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Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21
When I was still a seminary student, and starting a new church in Norman, I was visiting someone in the hospital in Oklahoma City. I happened to be wearing my clerical collar when I went in that day, which is common among seminary students. It’s a way for us to begin to claim our pastoral authority. But it’s also a way for everyone else to know that you are clergy. And this morning I had a young woman greet me in the hall on my way to see my person and almost literally pull me into a room where her grandmother was quite frantic. The nurses were trying to calm her down, but she was clearly agitated and angry, chiding them in Spanish. “What can you do, Chaplain?” they asked.
Well, I wasn’t the chaplain, but this was hardly the time to engage in semantics. My last work with Spanish was in college almost 20 years ago at that time. I had no idea what to say…”uno mas cerveza” seemed inappropriate, as did, “Donde esta la biblioteca?”…and I knew even less about how to calm down frantic patients in a hospital. So I did the only thing I could think to do—I began to say “Padre nuestro…” The Lord’s prayer. I didn’t know how to finish it in Spanish, but the woman stopped. She smiled softly, bowed her head, and whispering, finished out the the prayer as I began to follow her words.
In Jesus’ day, multiple languages were spoken. Latin was the official language of the Empire; however, most of Roman daily affairs were likely conducted in Greek. Likewise, Hebrew was the religious language of the Jewish religion, but many of the Jews in Israel at that time conversed in Aramaic as, most likely, did Jesus and his disciples. So, we might say that the Holy Spirit came and allowed the apostles to reach some who had previously been unable to hear, but it’s likely that they already spoke multiple languages. I happen to think that the miracle of Pentecost is not so much a miracle of understanding as it is of hearing. What caught people’s attention is that these Galileans were now speaking in the people’s own native languages. What calmed that woman down in the hospital was not that I was able to speak fluently in her language, but that I tried to hear her…
In the second chapter of the book of Acts, this scene you just heard describes a major event in the Christian tradition. We call it Pentecost. The English word “Pentecost” is a transliteration of the Greek word pentekostos, which means “fifty.” It comes from the ancient Christian expression pentekoste hemera, which means “fiftieth day.” But Christians did not invent the phrase “fiftieth day.” Rather, they borrowed it from Greek-speaking Jews who used the phrase to refer to a Jewish holiday. This holiday was known as the Festival of Weeks, or, more simply, Weeks (Shavuot in Hebrew). Shavuot was the second great feast in Israel’s yearly cycle of holy days. It was originally a harvest festival (Exod 23:16), but, in time, turned into a day to commemorate the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai.
Now we think of this story as telling the tale of the birth of the church. And the reason that we do that is that it announces the arrival of something…the wind and the fire. And in that drama, the “Church” with a big capital “C” goes from being a loose collection of Jesus followers to the wonderful, perfectly organized and lovingly generous institution that you see today. This is where I wish that I had a “sarcasm” sign that could flash behind me.
We call this force in the second chapter of Acts, “The Holy Spirit”, which is really misleading. After all, it starts with the word “holy”, which sounds comforting and kind. And then there’s “spirit”, which is a positive thing, right? We’ve got spirit, yes we do…we’ve got spirit, how ’bout you? It’s something you want to have. But everywhere I look in the passages that involve the Holy Spirit, nothing is being calmed or comforted. In fact, everything is being turned upside down…from Peter’s dreams about God’s impartiality to Paul’s claim on a God for all people to this passage, where a “violent wind” come not to comfort, but to switch around everyone’s language and to shake everything up. Far from being a comforter, the Holy Spirit comes to prompt the disciples to make the same disturbing, disruptive, and world-changing testimony that Jesus made, calling them to question the values of the world in which they live.
The Holy Spirit is as much agitator as advocate, it confronts more than comforts. And it is never, in any of our readings, a force over which we exert any control. It disorients and disarms, as it will and where it will, and once we begin to look for it, it shows up when we least except it too. In fact, it shows up when we least want it to. For this is the trick with God’s incredible love without exceptions. It doesn’t have exceptions. And that realization…that awareness…is a real pain in the butt. It means that I have to give up my categories, to try and love people who are so very, very hateable. It means having to hear other languages, and to try. And it means that the action of the Holy Spirit will be to move me, as said in words attributed to St. Francis, not to be understood so much as to understand. Perhaps that’s why we are such a complicated and disjointed bunch of churches, because the Holy Spirit keeps throwing us off the rails of our certainty and though we still haven’t quite figured out what we’re supposed to be doing, the Spirit is there to keep us engaged in divine discombobulation. The task of the Holy Spirit, our tradition tells us in many ways, is to come alongside us…to comfort and nurture, yes…but also, perhaps more frequently, to strengthen us for work, or to muster our courage, or to push us to action. And that’s good news this morning, for this is a time where we need work and courage and action.
In Genesis, the story is told of the “Tower of Babel” where all of the earth speaks one language and in that certainty begins to look towards only themselves and their power and builds a tower to the sky, to become like God. God worries about what will become of this line of thought and so disperses the people by confusing their language. I had a farewell lunch the other day with one of the Rabbis at Temple Israel, Micah Citrin. He and his wife, Karen, are moving to Massachusetts to be closer to her family. I will miss them a great deal. Micah is a fellow Duck, a University of Oregon grad, and he and Karen have been great friends. As we ate and reminisced, I asked him about this passage in Genesis. The tower of Babel, he said, is about a deceptive unity…a unity that comes from monolithic certainty and compliance is not unity. The unity that God desires comes to us in our diversity, for that is the kind that is humble and gracious enough to recognize power outside of itself. Otherwise our certainty just leads to idolatry.
See, that’s the kind of insight I’m going to miss from him. And it fits perfectly for today. In Genesis the people stand together in an attitude of opposition to what is outside, rather than to fulfill their mission to receive and communicate God’s blessing. They see themselves as the source of life, and they reject all those who aren’t “them” as not part of that equation. Then God enters the story, first as an observer. God finds at the base of that tower a unity imposed “against others,” and the natural implication that arrives from that ethos – a lack of dependence on God. This is not the reason that God created us, the story asserts, and God’s solution to this is to confuse the languages again, leading us to need different ways to be together than homogenous unity.
Pentecost is not, I don’t think, the great undoing of the Babel story, as it is often portrayed. It is, instead, the culmination of the resurrection, where the indwelling of God goes from a trickle to a firehose. This is the Spirit of LIFE entering the room, you know? The same Spirit, the same word, that God uses to create the universe…pneuma. And as this arrives, suddenly tongues of fire and instantaneous fluency are the smallest of the symptoms. What is really obvious is chaos. And it is chaos because what the Spirit brings with it is the realization that what was once a limited time offer to a select few people in Jesus has now been set loose on the world. Not freed or released, but let go, like a spastic, slobbery dog, with the inspiration – “Go get ’em!”
Pentecost is the “Church’s” birthday, celebrated with the remembrance of confusion and shock, anxiousness and a complete lack of understanding. Is this what church is supposed to be like? Look at how much we had to accomplish today – Brandon Scott blowing people’s minds in Bible study class, kids running around, new members, people graduating and headed out into “the world”, prayers for a Columbia recovering from war and turmoil, and a mad rush of meetings still left to happen…it’s chaos! Which is precisely how I know the Spirit is here. For the longing for a life that is orderly and controlled and unified by that uniformity is not only unrealistic…it is not the world God created. God created us in diversity – messy and complicated. And somewhere in that diversity is where we will find our unity, not bound by our “like-ness”, but joined together in our variety, bound by the Holy Spirit which we are subject to, not in charge of…the Spirit that comes delivering a message that God’s love is for everyone. As Sheri Curry said when we ended up talking about this over coffee the other day…it can never be “us and them” when it comes to God. So, amidst talk of bathrooms and boardrooms, legislation and litigation, campaigns and “what can we do?”, let us, as followers of Jesus… as those subject to the Holy Spirit bear this in mind…every time we use our religious beliefs to draw a line and keep some people out, Jesus is always…always on the other side of that line.