was finally published in 2005, Vernetta Canteed said, “That’s the first time I heard God talk the way I talk.”
On that day of Pentecost, God talked the way Vernetta talked.
How many of you are bilingual, or multi-lingual? You are our tutors. You are our guides. We will need you to teach the rest of us. You know how to translate. You know how to stand, maybe uneasily, with your feet in two different worlds.
You know the thrill of hearing you own first language in an unexpected place, in line at the grocery store. You know the struggle of having the exact right word in your mother tongue, but not knowing how to say it in English. You know the attentive skill you develop to listen carefully, to pick up cues and hints beyond the words themselves. You know the comfort of being lost in a strange place and hearing a stranger ask, “Necesitas ayuda?” Do you need help?
You who speak Lao, and French, and Cambodian, and Spanish. You who speak Arabic, and Swahili, and American Sign Language, and Gullah. We need you. The Spirit needs you. The Church needs you, because we are all going to have to learn new languages if the Church is to be embodied in this emerging culture. You all have a major university just down the street, with students from around the world. There are now whole generations of youth and young adults who do not know the Church’s language. They do not know the language of our denominations- and do not care about the difference between a Congregationalist and an Episcopalian. They do not know what the chancel is or where the narthex is or even what the doxology is. They have not been formed by the language of the Church.
I think, our job isn’t primarily to teach them our language, but to learn theirs, so that we can help them hear God speaking in their own language. How will this community learn the language of your neighbors?
When the parish of St John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton listened carefully to their neighbors at Smith College, they heard the students say that they were hungry and they were anxious, especially during finals. So now, twice a year at the end of the fall and spring semesters, St John’s Church cooks up thousands of pancakes, hundreds of pounds of bacon, serves gallons of coffee to weary, nervous students at their Midnight Breakfast during Finals Week. My message isn’t that you should put on a midnight breakfast too, or set up a “Rent-a-grandparent” but that these churches went and listened carefully to how the students in their neighborhood named their deepest needs and sense of the holy- they went an learned another language.
In the Gullah translation of Acts 2, we get the long list of places where people came from before arriving in Jerusalem: Galilee, Mede, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete and Arabia.
And then, the Gullah translation has this glorious, short sentence. “We All Mix.” We all Mix, say it with me, Church. We all mix. Acts 2:12-13 “De people all been stonish an all mix op, so dey beena aks one noda say, ‘Wa dis mean?’ Bot some oda people been mek fun ob dem dat bleebe pon Jedus, say ‘Dem people don drink tommuch wine!”
That mix makes people nervous, confused. You know it. When this great glorious, unimaginable diverse unity happens, the crowds think that the believers in Jesus are drunk.
The day of Pentecost was chaos for the participants and confusion for the crowds. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not always good at living with chaos and confusion. I want to pin it down, smooth it out, make order, make sense. The Pentecost story resists our efforts to make it plain- There is fire burning and wind blowing, but the wind doesn’t blow the fire out. There are people speaking in languages from tribes of people that have extinct for 500 years! There are all sorts of people learning how to live together, listen to God together.
Maybe God is bilingual. As Christians, we pattern our lives on the life of Jesus Christ, the one who was both fully human.
Maybe God is multi-lingual, speaking throughout time and Creation as the Creator, the Child, the Spirit.
Maybe God is beyond our language, and the best we can do is make like the writer of Acts and humbly say God is like the wind, God is like the fire.
For this is the truth of Pentecost, it is scary and chaotic to follow the Spirit. It’s dangerous and unpredictable. Following the Spirit asks of us than we can ask or understand.
I do not know how to make sense of what happened on the Pentecost day, but I do know this: God is at work in the chaos. God is invested in a diversity of people and languages, not privileging one over the other, but listening to each. God so loved the world, and so desired unity for the Church that when the day of Pentecost arrived “We all mix.” Amen.