Monday, June 13, 2011

Sermon: Lost in Translation

A Sermon for Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21

There are two ways for an American to order dinner in France, writes the humorist David Sedaris. The first way is to learn the proper conjugations for all the verbs and the correct genders for all the nouns, to study idioms and social customs until she or he is able to understand the menu and correctly use the conditional tense which is considered polite when requesting a meal. The second way goes like this: “I… WANT… A… STEAK.”

I’ve heard a lot of jokes like this: self-deprecation by Americans who are ashamed that so few of us are fluent in any language but English. I used to agree – how arrogant, I thought, to go to a foreign country and expect everyone to speak English! But my perspective changed a few weeks ago, while I was in Israel with the story of Pentecost on my mind. My husband and I sat down to eat in a little restaurant in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. At the table next to us was an Italian family. And I discovered that when an Italian family eats at an Armenian restaurant in Israel, they use English to communicate with the waitress.

We are fortunate to live in an era in which English is the lingua franca, the shared language that people use to communicate with one another in cross-cultural situations – even when an Italian family is speaking with an Armenian-Israeli waitress. When everyone speaks a little English, it makes it easier to buy and sell things, to give directions, to order food or make a little small talk. But when Israelis and Italians and Germans and Argentinians are communicating with one another in grammar-school English, a lot gets lost in translation – it can be hard to communicate nuance, or emotion, or humor; the sentences are as simple as possible, and figures of speech are avoided altogether. The English that tourists speak to one another is practical, but it doesn’t have much soul.

That is not so different from the situation of the people in today’s story from Acts. The disciples are in Jerusalem after witnessing Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims celebrating the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot, which takes place fifty days after Passover, just as our Pentecost takes place fifty days after Easter, is timed to coincide with the “first fruits” of the growing season, and it celebrates the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. So every year in Jerusalem, people would come from north and south, east and west, to bring their first fruits to the temple. There were a few different ways people might be able to speak to each other: perhaps some of them would be familiar with Latin, the language of the colonizing Roman empire; the Aramaic spoken in the region might have sounded familiar to them as the language of scripture and liturgy. Most likely, though, they would have communicated in Koine Greek. Just like English is the lingua franca of our era, Greek was the lingua franca of Jesus’ life and the early church. It allowed the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to be written down and shared; it allowed the Apostle Paul to communicate with Corinthians and Ephesians and Galatians. Nowadays, when we don’t understand something, we say, “It’s all Greek to me,” but in that day, Greek was the language that allowed for communication across cultural boundaries.

I wonder if the way we talk about God in church can sometimes be a little bit like a lingua franca? Something brings us here, to church on a Sunday morning – perhaps a profound experience of God, perhaps a sense that there is something happening in our lives that we cannot quite understand, perhaps a desire for a deeper spiritual life. It can be hard to put words to what is happening with our hearts and minds and souls, hard to describe what it is about the story of Jesus that draws us in and gets us up on a Sunday morning. But here in church, we’ve found some language that lets us share a little bit of what God is doing in our lives. We use hymns and prayers and scriptures; we speak of sin and grace and salvation. We use terms that would sound very strange to someone who wasn’t familiar with Christianity: we talk about kingdoms and mustard seeds and tax collectors. Sometimes it really works for us – we walk out of church saying YES! Other times, it doesn’t quite connect. Something has been lost in translation. Our communication about God isn’t always perfect, but we make do. Drawn together by a God who is too big for words, we have found a way to speak to one another about it – our lingua franca; our Greek. With a little bit of religious education, we can talk to one another about God and we can all understand it.

But in our Pentecost story, the miracle is not that the disciples speak in a language that everyone can understand – that would have been easy enough. They could have spoken Greek. No, the miracle is that through the Holy Spirit, each member of the crowd hears the good news in their own mother tongue. The biblical account lists an astounding number of regions – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and the list goes on. These are people from modern-day Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and more – pilgrims from all over the known world. Every single one of these people, the story says, hears the good news in their own language – the language that their parents spoke to them in childhood, the language that they use to soothe an infant or joke around with a friend, the language in which they whisper to their wives or husbands. Maybe you believe in literal miracles – that the Parthians actually heard words in Parthian – or maybe you hear this story metaphorically. Either way, I think it has something vital to say to us today.

It is not always enough, this miracle story seems to suggest, for us to struggle along in our lingua franca. That will do most of the time, but God wants to speak to us in our own language. I think that this story of pilgrims hearing the good news in their own language can lead us to think about how we hear God’s voice speaking to us in the languages of our hearts. Maybe for some of you, God speaks to you in your own language when you are far away from this city, walking through some beautiful wilderness and admiring the beauty of creation. Maybe for some of you, God speaks to you in your own language when an achingly beautiful piece of music fills you with awe. Maybe for some of you, God speaks to you in your own language when you play with a child or grandchild. Maybe for some of you, the voice of God speaks through poetry or in silent prayer or when you’re gardening. This story reminds us to listen for the voice of God, not just in the shared language that we speak in church, but in the deepest language of our hearts – whatever that is for each of us. This story of Parthians, Medes and Elamites reminds us that God’s word for us speaks to the heart of our being, speaks to us deeply and intimately, in ways ordinary and extraordinary, in burning bushes and quiet conversations.

And maybe it does more than that. Maybe, when we think about this story and how it connects to our lives, we’re not only the Parthians and the Medes and the Elamites. Maybe, friends, we’re the disciples. Perhaps this story invites us not just to hear God’s voice speaking to us in our own languages, but to speak in ways that allow God to speak through us. Perhaps this story invites us to speak boldly, with actions and words, about the love of God we have experienced in our own lives, to witness, as the scripture says, to God’s deeds of power. That might mean letting God speak through you when you tell family and friends about why you go to church and what your relationship with God means to you. But it could be other things, as well: it could mean letting God speak through you when you offer a kind word or a listening ear to someone in distress. It could mean letting God speak through you as you give of your time and talent at a food pantry or a youth center. It could mean letting God speak through you as you share your gift for music or art or writing with your church or your community. It could mean letting God speak through you when you speak up against hurtful comments or jokes based on racism or sexism or homophobia. The story of Pentecost tells us that the Holy Spirit can speak not only to us, but through us.

Last summer I worked as a chaplain at a hospital, doing an internship that fulfills one of the requirements for ordination. In my first few days, I visited a patient named Rosa who had just had a hip replacement. Rosa’s English wasn’t so good, and I speak no Spanish at all, but we managed – she showed me her rosary and her picture of the Virgin Mary, and I smiled and nodded. I was very new at chaplaincy, and very unaccustomed to praying with people, especially in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the hospital, but I offered to pray with her, and I stumbled through a prayer for her healing, and then asked her to say the Lord’s Prayer with me. Rosa’s recovery was difficult, with complication after complication, and as my internship went on and I grew in confidence, Rosa’s discharge date was pushed back and back and back. I kept visiting her, and we kept stumbling through those conversations and those prayers. Eventually, it was the last day of my ten-week internship and Rosa was still there. We stumbled through one last conversation as I tried to explain that it was my last day, and then I said, “Let’s pray.” And she said, “This time, I pray.” And she began to lead me through first the Hail Mary and then the Lord’s Prayer in strong, clear Spanish. I realized how much it meant to me for this strong and faithful woman to give me the gift of letting me be her chaplain, and I realized that she was now chaplaining me through the difficult task of letting go and saying goodbye. It was Rosa who spoke those prayers that day, and she said them in Spanish. But in that moment, it was as if God was speaking to me in my own language. And if that was not a Pentecost miracle, I don’t know what is. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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