Babel

A Pentecost sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church by Rev. Marci Auld Glass

June 5, 2022

Acts 2:1-21

Gen 11:1-11

 

Diversity.

Is it a good word or a bad word for you?

Diversity is a complicated ideal. As globalization, and the movement of people across the planet expands—some moving for economic opportunities, others moving because their homeland is rent by war, famine, or other dangers—we see tensions over identity. What does it mean to be German, French, or American if people don’t look the same, speak the same language, or hold 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, it was not to provide affordable housing for widows and orphans, it was not 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.

oops.

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. 

image from Shutterstock

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. This tower can’t be fixed by  a new coat of paint and some seismic retrofitting. The whole structure is faulty and must go. 

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.

Goodness knows we’ve seen that in our own lives the past two years. Our views on public health, politics, gun violence, and climate change (to name just a few hot topics) have divided families, communities, neighbors and nations. We can’t even talk about the topics now because we don’t even agree on the premise of the issue. 

It feels like we have the babel story playing out in the news with deadly consequences, every single day. Our echo chamber towers —that keep us from addressing real issues with nuance, compromise, and common sense solutions—  are killing people. We’ve seen it play out in schools, graduation ceremonies, hospitals, churches, cemeteries, public streets—and those were just the mass shootings that have taken place in the past week. 

We need God to help us take down our faulty towers, to remind us that the whole building will be rotten if we build only to advance our own voices and forget to care about our neighbors, our children, our world. 

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 the destruction of a bad tower is a story of grace and gift— when you only 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 the diverse world God has created.

The rain in Spain did not fall mainly on the plains.

I’ve just returned from some time in Spain and Portugal. Part of it was just wonderful vacation, for which I’m very thankful. And part of it was a pilgrimage walk on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, for which I’m also thankful beyond words.  Three friends and I walked 76 miles in 5 days with pilgrims from all over the world. I haven’t fully processed the experience yet, but I did think a lot about Pentecost each time I interacted with someone who didn’t speak my language. In many places, English will get you through. But when you can’t communicate in a common language, you have to slow down and work harder. Translation apps on your phone can help. But so do pictures, gestures, and that pause in your brain when you think “surely you know the Spanish words for “how do I get a taxi to take me to the next town??” (I’m kidding. I walked the whole thing, but I did think about it). 

Maybe that’s how we should engage in conversations about public health, gun control, housing inequity, and other issues facing our world right now. We assume we speak the same language and so we don’t slow down to make sure we’re understanding and being understood, the way we would if we encountered and tried to communicate with someone who speaks another language. 

That said, we also need our elected leaders to pass meaningful legislation.  

How are we honoring the diversity of God’s created world? 

As many of you know, my father in law died this winter, and one of the ways people are honoring the legacy of his life is by supporting refugee families in their community. It is like what our Living Sanctuary team does here, supporting families seeking asylum here in the US. Alex and Amy, whose wedding we celebrated in worship this winter, are now celebrating the graduation of their son, Alex Jr, from high school this past week. A family that fled their home country because their son was facing threats from gang violence instead gets to celebrate a graduation. This is the gift of Babel. 

These stories, and the story of Babel, reminds us that God wants us to seek out people who are not like we are. God wants us to remember that we will never find a person who is not already and always loved by God. 

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 be the same. 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.

Easy.

Right?

We’ll all just sit down and have a cup of tea and everything will be fine. Or not.

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 from the sticks speaking Greek, Latin, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, Korean, Chinese, and Swahili?

Come on.

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.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit didn’t just happen to individuals, but to a community. Our individual journey is part of a bigger, shared journey. God calls us to notice how the Holy Spirit lands on our neighbors too, not just to what happens to us as individuals.  As Jan Richardson writes: “Amidst the brokenness and chaos and pain that sometimes come with being in community, the Spirit searches for places to breathe in us, to transform us, to knit us together more deeply and wholly as the body of Christ, and to send us forth into the world.”

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.   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, and to help us bring safety for the world’s children.


 Come Holy Spirit, dwell among us. Amen

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