Finding the Right Words

You learn a lot about a culture when you study its language.  The deeper and deeper you go into a language, the more you begin to pick up the nuance, the different way of thinking, the different way of behaving. And that’s certainly the case when you’re immersed in a culture—a stranger in a strange land.

There are moments when things get lost in translation. Studying Russian, I ran into moments where I just could not find the right word to fit the situation. I was once explaining to my tutor what I had done that weekend. And I wanted to say something pretty simple: “I had fun.” But I couldn’t figure out what to say, the words in the dictionary didn’t quite catch the word “fun.”

So I gave in and asked my teacher: “Eleanora, how do I say, ‘I had fun?’”

My tutor stared at me from over the rim of her glasses with this look of both bemusement and pity. “My dear Cuttino,” she said. “In Russian, there is no word for fun.”

I didn’t believe her. But looking into it, I realized it was true. Now this is not to say that Russians don’t have fun. And there are ways to approximate the word—“It was cheerful.” “I had a merry time.” “It was pleasing to me.” But fun, that catch-all word to describe all kinds of things—“That was fun [cheerful]!” “That was fun [detached].” “That was fun [sarcastic]”—it just doesn’t exist.  And I got to thinking, what does this tell us about American culture that we place such an emphasis on this word. And what does it tell us about cultures that don’t?

It’s with these linguistic challenges in mind that we come to today’s festival day: Pentecost. After Easter and Christmas, it is the third most important festival of the church year. It is the birthday of the Christian church—it is a day that celebrates how God unites people of all countries and languages and traditions.

The disciples gather once again in an upper room—perhaps the same one where, weeks before, they had shared that final, fateful meal with Jesus. Now the teacher has gone up and they find themselves in a very, very precarious position. In the eyes of the empire, they were fugitives, dangerous radicals. In the eyes of the religious community, they were heretics, wild-eyed sectarians. They were a minority within a minority, lost and alone. No doubt they had the doors of that upper room locked tight.

You know how the rest goes—the violent rush of wind, the divided tongues of fire. I picture the men and women in that upper room pouring out into the street, overcome with a new sense of strength and passion, telling whoever would listen what God has done.

It’s easy to think of the events of that day as a kind of “holy chaos” (as the late great preacher Peter Gomes put it), with everyone stumbling over the other, shouting at the top of their lungs, speaking in wild tongues. But that misses the point. The miracle of the day was not that they were suddenly fluent in Pamphylian or that their hair caught on fire. The miracle of that day was that the people received the gift of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of counsel and might, of wisdom and understanding.

In the story, it’s the Galilean’s speaking and everyone else listening. But imagine something rowdier: the entire crowd talking to each other, conversing with one another in a babble of languages. The Judeans were speaking Parthian. And the Cappadocians were speaking Persian. And the Arabs were speaking Greek. And the Americans were speaking Russian. “And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”

What does this mean? This was not a miracle of linguistics—like the day I would know all the subtleties of Russian perfectly. This was a miracle of understanding, so much so that for the first time people could understand completely what the other was telling them. Each person could finally hear what God wanted him or her to hear.

What the disciples did that day was perhaps the first example of large-scale Christian witnessing. Witnessing is the act of telling people what God does and what God promises, not just in the pages of Scripture, but also in our lives, in our community, in our world.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter stands before the crowd and proclaims the mighty acts of the Lord, he tells the story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and he urges them to repent and be baptized. And, as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, on that day three thousand people heeded his words.

I wonder what this witnessing looks like for us? It is something that we Lutherans don’t often talk about, even though it’s something we should be doing all the time. The word “witnessing” sometimes conjures up images of aggressive people handing out religious pamphlets. But the question of how to witness can be boiled down to the question of how we live out and speak about our faith in our public lives.

We, the Church, exist in a world that doesn’t always speak our language. Sometimes the things that we say and do in here get lost in translation out there. Think about it, does the world out there really have an understanding of the word “grace”—the idea that love is freely given with no strings attached…to everyone? Does the world out there have a word for “redemption”—the belief that no matter what we say or do there is always a second chance? Does the world out there really grasp “resurrection”—the notion that death and fear and hopelessness do not hold power anymore?

What we do in here, what we believe in here, can sometimes seem foolish or naïve or downright strange. And so it’s easy for us to shut the door tightly. It’s easy for us to focus solely on “inner-mission”—on building a community within these walls.

But as we’ve learned from the story of Pentecost, the problem with this is that sooner or later the doors of this church will be blown open and the Spirit will come barging in. We’ve learned from the story of Pentecost that once that Spirit has touched you, you won’t be able to hold it in. It burns brightly like a flame above your head. We’ve learned from the story of Pentecost that once you’ve received the gift of understanding, you have no choice but to walk out of these doors and through the gate and into the world to put that gift to work.

Each of us are here today because and one point or another in our lives, we’ve encountered the Spirit. Each of us has inherited a faith that stretches all the way back to that day of Pentecost. We are so grounded in this faith that are not afraid to ask, “What does this mean?” Through this faith, we know that God has saved us. We know that God loves us so much that he gave a Son to walk and live and die among us. We are bold to say that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from that love.

When you come to this table in a few minutes, I encourage you to look around. Look at those people surrounding you, look at our group, and think about how we appear to others. When others look at us, as individuals and as a community, are they able to see this faith reflected in the way we act? In the decisions we make? In the way we treat others? Will they come away thinking that we have received the gift of understanding? Even though they may not understand the words that we speak, will they perceive the spirit of God’s love and kindness and mercy burning within us?

Peter’s work did not end that day of witness in Jerusalem; it took him across the known world, it required him to speak within many strange and different cultures. It was hard work.  Like mastering a foreign language, effective witnessing takes a lifetime of practice and repetition. It requires us to understand what our neighbors need, to understand what they are saying, to understand their hopes and their dreams. It requires us to understand where we fit in and how we can help. Authentic witnessing requires conversations rooted in patience, trust, and love.

So today, on this festival of Pentecost as we prepare to grow just a little bigger in here, let us recommit to doing the hard work out there.

Let us strive to recognize the gifts that we have received from the Holy Spirit.

Let us see all that we can offer to this suffering world.

Let us hope that those outside the gates of this church will understand our words and, more importantly, that we will understand theirs.

Let us trust that like the people standing in wonder on the streets of Jerusalem, the Spirit of truth and wisdom and understanding will be with us today and always. Amen.