Winds of the Spirit
Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost, May 15, 2016
Six years ago my family traveled to Denmark and spent about two weeks visiting a distant relative. We had found each other four years earlier through a truly amazing series of coincidences. My cousin, Jørn, [actually he is my fifth cousin-once removed] is way into genealogy. And he delighted in showing my family churches and cemeteries where my relatives had worshipped, been baptized and married and buried. Jørn is very proud of Danish culture and heritage and he wanted us to see and experience everything Danish.
He was a good host, in fact in some ways he was too good a host, because he was always available to translate and explain everything. We saw a lot of historic and cultural sights, but we didn’t really get to experience the wonder and confusion of encountering a different culture and figuring things out for ourselves. Had we been on a longer leash it might have felt more like an adventure.
I do remember, however, one place where he could not translate everything. Our first Sunday in Denmark we went to church. Now that might not sound all that interesting, but going to church on Sunday morning in Denmark is a counter-cultural activity. As an American I found this really interesting. Jørn is a good Danish citizen, which means he pays his taxes, and thus supports the Danish national Lutheran church. He is loyal to it, but he doesn’t actually, you know, attend worship, except on Easter, Whitsunday [Pentecost] and Christmas Eve.
Jørn and his wife Anne-Lise had come to this church two years before out visit to Denmark, and they were amazed by Sundae Sunday. Danish Christians, it seems are incapable of this kind of fun.
I had been in Denmark three days when we went to church and I knew three words: thanks, open and cheese—tak, aben, ost. I listened attentively for those words, but the pastor talked really, really fast. They had hymnals and I followed along, I think, with the words, but didn’t get much out of it.
Attendance was unusually high for a Sunday in the summer because there was a baptism. It was nice to be there for that. Baptism, the tough of water, and the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is the most universal Christian practice. I could understand the sacrament without understanding the words.
After worship we filed out of the building to the yard outside for “kirche kafe,” Church coffee. They had coffee and pecan sandies. Jørn introduced me to the pastor, “this is my cousin, the Presbyterian priest from America.” I told the pastor that I had understood two words in her sermon, “Jesus” and “amen.”
She threw her arms in the air and said, “You got the point!” And my Danish vocabulary had grown by 2/3!
My favorite memory of that worship service though came afterwards, when my son told me that he knew when they were saying the Lord’s Prayer. And I knew it too. We didn’t understand any words, but there was something about the flow of the words that made it prayer to us without the meaning of words. We had prayed, and been surrounded by prayer, that we didn’t understand. It was a really, really special powerful feeling.
I wanted us all to experience something like that this morning, so I am very pleased that Hyangsoo and Diego agreed to read today.
Hyangsoo’s reading is a myth, that is, a story that explains the origin of something. In this case, it explains why there is more than one language spoken by God’s people. This story has always felt a little out of step with the other myth stories in Genesis. It appears that the Creator is threatened by what humanity will be able to create if we share a common language, so God sends the confusion of multiple languages to divide and weaken humanity.
And there is an obvious contrast, or perhaps I should say, response in the story that Diego read from Acts. I have to thank Diego for reading this, the most difficult passage we read outloud in worship all year. When I knew that Diego would be here today I decided to let him read all the hard names, they sound like a foreign language to most of us anyway!
But here’s something I want you to think about on this day when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit: At Pentecost, God could have undone Babel. God could have restored one, universal language to humanity. God, however, sent the miracle in a different direction. God maintained the different languages, but made the content of the message of reconciliation in Christ understandable to everyone.
The beautiful variety of spoken and written languages continues. The wonder of seeking to understand and translate between languages, the hard work of bringing meaning and understanding in a variety of sights and sounds is preserved.
Often around the table at Brown Bag Bible Exploration or at Evergreen we talk about differences in our versions of the Bible. It is hard to translate words from one language to another, but even more so to translate ideas from one language to another. These differences in language slow us down. And in slowing us down they help us see the Living God, and rely on the Holy Spirit as we try to understand. It’s difficult, and also helpfully humbling to try to understand the Bible. And we learn again and again and again, that we need not just the words we find written on paper, but the thoughts of other believers and the perspective of other eyes, but most importantly, the unpredictable, living power of the Holy Spirit as we learn and grow in faith. Amen.