This week I have been wondering a lot about languages. Words. About the languages that we as faith communities might need to be learning, to be using, in order to be able to share the Good News in the 21st century. How do we use language to build up the kin-dom of God, instead of tear down?
From the opening scriptures of the bible, God speaks, and good is created. God speaks, and light, sky, land, the cosmos, “plants of every kind,” and “swarms of every creature” (Genesis 1:3-20, NRSV) burst forth—and God sees that it was good. This is the language of God. Creating. Relating. But just what is this essence, this breath, this life giving language of God?
Pondering these questions of language further, the story of Babel came to mind. Do you remember it? Early in the Hebrew Bible we are told that we as human creatures were at one time one people, with one language. As urbanization began to sprout we, the people that God created, became full of ourselves. Too full of our own importance. We built. We created. We got comfortable. We began to give ourselves too much credit regarding what we could do on our own—and we turned away from God. The people in that time so very long ago said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…” (Genesis 11:4). Human language took one form. Without linguistic diversity, we began to turn from God. We could only see the world, and our role in the world, through a single, human-centered, lens.
In response, God stirred things up. That ever present Divine looked around and saw that things were not so good. This human creature that God lovingly created in God’s own image forgot about God. So God spoke again, and created again. God spoke and created a beautiful array of languages. Our Christian tradition has tended to interpret this moment of multilingual creation in Babel as a negative. Our biblical ancestors recorded that “God turned their language into ‘babble.’” Nonsensical. “From there God scattered them all over the world” (Genesis 11:9, The Message). Through the eyes of the human witnesses thousands of years ago, the communication breakdowns that occurred as new languages burst forth was understood by the people as bad thing. A negative.
But wait–wasn’t the creation of multiple languages a God thing? God spoke. Creation responded, and today there are over 7,000 living languages. What if… just if… in that mythical moment in Babel so many thousands of years ago God looked around… and in the rainbow new languages… saw that it was… good? That the diversity of our languages, which necessitates the need for us to pause, to listen, to do the hard work of understanding each other—that God looked at the many ways through which we communicate and saw that is was GOOD?
Today, we celebrate Pentecost. That day many years after Babel, following the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, when the people gathered in Jerusalem with Peter. And what do the witnesses to that event say, but that “They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” (Act 2:11, The Message). What does the Spirit do, but use language and diversity for GOOD?!?! As followers of Jesus gathered, the Spirit used language, multiple languages, to birth the Church. The people did not have a word to express what happened in that unexpected “whoosh” of the Spirit, but suddenly in their gathering together, in their diversity, they each heard the Good News in their own way. They heard the language, the words, they could understand. THAT is what they needed to hear to Be Church.
So I ask you again, what if through our existence as a multilingual creature God is working with us, using a vast array of languages compelling within us a need to pause, to listen, to do the work of God – with God—in order to understand each other—and to reveal God’s presence on earth?
I ask you this question, because it is one thing to be comfortable with our own language, particularly our own language of faith. Our language of church. Those funny church words that can confuse: narthex, sacristy, chancel. Those terms that can make us wince: evangelism, sin, confession. How do you talk about Jesus? Or maybe a better question is, DO you talk about Jesus? What are YOUR faith words? What words do we use to proclaim what being followers of Jesus means for us in 2018? How do we share that Good News with those who have not yet heard it? How do we tell the story of God’s extravagant welcome to those that do not speak our language?
How might we, today, realize that here… and now… “It” is happening? The Spirit is falling on us Memorial UCC, here and now, if we listen. What is that whoosh, that “sound like a strong…gale force (wind)” amongst us today? Beware. Be ready. For the Spirit fills the whole building and births the Church anew!
Listen. Can we hear it? A life-giving, breath-filled sound bursting forth from the depths of despair. Can you hear it in the cries of those caught in the throngs of death? We become numb by the regularity of school shootings. This week, it happened again. There is the unavoidable failure of our country to respond to the fact that, when they should be learning, our children and teachers regularly undergo lockdowns at school. Active shooter trainings.
The statics, the depersonalized words used to describe the shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, are staggering. The 22nd school shooting in the United States this year. Ten people killed. Ten wounded. On social media, the words of Paige Curry, a student at the school have gone viral. A reporter asked:
“Was there a part of you that was like, ‘This isn’t real, this is — this would not happen in my school?’” the reporter asked.
The young girl shook her head: “No, there wasn’t.”
“Why so?” the reporter asked.
“It’s been happening everywhere,” she said. “I felt — I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.”
People of God, in what language are God’s people crying out? These are our children. This is the fear with which they are living every day at school. What words will stir us to respond?
Listen. Can we hear it? The urgent need to pursue environmental justice. Do we hear the moans of the earth in what the UCC notes are “our choices (that) have resulted in… air unfit to breathe and water unfit to drink, unsustainable energy… consumption, and the perilous immediate and long-term worldwide consequences of global warming and climate change.” As a denomination, the UCC recognizes that “poor communities and communities of color… disproportionately suffer the unjust consequences of our choices. (We also) realize more every day that our choices threaten the voiceless natural systems that sustain all of life itself.” People of God, in what language is the earth around us crying?
What languages might we need to learn to share the Good News of our struggle to work toward a greater awareness of the impact we have on the health of the earth? After worship today we will have an opportunity to prayerfully listen and respond as our faith community considers the proposal put forth in regard to installing solar panels on the roof of the church. I encourage you to attend the meeting, whether you are a member of the congregation and can vote, a long-time friend of the church and/or an occasional visitor who can witness our action. If you have kids here today, have them join us! This is a great opportunity for parents and grandparents to teach “Church”!
Listen. Can we hear it? The struggles of the students that attend Leopold Elementary School, which lies on the northern edge of Fitchburg. Did you know that 75% of the children who are black in Dane county live in poverty? Did you know that 77% of children at Leopold School are African American, Hispanic, Native American, or other people of color? Did you know that the Race to Equity report released in 2013 suggested that in “Dane County black kids were estimated to be over 13 times more likely to be growing up in poverty than white children…. (and that) this 13 to 1 disparity ratio may constitute one of the widest black/white child poverty… reported for any jurisdiction in the nation?” People of God, in what language are the children, particularly the children of color, around us crying?
As we gather in the Fellowship Hall today and have the opportunity to celebrate Leni Rowe’s 60th year of being a member of Memorial, you will notice fliers on the tables. We have an opportunity to show up this summer. So please, take a flier. Mark your calendars, and plan on showing up for at least one of the Community Nights, which will be held on Tuesday nights from 5-7 pm, at Leopold Park. And, here is a shout out for a pop-up ministry: if there are 2-3 people (or more) that are interested in forming an outreach team and volunteering to help the Fitchburg Library (which is coordinating the Community Nights) this summer, let me know. Me? I have the nights on my calendar and will be there the majority of the evenings.
Memorial UCC, I would like to suggest to you that the story of Pentecost tells us that we need to learn a few other languages in order to tell the Story. Spanish. Arabic. Creation justice. Clean water. Renewable energy. Hashtags and emojis. And I believe that in the United Church of Christ we are uniquely situated in a good place. That place where the Spirit births the Church anew. As a denomination formed in 1957, we have had 60 years of practice. Sixty years of listening to our Still Speaking God who has challenged us to hear a New Thing.
Quite honestly, this work hasn’t been easy. It has been messy Church at its best—and worst. But as the UCC we have taken the risk as a denomination, and as a congregation, to listen. To turn to scripture and hear the words of our biblical ancestors. To gather as a faith community and to talk, openly, and with compassion, what is on our hearts. To name the questions that we have. The fears. The uncertainties. To turn to our neighbors and to witness their struggles. To use language to build up, instead of tear down in our own time. To speak up. To show up.
But Church, we have done it. We have built relationships with God and with each other as the Body of Christ. We have, and will continue to, called out our failures and celebrated our successes. And the Spirit has prepared us for this day. The day of the birth of the Church.
People of God, with what language are you called to Be the Church this day?
Reflection offered on May 20, 2018, on Acts 2:1-21
 Chokshi, Niraj, and Matthew Haag. “At Least 8 People Killed in Santa Fe, Texas, School Shooting; Suspect Is in Custody.” The New York Times. May 18, 2018. Accessed May 19, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/18/us/school-shooting-santa-fe-texas.html.
 May 18, 2018 at 11:38 AM, and May 18, 2018 at 9:47 AM. “Environmental Ministries.” United Church of Christ. Accessed May 19, 2018. http://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries.
 Race to Equity, 8.
 “School Profile: Leopold Elementary School,” accessed May 19, 2018, https://leopold.madison.k12.wi.us/files/profiles/leopold-profile.pdf
 Race to Equity: A Baseline Report on the State of Racial Disparities in Dane County, pdf, Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (2013), 13, accessed November 20, 2016, http://www.cityofmadison.com/mayor/documents/WCCFR2EReport.pdf