“Found in Translation”

May 27, 2012


Genesis 11:1-9

Acts 2:1-21


From the dim past we hear the story about the ancient tower of Babel—a story of scattering. This, of course, is not history. This story is myth in the best sense of that word—an account of God and humankind that tells us about ultimate reality. As such it should be taken seriously, but not literally.

On the surface this is an ancient explanation of how our diverse languages arose from common origins. As we listen, however, we hear a story of human fear and divine action.

The fear is expressed in the concern of the people that they “will be scattered abroad.” Looking at a world that was changing all around them, the people were afraid.

This is the stuff of election-year politics—the attacks ads that present a dark vision of what will happen if one person is elected rather than another. This is what lurks around the edges of graduation parties like some uninvited guest. Accompanying the sense of excitement and new opportunities is the apprehension that comes with change and new possibilities.

And it’s certainly hard to read the paper or watch the news without some fear of the future.

In the face of fear, the people of Babylon had a great idea. A huge building project would pull everyone together. They would be a unified community, isolated from the rest of the world. They would all be the same, with the same language, the same words, the same way of expressing the same thoughts.

It was a very human plan to deal with very human fears: stick together, stay where you are. Out of fear the people start to build a walled city, a tower, a false unity.

Such sheltered isolation is not God’s desire for humankind, however. Earlier in Genesis we hear God’s charge to fill the world and care for the earth. That requires that we go out beyond the familiar, beyond the known.

By the grace of God, the people become confused. They cannot understand one another. They are scattered to populate the earth. Their diversity of language will be a blessing. Perhaps it felt like judgment, but it was judgment with a gracious purpose.

Recall the books you’ve seen in the self help section at Barnes and Noble. One cries out: You Don’t Understand Me. Another tells us the source of that lack of understanding: Women Are from Venus, Men Are from Mars. We hail from different places. We speak different languages. How do we expect to understand each other?

Understanding is difficult across generations as well. Between those born after World War II and their parents lies the legendary “generation gap.” The worlds of the two generations were so vastly different that there seemed to be no continuity, no communication. And, we have discovered that, of course, newer generations see things differently yet again.

While mulling this over in recent weeks I remembered hearing once that: “A multigenerational congregation is a healthy congregation, though not necessarily always a comfortable congregation. But it is a healthy congregation that: Is receiving new members, is passing on the faith, is in earnest dialogue about what is important.” That starts to describe Congregational UCC pretty well.

What makes an intergenerational congregation so important and so interesting is also what makes it so uncomfortable at times. Different generations work from different value systems. The more fully a congregation includes new generations in its membership, community life, and leadership the more it is contributing to its own discomfort. This is normal and healthy, not a problem to be solved.

Understanding one another is a difficult task.

Mutual understanding takes so much energy.

Mutual understanding requires so much time.

Is there any hope that we can we understand one another?

Nearly two thousand years ago Jewish people from all the nations of the world gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. This celebration occurred seven weeks after Passover and marked the giving of the Law, the Torah, the Way of God to Moses and the Hebrew people. There were “Parthians and Medes and Elamites” among others. They all spoke different languages.

Suddenly, however, with the rush of a mighty wind, they began to hear the followers of the risen Christ speaking in their various languages, telling of God’s mighty acts. This story, too, is myth in the best sense of the word. This story, too, calls us to listening that is not literal but serious.

It’s not surprising that when understanding occurs, when people from all nations speak one another’s language and hear their own vernaculars, people think they are drunk. How else do we explain this event? After all, their dress reflects separate cultures. They trade with different currencies, cook different foods, season with different spices, salute different flags.

The miracle of Pentecost is a miracle of understanding. It crosses gender and generations. Men and women of faith might talk with each other. Young and old have things to say to one another. Pentecost gives us a vision of how we can live.

The task is not always easy. And in some sense it is a matter of translation.

Nearly forty years ago, my brother gave me my first Greek New Testament. Inside it he included a piece of paper on which he wrote: “Translation—someone who knows what it means has to tell us what it means, in words we can understand.” The words one generation finds comforting, another generation can find incomprehensible. And so we continue the openness of Pentecost as we look for new ways to speak of what we know of the God revealed to us in Jesus.

One of the great principles of the Protestant Reformation in general and of Congregationalism in particular is the commitment to worshipping in the everyday language of the people. With each new generation of faithful people, we need to train our ears and our hearts to hear new words, new ways of speaking about the ways of God in our lives. The Spirit helps us discover new language for our life together.

We find one another as we speak and as we listen. Slowly we come to understand the hopes and fears of each other. Slowly we find a common voice and vocabulary so that we might work together. Slowly we realize that we are members together of the one body of Christ.

In a sense, that’s where Pentecost begins—with belonging. By the Spirit those people gathered from all nations in Jerusalem belong to one another.

Belonging precedes believing.

Belonging is of God’s Spirit.

This is how it is in the United Church of Christ. Our emphasis is on covenant, not creed. Each person is responsible for his or her own beliefs. In owning the covenant of this church you are agreeing to belong to a believing community and, in that community, to work out your own beliefs.

Pentecost comes with a reversal. It’s not so much that speaking changes as that there is a new gift of hearing—the gift of understanding those who speak in different ways. And with this understanding, the people are sent out again—scattered—to the ends of the earth.

Pentecost gives us a picture of the church that is intergenerational: the young will see visions, the old shall dream dreams.

The visions and dreams shared with each other will make us able to enter the future.

The Spirit keeps us open to one another and to all the new things that God is doing among us.