A few years ago, when I was working as a hospice chaplain on the South Shore of Massachusetts, I had one patient down near New Bedford. And whenever I went to see them at their nursing home, this other resident on her unit would see me in the lobby and start shouting at me in a foreign language. I had no clue what she was saying, but it was obvious to me that she was upset, and so I always just apologized and got out of there as quickly as possible.
One day I went back and the same thing happened. Only this time there were people around. And one of the aides said, “Do you know what she’s saying?” I said, “no, but whatever I did I’m sorry.”
And then she told me that the woman was speaking Portuguese, and that she was a little confused thought I was a relative of hers, and that when she saw me she wasn’t mad at all; she was excited. And she was yelling joyfully to me about how glad she was to see me. After that day I would always say hello to her, and I understood now that when we talked, though I couldn’t understand her, she was happy.
I learned then that translation matters. It can change everything. And today’s story is about translation too. It’s ten days after the Ascension, and the disciples are together, trying to figure out what to do next, now that Jesus is gone.
And all of a sudden a rushing wind, with tongues of fire, fell on them. And suddenly, the disciples, all of whom were Galileans all just speaking the same language, were speaking languages that they had never known before. People from other places were nearby and they heard it and they could understand what they were saying, and they asked “how come we are hearing this in our own language”?
Some didn’t even believe it; they said “they must be drunk.” But Peter gets up and he says “look, it’s only 9am..we’re not drunk”. Instead, something new has come, and everything has changed.
In the church we call this the Pentecost, which is translated to mean “fifty days”, as in fifty days after Easter. And we call that mighty rush of wind that came down the coming of the Holy Spirit. And we call this the birthday of the church. This is the day when the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples, and the church was born.
I’ve always found that interesting. Because, intuitively, it might not make a lot of sense. Shouldn’t Easter be the birthday of the church? After all, it’s the day Jesus rose again and appeared to the disciples. Maybe you could even argue that Christmas, with the birth of Christ, should be the day of celebration? Or, maybe Maundy Thursday when Jesus tells the disciples how to love one another?
But the tradition of the church is that Pentecost is the church’s birthday. And I think it’s because that was the day the disciples went from being this sort of loose band of followers of Jesus, standing around wondering what now, to being equipped by the Holy Spirit to minister not just to their own, but to the whole world.
And I think it says a lot that on its day of birth, when the Holy Spirit came down, the first gift that the disciples realize they have is the gift of being able to speak in new languages. The ability to translate the message to others.
I told you that story earlier about translation, and how it helped me to know what was being shouted at me in Portuguese. But translation doesn’t always have to be literal. Sometimes we learn to speak, and to understand, the language of others even when we don’t have the words.
One night when I was on call as a hospital chaplain, I received a page, and I was asked to come meet with a man whose wife had just given birth and who now was not doing well. And he was an Orthodox Christian originally from the Middle East. He spoke English fluently, and had been in this country a long time, though. And we were talking and I asked him, as I always did in these situations, if he wanted to pray. And he said “yes”, and took my hand and I was about to start praying, as I always did, but instead he started. And in Arabic he prayed this impassioned, heart-felt prayer for his wife.
And I have no idea what those words were that he was saying. But in that moment, without knowing a word of Arabic, I knew exactly what he meant.
If the Holy Spirit were to sweep into this place again today, and give us all a birthday gift, because we are all the church, I think we would get the same gift the disciples got. And I don’t mean by that that we would all be able to speak Spanish or Chinese or Russian or Arabic, per se. Rather, I think we would learn how to speak in new ways to those who haven’t heard about God’s love in language that they understand yet.
And you don’t have to leave the country to find people who haven’t. You don’t even have to leave the Valley. Some of you have heard me talking about how Vermont is sometimes called the least religious state in the country. And “nones”, those who do not claim a religious tradition, are the fastest growing demographic group.
And yet here we are in the church, speaking a foreign language. There was a time when everyone knew what the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, and all of our other church words meant. There was a time when most people knew our language. But they don’t anymore. And that is new, but it’s also not necessarily bad. And that also doesn’t mean that ours is not a language worth sharing.
For decades now too much of the church has stood still, angry at the world that no one understands us anymore. No one speaks our language. We complain about that fact, and we have plenty of things to blame, everything from parents to Facebook to sports on Sunday morning, but the reality is that few people are going to spontaneously show up at our doors asking to learn our language. Especially not if we alienate them by judging them.
But do you notice something about the Pentecost story? When the Holy Spirit comes, it;’s the disciples who learn the new language. All the other people there don’t suddenly speak the disciples’ language: instead the disciples learn to speak theirs.
I think maybe the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something. We can’t wait for others to talk the way we talk. Instead, we have to learn their language. We have to learn what is important to them. We have to be able to communicate in the ways that matter to them. We have to be willing to make the connections. It’s what the church has been doing since its first days, and it’s what we are still called to do today.
And sometimes the smallest points of connection, the smallest shared words, can make all the difference. I’ll give you an example. The other day I was at a meeting and I spent the whole time sitting next to this woman I’d never met before. And after the meeting we were talking, and I don’t think I have much of a Southern accent anymore, but I do have one tell: I say “y’all”. And as soon as I said that she got excited and said “where are you from?” And I told her, and she told me she was from Alabama, and immediately we had this connection.
All it took was one little signal that we spoke the same language, came from the same place, and had the same background. It’s not so different when it comes to faith. We aren’t some forgotten dinosaur speaking some lost language. We’re alive, and we have something to offer. And there are people who want to hear about it. They want us to make the connections, they want to know.
So, what languages are we speaking well? And which could use a little tutoring? What languages do our neighbors speak that we don’t speak quite as well? We live in a ski town. Should we learn to speak “ski” a little better? Our church’s front door is literally on one of the major motorcycle routes in the northeast. Should we be able to speak “biker” a little better? We live in a time when youth and younger adults are tied to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Should we speak social media a little better? What other languages could you and I brush up on?
That’s the question that the church needs to ask itself today. Because Pentecost didn’t just happen 2000 years ago. It happens still. And that gift is our to receive. You and I can speak in more languages than we realize. So, happy birthday, church. It’s time to unwrap our present and share it with the world. Amen.