Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Beyond Babel

(A Pentecost Sunday sermon preached at All Saints' Littleton on 5/23/2010)

Pentecost is often referred to as the birth of the church: the start of the full understanding of Christian truth.

It is also often described as God’s reversal of the Tower of Babel: building on what was broken when the languages were scattered.

The story of the Tower of Babel answers a question that many an inquisitive child has likely asked a parent: Why are there so many different people and languages in the world?

The story, Genesis 11:1-9, goes like this: The whole earth originally had one language. A group of people migrated to a new land, and started building a city, and then decided that they would build a tower with its tops in the heavens. The motivation for this tower is “To make a name for ourselves, otherwise, we shall be scattered abroad upon the whole earth.”

In other words, the tower was an attempt to consolidate sameness into a channeled power: power that was believed could rival God’s power, reaching the very heavens.

God comes down to see the city and the tower, and is not impressed.

Ultimately, God scatters the people over the face of the earth, confusing the languages.

“Babel” refers not to the name of the tower, but is derived from the Hebrew word “to jumble.”

This action by God could be understood as punishment, but isn’t necessarily so. The Rev. Jeff Paschal writes that the implication is “...that God uses humanity’s city and tower building as the occasion to fashion a diverse humanity, flung like a divine sower’s seed all over the planet. Apparently God is uninterested in a people united for the purpose of assuring their own fame and safety.” Instead, God relishes having a world full of faithful people of different colors, sizes, shapes, ideas and languages. (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 2009)

The Day of Pentecost moves humanity beyond Babel. It is not a simple undoing of the jumble. A reversal of Babel would restore humanity to the state before the jumbling. This is not what happens. The languages are not recombined into a singular language that everyone is to use. Everyone in the room doesn’t become the same.

Instead, something far more powerful happens. The Gospel is heard in everyone’s native language. The disciples, by the power of the Holy Spirit, were suddenly able to speak in other languages: not spiritual language, but the languages of the people present.

Pentecost does not dissolve difference, but it transcends the barriers that difference sometimes creates. God’s people are not all made the same, but are united in a sense of oneness.

It is amazing to discover that the Church...often rightly criticized for being rigid and inflexible...started under the principle of oneness within difference.

The events of Pentecost leads us to the conclusion that the Gospel is to be TOLD in every language: available to all for the sharing of the spiritual truth of God’s love for the world, and in doing so celebrates the remarkable diversity found within it.

The church has often struggled with this understanding of “Christian truth.” From the beginning, people have feared difference, otherness, and the strangeness of the stranger. We often see a threat from those who are different in looks, sounds, or thoughts. The threat lies not in the differences that God has woven into all parts of God’s creation, including humanity, but in any group’s lust of power over others, and its insistence that its identity alone reflects God’s nature and God’s way. (M. Jinkins, FOW)

Christianity, as we can see throughout history, has at times fallen victim to this danger.

Oneness is not sameness. The charge is to share the Gospel, not mandate it. We are called to translate the Gospel, not just to every language, but to reframe it so that the underlying message can be understood in every context. Relying on four rather different Gospel accounts of Jesus, instead of a singular account, is a constant reminder that the particular words used are not as important as the truth to be found within them.

Pentecost is ultimately the charge to share our truth as we understand it: the path by which that we have encountered God.

I’ve asked you all to wear red this morning not just for the great visual effect. It is a reminder that the flame of God’s inspiration dwells within you. Each one of us is called to share our understanding of the truth of God, and to be open to the hearing of it from others.

That is the beautiful flipside of sharing the Gospel truth. In doing so, we discover that the love of God is a reality far beyond ourselves, and far beyond our Christian understanding.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, on a recent episode of “Speaking on Faith,” addresses the reality of Christian truth, using his friend, the Dalai Lama, as an example. He said:

“(The Dalai Lama) is someone who's been in exile for over 50 years. How should he really be? I mean, he's missing his beloved Tibet. He's missing his people. He's been made to live a life that he wouldn't really want to live. By rights, I mean, when you meet him you expect somebody who is bitter, who, if you mention the Chinese, will wish the worst possible to happen to them. But you meet him; he's actually quite mischievous. I mean, he's fun. He's laughing. And people flock to hear him.

Do you really think that God would say, ‘Dalai Lama, you really are a great guy, man. What a shame you're not a Christian.’? (Laughs)
I somehow don't think so. I think God is just thrilled because no faith, not even the Christian faith, can ever encompass God or even be able to communicate who God is. Only God can do that.”

On this day, when the red fires of inspiration burn brightly, let us dare to share our truth in the telling and the listening, while remembering the lyrics of an old Frederick Faber hymn: “the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind, and the heart of the Eternal, is most wonderfully kind.”

(NOTE: Richard Sheffield's essay in Feasting on the Word Year C. Vol. 3 alerted me to connections with Faber's hymn.)

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