Lost in Translation

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA

April 30, 2023

Introduction to Worship

Welcome to worship this morning. We are glad you are here. 

One of the things we’ll be talking about today is how sometimes things get lost in translation. 

When Jackie Chan was first filming movies in the US he was also still learning English. There’s an outtake from Rush Hour when he pulls a gun on a bad guy and instead of saying “freeze”, he says “cheese”. 

The cast laughs. He laughs. It’s funny. And it’s also worth remembering that it is hard to learn a second language, and when people make those mistakes, it’s helpful to remember how hard it is to speak in a language that is different than your first language. 

Sometimes it is the literal language barriers that cause miscommunication. Other times those barriers are cultural, or political. 

Even in my own family, the people with whom I grew up, and who know me better than anyone, we have translation issues sometimes. 

So, as we consider being lost in translation, I invite us to consider the people around you. Yes, today, here in this room. And this week, as you move through your day. 

Your mail carrier. The barista at your coffee shop. Your child’s teacher or care giver. The muni driver or the person sitting next to you on the crowded bus. 

God has called each of us. The Spirit works to help us over come our translation difficulties. What might happen if we could do that? 

Listen to this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye

Gate A-4

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours,
I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please. come to the gate immediately.”

Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore,
was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem?
We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?”
The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying.
She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day.
I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic
and found out of course they had ten shared friends.
Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some
Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her?
This all took up two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee, answering questions.
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—
little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with
dates and nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament.
The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—
we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend— by now we were holding hands—
had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves.
Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—
once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person.
They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.


Acts 13:1-3, 14:8-18

Our passage today gives us a glimpse of Paul’s missionary journeys. Paul had been preaching and teaching before this, and aware the authorities were not on their side. King Herod Agrippa, we’re told, “laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.

After Herod saw how that pleased the crowds, he arrested Peter too. The church is being hunted. People are in hiding. It’s a first century “don’t say gay” political campaign, but back then, the church was the persecuted minority, and not the instigator of violence. 

And the communities into which Paul and company are going to take the good news are afraid to get on Herod’s bad side. In chapter 12, the people of Tyre and Sidon, beg Herod to not see them as trouble makers like these evangelists. They cry out to Herod that Herod has “the voice of a god, and not of a mortal”. (12:22)

Despite the fears stoked by political leaders, the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. (12:24)

It is into this context that Barnabas and Paul are set apart by the Holy Spirit to the work God called them to do.

When we hear that the Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Paul, but did not call Simeon who was called Niger or Lucius of Cyrene, or Manaen from Herod’s court—I felt a little bad for Simeon, Lucius and Manaen. Sitting through the Holy Spirit draft and not getting picked even as a backup player for the Cleveland Browns.

But maybe they felt relief. Maybe not getting chosen to be God’s representatives in a world that was trying to kill God’s representatives—maybe that was just fine with them. 

Or maybe that’s just me, afraid that God would send me out into a dangerous world.

Also, I realize the Holy Spirit never calls everyone to the same work. Maybe Simeon was great at handling details behind the scene, but was a terrible preacher. Maybe Lucius was needed to offer a ministry of compassion and healing. Maybe the Holy Spirit needed Manaen to stay at Herod’s court, to continue to witness to God’s mercy from within the palace. We are all called. We are not all called to the same work. 

Paul and Barnabas, though, have whatever gifts the Holy Spirit discerned was needed for this trip. And they say ‘yes’ to the Spirit’s call that is confirmed by the local congregation. And off they go.

Super Missionary Fun Times begin!

We heard today about their trip to Lystra.’

Lystra was in what today is Turkey, and had been colonized by Rome about the time Jesus was born. There, Paul heals a man who had been physically disabled since birth. And the crowd goes nuts! “The gods have come down to us in human form!”

They name Barnabas ‘Zeus’ and Paul ‘Hermes’. You can call me Athena, if anyone wants to give me a god name. The Lystrans want to offer sacrifices to these gods who have come and healed in their presence.

Paul and Barnabas, facing a realization that the situation has escalated quickly, again, try to talk them down.

Before we get to that, though, let’s acknowledge that we all experience the world through the lenses of what we already know. In the culture of Lystra, the gods they knew were the Greek gods. And they had started to learn about the Roman gods, who went by different names, even if the gods, themselves, weren’t so different. Zeus was named ‘Jupiter’ in Roman mythology. It is natural that they would see a miracle performed in the name of some god they’d never heard of and then figure it must be the gods they knew with another name.

Looking around at our world, I think there are plenty of illustrations of people trying to worship mortals as if they were gods. Remember, they’d told Herod Agrippa that he spoke as a god and not as a mortal. They said that to Herod right before God struck him down. Dead. 

Turns out Herod was speaking as a mortal after all.

The people of Lystra are no different than we are. The only difference is the name of the gods we want to apply to Paul and Barnabas. Maybe it’s a political candidate. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s someone famous for being famous. We still want to worship gods we can see who can show us a good time. 

The priest from the temple of Zeus shows up with garlands and oxen to sacrifice and the crowd is there. for. it. Crowds of any era love a good flag waving rally where someone tells them they’ve got all the answers and all we have to do is follow them so that everything will be great again. 

I mean, we’ve seen that in politics in the past few years. Ahem. 

Paul and Barnabas, though, don’t try to fire up the crowds to worship them as some political leaders are wont to do. Paul doesn’t want his followers to invade the capitol and attack congress in an insurrection. Paul and Barnabas try to talk the crowd down from the frenzy.

“Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.”

I think it’s a fine sermon from Paul. I love the way he points to rains from heaven and fruitful seasons—connecting God to things the people would know, no matter what language or culture they are from.

But Paul’s message didn’t really connect with the crowd.

Some biblical scholars think Lystra was one of the first places the gospel spread to a gentile community without going through a common ground of Judaism. There were some Jews in Lystra, but not a synagogue.

Think about how hard it would be to cross those cultural and language barriers in order to talk about Jesus, let alone to talk about the weather or ask for directions to the local Starbucks.

There was a young man worshiping in my Boise congregation for a time. He had just moved to the US from Thailand and was unfamiliar with Christianity and was learning English. Someone who had met him brought him to church so he could get acclimated to life in the US, and meet some kids his age. One morning, as I was saying the words of institution before communion, “this is my body, broken for you”, he turned to Bruce, that church member, and said, “wait. Whose body are we about to eat?!?”

Some things get lost in translation.

Bruce wasn’t able, in that moment in worship, to explain the intricacies of a Presbyterian understanding of the Lord’s Supper in the minute they had before it was time to walk forward. So he said, “I’ll explain it later, but it’s bread we’re eating today. Not an actual body”.

In Lystra, Paul wasn’t able, in that moment, to translate the love of God in Jesus Christ in a way that connected with the crowd. 

In part, I think, it’s harder to connect about things like this in a crowd. 

One on one conversations give people more space to ask questions, to absorb information at your own pace. Maybe Paul could have won over the crowd with his preaching if he’d had more time.

But people showed up to compete for the crowd’s attention. And a crowd’s attention is fickle. Religious leaders from neighboring towns show up and win the crowd over. The crowd that was ready to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods now starts to stone them.  

They stop throwing rocks when Paul appears to be dead and disciples gather around his body. I guess they finally believed Paul was a mortal, and not a god. Paul and Barnabas are able to leave the city and head to the next town.

Paul will come back to Lystra, despite that reception. On their way home from this missionary tour, they stop back to encourage the believers. And on his next tour, he’ll come back and Timothy will join him and Silas. The first visit wasn’t a success in the moment, but it wasn’t a failure either.

People in crowds don’t make disciples. But people finding support from other believers, and staying in touch with Paul as he travels, and learning from each other, and weeding the flower beds, and gathering for potlucks, and joining a bible study, and all of that other stuff that goes along with being church—that’s where disciples are formed. Timothy’s faith was nurtured not in the big throngs of a crowd calling Paul a god, but in the in between times.

There are lots of ways we are lost in translation these days. More and more people identify as “none”, having no religious affiliation. Fewer and fewer people are familiar with the stories of scripture or the language of faith. If I invited people to celebrate the eucharist in the narthex and then attend a class on the doctrine of soteriology led by the teaching elder—very few people would have a clue what I was inviting you to do. 

(Translation—have communion in the hallway and then attend a class on the teachings of salvation led by the pastor). 

Even if we stopped using all churchy language when talking to people in the community, the truth remains that the gospel is hard to translate.

We preach power through vulnerability, and wisdom through foolishness.

We preach the first will be last and the last will be first.

We follow a man who refused to become an earthly king and was skeptical of the flattery of the crowd.

Our God cares for the poor, the hungry, the widowed, the imprisoned because there is awareness that the rich, the well fed, and the free will and do care for themselves.

How are we going to work on our translation?

The other day a pastor in a group on facebook asked how people “attract new people to your churches”. I disputed the way the question was framed. I don’t think we should be doing things to attract new people to our church. We don’t need a crowd. Crowds are fickle.

I replied that I’d rather see churches willing to get out in to the community, where they could meet people in ways that build relationship. If we go out to do good things in the community with the purpose of capturing them to become new members here, people won’t fall for it.

A number of years ago when my previous congregation started going to the Boise PRIDE festival, we intentionally went because it was the place the church was called to be, not because we expected that the people we met would follow us back to church. Did some people find us because we were there? Yes. But that’s not why we went.

You can imagine the conversation about going to PRIDE in 2010 was somewhat different in Idaho than it would be here. And there were people worried that it would make the church a target for violence. And as the mission committee was debating the request from some church members to go to PRIDE, to apologize to people who’d been hurt by church, a 94 year old church member, one of the first women ordained as elders in that presbytery in the 1950s, quietly spoke. “The question to me is where would Jesus be if he were here today. And I’m pretty sure he’d be at PRIDE. He tended to seek out people who’d been hurt and who needed love. I think we should go where Jesus would go”. 

There was no more debate after Cathie Walker spoke up. Worries about protestors wasn’t much of a worry when they realized they were following Jesus. 

This is just one possible way to translate the message of God’s love to the community. Much like Simeon and Manaen and Lucius were not called to go with Barnabas and Paul because God needed them to do something else, if you’re not called to preach to people, maybe you’re called just to welcome them. Maybe you’re called to mentor kids or restock shelves at a food bank, or make lunch at Martin de Porres, or advocate for affordable housing, or support refugees, or sing in the choir, or , or , or. 

There are lots of ways to translate the gospel into language that people can understand. 

And in a world where people have lost sight of what it means to be community, to care for each other, to seek understanding when there is disagreement, it is even more important that we work on our translation skills. 

The old hymn ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’ has a line that sums this up.

If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus and say, “He died for all.”

What does the love of Jesus mean to you? Why do you choose to come to worship on a Sunday morning when you could be off doing other things? Why do you identify as a Christian in a world where religion often is used to exclude and harm? 

Like the early church, we may face opposition for believing that God is love and that God cares for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. And yet. God still calls us.  God has called each of us here together because we each have different and important gifts to offer. Look around the room. Each person here has a calling. It matters that you’re here. It matters that you’re joining us online. God is still calling us. 

May we care for each other, working on our translation, so that others may know of God’s love too.



One thought on “Lost in Translation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s