Lost in Translation

May 27, 2012, Author: Rev. Ann M. Aaberg

Acts 2:1-21 – Pentecost Sunday – May 27, 2012

During my adolescent years, my mother often drew the distinction between listening and hearing.  A typical conversation about just about any subject under debate – apparel, curfew, choice of destination, choice of friends or date – might go something like this:

“Ann Marie, are you listening to me?!”

“Yes, I’m listening.”

“Well, you may be listening, but do you hear me?!”

“Yes, I hear you!”

And then, just to make sure, the next interchange might go like this:

“Do you understand me?”

“Yes!  I understand you!”

There would be no question at the conclusion of that interchange that my mother had made herself perfectly clear.  I had listened, I had heard, I had understood.  (I had also rolled my eyes, slouched in my chair, and then slid away to my bedroom.  Sometimes actions speak louder than words.)

The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles on Pentecost is considered the birth day of the church, the beginning of the spread of the message to the ends of the earth of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.  And to demonstrate the universality of that message, we read this morning, “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages” and we read that “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” heard the disciples speaking in their own native language.

As always, God knows what God’s doing, giving the first apostles the invaluable basic tool of built-in interpretative services.  They are able to speak in their listeners’ languages.  What a gift!  It is clear from our passage this morning that this gathered crowd is listening all right, but are they hearing…are they understanding?  We read, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’  But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”

Even though the gathered crowd could hear in their own languages, Peter still had to stand up and address them and explain the significance of what was happening, to tie it in to the words of the prophets hundreds and thousands of years ago; and, if we were to keep reading this morning, to explain who Jesus was and what he did and what that meant now for humankind.

And not everybody got it.  Not everybody got it that day; not everybody got it in the places to which he and the others subsequently traveled.  They were met with sneers and fear and misinterpretation and violence and imprisonment and, for some, death.  Speaking the same language was a huge boon, but it wasn’t always enough to be understood.

Friends, we are so blessed to live in an age of recognition of the importance of both honoring and preserving languages and making every effort to provide interpretative services when and where they are needed.  Perhaps the most sophisticated system is found in operation at the United Nations General Assembly where almost simultaneously, delegates hear in a language they can understand the words of the speaker from another part of the world.  A simpler but just as effective system is in place at our partner First Hispanic Baptist Church.  When we go there to worship, those of us who cannot understand Spanish are given headphones connected to a booth and an interpreter in the back of the sanctuary.  When we traveled to Korea last year, one of the very few of our hosts who could speak both Korean and English would always sit in the middle of the table where we were eating so that dinner conversation could flow despite our language differences.

When we are committed to understanding each other, we put into place the supports that we need to assist us in that effort.  When we are committed to understanding each other…

Today, on the church’s birthday, we are invited to assess the depth of our commitment to understanding each other in every realm imaginable:

• within the Christian church, now home to some 30,000 denominations the world over, many of whom do not understand each other at all;

• within the world’s religions where interfaith dialogue may be paramount to humanity’s survival;

• between those who maintain they are “spiritual, but not religious” and today’s remaining institutional church • between industrialized and developing nations

• in every realm where misunderstanding and fear lead to greed and hatred and exploitation and war instead of cooperation, collaboration, justice and peace.

And, judging from the misunderstandings and disagreements revealed some 2000 years ago on the church’s first birthday – despite speaking and hearing in each others’ languages – and the continuing misunderstandings and disagreements today when we are assisted by the most sophisticated interpretation systems ever, it has become obvious that language alone is not the barrier.

We need only point to the separations among those of us who speak the same language and have for generations, whether it be within our country, our local communities or our own families.  If we truly are committed to understanding each other, we will look beyond the words…and behind the words and to the feelings under the words.

• We will hear angry words as fearful ones crying for help

• We will recognize legalistic words as those of exclusivity and self-interest

• We will hear the words of excuses as cover-ups for racism, or classism, or homophobia or maintaining the economic status quo

• And we will hear the words of crying children, no matter from where or for what reason, as the universal wake-up call to heal our cities, this country and our world.

Friends, it’s easy to listen – even politely.  And our current technology has made it easier to hear each other; but truly understanding one another takes commitment and effort.  Thank God for the Holy Spirit rushing in.  Thank God for the Holy Spirit moving in ways we can only imagine.  Thank God for the Holy Spirit who can lead us and aid us in listening for the Truth behind the words and who can move us to committed action which speaks volumes, actions which speak louder than any words in any language.  Thank God for the Holy Spirit around us and within us who listens to our words, hears our prayers and understands us like no other.  May we be filled and moved today and always.  Amen.