Read the Genesis text here: Genesis 11
Babel Borough or Pentecost People
Pentecost: The rush of a mighty wind… doves… the tongues of fire… the courageous preaching… the Gospel proclaimed in many languages… the color red! These are some of the images that are a part of our Pentecost celebrations. And to that we in the Wartburg Parish, as well as many other congregations add confirmation… affirmation of baptism… prayer for the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is a wonderful celebration of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and the sending forth of Jesus’ disciples of all times and places to bear the Gospel of Christ’s love and unconditional grace to all people. All of this joy and celebration is wonderful and appropriate, but at the same time we must be careful that it does not obscure the other side of the festival – the dark side. The struggles and the pain that led to this day. Like the Feast of Easter celebrated outside of the context of Holy Week and Good Friday, it is far too easy for us to loose sight of the depth and profundity of the gift that is given and celebrated on this day. If we stay on the surface then we risk trivializing this wonderful feast day and the gift that is given. Which is why we are reading the story of the Tower of Babel on this day, in addition to the usual Pentecost reading from Acts 2.
The story of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11, comes at the conclusion of what is called the pre-history (chapters 1 through 11) and right before the calling of Abraham and Sarah and the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs. It is a curious story, especially when taken out of context. Remember that in the very first few verses of Genesis 1, God brings order and creation out of chaos and in the stories that follow, chaos continually threatens to break through, overwhelm and destroy God’s good and wonderful creation. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood – in all of these stories chaos and disorder threaten as the humans constantly fail and God is constantly re-creating and pushing back the powers of chaos in different ways in order to bring life and order. In this last story, we find the humans, the descendants of Noah, building a city to protect themselves and in the center of this city is a great tower.
Now the usual traditional interpretation of this passage tends to focus on human arrogance and disobedience, but there is more here than that alone. The opening of the passage makes it clear that the people are motivated principally by fear. They are afraid of being “scattered” and they want to make a “name for themselves” which means that they want to establish and perpetuate a single culture – their culture, their way of life. They want to protect what they have, guard against the danger of being scattered and keep all other influences that might challenge or force change at bay. So, the motivation is fear, and that leads them to a plan that focuses on isolation and uniformity.
Fear / Isolation / Uniformity!
This is their solution and this is their security! And God thinks it is a lousy idea. God comes down and breaks apart their isolation; God creates diversity and in this way God shatters the fear that has inspired them to withdraw into themselves. If you want to resist the forces of chaos, God proclaims by this action, then put fear behind you, come out of your isolation and embrace the gift of diversity and differentness! Fear, isolation and uniformity are seductive. They promise security and perpetuation but in the end will only lead to self-destruction
The situation with the disciples is not much different than that of the people of Babel. Where do we find them at the start of this Acts 2 text? In isolation – hiding, confused and afraid! They are being defined by their fear. And as the story continues the issue of uniformity will take center stage as the disciples (led by Peter) attempt to hold on to the old traditions and laws of their past that have been completed and supplanted by the cross of Christ. The disciples want to keep others out; they want to protect their pre-conceptions and traditions. They are willing to welcome others, but only if those others become like them first (See Acts 10, 11, 15ff and the entire letter of Galatians). But God is about breaking isolation and replacing uniformity with diversity; God is about shattering fear! And ultimately the disciples are able to embrace the gift of community and diversity!
We still struggle with many of the same issues. We too often want to pull ourselves back and isolate ourselves from others, especially from others who might be different from us or others who would challenge us and our tightly guarded pre-conceptions. We too often encourage uniformity and discourage and dismiss diversity. And why? Because we are still infected with the fear of Babel! We would still prefer to be a Babel borough, defined by our isolation and uniformity and inspired by fear; than a Pentecost people who embrace diversity in all its forms and reach out to bring others into a community inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Our celebration of Pentecost gives us the opportunity to reject the safe and easy way of Babel and to embrace the gifts that come from the Holy Spirit – the gifts of diversity, culture, inclusivity, love and grace. Today we affirm, at Pentecost, through Word and Sacrament, Confirmation and Affirmation. We reject Babel and affirm that we are a Pentecost People! Called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified by the Holy Spirit and sent out to do the work of the Christ!