Translating the Faith: Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018

About six and a half years ago I was falling deeply in love. I had been dating Heidi for a while, and I knew she was the one I wanted to spend my life with. And, I knew she wanted to spend her life with me. We were already talking about marriage, and so I started to think about how I would propose.

There was one thing I had to do first, though. I really wanted her parents’ blessing. Now, down where I come from it’s not unusual to ask a woman’s father for permission to marry her. I remember this happening when my sisters got married. And even then it struck me as a little troubling. They were adults. They were not the property of their parents, and really the decision to marry was solely their own.

But, even though I didn’t need their permission, I still wanted her parents’ blessing. Now, Heidi’s mom and step-father live in Liverpool, England. Her mom is American and her stepdad is a native Liverpudlian. And he has a very thick Liverpool accent. Think the Beetles when they were first breaking out of Liverpool, and then multiply that by about five. 

And so, picture me calling Liverpool. I get both parents on the line and I start explaining how much I love their daughter, how amazing she is, how I will always do my best to be a good spouse and to support her, and how, before I proposed to her, I would really love to have their blessing to marry her. 

Her mother said, “yes” immediately. And her step-dad said…something. His accent was so thick, and I at that time was so unused to it, that I really have no idea what he said. I think his response was positive, but for all I know he could have been telling me to go to a very hot and terrible place. 

Now, I’m not making fun of him or people with accents. I’m making fun of myself. Here we were, two English speakers, and we were having trouble communicating with one another. At the wedding a year later, my dad and Heidi’s stepdad were in the car together and I was driving. I dropped her stepdad off and my dad turned to me and said, “He is the nicest guy and I have no idea what he is saying.” And I said to my dad, “And he’s probably saying about you, ‘He’s the nicest guy, and I have no idea what he is saying.’”

So I tell you this story because here we are, people who speak English, the same language, people you would think would have no trouble communicating, and we had a hard time understanding one another. It’s a story that reminds me of the story that on this Pentecost Sunday we remember. 

Last week we talked about the Ascension. Jesus rose into heaven and the disciples were left on their own to figure out how to be the church. But, as Jesus was leaving, he reassured them that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and to the ends of the world.”

In other words, something is coming that will give you strength for what you are being asked to do, which is to share the message of God’s love and grace with others. You are asked to be a witness to that love and grace, and the Holy Spirit is what is going to give you the strength to do that.

And so, ten days later, the disciples are gathered again. And all of a sudden they hear a loud rush of wind, and flames descend and rest on each of them, and they start to speak, not in their own languages, but in other languages, languages they didn’t know before them. 

They happen to be in a part of Jerusalem that is a sort of crossroads of the world. People from all these different places, speaking all these different languages, have come there. And these people start to hear the disciples speaking in their own language. Scripture tells us they were there from parts of Asia, from Rome, from Egypt. And the disciples were able to talk to all of them. 

In other words, the Holy Spirit gives the gift of translation to the disciples. They are given the ability to be translators of God’s love and grace to the world. And for the disciples that meant literal translators. They could literally speak new languages and tell the story of Jesus, and of his love to new people.

For us, though, that means something a little different. For us it’s less learning how to speak a literal new language, and more learning to be translators of our faith to the world around us. We become translators, ambassadors, of God’s love and grace. We learn how to share that love with the world in a number of ways. By the way we speak to others. By how we share what we have been given. Even by how we advocate for those who are in need.

In fact, if you look at what we are doing at church just this week, you might see some Pentecost moments. Today we are recognizing all of our church school teachers, people who translate the faith for our youngest members every week by telling them stories, playing games with them, and doing crafts. And then after worship we are taking the plastic bags that we have been collecting and turning them from environmental hazards that would go into the landfill into mats for those without homes. And all the while members of our church, and the Greenland church, are making plans to welcome a refugee family to New Hampshire.

This is Pentecost work. This is the work of translating God’s love and grace from the theoretical to the tangible and sharing it with others. And when we do this well, the church is really at its best. But it’s not only the work that we do outside our doors that matters; it’s also the work we do inside our church, and inside of ourselves. 

As I’ve been thinking about Pentecost over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking too about what it means to be the church in a time when church is really foreign to many. New Hampshire has been named the second-least religious state in the country. That means this is the state where the second-smallest percentage of people attend religious services. Vermont is first, by the way. That means that most of our friends and neighbors have no idea what we are doing here on Sunday mornings. 

Occasionally, though, someone gets curious, and they come through our front doors. Maybe not so long ago that person was even you. And they walk in and we look at them and think, “Well, we are all speaking the same language here…everything we are doing must make sense to them.” But that’s a little like me calling Heidi’s step-dad and thinking, “Well, we’re both speaking English…we’ll understand one another just fine.”

The reality is that church can be a daunting place, especially for newcomers. I didn’t grow up in the church, so I know that firsthand. Everyone seems to know when to stand and sit, when to pray, how to sing the hymns. It’s easy to feel out of place.

And so this is when it’s worth noting that it’s always seemed important that it was the disciples who learned the new languages of faith. It wasn’t the people they encountered who had to learn to speak the language of church. The church learned to speak the language of the people. The church learned to translate God’s love into the language of the everyday.

I thought about that recently when I overheard a conversation between churchgoers who were not members of this church. They were talking about their church bulletin and how terrible it was that the Lord’s Prayer was printed inside of it. “Everyone knows it,” they said. When someone pointed out that many people didn’t know it, the reaction was one of shock. “Well, everyone should know it! How do these people not know it!”

I cringed. I cringed because I was once a new churchgoer who didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer. I remember repeating it over and over again, trying to remember it. And I began to wonder, how many other things are we as a church taking for granted that people know? And by people I don’t mean the ones outside our doors…I mean those of us here in the pews.

And so, I have a Pentecost project for us all to participate in this summer. When you came into church this morning you received your bulletin, and you also received two pieces of paper. This first says, “Help Plan Summer Worship… We are going to do some translation…first inside, and then outside. I’m going to ask you to write on these forms the big questions you have had; the ones where you’re looking for a little translation. Then, throughout the summer, I’m going to be answering these questions, and helping us to be able to translate the faith to those who are curious. 

By summer’s end, we will be better translators, and we will be even more ready to share God’s love and grace. 

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