Acts 2:1-21 † Psalm 104 † 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 † John 20:19-23
I have been thinking about language for quite a while now. If I had to pinpoint when I first started to think about language more than I ever had, it was probably after I came to this country, and I uttered the word schedule for the first time. Now let me be clear, I have never been ridiculed or made to feel bad because of the way I speak or the words I use. Quite the opposite in fact. As I have uttered words like aluminum, and garage and rubbish, these things have been a source of many delightful conversations and reminiscences with new friends about my home country. At the same time, I pretty quickly learned to change the way I speak. I am all schedule and aluminum and trash these day. It’s fun to talk about Scotland, always will be, but at the same time, I want to belong.
In more recent times my ponderings about language – the ways we communicate, the ways we try to understand and be understood - have been impacted by working with folks for whom English is not a first language and by seeing my daughter Megan go to live in Chile for a while. I heard from these people that being immersed in a place where you are completely surrounded by a language that is not your own is frankly exhausting. Early nights and overwhelmed emotions are common for folks who think and process naturally in a language different from the one they are surrounded by, different from the one that they must engage if they are to make their way through a day, a week a life.
And I have been thinking about language even more recently because I decided to learn Spanish. Now I speak a teeny weany bit of French - En peu de francais - but I have not progressed in any way, because well I just haven’t practiced. I started a Spanish class at Seattle Central in Spring and with Co-vid it moved online. Now in this class we have a teacher who put us into break out rooms and tells us to speak – speak in Spanish. So I found myself online with 3 strangers – people I had never met in person – staring at me, the teacher would post a topic on a window on the screen and with the limited vocabulary and grammatical constructions that we had learned we were to make our way in conversation. I was unsure, afraid, anxious, but something convinced me that I needed to just try. Maybe it was the experience with French and knowing I would get nowhere unless I tried to speak; maybe it was a deeper desire to learn this time – I live in a country now where Spanish is spoken and I really want to be able to talk to my neighbors and not make them do all the work. But I also think there was something about the set-up of the class that was important for me. I was behind a computer screen, by myself in the safety of my office at home and this somehow tricked my brain into thinking I was safe to try. And in that zoom format where those 3 other faces are looking right at you, it’s just harder to evade making a contribution. So, I tried and I made a complete mess of things.
At the end of the first class where our teacher had us do this, I retreated quickly to our cookie jar and I realized, with cookie in hand, that I felt just awful, vulnerable, exposed, incompetent, embarrassed. I went back the next week and I did it again. This time there was more laughter and more silence while we figured out our thoughts. More really really small sentences, more care about how to say something that was true. I left again with all the same feelings, but felt this time like I had some companions on the journey this time: others who would struggle with and take their time and give me space and make their mistakes right alongside me. I’ll go back. Learning a new language, learning how to communicate in new ways is really uncomfortable, but this is important to me, and I will go back.
Language came up this week as I was talking with the leadership at REACH, the local organization that feeds and shelter people in Renton. We were talking about how we move towards greater inclusion and diversity. One colleague reminded me that those who are black are continually having to negotiate a world that is not there’s. They are continually looked at askance when they show up in their blackness and not in the way I was engaged when I uttered the word schedule, but rather they are met with a hostility that pervades every aspects of our American society. They have no choice but to live and move and try to breath in a world that not only doesn’t accommodate them, but is, in some fundamental way, really dangerous to them. The white world is infused in its structures and its systems and its norms with a hostility to black and brown bodies. It’s exhausting and dangerous for our black and brown neighbors. They cannot escape the reality that is this white world. They must engage it if they are to make their way through a day, a week, a life. And I from my position have no reason to change this – I have more power and it works for me – except it doesn’t. My siblings are losing their lives, living in exhaustion and without peace. And we – you and me - my white siblings are the ones with the power to change it.
In the final analysis, said Dr. King, riot is the language of the unheard. And we with more power have to decide if we will listen. If we will learn a new language. If we will put ourselves in the vulnerable and uncomfortable and embarrassing position that will be required of us. We have to decide if we let our lack of understanding, the racism we have learned be exposed and then learn a new way from what is revealed in that space. But here is what I really want you to hear today: these spaces of vulnerability and discomfort or stretching for transformation and exposing ourselves to understanding that will make demands on us as are exactly the space in which the Spirit hangs out. Space where those who are not usually heard can speak in the language of their hearts and be heard. And a space where we will find that we have companions, broken, confused, hurting, complex, gifted, beautiful companions with us on the only journey that matters – a journey rooted in the common good – a journey where all can bring al that they are, all that they want, all that they have – a journey towards real peace. It is not an easy journey. It will feel disconcerting and challenging, but it is where real community is built and it is where the spirit works with great power to bring peace.
So beloved, rely on the spirit, and find ways to keep learning this language of compassion and justice and peace that the spirit is trying to teach us. I have listed some books underneath the sermon on this webpage. These are books that are written to help white people work out how to best show up alongside our black and brown siblings; how best to use the power that we too often don’t believe we have for the sake of justice and peace. Maybe one or two of them will be helpful to you as you make your way on this journey. Maybe you can talk with someone about what you find in some of their pages – zoom is helpful I have found for difficult conversations. Blessings on this journey towards a just peace – the only journey that matters.
St. Andrew Sermons