Sermons

Overcoming Babel: A Sermon for Pentecost; Rev. Dee Ledger; May 23, 2021

As a child, I remember the discussion in our community regarding the importance of speaking English as the primary and supposedly necessary language of unity in this country. Those who rejected dual or multi-language signage or directions argued that if we spoke or provided more than one language in schools, hospitals, or retail stores in order to help new immigrants or those less proficient in English, “those people” would consequently refuse to learn “our” language and therefore would be less likely to “integrate.”  It was an argument based on fear.  I give thanks that I was exposed to the benefits of diversity at an early age and that the gifts of people who did not necessarily look like, talk like, or eat like me were lifted up and presumed beneficial.  Even if it meant encountering more than one language in public spaces.

For many, diversity can engender feelings of chaos, of threat, of loss of standing, status, or privilege, and fear of the future in which the presumed “order” of things is irrevocably upset.  Audre Lorde once said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

The ancient story of the tower of Babel has been taught in such a way that it seems as if God were punishing the people by purposely confusing their languages.  The way the story went was something like this: the people decided to storm the heavens with a tower, God got upset at their plans, and subsequently confused their languages and scattered them. It was assumed that the unity of language and the sameness of words expressed in the story at the beginning was a good thing and existed until people got full of themselves and tried to reach the heavens.  Displeased, God shut their plans down by confusing their words and introducing other languages.  Thus, the diversity of dialects almost appears as a curse or punishment.  Uniformity in language and words thereby seemed to be paradise and the diversity of tongues was paradise lost.

Yet, like many things from youth that are overly simplified, this wasn’t the real or full story.  Furthermore, it was never really explained what the Tower of Babel had to do with our celebration of Pentecost, or even that the two stories were intimately connected in some way.

Babel is a word related to the Hebrew which means “to confuse.”  However, Babel is also traced to an Akkadian word for a city, “Bab-ilim,” which means the “gate of God.”  Scholars believe that this story has less to do with the frustration of languages which – incidentally, existed prior to any of Babel’s building plans—and more to do with how the people were subverting or rebelling against God’s specific plans multiply, to scatter the people, and to spread out, to become that ethnic diversity which included different dialects, thoughts, languages, and ways of being in the world.

Early diversity and pluralism is very evident in the bible before Babel.  In the previous chapter of Genesis, we encounter the Table of Nations, a long geneology of the Noah’s sons, territories, nations, and the like.  Diversity of language was already present and blessed by God.

According to Steve Reimer, in the late 4th millennium before Christ a city—a small empire by the name of Uruk rose and fell relatively quickly.  Uruk was the site of rapid urbanization, but an urbanization that exploited regional resources, suppressed the ethnic minorities, and constructed monumental building projects at the expense of citizens and the common folks who lived within its perimeters.[1]  Forced unity and an oppression of diverse ideas were actually more problematic than the bricks and bitumen used to make the city and large tower.  Thus, in his view, the story of Babel is more about the ways in which human beings sinned against each other in the process of rapid urbanization.  They started to consolidate power and demand uniformity while building their city and expanding their significance.

Shai Held, a Jewish scholar, argues that the story of Babel is about “the importance of individuals and the horrors of totalitarianism…”  “An attempt to root out human individuality is an assault on God. Jewish theology affirms that each and every human being is created in the image of God and that our uniqueness and individuality are a large part of what God treasures about us. To try and eradicate human uniqueness is to declare war on God’s image and thus to declare war on God.”[2]

The actual tower of Babel was one of the many ziggurats –a step-like structure– that dotted the Mesopotamian landscape.  Some scholars believe that the purpose of such ziggurats was to enable “God to come down” and not really intended for the people to ascend to the heavens.  Furthermose, these ziggurats were not meant to live in (they were not hollow), but were built next to temples.  For a temple to have such a ziggurat was to ensure that the temple could receive benefits for having God close by, or we might say, “God in one’s pocket.”  They communicated something about sacred space, access, and the city to which they were connected.

One scholar explains that those early tower builders were trying to recover a connection to God, but a connection that would “make a name for themselves,” as opposed to making a name for God.  The problem with the people who are building this tower to reach the heavens is that they want to use God to expand their power.  More importantly, this building is based on a fear of God’s scattering them… For, as it says in Genesis: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’”

Walter Brueggemann writes,

“The fear of scattering is resistance to God’s purpose for creation. The people do not wish to spread abroad but want to stay in their own safe mode of homogeneity. They try to surround themselves with walls made of strong bricks and a tower for protection against the world around them. This unity attempts to establish a cultural, human oneness without God. This is a self-made unity in which humanity has a ‘fortress mentality.’ It seeks to survive by its own resources. It is a unity grounded in fear and characterized by coercion. A human unity without God’s will is likely to be ordered in oppressive conformity.”[3]

Thus, when God scatters them at the end of the story, God restores and returns them to God’s original purposes and supports the pluralism that they feared all along.

So, what does this have to do with Pentecost?  And what does this have to do with the church?  In today’s scripture, the Babel story and its resulting confusion are overcome through the Spirit and the name of Jesus.  The disciples are likewise residing all in one place – a sacred space—and a city to boot—Jerusalem. But instead of uniformity, there is diversity of words, speech, or tongues.  A tongue of fire falls on each of them—witness those little flames above each head—as depicted in paintings, art, and illustrations of this story.

Furthermore, each disciple, each individual disciple,  – heard them speaking in the native language of each.”  God’s spirit is radically egalitarian—poured out on all—young, old, men, women, slaves, and people of all tribes, nations, and people of all sorts.   The connection to God that had appeared to be severed—by the death of Jesus, by persecution, by power imbalances by imperial Rome, by pain, grief, and turmoil within the disciples’ own tribe has been restored by the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The connection to God which was frustrated in the story of Babel by the people’s misguided plans and purposes is overcome by God’s initiative.  More importantly, the Spirit has extended their community.  The Spirit has been given to people of different tribes and cultures; it is not restricted to the disciples alone.  All are united by the Spirit of God through Jesus, but they do not relinguish their individuality in the birthing of the Church.

What does this mean for the Church at large and right here?  Here, we must be on guard against the uniformity that would be a destructive force in the life of the church and in the life of the world.  This Pentecost moment purposefully counters the human tendency to see diversity as threatening, to ask people to subconsciously or consciously surrender their often multiple identities in order to belong, and to be a people who are fearful of “the other.”

And what does this Pentecost have to do with you, in particular?  One way to get at this is to ask how you might notice the Spirit nudges you to go beyond your comfort zone into the God-given diversity of this city, this County, and this world.  How much are you willing to explore beyond your own personal convictions and your own personal values that may be different from your neighbors?   Pentecost takes our individual values and those of our neighbor and unites them in the Spirit of Christ.  It is unity in diversity and not an oppressive uniformity.  So how likely are you to see this diversity as a blessing, instead of a hindrance in the daily occurrences and activities of your life?

Furthermore, when are you tempted to “make a name” for yourself, rather than making a name for God?  When does a healthy competition of ideas and outcomes become more about you and your well-being, than about the welfare of the whole community in Jesus’ name?

The other night, the kids and I were playing the game of Life. I have mentioned previously that this game enjoys favor with my kids right now, although it is a bit dated.  Perhaps you have noticed that the emphasis of games such as this one and the game of Monopoly is money; specifically, the one with the most assets at the end of the game wins.  In these games, there is primarily one aim, one primary competition, and the other valuable aspects of life are downplayed.

How much of your life is based on one or two unspoken values that inform your decisions?  Are those values in line with what God would desire for you?  Have you been trying to make a name for yourself, instead of focusing on more worthy goals?

Pray for a Pentecost Spirit to open you to a different way.  When you are tempted to overly emphasize your values at the expense of the community, consider that others might have different yet still worthy goals and seek to find the unity within Jesus’ values, without demanding a uniformity that is oppressive and constricting.

Seen at it’s best, the Church can offer real-time practice in the world of diversity.  We practice gently setting aside those values that would try to return us to a Babel state of affairs, where our own initiative conflicts with God’s initiative.

I mentioned the other night that my kids and I were playing the game of Life.  At one point in the game, my son leaned over, and realizing that Mommy was starting to be short on cash, he generously gave me a couple thousand of his hard-won paper money.  When I asked him why he did so, he replied, “I want you to continue to be a part of the game, a part of Life.”  At some level, this child realized that the increasing disparity between his brother, himself, and me would threaten our ability to play together and would end our game prematurely.

Here is the role of the Church: to ensure that some of us do not build towers and power at the expense of others; to counteract demands for an oppressive uniformity; to help honor and protect the diversity of God’s image among humankind, and to ensure that the “name” we hope to preserve and acclaim extends beyond our own aggrandizement into the future.

Happy Pentecost, friends!

[1] Steve Reimer, The Tower of Babel: An Archaeologically Informed Reinterpretation, Fall 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 2 · pp. 64–72 https://directionjournal.org/25/2/tower-of-babel-archaeologically-informed.html

 

[2] Shai Held, “The Babel story is about the dangers of uniformity:Forget the tower. The problem is that everyone ‘had the same words.’” October 24, 2021, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/the-babel-story-is-about-dangers-uniformity

 

[3] Quoted by Peter Hong, “What the Tower of Babel Can Teach Us about Our Desire for True Gospel Witness,”

https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/june/what-tower-of-babel-can-teach-us-about-our-desire-for-true-.html