Acts 2:1-21; Genesis 11:1-9
For Pentecost Sunday, the lectionary couples
an Old Testament text and a New Testament text:
the New Testament reading from the Acts of the Apostles,
the story of Pentecost, and an Old Testament reading
from Genesis, chapter 11, the story of Babel.
Set in ancient days when there was but one people and one language,
the story of the tower built out of pride and presumption
(a long-lost Jane Eyre manuscript!)—
the tower built out of pride and presumption
on the plain in the land of Shinar
where God scattered the one people into many peoples
by giving them many languages.
So, take one (of three)—one observation of three:
in the one story, God uses language to divide and separate people;
in the other, God uses language to bring people together,
and it’s God’s initiative in both stories.
Yet in the one story, language confuses human effort to reach God,
and in the other, language is the means through which God is known.
One quick thought about language—
more than simply what different sounds mean as different words,
different languages participate profoundly
in matters of identity and belonging.
Back in 2009, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel.
Our group was flying Lufthansa, the German airline,
out of Atlanta through Frankfurt to Tel Aviv,
and I was completely unprepared
for my response to hearing German—
the language of my childhood and youth.
A significant part of me didn’t want to change planes in Frankfurt
and continue to Tel Aviv, but rather to spend two weeks
just hearing German again.
And it’s so much more than simply about what you can understand
and where you can be understood.
Because these days, with English, you can go pretty much anywhere.
But it’s not about where people can speak English,
but about where people do.
And though Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Africa
may feel more like home, because of the English spoken there,
you know you belong where the very accent is yours.
You know you belong.
Together, our Bible stories this morning suggest
that all the words of every language
combined in our loftiest and our deepest thinking—
our richest imagining—
combined in the best stories of all our cultures
reaching toward truth
do but indicate the Word.
Language is our admittedly limited means to reach toward God,
and while the most we have to give falls short, it is yet wonderful—
susceptible to division and smallness of vision,
but full of possibility and hope.
So, take one, God and language—
who we are and where and with whom we belong.
And as followers of God in the way of Jesus,
we belong together and we belong with God,
and the accent is love.
now I believe, I do,
that Scripture is revelation—divine revelation,
and I take that to mean both it is inspired by God
(God reveals truth in Scripture),
and that Scripture reveals God—the truth in Scripture.
I believe as well, that Scripture reveals us—
the truth of us, as human beings.
I also believe it’s not always easy to know in Scripture
who or what is being revealed,
and that sometimes stories apparently about God
are truly more about us—actually reveal more truth about us.
This Genesis story is one of those.
For in contemplating the apparent contradiction
between the two stories,
the one in which God evidently does not want people to reach heaven—
in which God is worried about people—threatened by them,
and the other one we read as integral part of God’s work of reconciliation.
So in the one story, God separates people
not just from each other, but also from God and the God story,
and in the other, God not only welcomes people into community,
but also into the truth of God and the God story.
And again, in both stories, God is presented as the one initiating—
as if God is at crosspurposes with God’s own self …
or as if something profound had changed
between the telling of the two stories.
And some would say that’s Jesus—
that Jesus came and everything changed.
That’s the purpose of the cross, some would say,
that God not be at cross purposes with God’s own self.
But here’s the thing, after or before the coming of Jesus,
I just have trouble thinking of God as threatened by a tower.
I have trouble thinking that God’s insecurity
led to the great dispersal of people, and the variety of language.
I have trouble thinking a tower rising into the skies,
no matter how high, no matter the intent of the builders,
worried God enough that God would say,
“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”
What makes more sense to me
is to hear the two stories together as parable—
revelation of the truth of us—
that on the brink of mighty accomplishment—
on the brink of achieving something momentous,
we regularly blow it—almost like we sabotage it.
We splinter into groups.
and it’s different languages, yes—
and different dialects within one language.
it’s different religions, yes—
and different theologies within particular religions—
different names for God within the same theology
within the same religion.
It’s different politics;
it’s petty jealousies and insecurities;
it’s anger and pride, selfishness and greed.
And that’s not the work of God.
So, take two—the truth of the gap, the great chasm,
between what is possible and what is probable—
between what we would like to see, and what we’re likely to see—
the gap that can so easily lead to cynicism,
but that can also be taken as the great challenge
to overcome our tendencies—our leaning—
the great challenge that is the possibility
that the best of what we attain
only represents the beginning of what we will do;
and that nothing we propose to do will now be impossible for us.
Nothing we propose to do will be important …?
Ensure enough water for everyone?
Access to medicine? education?
Nothing we propose to do will be impossible.
Finally, take three,
a couple of weeks ago now,
a friend of Sydney’s at school
gave her a quote and said, “Your dad can use this in a sermon!”
So how could I not?
It’s an Eleanor Roosevelt quote:
“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery.
Today is gift; that’s why they call it the present.”
But it’s not just gift for us,
but also how we offer our present to others as gift.
How is today gift to you?
How do you offer today as gift to others?
It’s one way of thinking of the great commandments:
love God, love yourself, love others.
When we think about how we offer our present,
as followers of God in the way of Jesus—
how we offer our present to our world,
how do you think we’re perceived and received?
Does our world hear the babble of a people
they perceive as divisive, petty, judgmental and closed-minded?
Or do they hear and see words made flesh
binding together in transcendent hope and possibility
the lives we live and the faith in love we proclaim?
Because how we’re heard—
how we’re perceived
is what we say and then
how we do or don’t live into what we say—
what we say and then
how we do or don’t live toward what we say—
what we say and then
how we do or don’t live into and toward the One
to whom we belong.
The world is not stupid.
Set before you this day, two stories.
Two truths that represent two possibilities
for us and for our world:
words made babble,
or words made flesh.
It’s up to us.