A Multi-lingual Hallelujah (Pentecost) – 5,27,07

Learning to speak another language is challenging.  A couple months ago Abbie and I bought the Behind the Wheel Spanish language program.  This is a nine CD set that can be played “behind the wheel” as you drive, or in your house, or wherever there is a CD player.  We’ve both had some Spanish classes in high school and college and would like to learn more.  We have the basics down and could probably get by if we were to visit Central or South America, but there is a big difference between getting by and actually communicating with some depth.  You can only go so far in a relationship when you keep asking “Como esta Ud.?” How are you?  “Como se llama?” What is your name?  Donde esta el bano?  Where is the bathroom?  We can go a little further than this, but it will take a while before we’re anywhere near upper level speaking.  Maybe we’ll never get there, but it is an attractive goal to be able to speak to a person of a different culture in their native tongue.   What would you say if I suggested that we are all called to be multi-lingual?  That speaking multiple languages is at the very heart of how the Spirit of God moves through us?                  The passage from Acts would seem to indicate that the coming of the Spirit in our lives leads to a certain kind of diversity of speaking and hearing.  “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit game them ability.”  Speaking in other languages is an act inspired by the Spirit.  If you’ve ever tried to understand how your computer works, or if you’ve ever cracked a medical dictionary, you know that there are many different languages even within our own English language.  Many of them as foreign sounding as Spanish, or Arabic, or Chinese.          Think of all of the different wonderful types languages that we have developed.  There is psychological language – the language of the inner world, the language of the business world, technological language, legal language, conversational street language, language on the basketball court, political language.  There’s the language of the farmer who speaks in terms of acres and bushels and crop types and the state of grain markets.  There’s the language of the baseball coach who speaks in terms of innings and outs and strikes and baserunning strategy and batting technique.  There’s the language of the plumber who talks about supply lines and traps and vents and shut-off valves.  There’s the language of the computer technician that I really don’t know what they’re talking about.  Within our own English language are subsets of languages with their own technical words and ways of communicating and expressing meaning.  We are constantly creating, updating, nuancing, and fine tuning these languages.        The second chapter of Acts says that there were devout Jews from every nation in Jerusalem that day for the celebration of the Pentecost festival, and that they each heard God’s good news in their native tongue.  It names some of the cultures they were coming from: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, Cretans, Arabs.  Imagine if the diversity of the gathering were expressed in these terms:  Now there were gathered there teachers, homemakers, nurses, lawyers, business people, social workers, artists, contractors, musicians, engineers,  and others of various professions and life settings.  And they all heard the disciples speaking of the love and justice of God in their own native language.  This event in Acts is often referred to as the birthday of the church.  The day the church was born and came to life.  If this is the case, then what is this telling us about the nature of this church, what is the DNA of this body that has come to life?  One response is that, from our birth, we have always been a multi-lingual people, and that this is fundamental to who we are.  It is noteworthy here that the Spirit doesn’t lead everyone to speak the same language, but to speak in the unique, native language of each person, and for there to be understanding.  We are speaking to our human condition in all its variety and diversity, a diversity that God loves and encourages.  There is no single language that captures or contains the richness of God’s glory.  We’re not confined to theological language or political language or to the English language, but we see the Spirit expressing itself in all the different languages that we participate in.  When I look at this congregation I see a multi-lingual group, with each of us having certain languages that we speak best.  Together we are trying to learn the primary language of faith, the theological language of our Scriptures and church tradition.  We talk of gospel, salvation, discipleship, reconciliation in Christ, the kingdom of God.  This language is our mother tongue.  But we are multi-lingual.  During our weeks we are speaking other languages, and hopefully we are translating this theological language into other ways of communicating.   What is gospel in economic terms?  What is salvation in psychological terms?  What does the kingdom of God look like when engaging the language of politics?  Or, what does reconciliation in Christ look like with language used to confront a fight on the playground?  The Spirit of God is a multi-lingual Spirit, calling us to speak what we call gospel into different languages to communicate good news.  This morning as we covenant together we do so as a community that speaks many languages, all motivated by the same Spirit.  This is what we sound like, a multi-lingual hallelujah. 
 Part II: The Art of TranslationIn the church, our native tongue is theological language.  We draw from the rich language of Scripture and church tradition to communicate meaning and express our devotion to the God of love.  This is the primary language of our worship times and is the primary language that we use in our covenant.  To say “Jesus Christ is Lord” and to say “We choose to follow the way of the gospel and be members of Christ’s church” is to place ourselves alongside the great cloud of witnesses who have made similar confessions.Outside the church setting chances are we aren’t interacting in circles where theological language is primary.  Chances are we’re engaged with a number of the other wonderful languages we have been given to communicate meaning.  The language of our professions, the casual language that happens in the home and among friends.  I have never seen with my physical eyes a divided tongue resting on anyone’s shoulder, but I have seen many people doing what the author of Acts is trying to illustrate: translating the wisdom of God from theological language into another form of speech native to that setting.  Being an agent of the Spirit in the art of translation.  One of the things in this congregation that continually impresses me is the number of talented children’s story tellers there are here.  I’ve never witnessed so many good children’s stories as happen here on a weekly basis.  This is certainly an act of translation.  Children, it appears, speak the language of story, the language of humor, the language of touch – having things to look at and hold and even put in their mouths.  Translating something meaningful into this language is a gift — Communicating love, peace, joy in the native language of children.  I’d like to think that there is a mini-Pentecost of the Spirit that happens right here each week.  Wendel Berry is someone who has been translating the goodness of God into economic and ecological language for some time now.  He is a farmer/philosopher whose words often feel like they are growing straight out of the fertile soil he farms.  He is a critic of any structure of economy that makes us less human and makes the earth less alive.  One of my favorite lines from him is this:  He says  “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”  How’s that for an act of translation?  Speaking a prophetic word of the Spirit into the supposedly transcendent and all-powerful theory of economics. Learning recently of Jared Hess’ diagnosis of leukemia brings to mind another language: the language of silence.  Those long hours that his wife Anne and Hal and Chris will sit by his bed without saying a word, but deeply communicating love and encouragement and support, and being the presence of God to Jared.  Sometimes the language of silence communicates most deeply.  It’s a hard language to learn how to speak.  We have to let go of our need to fill the void with words.  Remember Job’s three friends who came to be with him in his suffering.  Most of the book of Job is an arguing dialogue between Job and his friends.  His friends are trying to rationalize Job’s pain, saying that there must be some logical reason why God is doing this to Job.  Job doesn’t buy it.  But before there was any conversation, right when his friends arrived, it says, “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”  It’s been said that this was the best thing the friends did for Job.  Their mistake was that they opened their mouths.  When being with someone in difficult circumstances, the act of being with, speaking in the language of silence is often the way that the Spirit best moves through us. If you struggle in being a multi-lingual person, then take heart that this is a gift of the Spirit.  It takes hard work and persistence to learn another language, but the scene in Acts is a reminder that there is more to it than all that.  There is more than simply our striving after it.  There is the presence of the Spirit, a Spirit that is not a tame Spirit and sometimes comes with gusts of rushing wind and tongues of fire, something we can’t plan or contain.  This is a Spirit that works through us, and is also working in between us.  Ultimately it is the Spirit that does the act of translation.  We speak and we act and then the Spirit does the work in others to make that speech and those actions intelligible.  The Holy Spirit helps our words be heard in ways we can’t anticipate.Maybe you’ve had the experience of someone coming up to you and thanking you for a word that you spoke at some point or something you did that was very meaningful to them.    And you can either barely remember even having said it, or remember saying it but not in the meaningful way it was interpreted by that person.  The Spirit translates our words and helps others hear good news even if we don’t know we’re speaking good news.  This is the continuous miracle that the Spirit is working.  The dynamic, alive, active multi-lingual Divine Spirit that is like a fire and a wind between our relationships.

People of God, we have received such a Spirit.  We are gathered as a multi-lingual community, united by the Spirit, sent out to translate the love of God into all the languages that we interact with during our days.  As Peter told that diverse crowd, the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, sons, daughters, young women, old men, slaves, free, so all of us are prophets of the Spirit.  In our signing of the covenant today and in our taking communion together, let us take to heart this calling: a Spirited multi-lingual community, translators of God’s love.

  RESPONDINGPrayer (responsive)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Pastor JoelLeader:    God of power and might,Left:          we rejoice in the gifts of your Holy Spirit, who fills us;Right:       we treasure the Spirit’s witness                          that we are indeed your beloved children.All:            Abide in us and make us fruitful witnesses                          of your power and peace in the world. Amen. RENEWING OUR COMMITMENTSInvitation to CommunionWe’re now moving into a time of renewing our commitments to God and to each other.  And we do so by first of all receiving.  We will be receiving the gift of communion, the table of bread and juice that Christ has set for us to share in unity.  Just a few instructions before we begin.  After our prayer and words of institution you will be invited to come up to both receive communion and sign the covenant.  During this time Hal and Chris will be leading us in some singing together.  The communion table is open to all, even if you won’t be signing the covenant.  It is, quite simply, God’s gift of love which everyone is invited to receive.  So with that, let me say that the table of our Lord has been set, there is plenty for all in our world, and we are all welcome to receive.  Let’s enter into a brief time of silence in preparing our hearts to receive communion, and, if we choose, sign the covenant.