My message for Pentecost, May 31, 2009

The following is the message I’m giving for the Sunday evening service at Patchwork Central this evening, which is Pentecost. Feel free to use it if you like, give credit if you wish.

Well, we’ve had a reading from Acts, a Psalm, and an Epistle, so those of you who know how this pattern usually goes will be expecting a Gospel reading here. I hope you won’t be disappointed, but we’re actually going to turn back a few centuries or so to an older story.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we remember and celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, with tongues of fire and the ability given to the apostles to speak and have others hear in their own languages. This is really the beginning of the church, where the Jesus movement moved beyond a small circle of a few, frightened disciples who had taken to hiding in closed rooms waiting to see what would happen next – and really, who can blame them – what a whirlwind of events over the previous month or so! Their leader, Jesus, whom they believed to be the Messiah, had been tortured and killed, only to reappear a few days later, claiming that the new era of God’s liberation and peace had begun. This same Jesus had spent many days teaching them, and finally, instead of taking charge of things to lead the disciples in glorious conquest to the ends of the earth, ascended into the heavens with the parting command to go forth to all nations with the message of the Gospel. And finally, on this day, the descent of the Spirit gave them a new boldness to speak of this Jesus, and the same Spirit gathered into their number over 3000 in one day. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never preached a sermon with that kind of effect.

It’s a wonderful story, one we should always keep in our hearts to remind us that God can do amazing things, that God’s ability to work wonders is greater than we can imagine. But the story I’m going to read, in lieu of a Gospel reading, seems at first glance to be precisely the opposite of the one we heard earlier. I’m speaking of the story of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9, where instead of God’s work in changing languages and understanding leading to a new gathering, an age of understanding and hope, it leads to separation, confusion, and apparent chaos. The two stories have long been thought of as polar opposites, and while I won’t dispute that entirely I think we have generally missed some very important things the author of the Genesis story was trying to convey. But before I get into that, let’s hear the story again, and pray that God will open our ears to hear it in a new way.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar [near the Euphrates river, in present-day Iraq] and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that they were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth (Gen. 11:1-9, TNIV).

We think we know this story pretty well. Late medieval interpreters, living in a time when common use of Latin was beginning to decline, set the trend to read this as a story of judgment in which a golden age of enlightenment is shattered by the curse of difference, the confusion of languages, and for the most part we’ve followed their lead ever since. But is that really what’s going on in this text? There are a few clues in the story, and one whopper of an ancient Assyrian royal inscription, that indicate otherwise. First, isn’t there something fishy about their using bricks to build the tower? The text makes it a point to mention that they used bricks instead of stone. Who else do we encounter in the Bible who used bricks, and under what circumstances? If your answer is the Egyptians, you get a gold star. The Egyptians used bricks, made with slave labor, to build their cities. The notion of using bricks to build a tower would NOT have had positive connotations according to the historical memory of the Israelites.

Second, what’s up with this settling on the plain? In Genesis 1 God had charged the human race to fill the earth, a concept so important to God’s plan for humankind that it was given again to Noah after the flood in Genesis 9. And let’s not forget the amazing diversity of the Table of Nations in chapter 10. What happened to all that, and why are we now only talking about one seemingly homogenous group of people? And third, the words in verse one for “language” and “common speech” don’t generally mean what we think of as a language, like German, French, or English. Taken together they usually refer to a way of speaking, which could mean a dialect within a language, or a kind of lingua franca necessary to do business, which would not necessarily be the natural language of the people. Because of that, some commentators think verse 1 refers not to a “golden age” kind of language, but an imperial language, a language that is forced upon the people. Others read it more figuratively, but still as a reference to an empire whose subjects must toe the line. An ancient inscription from Assyria backs up this idea. The inscription, praising King Ashurbanipal II, lauds the king as having made the world have one speech. This king was well-known for both his brutality and his imperial building projects.So maybe the story doesn’t really present some kind of pristine human language that had to be broken up to satisfy a jealous God.

This leads us to another question – what exactly was it that provoked God to action? Why does God care about some tower some people are building on some plain in Iraq? Perhaps a better question would be, why do we think the tower is the big deal? The text doesn’t make a big deal about it, in fact when God comes down to kick butt in verse 8 the tower isn’t even mentioned. In fact, tower might not even be the best way to translate the Hebrew word – it could be more like “citadel” or “acropolis”. Perhaps we moderns, with our “skyscrapers”, have fixated on the tower, when there is another sin that should be noted. I mean really, do we really think God was so moved to jealousy by this tower, of this sudden human enlightenment, that he had to break it up?

I suggest that if we see the text this way, and I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty close to the Sunday School picture I got in my childhood, and I can’t think of a preacher who’s tried to correct the notion, if we see this as the message of the text then we’re missing out. There IS a sin in the text that is worthy of God’s judgment, but it’s not the tower. The sin is this: the city-builders wanted to make a name for themselves, and to keep from being scattered over the face of the earth. They come right out and say it in the text. In building this city, the people are fundamentally rejecting the very purpose for which God had created us all, which is to fill the earth as the image of God. Instead of being God’s image, they want to make their own name – contrast this with Abram who obeys God and is given a new name: Abraham.

There’s one more thing worth mentioning too – far from being a judgment born out of jealousy at this sudden human enlightenment, this is a judgment that results in liberation and mercy. First, if we accept the notion that what’s going on here involves imperial domination and possibly even slave labor, then God’s scattering of the enslaved workers is an act of emancipation, granting them freedom from their oppressive masters, for God is a God who hears the cries of his people who are in chains. Second, God’s statement “nothing will be impossible for them” isn’t a reference to some belief that building a big tower would give them superhuman status. In fact, a better translation might be “nothing they could want to do will be beyond them”, with a negative connotation – in other words, “no evil they could intend will be too much”. In chapter 9 God had promised Noah that God would not repeat the cataclysmic judgment of the flood. Now, only two chapters later, humanity is about to descend to the point where no evil thing will be too much for them.

Far from being a tale of a failed skyscraper or a lost golden age, this is a story of freedom and salvation. God comes down to liberate slaves and enable people to fill the earth with the image of God, just as God had planned for humans to do in the first place. And then, in the very next chapter, God calls Abram to sojourn from his home, to be a stranger in a strange land, to be the father of Israel and eventually Jesus, whose church was born on Pentecost.

In some ways Pentecost is almost like a companion story to Babel. Again, one language gives way to many in an amazing act of liberation, but instead of what we might have expected based on our old understanding of Babel diversity is not collapsed into some kind of uniformity, but diversity is affirmed in a miraculous way. And this isn’t the modern liberal sense of diversity as toleration, and occasional celebration of, difference. This is something that runs much deeper, something that is a part of our very human heritage. Cultural creation and diversity is a thread that runs throughout the whole Bible, from the image of God in Genesis 1, where many theologians have seen an implicit mandate to create culture, language, and art, to the very end in Revelation. The ancient author thought it important to mention Jubal, the ancestor of all musicians, and the first person in the Bible who is said to be given the Spirit of God is Bezalel, in Exodus 31, to make many crafts and the sacred objects and vessels of the Tabernacle. In Revelation 7 a great multitude gathers before the heavenly throne to worship, people of every tribe, language, people, and nation. In Revelation 21, the kings of the nations are said to bring into the Heavenly City the “glory of the nations”, which undoubtedly refers to the products of art and culture. After all, it takes all of humankind and then some to reflect the image of God. When we create, we are participating in the image God has given us, and the nature with which we have been blessed.

Now, I would love to end here on this happy note, I really would. I wish I could. But the sad truth is that we are not always, or even often good representatives of that nature God created us to have. For just one example, each of the songs we have sung so far this evening come from cultures that have been suppressed and exploited by either the United States or our colonial parent, Great Britain, as well as other nations from whom we derive our cultural heritage. The wealth of the British empire was built largely through the domination of colonial India, the American economy largely rests on the foundation built by enslaved Africans, and over a fifth of our land territory was once part of Mexico, to say nothing of trade conditions and security arrangements with Latin American countries and the insidious influence of what was called the School of the Americas (which continues operating today at Fort Benning, Georgia, under a different name). We will shortly sing a song from a Canadian Native American group, whose cultures our ancestors basically tried to eradicate (an attempt which arguably continues to this day in some forms).

While none of us here necessarily directly participated in these atrocities, the fact that we profit from them and others like them cannot be erased. Our ability to purchase affordable clothing often comes at the expense of child sweatshop labor in southeast Asia. The food we eat depends on business methods that destroy the ability of farming families to support themselves and agricultural techniques that destroy the ability of the land to produce without being pumped full of chemicals that then infiltrate soils, rivers, oceans, and the bodies of humans and animals, with murderous results. Our methods of generating the wealth that allows each of us to enjoy the standards of living we have guarantee that most of the world not only cannot ascend to this level, but in fact must suffer in order that we can have it. We are all at least guilty by association, if not by participation.

And with an eye more specifically to culture-creation, Elvis became rich by singing the songs of former slaves, but what did they get? This is a question with which I have wrestled much as a jazz musician, the question of cultural appropriation. I believe it is possible to honor our influences by our creation, but we have to be aware that so-called “multiculturalism” is not simply a celebration of difference, but a philosophy that perhaps only exists because one culture has become such a dominant power in the world. In fact, I’ve read some pretty good critiques of multiculturalism as a kind of cultural paternalism on the part of rich white people who maybe feel a little bad about some of the things their ancestors, and maybe even they themselves, have done. I don’t have the time here to develop a strong theological response to these problems, and I’m not sure that’s something I could do right now even if I did, but my point is that we need to be aware of the problems involved when we start dealing with cultural issues and the fact that we are all fallen people. We need to have a more nuanced understanding of culture and the arts and language, and how we interact, of what happens when different people groups come together – what kinds of conflicts, resolutions, and new ways of creating come about.

This is so because in the end we all have to wrestle with our common human heritage as bearers of the image of God, who have been made to fill the earth, to mediate God’s presence to all creation, and to honor God by making something good with the world we’ve been made a part of. It is particularly so for us, the church, who are the redeemed people of God, whose purpose is to display to the world what it means to live as people of the new creation, which to my mind includes the mandate to create culture that reflects the reality of reconciliation. It is certainly no simple accident of language that, as Wendell Berry is so fond of reminding us, the words “cult”, “culture”, and “cultivate” (as in “agriculture”) all share a common root, cultus, which means “care” and came to be associated with religion. Culture-making is a holy enterprise, and we should treat it as such. We are called to be a people of Pentecost, and not of Babel, for “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ… And God has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19, TNIV).

Now we are going to sing a song by Broken Walls, a group that fuses Native American traditional music with rock in the hopes that through them God will bring healing to the relationships between White Americans and Native Americans. I hope this is one way we can honor the peoples whose songs we sing tonight, and honor the image of God that is in them. I pray the River of Life will indeed set us free tonight.

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