Babel Fish

PENTECOST JUNE 5th, 2022 JOHN 14:8-17

Early one morning last month I was walking our dog, Esme, around the neighborhood, which I do most mornings. It’s a blissful time. We have our usual route that extends for two miles, and gives me time to listen to prayer podcasts – one of the better inventions birthed by the digital revolution. So it’s half an hour of Esme, me, and God.

But that morning we were joined by a fourth person. Actually, we weren’t so much joined as yelled at. We were passing a house, when a gruff voice boomed out from the front porch. “Curb your dog,” it demanded. I looked in the direction the voice was coming from and there was an unhappy looking man, who clearly didn’t get enough sleep. Now before you think that Esme must have been rampaging through his front yard, digging up his prize petunias or terrorizing his pet rabbit, no. She was simply sniffing the edge of his lawn. She was on her lead, standing on the sidewalk, just sniffing. “Curb your dog” repeated Captain Grumpy. Now, I have to tell you I have a deep fear of this sort of conflict. When someone shouts at me it throws me off course for days. And, I have a strategy when this sort of thing happens – sheepishly apologizing (even if I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong) and slinking away quickly.

But this morning was different. I don’t know what it was, maybe it was the smell of spring in the air, but I felt this surge of assertiveness. And I found myself answering back, “She’s only sniffing,” I protested. And again, the owner of the lawn ordered me, “Curb your dog. Your dog should be on the kerb side of you.” And I thought, “That’s not what curb means. This guy has got his curbs confused. The kerb at the side of the road has got nothing to do with the curb of restraining your dog.” So I had a vision of this man curbing his enthusiasm, which he must do pretty often judging by that morning – reaching into his chest, pulling out his enthusiasm, and placing it at the side of the road, next to the recycling. Now, I was pretty sure that I was right, and the ‘curb’ meaning to restrain is totally unrelated to the ‘kerb’ that is at the edge of the sidewalk. I knew I was right because in Britain the two words are spelled differently. When you ‘curb your dog’ you spell it c-u-r-b, but that thing at the side of the road is spelled k-e-r-b. I guess at some point between the English settling in Jamestown, Virginia and now, someone thought that having different spellings for two words that sound exactly the same was rather confusing, and so decided to kick the ‘k-e-r-b’ to the k-e-r-b. I suspect this was the same person who beheld the word ‘tonight’ and thought ‘that g and that h make things very complicated; we should really spell it t-o-n-i-t-e.’

So, feeling pretty righteous because I had God on my side (don’t forget this man was interrupting my prayer time) and I had the entire English language batting for me, I walked on. And as I went, I pondered George Bernard Shaw’s statement that the British and the Americans are two peoples separated by a common language.

How much better is the life designed by God – the life we read about every Pentecost, when people of very different cultures, nations, and languages have their barriers demolished by the Holy Spirit. Many thousands of devout Jewish pilgrims had crammed into Jerusalem that weekend. What a vibrant, exciting city it must have been that day. Yet along with the thrill of all that diversity, there’s the inevitable frustration of people not being able to understand each other. But unlike my encounter with the man and his lawn, here are not two people separated by a common language, but dozens of peoples, whole ethnic groups, joined together by the work of God – the drenching of the Holy Spirit. There is understanding – there’s unity along with their diversity.

Jesus promised it in the Gospel lesson, “The Father will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” That word translated ‘Advocate’ is very flexible. Other versions of the Bible translate it ‘Comforter, Helper, Counselor, Companion, Friend.’ Not just to be with us, says Jesus, but to be inside us.

When I studied French and German at high school, there was an object I longed for; I craved it. I would have breezed through assignments and exams, it would have made me look so smart. It was the Babel Fish. The Babel Fish is the creation of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It is a small, yellow, leechlike fish that processes human brainwaves, and if you stick one in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any language. Forty years later, what seemed like a ridiculous work of fiction – something you could put in your ear and it would translate for you, can be yours for a hundred bucks, and we call them smart earphones. So this morning I want to add a new translation of the word for ‘advocate’ in our Bible version. Comforter, Helper, Counselor, Companion, Friend, and now Babel Fish. God the Father has given us the Holy Spirit to be in us and to translate what we hear from our brothers and sisters, with the goal of mutual understanding, harmony, and peace.

Because we need it. These are days of painful division. We all know it and we’re all grieved by it. And most of us are willing to admit, we’ve been infected by it. And it is an infection. You know how it is. We are expected to divide ourselves. The barriers we are told to build are political, social, cultural, religious, sporting, just about everything really, and they touch every aspect of our lives. And I confess that I have not discovered a way of remaining 100% safe from those malicious forces that try to divide us. You see, anger sells. Having an enemy makes us feel secure, it gives us identity and belonging. So it is that I see the vehicle someone drives and I label them. I hear the music that is playing on their radio and I classify them. I notice how they take their coffee and I make a judgment about them. I glance in their shopping cart for five seconds and I think I can predict not just how they’ll vote in November, but what they believe about climate change, gun control, the causes of inflation, the pandemic, and who should be the starting quarterback for the New York Giants. Just from their shopping cart. I actually found a website that showed photos of the insides of people’s fridges and invited me to guess the politics of the fridge owners. I got a really high score. What have we become when our choice of snack reveals what side we’re on in the Culture Wars?

So this week, I found myself feeling frustrated and asking God how we can remain undefiled by the spirit that lures us into forming factions, judging, rejecting, and dividing, and how we can embrace one another – not just despite our differences, but because of them, because we recognize that we’re incomplete without each other. Our task is to joyfully listen to the views of Christians we disagree with because we know that they are made in God’s image, have God’s Spirit, and have an experience of God’s revelation that I do not have.

Pentecost 2022 is God’s big invitation to open ourselves more and more to the influence of the Holy Spirit so that I can hear the voices of people who are not like me and understand them – not just their words, but their hearts. God helps us filter out the cultural wrappings, to hear the real person. And, then to empathize. And then to love. But we need God to provide that translation service. Without it the person I disagree with sounds like my enemy. She sounds like someone who wants to do evil things, he sounds like a person who wishes me ill, they sound like folk who want to take away my rights or my beliefs or my lifestyle. Let us ask for God’s Spirit this Pentecost Day to lavish us with this supernatural skill of listening to the other and truly hearing; hearing their pain, their fear, their vulnerability, their belovedness. It may sound like gibberish in my ears; it may seem like nonsense; it may provoke fear within me, but let’s seek God’s help to look beyond words to behold the person I need in my life.

Douglas Adams, of course, took the name for his little yellow creature from the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. That is a tale of pride going before a fall. In the story everyone in the world has the same language, and in their narcissism, they work together to build a tower that will reach heaven – a monument to their hubris. And God intervenes by confusing their speech, so they end up speaking different languages. And, because they can’t communicate with each other, their blasphemous shrine to human arrogance, remains incomplete.

Pentecost heals that confusion and chaos. What appears to be a bewildering event – people speaking in languages they have not learned, (so bewildering that onlookers think they are drunk), is actually a moment of healing, the resolution of a deep and festering wound sustained thousands of years earlier.

Now, in the public square in Jerusalem, God’s healing Spirit comes and people’s languages change again – not into the same language, but into a glorious diversity of sound that excludes no one from the gift of hearing and the gift of being heard. Everyone can understand, no matter where they’re from. Language used to divide. It still does. Difference used to cause friction. Just like now. But on the Day of Pentecost, all languages are brought together into a united song of praise to the God of all peoples. There’s still diversity, but there’s unity – of purpose, and of hearts. No wonder they call Pentecost the birthday of the Church.
Don’t curb your enthusiasm; it’s Pentecost – a day of wild celebration. Don’t curb your emotions – if we can’t feel joy today, the when can we?
Don’t curb your heart – let it expand and let it loose, open it to God’s translating Spirit; and in our diversity celebrate unity.

About Theresa Wright