Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pentecost: Get Out of the Room

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Acts 2:1-21 and Genesis 11:1-9:

While the Tower of Babel might not be the best known story in the Bible, it is certainly one that is known by most people, it’s sort of seeped into our consciousness, even for people who might not have been raised in the church.  The Tower of Babel serves as the last of the ancient histories in Genesis, before moving onto the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs.  In some ways this story  sets itself up as a grand story from the first lines, in which we are told that “the whole earth had one language and the same words,” which  remembering George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” I’ve always wondered how that’s possible.  Like the other stories of the ancient histories this passage serves as an etiology, that is it is a story that seeks to explain why things are, and so it seeks to tell us why if we all came from the same place why we speak different languages.  But just like with the other stories, this is of course much more than just a story of origins.  If that’s all it was we wouldn’t be talking about it all these millennia later, so what is it that makes this story important and what can we learn from it, and the story of Pentecost that we can apply to our lives today?

The story that comes immediately before this is the flood, and so obviously there is a large gap of time, although none is indicated, so that the population has grown large again.  But rather than following God’s injunction to “be fruitful and multiple and fill the earth,”  which is the injunction given first to Adam and Eve, and then it is given twice, in just a few verses to Noah’s and his sons.  Instead they are all staying in one place, and indeed one of the two reasons why they give for why they should build a city and a tower is so that they are not scattered “upon the whole face of the earth.”  Why this is a fear is not really said, because it’s not clear who will do this scattering.  We might think it would be God, but there are not threats that this is going to happen, but it is really this fear that drives the first reason why they need to do this, and the second reason is so that they can “make a name” for themselves.

That sort of stands in contrast to what most people think is happening here which is that they began to build this tower in order to challenge God, to try and build a tower that would reach heaven.  That’s certainly the story I remember from Sunday school when I was young, and it’s certainly the imagery we see in art or in the movies, of people trying to reach God.  But that is not what the passage actually says, and the New Revised Standard Version, which was the translation we heard today, sorts of encapsulates this better than the King James Version, by saying that they are building the tower to the heavens, rather than to heaven.  That is they are building it up into the skies, rather than into heaven itself.  We are also told that this tower is not seen by God as a threat, by what happens immediately afterwards, and it’s sort of hidden between the lines unless we’re paying close attention to the text, but what it says is that God “came down to see the city and the tower.”  God has to come down in order to see what it is that they are doing.  This city and tower are not a threat to God, instead what is a threat is why they did it, and that is to make a name for themselves and to keep themselves from getting scattered across the whole earth.

God says “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.”  And so to stop this from happening, God confuses their languages and scatters them across the face of the earth.  So the result of their efforts are the exact opposite of what they had intended as they began their construction project.  Not only are they scattered across the face of the earth, fulfilling what God had told them to do, but which they feared, but even worse they do not make a name for themselves.  This is the only story in Genesis in which none of the participants are named, and all we know them for is as the name Babel, which means confusion.  We even call it the Tower of Babel, although it might more properly be called the tower of Shinar, which is where the city and tower are constructed.

Of course this desire to make a name for ourselves didn’t go away because of this story.  Just take a look at the internet, or reality TV, or other places where people are willing to do stupid things just to get their 15 minutes of fame as Andy Warhol said.  And of course they are not alone in wanting their name everywhere, just think of others who do the same thing, with probably the best representative being Donald Trump.  The Donald has to put his name on everything, sometimes I’m amazed that his children and many ex-wives don’t have his name tattooed on their foreheads.  And of course he likes to build things, as do others.

Just over a year ago, the kingdom tower was begun in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, initially designed to be a mile tall, it was found that the ground wouldn’t support that, so it will be a mere 3,281 feet tall, beating the Burj Khalifa in Dubai by 568 feet, which replaced Taipei 101, which replaced the Petronas Towers, which replaced the Sears Tower, which replaced the World Trade Center, which replaced the Empire State Building, which replaced the Chrysler Building, and on and on.  Ironically enough for the way this story is typically interpreted, until 1901 the tallest buildings in the world for the prior 1000 years or so, had all been churches.  But I think what we have to remember is that the people did not get into trouble for building the tower.  The tower itself is neutral.  God doesn’t destroy the tower, and in fact what the scripture says is that “they left off building the city.”  The tower itself isn’t even mentioned.  The problem isn’t the construction of the tower, or the city, or even the making of the bricks, the problem is why they are doing it, and what comes as a result of their efforts to build the tower.

One interpretation that was especially prevalent among Jewish scholars was that in their desire to make a name for themselves, to gain fame and immortality, that social justice was pushed aside.  The people could have used the invention of the bricks to build adequate and nice houses for everyone, to build worship sites, to do other things to improve everyone’s lives, but instead they sought fame, and as a result they treated everyone as means to an end, and began to value the tower and the bricks over people.  One story says that the tower reached seven miles high and if a brick fell over the side, that the engineers would cry because of how much effort it took to get the brick to the top, but if a worker fell over, the simply moved someone else up.  The tower then became more important than everything else, including health and safety and freedom of the people, and it became a reason to justify slavery and brutality, and thus God had to stop them in order to stop the injustice.  Sort of like parents who sometimes just have to separate their kids, not only to stop them, but to keep them from themselves.

Another interpretation sort of corresponds with the first and says that in order to build this tower, and to form this city that all individuality and difference had to be crushed.  They all had the same language and even the same words, and thus presumably they all sought to have  the same thoughts and actions as well, and so all dissent or difference of opinion was silenced.  Their desire to build one tower was an outshoot of their desire to have one point of view for everyone, one political outlook for everyone, and so they opposed freedom of thought, action or belief.  If someone came up with a different word they would be expelled, or even worse, in order to keep everyone the same.  Everyone must conform, and in order to get everyone to conform they resorted to the worst of behaviors and atrocities.  Thus God does not punish them for building the tower, but instead God separates them, gives them this confusion, so that a proliferation of ideas, beliefs, feelings and opinions will be possible.

The story of Pentecost is a parallel story to the Tower of Babel.  Pentecost also battles against the prevalent desire to turn inward to become insular, to make everyone think just like we do, to act just like we do, to look just like we do, and to believe just like we do.  And we can certainly see this desire for insularity in the church today.  It’s been said that the most segregated time in America is Sunday morning in the church, and this is true more than just of race.  Birds of a feather do want to flock together, but the question is, is that is what God is calling us to do or be as a church?  I don’t think it is, and I think the Pentecost story shows us that.  In the first chapters of Acts all the disciples and other followers are spending all their time together, including living together, and Peter is preaching just to them.  Today’s passage says, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  Now the question we might ask is why they were all together, because just before Jesus had ascended, which happened in the chapter before, Jesus tells the disciples that they will receive the Holy Spirit, which will give them (power) and then they are to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  And yet there they are, still in Jerusalem, holed up together.

Jesus has told them to go out to the ends of the earth proclaiming the gospel message, just as God has told the people to fill the earth, and yet they were all bunched together, possibly fearing being scattered just like those who built the tower were. But God tells them “Get out of the upper room!” And so on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fills them with tongues of fire and they began to preach in other languages.  Well they couldn’t exactly sit around and talk to each other because they were no longer talking the same language.  They had to get out, to move beyond themselves, to begin engaging people who weren’t like them, who didn’t think like them, act like them, believe like them, or look like them, and because of that the church began to spread.

Now it didn’t come without conflict and compromise.  In the 15th chapter of Acts we find the first council of the church, known as the Jerusalem Council, in which Paul and Barnabas have traveled back to Jerusalem to tell them about their missionary efforts to the gentiles, or the non-Jewish population, and to talk about the controversy surrounding whether gentile converts have to obey Jewish law, most importantly for males to be circumcised.  This doesn’t seem very important to us today, but it was a major point in the early church, and to say there were differences of opinion would be an understatement.  But what strikes me about these conversations is that while there are some harsh words exchanged, especially between Peter and Paul, none of them ever say that those with whom they disagree are not Christians, that they are not faithful, that they are not true disciples of Christ, or that they are all going to hell.  Instead they respect the integrity and the faith of the others, and engage in dialogue.  Definitely something the modern church should learn to emulate.  But what the leaders in Jerusalem also decide is that in order for Jesus’ desires to be fulfilled, in order for the gospel message to be spread to the ends of the earth as he commanded, that they were going to have to open up their thinking and their ideas to others, and amazingly enough to allow others who thought, acted, talked, and looked differently from them to hear the gospel message and to pick up their cross and follow Christ.

One of the responses that churches often have, especially in times of crises, is to turn inward, to begin to hold onto everything tightly for fear that if they don’t that they will all be scattered.  Only by becoming insular and shutting out everyone who is not like them will they be able to survive.  This is true not just of local congregations, but of the larger church as whole as well, and that is certainly what I witness a lot today with a lot of the rhetoric we hear from the church.  It’s not faithfulness that drives this insulator and keeping others out, it’s fear.  It’s the same thing that drove the builders of the tower.  If we turn inward we won’t be scattered.  Of course that’s exactly the opposite what happened to them, and it’s also what happens when the church becomes insular.  God scatters these churches because they are not being faithful, they are not doing what God has commanded them to do, which is to spread the gospel message to the ends of the earth. It turns out that diversity of opinion, of interpretation, of beliefs is not the result of God’s punishment for the world, it is what God called for originally.  People desire uniformity, but God calls for diversity.  And this is not to contradict what Alan Bell talked about last week in having unity and maturity in the church, because what we see in Paul’s letters is that unity does not mean uniformity, and diversity does not mean division.

We celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the church, although unfortunately we don’t have the cake, and it becomes the birth of the church because God forces the disciples out of the upper room, out of their insulator, out into the world to interact with the world and to spread the gospel message to the world.  The faith is not served when we turn inward; it is only served when we turn outward.  The church does not grow when it turns inward; it only grows when it turns outward.  We are not good disciples when we surround ourselves only with people who think and believe just as we do, we are good disciples when we connect with the world and deepen our faith through engagement not through escape.

Rev. Cecil Williams, who was lead pastor at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, one of the most diverse churches in the country, said any church can grow as long as you don’t care who shares up, or to put it another way, if you are ready, willing and able to welcome anyone then you will be able to spread the gospel message, the good news to everyone.  But there is one more piece to that, which is to ask what it is that we have to offer, because that too is what Pentecost is about.  What is our community on fire about?  What do we have to proclaim to this community?  What is the good news that we have to offer? Or we might ask, if this church were to close would anyone notice or would anyone care? Or, if you were filled with the Spirit and were given to engage with someone else who spoke another language, but we could only have one conversation with them, what would we tell them?  Would it be about a fearful insularity that is afraid of others and afraid of being scattered or would it be about an expansive God who loves creation, loves us and wants that message to be spread to the ends of the earth.  I pray it is the second.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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