June 9, 2019
Pentecost Sunday, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
You may have seen a video being shared around the internet. It’s a baby and his father sitting on a couch, having a spirited, happy conversation[i]. The baby doesn’t actually know how to speak yet, but the dad has no trouble keeping the conversation going. The baby babbles and gestures, makes eye contact and facial expressions, all in the sweetest give-and-take dialogue. And the Dad responds, listening to the baby’s comments, offering his own point of view, laughing at the presumably clever jokes, and allowing the child the joy of being part of the discussion[ii].
I don’t know what the conversation is about, but even without using any intelligible words, it is clear that the baby knows he is valuable and loved, that his dad is open to listening and affirming him, and that this conversation is important to those around him. Somehow his dad is allowing him to be understood in his own language, and affirms his place in the life of this relationship.
We celebrate Pentecost Sunday today, this 3rd Great Festival of the Church along with Easter and Christmas. On Pentecost, God’s spirit rushes through the gathered community of disciples, gives them power to speak to one another in various languages, and to understand each other in miraculous, transformative ways.
The barriers of our separate languages and distinct cultures is overcome by the Spirit’s desire for us to become an inclusive, diverse community, and God empowers the birth of the church.
Of course, in our world today, there are many ways to understand each other. You can put translations apps on your phone so that you can speak in English, push a button, and have the phone read your message aloud in a new language, one you’ve never learned: Pentecost in a smart phone.
There are also all kinds of ways for us to learn new languages, with the advertising promise that in just ten minutes a day, we can become fluent enough to travel anywhere. I keep hearing one advertised named, Babbel[iii], which is spelled differently, but sure sounds a lot like the tower we read about in the Genesis reading.
The Tower of Babel comes from the earliest part of scripture, from the stories that precede God’s calling of Abram and Sarai we refer to as “prehistoric.” The prehistory in Genesis offers answers to the kinds of questions asked in every culture. Where did we come from? How does God work? Why are there varieties of people in the world?
While the Spirit of the Pentecost story unleashes power upon people to communicate with others, the God at Babel can sound like a punishing power who jealously condemns people for being too ambitious, a God who penalizes us by confusing our languages, and frustrates our attempts to understand each other. At least that’s how it’s often interpreted.
But if you read Genesis carefully, you’ll notice that it doesn’t say God is punishing the people. I’m not sure it even implies that God is angry about the Tower, although again, I admit it’s normally understood that way.
I wonder if there might be other ways to hear this ancient parable. What if God is actually noticing the tower as a sign of progress? What if God is recognizing that civilization has developed in such a way that people can work together to do creative and powerful things, and Goddecides that it’s time to spread that creative force around? Maybe God knows that building differences into human community will allow us to become even more resilient or adaptive or compassionate, would allow us to somehow become more fully human.
“Look, they are one people, and this is only the beginning of what they will do,” God says. What if instead of interpreting the scattering and confusing spirit of the God of Genesis as punishing, we saw it as blessing?
Maybe the Tower of Babel isn’t a story about God’s anger, as much as it is a way to understand how God works through diversity. The God of Genesis is the same God as the Spirit of Pentecost, who is alive in varied and manifold places and peoples, and whose power cannot be contained in one tower or temple or place.
New Testament scholar Eric Barreto warns us to resist reading the Pentecost story as a reversal of the curse of Babel[iv]. He points out that if that were certainly the case, then the miracle of Pentecost should be for everyone to speak the same language. But in fact, the church is born at Pentecost when God’s Spirit empowers the people to all be understood, each in their own unique language.
Rather than all making us all speak one uniform language, Pentecost allows the church to recognize the gift and beauty of a variety of voices and meanings. People were speaking Greek and Hebrew, Aramaic and ancient Iranian languages, Parthian, Median, and Elamite tongues from all over the world. The gift of the Spirit speaks through the differences, without converting them into sameness.
As Pastor Isaac Villegas writes, the miracle of Pentecost is not that God speaks in a single, universal language, which then has to be translated. Through the Spirit, each voice is valued. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh, not just some. God values all of creation, all people, affirms where each person comes from, blesses who they are, and announces that what makes them different is good and holy[v].
Might the Holy Spirit still be working to help us affirm those who speak in different voices?
June is Pride Month throughout a lot of the country. Fifty years ago this month, police stormed Stonewall Inn in New York City, triggering city-wide protests, which are seen as the beginning of an organized civil rights movement for LGBTQ persons. Today, communities around the country gather in June to celebrate and uphold the gifts that people who have been marginalized by their sexuality offer the world[vi].
Within the church, too, voices that have for years been closeted, condemned, or silenced, have finally in the last few decades been freed to speak gospel messages of freedom, reconciliation, and liberation. Notice that the voices aren’t new, but those of us who have held places of comfort and privilege in the church may have finally been opened to hear their message in new ways. It wasn’t the LGBTQ community that had to be taught to speak a straight church’s language, but rather that some of our traditional congregations have finally been liberated enough to hear God speaking through languages we had ignored or dismissed.
Might this have been part of what the prophet Joel had taught us to expect, when he promised that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all people? Joel told us that God would use young and old people to dream dreams of a new day, that both men and women would be empowered to prophesy, that even enslaved and marginalized people would be freed to proclaim God’s Spirit in their lives.
Who are the people God is freeing us to listen to today? What languages is God speaking in our world now? What diverse and varied wonderfulness reveals God’s truth to us in this generation?
When Jesus gathers with his disciples in his last hours before his death, he promises them another Advocate, a Spirit who will live with them forever, and who will empower them in his name.
In fact, Jesus assures his friends that they will do greater works than what he had done. Like noticing that nothing would now be impossible for God’s people who learned to work together to build something important in Babel, Jesus tells his followers that anything they ask to do in his name will be possible for them.
Do we dare believe that promise? What would it mean for us to do something in Jesus’ name? I suspect it would mean for us to do the things that Jesus did – to work to feed those who are hungry, to forgive those who have harmed us, to speak truth to powers of hostility and oppression, to restore to community those who have been shut out, to strive to love one another, as God as loved us, and to listen for God’s spirit and God’s dreams in the voices of those are often ignored or oppressed, forgotten or silenced in the world today.
We may struggle to really hear their message. But if we work to fully listen, like a father attending to a babbling infant, who knows what God might empower us to do?
There are apps that allow our speech to be translated into other languages. But the Holy Spirit is able to do something even more wonderful than our smart phones. The miracle of Pentecost occurs when God’s Spirit inspires us to be more fully human with one another, to listen to others because they are valuable and loved, to affirm and include them, to communicate to them that we believe they are holy and good, and that what they have to offer is important to the world and to us. Maybe God will open us to miraculous transformation by our relationships with one another.
Then who knows what God could do? Maybe as promised, the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, and the whole face of the earth will be renewed.
Veni Sancte Spiritus!