At one time, the whole Earth spoke the same language. It so happened that as they moved out of the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled down. They said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and fire them well.” They used brick for stone and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches Heaven. Let’s make ourselves famous so we won’t be scattered here and there across the Earth.” God came down to look over the city and the tower those people had built. God took one look and said, “One people, one language; why, this is only a first step. No telling what they’ll come up with next—they’ll stop at nothing! Come, we’ll go down and garble their speech so they won’t understand each other.” Then God scattered them from there all over the world. And they had to quit building the city. That’s how it came to be called Babel, because there God turned their language into “babble.” From there God scattered them all over the world.
You might have heard this Bible story before it's one of those narratives that both church and non-church people seem to know. But did you really understand the words from the Scripture reading this morning because there's a chance that you heard something else? I don't know about you, but growing up this is how I heard the story of the Tower of Babel told. What I remember is that there was a group of people who were so proud of themselves, that they decided that they could be like God. So they decided to build something that would commemorate their achievements, and God decided that it was time to punish them for their hubris. Does that sound familiar to anyone?
It may sound familiar, but the truth is that that is not what we find in this morning's reading. When we look at the text for this morning, we will find that the people came together to build a great city, not because they thought they were great, but because they were afraid of being separated. When we dive deep into the text, we'll notice that God didn't cause confusion among the people because God thought they were full of themselves, but because the people were not living into the call that God had placed on their lives. They weren't fulling what God had laid out in the beginning, "God blessed them: 'Be fruitful and multiply! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.'" (Genesis 1:28)
Let me just say that our desire to be with those who are like us is not something new. Our desire to live in a community where we feel comfortable and safe isn't new. We find that time and time again throughout history, throughout Scripture, people who tried to keep things the same, because it was what they were most comfortable with. But being comfortable won't lead us to the places where God is calling us to go. For us to be faithful, we need to acknowledge the times we have fallen short of living out God's call, and we need to summon the courage, the strength, to follow through and profess that the Spirit of God calls us to go and be in some pretty uncomfortable situations, uncomfortable places.
I could point to countless examples in the Bible were trying to build a community like that of Babel didn't turn out too well. But I think there is power in naming the times in our local community where we have not succeeded as well, because it hits a little closer to home. Did you know that a little over seventy years ago in 1937 there was a promotion for a subdivision on Lake Mahopac that read, "The patronage of Hebrews not desired.” This was shocking, because taken in the context of how things were ramping up in Europe it seems impossible to think that something like this could happen so close to home. Yet even though it might be hard to admit, the truth is that we have a tendency that encourages us to erect dividers rather than creating spaces that allow us to be in the presence of a multitude of others.
There has been a lot of progress made over the years of our human existence, but there is still much to be done as well. It took God coming down to earth to “garble” their speech to get the people who settled in Shinar to move out of their comfort zone and grow as the people they were created to be. Perhaps we need God to come and mix things up for us, because in what ways have we become “too” comfortable? In what ways have we or have we not stood up to injustice, to oppression, to those who don’t care for the widow or the orphan or those who don’t follow God’s commandment to welcome the stranger who has come to a new land? In what have we grown and in what ways have we found God’s call for us to be challenging?
It would be tempting to think that Pentecost is the “undoing” of the garbling of speech that occurred at Babel, but I think we would find the opposite. The Holy Spirit that descended upon the disciples didn’t grant them the ability make others speak the same language they did but instead gave the disciples the ability to speak in a language that was not their own. We were never meant to live in an isolated bubble. Our gifts, our talents, were never intended to be kept to ourselves. The disciples didn’t stay in Jerusalem, or at least they didn’t stay because for long. The disciples might have tried to gather in one place and stay there, but God doesn’t let the status quo go on for too long. Sooner or later, we have to move out and live.
Last year, believe it or not, I took a group of high schoolers to France. More specifically, I took them to an ecumenical community called Taizé, where we spent a week with other young people from around the world. There was a cacophony of different languages, and truth be told we were one of the few English groups in attendance. At the time it was a bit concerning because I thought that perhaps the fact that there weren’t many other English speakers would negatively impact the experience of the young people I had brought. But by the end of it, all the youth I brought couldn’t stop talking about their experience, their faith, and the friendships they had made with people who came from all different corners of the globe.
The Church is called to enter into the public sphere to be a witness to the love that God has not only for us but for all of those who are a part of God’s creation. As we look forward as a community of faith, I think the challenge will be for us to live as a church that has been touched by God’s Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God calls us and reminds us, this Pentecost to be a missional church, not a consumer church. Our vision for the future needs to be outward focused, our vision needs to be not only focused on how we convey the message of God’s love to those around us; but we also need to be centered on asking how do we change our hearts to let those around us in without feeling like our traditions or ways of life are being threatened.
The simple truth, the reality, is that we can’t go back to Babel, because we were never meant to live in Babel, never meant to be one people with one language one culture. We’re meant to go out into the world speaking different languages, not just spoken languages, but languages of the heart as well. Our ability to the love will be richer for it, our ability to feel God’s presence will seem more tangible, and our pains and joys will see more real when we recognize that the multi-colored tapestry of our different stories opens ourselves to a true understanding of one another.
Pentecost is something that we are meant to live out in our daily lives. It isn’t just some fanciful remembrance of God’s Spirit coming to the disciples and fulfilling the promise that was made by Jesus. This day and, we are meant to live outwards, live boldly, and live with hearts full of understanding and grace. If we live as a church that trusts that God puts new people in our lives for a reason, we might discover the joys of what it means to be a community of faith that goes forward with a rich collection of stories that comes from our different tongues and languages of the heart.
So, in the end, I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. Are we going to feel that our babbling in different tongues is a hindrance? Or are we going to going to view it as a blessing? Personally, I feel safe saying that it’s the latter. Because if we dare to let the Holy Spirit be our guide, we will find that we are led not only to unknown places but unknown places that end up being rich and vibrant. If we dare to let ourselves go beyond the barriers we have built for ourselves we might discover that the work that God has given us becomes more manageable when we are aren’t living behind a cloud of fear of those things or people that don’t fit our expectations.
On this Pentecost Sunday let us join together as we put our faith into not only into words of comfort and love, but actions as well. The people who found their way to Shinar were never meant to live with one another for very long. The disciples who made their way to the upper room were never meant to stay hidden away by themselves for very long. And we here, here in this place, are not intended to live out faith, our love, once a week here in this building with it’s four walls, but every day and everywhere we go. So don’t be afraid to take risks to love, to be bold, to stand up for what is right, and to tear down the dividers around us so that we can see each other face to face.
When we see each other face to face, when we speak in different tongues and languages of the heart, we will know that we are living in the world that God had intended for all of humankind. And we won’t ask ourselves whether the babbling in Genesis was a curse, because we will find that we are too overwhelmed by the blessings of a fellowship that is greater than anything we could have created by human means. Amen.