a sermon in translation

Day of Pentecost
Texts: Genesis 11:1-9 | Psalm 104:24-34, 35b | Acts 2:1-21 | John 14:8-17, 25-27

When Josh and I lived in Argentina alongside a Lutheran congregation there, one of my closest friends was a woman named Blanca, who was really into crafts. To give you an idea of how intense she is about crafts, she found our facebook profiles before we arrived and printed off photos of us so that there were posters and centerpieces and a banner for us waiting on the day we arrived, and all with our faces plastered everywhere.

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Our welcome banner, handmade by Blanca, complete with icons representing some of our hobbies and interests.

Blanca would make favors for parties, and gifts for first communion, and little baby booties (even for *cough* people who showed no interest in having children), etc. One Christmas we went over to her house and left with no fewer than five handmade crafts each, she was handing them out like they were candy.

Anyway, one day Blanca was in the middle of a project and asked me to run next door and get her some blue colored construction paper.

I clarified what exactly she needed because, not only am I not crafty, but also there are a lot of craft-specific vocab words in Spanish that I wasn’t super clear on. And I went next door and came back with several sheets of this lovely sky blue construction paper.

And Blanca looked at the paper, and looked back at me kind of confused. And was like–Erin, I asked you to get blue paper. And I was like–Yes, here you go.

And she was like–No this isn’t azul, this is celeste.

And I was beginning to understand that she wanted more of like a crayon blue not a sky blue, but I also wanted her to understand where my confusion was coming from so I said–Well, I mean, this is azul. You know, this is a shade of blue. You know, there’s light blue and dark blue, but they’re all blue. And Blanca was looking at me pretty strange at this point and was like–Erin… This isn’t blue. It’s celeste. We call this celeste.

And unfortunately I did not drop it because I was just convinced that I was giving Blanca (the expert in crafts) this *great gift* by explaining to her that sky blue is actually technically still blue, as if she needed a lesson in color theory. But by the end, Blanca was just sort of annoyed that she had the wrong color paper.

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It makes sense, you know… Because we all know that pink is just a lighter shade of red, right? But if you saw a hot pink stop sign you wouldn’t just shrug and say–Well really pink is technically red. No! It would be surprising! Because those two colors are not interchangeable.

What happened is that Blanca had two different words for two different shades, and I just had one word for the whole spectrum: blue. And because of how our language affects how our brain works and how we perceive the world, something as simple as the way we thought about the color of construction paper was really different.

Thankfully Blanca was really patient and this was not a high-stakes craft, so this misunderstanding didn’t affect our relationship. But often language barriers do.

Having a variety of languages is beautiful and also complicated, as the tower of Babel exemplifies. Lack of understanding and fear divide us from each other or make it harder to build the city we envision together.

Language can limit our imagination, like how in English I’ve practiced since I was a child being very careful to use pronouns like he or she correctly, which means I’ve spent years practicing determining what someone’s gender is by looking at them and guessing based on their body/hair/voice.

Or how language for God like “Father” in the gospel reading today can give the impression that the divine is gendered male.

Language is tough. It can be uncomfortable to not be understand someone. It can feel lonely to not be understood. Translation is tiring and it takes a long time.

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And I am talking about literal language diversity, like over 110 native languages are represented amongst our students in Chicago Public Schools. Language diversity like how in the last 150 years in Logan Square you would be likely to hear Norwegian, Danish, Polish, Yiddish, Spanish of various regional varieties, African American vernacular English, and so much more spoken in this neighborhood. And how the native languages of the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Odawa, and dozens of other tribes were spoken on this land for generations before forced migration under the Indian Removal Act largely caused those languages to be lost.

I’m talking about literal language barriers, like how it is hard to find an apartment, or access public services, or get a job (or participate in church events) if you aren’t fluent in the language of the dominant culture.

And I’m also talking about other kinds of language barriers. Like the code-switching some of us need to do, because the way we communicate at home or with friends doesn’t work for the status quo of the workplace or public square.

And I’m also talking about the communication barriers that make it hard for us to communicate even when we do speak the same language. Limitations in our experience, or invisible-to-myself internalized biases that make it hard for us to understand each other. Layers of pain and shame, protected by defensiveness or cold indifference that block my heart from connecting with yours.

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On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit rushes in and fills the room, and the effect is that language barriers are overcome, but not by magically enabling everyone to speak the same language. This isn’t God’s way of undoing the whole tower of Babel thing. Here the Spirit is doing a new thing.

In this new reality, the word of God is spoken and understood in–according to the account in Acts–at least fourteen regional dialects from around the mediterranean, even the language of the empire (Rome). And this radical language expansion… What it does is it allows something to be expressed that couldn’t be expressed within the limits of a single language.

You may be familiar with the concept of speaking in tongues, which is understood by some Christians in the US and around the world to be among the most important and powerful spiritual gifts, and by others as a kind of second baptism by the Spirit. I’ve been in worship where people spoke in tongues before, but it was when I was really young and a lot has changed for me since then, so this last week I listened to a podcast about speaking in tongues to get a bit of a refresher.

Hearing from people who speak or have spoken in tongues, it struck me that one of the most important parts of their experience is the feeling of being liberated from the limits of language that ordinarily determine how they speak. They spoke about the kinds of feelings that can’t be fully processed by the language center of our brain. Some experiences seem to access a whole different spectrum of emotional-spiritual expression, and one’s own spirit is freed by setting aside the rules for a moment.

In my current spiritual practice speaking in tongues doesn’t play much of a role, but it really resonates with me, this sense that the Spirit is moving us to be free of the social norms that limit our humanness. I feel so free when I’m dancing, or yelling, or raising a hand in protest. I see the Spirit alive and active when people are willing to take risks by speaking up when it would be easier to remain quiet, by breaking the rules for the sake of a relationship, by stepping up and way out of comfort zones because God made us for freedom and not for comfort.

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Like how Peter gets up in the middle of all this Pentecost noise and proclaims the church’s very first sermon.

You know what Peter’s comfort zone was? We saw it during Holy Week.

He’s standing by the fire warming himself while his friend is questioned by the police. Do you know this Jesus? I do not. I do not. I do not.

Peter is a guy who is real comfortable hanging back, would rather not get caught up in all the drama, but here he is on Pentecost, and he stands up and shouts out the words of the prophet Joel: The Spirit of God is alive and active in this place! On young and old, rich and poor, across the spectrum of gender God is handing out visions like she’s Blanca handing out party favors. Everybody gets a dream, and all flesh is full of the Spirit, and prophesy is all over the place.

This Pentecost moment is the fulfillment of all that Jesus has done, the empowerment of the disciples, the transformation from a group of scared people into the very first church, the birthday of the Christian movement.

Don’t miss noticing that this very first church party is more multicultural than any church I’ve ever visited, and I’ve visited a lot of churches. Don’t miss that it’s so messy, it’s like a Sunday brunch where people wondered if everyone was still drunk from the night before.

This is the kind of event where I’d invite my friends on facebook, but then text them just to give them a heads up, like “You should totally come, it’s gonna be awesome, but I just want you to know that it’s also going to be really weird.”

Because this Holy Spirit party has got everybody there. The Holy Spirit doesn’t issue invitations by denomination, race, or class—there is no official language of the Holy Spirit.

In fact, it’s like the Holy Spirit is the language.

And she’s our mother tongue,
and also our second language.
She is how we have two-way communication with God.
She is the pull we feel towards each other,
the love that survives despite all odds.
She is the translation that finds a way to whisper
resurrection into our hearts,
despite the language barriers of trauma and fear.
She is the rushing wind pushing us always out
of our comfort zones, beyond the limits
of our language, right on past social convention.
She is the voice that keeps inviting you back here every week,
even though the church has hurt you and told you you don’t belong.
She is the fire that burns in our hearts,
or the adrenaline that sits in our gut,
or the goosebumps on our arm that tell us
to get up and open up and speak up.
Even now she is the vision of freedom showing up in our dreams
and spilling out of our mouths.
Come, Holy Spirit.
And let the church say Amen.

____

Works consulted:

Lenny Duncan’s commentary What the Hell Is a Pentecost? (Our Bible App, 2019) was really helpful to me in preparing this sermon.

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