Thursday Theology: Everyday Translations

by Crossings

Co-missioners,

This is your editor, Jerry Burce, grabbing the reins for this week’s ride.

I’ve spent the past several days visiting my father in Wisconsin. Every such visit gets me thinking again about my calling and yours as both missionary and translator. My father wore those labels officially during his forty years of service in Papua New Guinea—well, of course. No one thinks on the other hand to apply them as an equal matter of course to the folks who step into American pulpits every Sunday. Still less do we attach them to those other folks who either stride or shuffle into their assorted workplaces come Monday

Really, we ought to start doing this. It would remind us all that translation is of the essence in our baptized vocation. A mother tucking her wee one into bed at night with “Now I lay me down to sleep…” is putting “Fear not” and “I am with you always” into kid-speak. Equally of the essence is our shared identity as missionaries. This ought to be obvious from the “Sending” rites that have capped our liturgies these past fifty years. It turns out not to be. Who of us thinks about the street we live on as a mission field the Holy Spirit blew us into a while back? But there it is: each of us a Spirit-directed Jesus-rep wherever we happen to be. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” and yes, “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven….” There is work to do, in other words, and we’re the guys. So says our Lord as he breathes on baptized us (John 20:21-23).

Triquetra-circle-interlaced  –  From Wikimedia Commons

All of which puts a fresh spin, it seems to me, on the project that preachers are sent into pulpits to chip away at week after week. They stand there both as a missionary to the missionaries and as a translator for the translators—their tutor, one might say. Each of the baptized folks they’re looking at is this riotous impossible mix of saint and sinner, of “Lord, I believe” and “Lord, help my unbelief”—and buried somewhere in each is a chunk of “Lord, I simply don’t buy it.” To them the preacher speaks as missionary. This involves delivering God’s goods of Law and Gospel in words and concepts they understand. All preachers are always translating. Some translate poorly, others a lot better. The best are constantly groping for fresh ways of expressing God’s expectations, of exposing our failure to meet them, and, in response to that, of inviting fresh trust in the accomplishments of Christ. Along the way they’re also hoping that what they say and the way they say it will be of use to the folks they’re talking to when it’s their turn to pass the Promise along—that evening, around the dinner table, say, or wherever it is that families take in their nighttime these days .

I’ve been involved for the past thirty years with an ongoing pericope study group, as in a batch of pastors who get together to discuss the texts they’re due to preach on next. We have spent a lot of time puzzling through the texts themselves—and not enough time, as it suddenly seems to me, on swapping ideas about the language we’ll use when we deliver what the texts push us to say come Sunday.

I’m sorry about that. It leaves half the big questions unanswered. How do we talk intelligibly about sin, grace, and righteousness to people who don’t use these words in their everyday vocabulary? How does one help hearers, including those of a “progressive” persuasion, to grasp the reality St. Paul is driving at when he speaks of the “wrath of God”? Much more to the point, what language do we use to magnify Christ as the Gift of Gifts that God bestows on 21st century hearers? And how, in doing that, do we invite them to pass the gift along?

Here is where translation is of the essence. And with that I pass along a few examples of what I mean by “translation.” These come from a sermon for Trinity Sunday, 2010, that I stumbled across in my files recently. What I noticed on reading it again were the words I didn’t see: sin, grace, faith /wrath, anger, judgment, death / reconciliation, redemption, forgiveness / Law, Gospel, good news. Still, the stuff behind those words was all there, expressed in different ways. Perhaps you’ll find it of interest. I’ve added highlights at a place or two along the way that struck me in retrospect as particularly effective. Whether any hearers that day would have agreed with this, I can’t begin to say. That’s why every Sunday is a new adventure in fresh translation.

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From Canva

Pieces of the sermon—

  1. On “the God-Problem,” Crossings Matrix D3. Usual vocabulary: sin, rebellion, death, judgment.

Lots of people don’t [think about God.] They try not to. They resent it when the word “God” comes up in conversation. It cramps their style. It suggests that they’re responsible to someone or something much, much bigger than themselves.

The problem is that if I’m responsible to somebody then I’m also subject to that somebody’s expectations of me. It means I’ve either got to please that somebody or else I’ve got to suffer whatever comes of that person being disappointed in me. I get a bad grade, I lose my job, I get dismissed as a nobody. This kind of thing happens all the time in our dealings with the human beings we’re responsible to. We’re all aware of that. That’s why almost all of us work hard to do well. We try to impress. But what if the person you’re trying to impress has higher standards than you can meet? What if that person says “Be holy, even as I the Lord your God am holy?” What if that person goes on to say, “The soul that ‘sins,’ the one who fails to satisfy my holy expectations, that person shall die?” Well that’s the point at which all kinds of people walk away. As they go they badmouth the one they’re walking away from. They call him a phony. They say there’s nothing to him, not really. And then they die; only in dying they call it natural. What they will not do, what they cannot do, is fess up to the fact that the one in charge of life has just fired them from living. Even church-going people have a hard time facing up to that much truth about the One we call God.

  1. Some down-to-earth Trinitarian thinking, Crossings Matrix D3, P4, P5. Usual vocabulary: creator, redeemer, sanctifier, atonement, justification, faith, grace, etc.

Pentecost people are cross-eyed people. When they look at the world, when they look at each other—above all, when they look toward God they insist on doing so through a strange pair of glasses that have the cross of Christ Jesus etched squarely in the middle of the part where the eye looks through.

Lately, in just the past year, movie theatres have started passing out special glasses for certain movies. When you put them on the screen pops. Suddenly there’s a depth, a richness, a new dimension to what you’re seeing. It’s almost as if you’re seeing something brand new.

Something vaguely similar to that has been happening for the past 2,000 years whenever Pentecost people have put their Jesus’ glasses on. Suddenly they’re seeing with cross-eyed vision and when they turn that vision in God’s direction the picture pops. You might say on this Trinity Sunday that they’re seeing God in 3-D.

Until then, all they could see was what people usually see when they look in God’s direction, this drab picture of the Being way out there who holds us accountable for the things we do and we fail to do.

With the Jesus glasses on, what you suddenly see is not another Being, but a deeper, richer Being. What you see is not another God, but even so a far, far better God, better in the sense of being better for us.

Again, with the naked eye all we could see, was the Distant Being, the one looking down on us as if on a scurry of ants and holding us each accountable for who and what we are.

But with the Jesus glasses on something different pops out. Suddenly we see the God who held himself accountable for us. What we see is a Being of so much depth and so much dimension that he was able to fire himself from living because he dared to live for us, he dared to answer for us, he dared to make himself responsible for who we are and who we are not. He bore our sins as we Christians say in our old-fashioned church talk. Because of that, he paid the price. And because he was and is and always will be a God of such great depth and so much dimension, this God who paid the price was also able to reward himself for doing that. I’m speaking of Easter of course, when the living God brought himself back to life in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, so that today this Jesus might live for us and we in him, we in him because of the Spirit of God that binds us to him by getting us to trust him.

  1. On Being Christians in the World, Crossings Matrix D5, D6. Usual vocabulary: faith, love, faith-in-action, obeying God, doing justice, etc.

This too is what you see when the Jesus glasses are on, how the Spirit of God is moving and working in the world right now, first and foremost in groups like this one where people get together in Jesus’ name to praise and celebrate the God they aren’t afraid of any more. With the Jesus glasses on you see how this God is not only far, far off in the silent void. He’s also right here. You can hear him in the voice of the person next to you as she prays and sings with hope. You can see him, almost, in the line of people coming up here Sunday after Sunday to meet their Savior in the sacrament. You can find him in homes where families practice the art of forgiving each other’s sins and where at night they commend each other to the hours of sleep and darkness in the certain confidence they have nothing to fear because nothing but nothing is big or bad enough to snatch them away from the everlasting love of God for them in Jesus Christ their Lord.

This, of course, is what Pentecost people do. It’s how they live. With their Jesus glasses firmly in place. With steady hope in a God they trust with all their hearts, a God they dare to think of as their Father too. Don’t be afraid, they say to each other. He’ll treat us like his dear children. He’ll clean us up. He’ll fill our bellies. He’ll heal our hurts. He’ll bring us home. All for Jesus’ sake, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and nothing but nothing will keep our God from getting this done, for us.

And not just for us, but for the rest of you too. This too is what Pentecost people keep saying. It’s their major gift to the rest of the world, a gift that you and I are being given all over again this morning not as something to keep for ourselves but rather to spread around in whatever corners of the world God puts us in this week.

Here’s a thought: how about you and I remember this week that Jesus-trusting Pentecost people are the anti-pollutant that God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is dumping into our anxious, angry land. We have a special vocation. It’s to use those Jesus glasses the Holy Spirit has given us not just for looking at God but also for looking at our neighbors. With them in place, what do we see? Not just people we agree with or disagree with, people we like or dislike. What we see instead are other human beings that God Almighty has set his heart on…. So treat them that way. Surprise them with a graciousness they don’t expect, and if nothing else, leave them wondering if there isn’t more to the world, more to this God-thing, than they’d ever thought to guess. Such are the seeds from which God Almighty brings great things into being. [This last sentence is highlighted for anyone still grasping for thoughts about Mark’s seed parables this coming Sunday.]

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So much for the moment. It would be fun to have a wider conversation on precisely this topic: how do we take the wondrous stuff of this faith we confess and put it into words that people will hear and grasp without first sitting down for an extensive vocabulary lesson. Might we at Crossings be game to arrange it?

Peace and Joy,

JB


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community

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