May 23, 2010
A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.
And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.
And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.
No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Is it a good word or a bad word for you?
Diversity is not very popular in some political circles right now. Many countries in Europe, most notably France, are debating whether or not women should be allowed to wear their traditional Muslim veils, or other obviously religious clothing or symbols. Switzerland banned the building of minarets on mosques. Arizona has now made it illegal to look like you’re illegal.
The movement of people, scattered abroad, across the face of the whole earth, is causing nations to struggle with their identities. What does it mean to be German, French, or American if people don’t speak the same language or function in the same cultural values?
Many of us, however, claim to value and seek diversity, believing that there is value to be gained from the sharing of ideas, language, and culture.
Yet the reality is, even when we claim diversity, we often seek out sameness. It is human of us to be like the people in Genesis who wanted to build a city with a big tower, so that they could stay together, united as one, and not be scattered abroad, across the face of the whole earth.
This story in Genesis is told in “a long time ago and far, far away” manner. Even way back in the days of the ancestors, they were struggling over diversity, trying to come up with an explanation for our differences that made sense. But for me, the truest part of scripture is that a story that was written thousands of years ago is still as true for us as it was for the original audience.
Because we still seek to build towers to sameness. We want to be with people who speak our language, whether that’s literally or figuratively. Perhaps the walls and tower they were building was to keep difference outside. Perhaps it was to make them self sufficient and enclosed, set apart from the world. Why did they do it? Why do we?
They had one language and the same words. And they made the mistake of using those words to clearly state that the whole reason for the building was not to glorify God, or to provide affordable housing for widows and orphans, or to appropriately plan for urban growth. The whole reason for the building, for the hard labor of making bricks out of mud, burning them until they are solid, and for collecting bitumen was to make a name for themselves.
The Lord came down to inspect the building and to see what the humans were up to as they industriously worked on their buildings and God realized….one language….same words….and the first thing they do is forget who they are and whose they are. The first thing they do is try to make a name for themselves.
I like that image in this text, of the Lord walking through the construction site with a hard hat on, inspecting what the people had built. And quickly, the Lord finds about 47 different code violations. Most importantly—the foundation is shaky. Rather than building on a solid foundation, they’ve built on sand. They have built to glorify themselves instead of God. So the Lord gathers together the whole construction crew and sends them off, scattering the people over the face of the earth, confusing their language, to keep them from continuing to build on a shaky foundation.
Because the truth is, when we only build towers to sameness, when we surround ourselves with people who agree with us, who think like us, who look like us, we can become unnecessarily prideful and assume that we have more of the answers than do the people on the other side of the walls. We can become arrogant and think that people who don’t agree with us, or who don’t speak our language, are wrong, or less than, or dangerous, or not beloved children of God.
People have often seen the Babel text as a story of punishment—because you built this tower, God is punishing you and confusing your language.
I wonder if this is a story of grace and gift—because you surround yourself with sameness, God is going to scatter you and confuse your language so that you won’t forget who you are and whose you are. The gift of diversity, of scattered language and culture, is the gift God has given us so that we’ll remember that we are stronger, when like the people of Babel, we leave off building the walls to the city of sameness and go out and live in a diverse world.
I read a story in the news this week that reminded me of the best parts of living in diversity. It also reminded me of America’s great legacy of being a melting pot, where people from all over the world can come here, work hard, and make our great nation stronger. The news was from Houston, Texas and was about a boy named Victor Cardenas. He had a rough home life and he ended up homeless when his mother kicked him and his siblings out of the house. So, friends from his high school would let him stay with them for a while. Finally, one of his teachers, a Russian immigrant, had him move in with her family. Once he had a stable home, he began to thrive and this month is graduating as the valedictorian of his high school class. In the fall, he’ll be going to Texas A & M on a full scholarship to study bio-chemistry. “In a suburb of Houston, Texas, the Mexican street kid had found a home, with a family of intellectual, Russian immigrants.” Stories like Victor’s can only happen when we see value in diversity, in people who are so very different than we are.
This story, and the story of Babel, reminds us that God wants us to seek out people who are not like we are.
Unlike the world around us that tells us to be just like everyone else. God has scattered us across the face of the earth and confused our language just so we will not seek sameness. Which means we need to resist our inclinations to surround ourselves with people who will only say the words we want to hear. We all might have to set aside our prejudices and actually consider that the other isn’t different from us because they are wrong, but because God wanted them to be different. Perhaps God scattered us over the face of the earth and confused our language in order to keep any of us from thinking that we, alone, have a handle on God’s truth, that we have all the answers.
We’ll all just sit down and have a cup of tea and everything will be fine.
What is a problem for us today was a problem for the church in the book of Acts as well. The followers of Jesus were all gathered together in one place when the Holy Spirit descended on each of them. And then, just as at the end of the story of Babel, when people were scattered all over the face of the earth, the text of Acts chapter 2 tells us that there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
Notice how both of these texts are cosmic and universal stories. In Babel, they are spread over all the face of the earth. In Acts, the people are from every nation under heaven. These are not small stories about someone else long ago and far away. They are about us. These stories could be pulled from the headlines today.
Because what do these people from every nation under heaven say when they hear these Jesus followers speaking in their languages?
They are amazed and astonished because the people speaking are Galileans.
You can fill in the appropriate insult today. But Galileans could certainly never speak all of those languages. A bunch of uneducated fishermen speaking Greek, Latin, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, Korean, Chinese, and Swahili?
Even the early church tried to build towers of sameness, seeking to define people by their otherness.
But the great irony, of course, is that God brought us reconciliation, redemption, salvation through an outsider, a peasant from Galilee. It is through Jesus the Christ, the son of a Carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee, that we come together.
Pentecost, today, is the day we celebrate this pouring out of the Spirit upon the church. And I think we need to focus on the gift of the Spirit if we want to make diversity work. When left to our own devices, diversity just sounds like chaos—a bunch of different languages that we don’t understand. Without the Spirit, diversity is scary.
But the spirit didn’t erase diversity and cause them to all speak one language. The diversity that mattered so much to God at the end of Babel is still operating. The Spirit gave them understanding, so they could hear about God’s deeds of power, each in their own language. Additionally, the work of the Spirit at Pentecost is what really allowed Jesus’ followers to obey his command to take the gospel to the ends of the world. Since the time the Book of Acts was written, the Bible has been translated into over 2,000 languages. The Holy Spirit does not seem to share our tendency to build walls to sameness. She seems to be more than generous and inclusive with sharing the gospel.
So perhaps we need to spend less time trying to get everyone around us to speak our language—literally, or culturally, or theologically, or politically—and spend more time discerning how we hear about God’s deeds of power from people speaking other languages, trusting that the Spirit is at work in our midst with a mysterious abundance that is not in our control.
As we celebrate this day of Pentecost, I pray that the Spirit will fall on us, will help us hear of God’s great deeds from voices to which we don’t usually listen. It is appropriate that today, on Pentecost, we are ordaining and installing officers. Listen to the language as our new elders and deacons are installed. Because we call on the Spirit to guide our work. We call on the Spirit to grant us wisdom in our leadership, compassion in our service.
Even if you aren’t being installed or ordained today, I invite you to consider how the Spirit may be calling you this day.
Come Holy Spirit, dwell among us. Amen.