The Gospel in Translation

5791933614People are drawn to the story of God’s mighty acts, the story of Jesus, not simply for the story itself, but because they hear that story in their own native languages. If the apostles had been speaking Greek, everyone would have understood them—Greek was the lingua franca. But the Greek wouldn’t have been compelling. The Greek wouldn’t have touched their hearts and opened their ears in the same way as the Parthenian and Medite, and Elemish, and Cappadocian, and Pamphylian and Arabic did.

Translation is often what makes the Gospel compelling. New Testament scholar Margaret Aymer points out: that “on the day of Pentecost, Christianity became a movement with a divine sanction to multilingualism and to translation.” (Feasting on the Word) A divine sanction. We have a divine sanction to translate the Gospel into the native language of others.

At the last Western District Conference convention I sat down at a table with some Hispanic pastors and attempted to talk with them in their own native language. “Hola. Me llama Joanna. Estoy de Lawrence.” We awkwardly pieced together a conversation, and they graciously left me with this parting advice: “Necesitas mas practicar.” You need to practice more.

Not all of us are gifted linguists. Still, even those of us with sub-par foreign language skills have a divine sanction to translate the Gospel into the native language of others. And I’ve been thinking about what that means.

I’m slowly learning the language of the lgbtq community—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. I can tell you what all of those terms mean. And also what the “i” and “a” stand for in the extended version: lgbtqia. (Intersex and ally and/or asexual) I know that some people who do not identify with either gender binary of male or female prefer the pronoun “they” to “him” or “her.”

Sometimes I mess up. I was at a party yesterday where I very likely used incorrect pronouns. Sometimes I use a term or a label or a pronoun that does not communicate the love and respect I intend. But I’m trying. I’m trying to learn the language so I can speak the good news of love and grace to those who desperately need to hear it in their own native tongue.

And I am also trying to learn the native language of my conservative brothers and sisters. (See, I know to call them my brothers and sisters.) I’m trying to understand what they mean when they use terms like “sin” and “covenant” and “accountability” and “missional.” I sometimes try to speak in their language in order to help them understand my holy longing for grace and love and joy within the church. If you read some of my email conversations, you would recognize my theology, but you might not recognize my language. Because I’m trying, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to speak in the native tongue of another.

Of course, there is a danger that trying to speak in the native languages of others will slide into simply trying to say what others want to hear—which is not healthy or holy communication at all. No matter what language we speak, the message we are called to share is the same—the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And part of that good news is this: Even as we are called to translate for others, we are also promised the gift of hearing the Good News in our own native tongues—our own heart languages. The Spirit speaks to us in ways that resonate deep within our souls. Through music, through nature, through literature, through science, through chance encounters with strangers and intimate conversations with friends; through food and rest and work; hopefully, once in awhile, even through the words of your pastor.

We may experience the spiritual drama of tongues of fire and mighty winds—or their rough equivalents—a few times in our lives. But the most important miracle of Pentecost–speaking and hearing the Gospel in our own native language—this miracle is available to us each and every day.

May God give us ears to hear and tongues to speak. Amen.


This post is excerpted from a longer sermon, which you can read here.

The Girl Without a Name

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Photo by Manu Mohan. “A Street Beggar”

Acts 16:16-34

Back in Jesus’ day, Paul’s day, they didn’t label people “mentally ill.” They said that people “had a spirit.” Generally the people Jesus and his followers encounter have “evil spirits,” but the slave girl in this story just has a “spirit.” Actually, it is a pyhtian spirit, associated with the god Apollo who was know as a snake-slayer. This spirit was said to inspire the oracles at Delphi and give them prophecies. This spirit supposedly allowed this girl to tell people’s fortunes.

So was this girl crazy? Maybe. But this “spirit” that possessed her also, in a way, provided for her. She was a slave, and her owners were able to make money off of her supposed powers. So, as a slave, she would have met with people, gone into a trance, and told them their future.

I imagine many girls who were slaves had it much worse.

This spirit compels the girl to follow Paul and his entourage proclaiming, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”

She may be crazy, but she is also right. These men are servants of God; they are telling the people the way to be saved. Paul, however, does not appreciate her proclamations–day after day, this girl following him, yelling to the people that he is trying to talk to.

In fact, Paul yells things quite similar to what this girl yells. Paul sees visions. We could ask, is Paul crazy? Well, despite all of the nutty things Paul does in the book of Acts, despite his drastic mood swings that are obvious in the letters he writes, history has nonetheless placed Paul in the “sane” category.

And because he is considered sane, even saintly, scholar after scholar works to justify Paul’s actions in this story.

The girl, they say, was not referring to Yahweh, but to a pagan god. The girl, they say, was trying to get Paul and his friends into trouble. Paul, they say, turned to her in kindness to free her from this oppressive spirit.

But the text tells a different story. According to the writer of Acts, Paul’s motive is not kindness or love; it is not to redeem the girl; it is not to challenge the oppressive economic system that allows certain people to be owned by other people. No. Paul’s motive is that he is annoyed.

Despite what the Pauline apologists would argue, it seems obvious to me that Paul does not care about the girl.

He doesn’t look at her, she follows him around–she is always behind him. He doesn’t speak to her, he speaks only to the spirit that inhabits her. And once the spirit is gone, this nameless slave girl, now without her means of making money for her owners, simply drops from Paul’s consciousness. She disappears from the story.

I am bothered by the fact that Paul never really sees this girl, but I trust that she is seen by God.

I am bothered by the fact that Paul never speaks to her, but I trust that, in her new life, the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit comforts her and guides her.

I am bothered by the fact that we don’t know this girl’s name; but I trust that God knows her name.

And even though Paul abandons her, that possibly her owners abandon her, that even the narrative of Acts abandons her, I trust that God does not abandon her; that this slave girl continues to be part of the story of the early church, part of the narrative of God’s activity in the world.


For the full text of this sermon, click here.

Inclusive Communities

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Crucifix at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona.

Acts 11:1-18

One thing this story tells us is that the church rumor mill is as old as the church itself. Even without the benefit of telephones, newspapers, Facebook, or Twitter, the apostles and believers in Judea have heard about what Peter did in Caesarea–namely, he baptized a bunch of Gentiles.

Now you might think that the church folks would be happy about a bunch of baptisms–but these were Gentiles. That is to say, not Jews. Actually, the quoted criticism here is not even about the baptism, but the fact that Peter ate with them. Perhaps the assumption–probably accurate–is that the meal was not Kosher. In any case, they were upset that the Gentiles were being brought into this faith community.

There were religious differences between Jews and Gentiles, yes. And also ethnic/racial differences. Jews and Gentiles had different cultural heritages. They did not understand each other well. Maybe they were even a little bit afraid of each other.

Now, two thousand years after Peter got in trouble for bringing Gentiles into the church community, we still have a problem with racism in the church. It’s not that white Christians think that people of color shouldn’t be in the church or be baptized. Most white folks are all for racial diversity as long as it doesn’t lead to any, you know, actual diversity–different kinds of praying or preaching or music or theology.

I was once involved with a mid-sized, mainline congregation; a predominantly white church in what had become a predominantly Hispanic part of town. And that church wanted to “reach out” to the people in the neighborhood. They hosted after-school tutoring for neighborhood kids. They ran a Vacation Bible School program each summer that attracted about 100 children—mostly from the neighborhood. And they got really frustrated that none of the neighborhood families became part of the church. They would talk about their frustrations at the same meetings where they voted to spend how-ever-many-thousand dollars to update the organ. Which was played loudly. And slowly. And accompanied hymns written by long-dead Europeans. Plus, the pastor spoke no Spanish. Nada.

The apostles were upset with Peter baptizing Gentiles because this new, emerging church was supposed to be their church. A Jewish church. Their understanding of Jesus was grounded in Jesus’ identity as a Jew—like them.

And we all do that, really. Hold onto the similarities between ourselves and Jesus. Whether they are real—like, for instance, as best we can tell, Jesus really was a Jew; or whether they are culturally reinforced historical impossibilities. For centuries in the Western church Jesus has been white. Those of us who think about it geographically, historically, know Jesus would not have been white or looked white at all—but so many paintings and sculptures from throughout the ages reveal how people made Jesus in their own white image. Because it was comfortable. And it served the power structure.

But God’s visions for Peter and Cornelius in this story show that within the church, we are not called to be comfortable or powerful. We are not called to stay in our safe spaces with people who look and act like us; with only people who agree with us. Jesus has bigger things in mind.

Being an inclusive community means that we truly open up, that we are willing to let people who are different from us help us more fully understand the depth and breadth of God. Being an inclusive community means that we look to and listen to others as we try to figure out what it means to follow Christ.

The apostles are hesitant, at first, to include the Gentiles. But after they hear Peter’s story, his critics quit criticizing him and begin praising God for the new members of their family.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is not a “happily ever after” tale. Not for the first century church, and not for us. This is not a story that provides simplistic answers for complicated questions. It is a story that reminds us that we should listen closely to the stories others have to share.

This is a story that reminds us that God operates beyond our areas of comfort. That God’s church includes people we wouldn’t expect in ways we can’t imagine.


This post is excerpted from a longer sermon I preached in 2013, which you can find here.

“its thread looping”

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Jesus, Jesus. Did you hear? There were these people from Galilee, they were faithful, made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices at the temple. And then. And then. These men. Pilate’s men. They just killed them. Slaughtered them right there in the temple. The blood of the people mixed with the blood of the animals. An unholy, horrific sacrifice.

Did you hear? I know you heard. There were people in Newton, Kansas, just driving down the road and this man shot at them. People working at Excel Industries in Hesston when he barged in with his guns and started shooting. Chaos and blood. Fourteen people injured. Four dead. A community in shock and deep grief.

Everyone knows,” writes Mary Oliver.

Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast
terrible shadows, that each of the so-called
senseless acts has its thread looping
back through the world and into a human heart.

Do you think,” asks Jesus.

Do you think that because these people suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other people?No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. (Luke 13:2-3)

This question from Jesus seems a bit harsh, given the context. He is speaking to a crowd that we assume to be made up of Jewish people—quite possibly some Galileans, potentially even family members and friends of the victims from the terrible massacre in the temple. Why would they have thought that people were sinners for offering sacrifices?

Do you think that because these people suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other people? Jesus, of course, says “no.” So apparently it was a rhetorical question. Which makes us feel better. For a half of a second until Jesus continues: “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

For Jesus and his audience, the command to “repent” wasn’t really about actions. New Testament professor Matthew Skinner explains, “The word translated as ‘repent’ is, at its root, about thinking and perception. It refers to a wholesale change in how a person understands something.

These shooting deaths, they are heartbreaking. And infuriating. Because the shooting in Newton and Hesston on Thursday was the 33rd mass shooting in the United States this year.

Jesus says, “If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did.” This is not a threat, it is a truth. We may not all die by gun violence, but people continue to die every single day. And if we do not repent, we will keep dying.

Maybe our necessary repentance has to do with seeing that looping thread Mary Oliver writes about; the thread of violence in the human heart of the shooters in Hesston and Kalamazoo and San Bernardino and Roseburg and Charleston—the thread that loops back through the world.

It loops through unconscionable gun legislation and a hyper-violent media culture; it loops through our failures to support struggling families, through underfunded schools and crowded jails and overwhelmed mental health care systems; it loops through our false ideas about being “male” and “female;” it loops through our racial prejudices and our xenophobia and our patriarchy and our sense of entitlement.

It is a long and winding thread.

Repentance is what we desperately need as a nation. A re-visioning, a re-imagining of what our communities can and should be.

We are called to echo the cry of Jesus: “Repent! Change the way you view the world, because this current vision of hierarchy and power and violence and scarcity and individualism is killing you. You think it is just killing them, but trust me, it is also killing you.”

Repent!

May God give us eyes to see the thread, ears to hear the cries, and a voice to proclaim the hard and holy message of Jesus.


This reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Luke 13:1-9.

 

The Value of a Barren Tree

file000654222865In Luke 13, Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree. The tree is planted in a vineyard, which sounds weird, but fig trees were often used as trellises in vineyards.  The owner is unhappy because the tree is not bearing fruit. “Cut it down,” he says. But the vintner says, “I’ll dig around it, fertilize it. Let’s give it one more year.”

And the vast majority of the commentaries and reflections I’ve read about this story say something to the effect of, “See, God is willing to give us sinners one more chance. God is merciful . . . and yet God’s mercy is not unlimited.”

But I just can’t get on board with this reading, because it involves two major assumptions that I’m not willing to make. Continue reading “The Value of a Barren Tree”

Unlimited Hope, Expansive Mercy, Abundant Pardon: Isaiah 55:1-13

DSC02915This is a guest post from Jill Clingan, one of my co-editors with Practicing Families.

I have never really liked these verses from Isaiah 55:8-9:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

In fact, when choosing the scripture to write about for the third week of Lent, I didn’t even consider the text from Isaiah 55 at first.  Once I read verses 8-9, I could see nothing else, and all I could remember was hearing this passage as a religious cliché in contexts that made me uncomfortable and even angry:

A teenage boy commits suicide after years of struggling with depression:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord. Continue reading “Unlimited Hope, Expansive Mercy, Abundant Pardon: Isaiah 55:1-13”

Temptations

 

“Turn these stones to bread.”
“Worship me to gain power over the kingdoms of this world.”
“Fall from the pinnacle so we can all watch the angels swoop in and rescue you.”

These are the temptations the devil throws out to Jesus in the wilderness. They are temptations about power: to control the natural world, to control the people of the world, to control God. How much ego would someone have to have to give in to these temptations?

Continue reading “Temptations”