May 15, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-13
I think that the Bible is a beautiful and apt symbol for Union Church. As a unity in diversity, the Bible expresses its message in a rich variety of literary forms. The literature of the Bible is an aesthetically beautiful interpretation of divine experience from a human perspective. As we read, seek to understand, and try to apply the truths of Scripture, it is good to recognize this artistic dimension so as not to miss an important part of enjoying the Bible. The Bible contains genealogies, historical narrative, letters, laws, poetry, proverbs, parables, prophesy, numerous figures of speech, and allegories. An allegory is defined as a form of literature in which a story points to a deeper meaning. The story may not have happened or at least not in the way it is told today, but the message is true. Today’s reading from Genesis falls into this category. In fact, Genesis, chapter eleven reads very much like a fairy tale. One who did not know that this story came from the bible would not be surprised to hear it start, “Once upon a time”. And to understand the Tower of Babel story we need to consider it as part of a chapter book and go back two chapters, to Chapter 8 and the story of Noah’s ark. At the end of that chapter, after the flood, God promises, “Never again will I strike down every living thing as I have done”. The famous “Covenant of the Rainbow” is found in Genesis chapter nine. Scripture scholars have presented the metaphysical meaning of this covenant as having an important spiritual message. They suggest that God’s words and the rainbow are an assurance of the presence of God as our help in every need. The clouds represent difficulties, and the elements of the rainbow exist within the clouds. In other words, divine help is available within every human challenge and problem. Our part is to remember that. The word Noah means “calm, rest, equilibrium”. Noah stands for that within us which enables us to remain calm, poised, and balanced even in crises. It is the Noah factor within us which is always preserved and strengthened when we trust in God and as we follow God’s guidance through the many challenges that we face in life.
Following the covenant of the rainbow, God blesses Noah and his sons saying to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth. . .” With this background we come to chapter eleven.
The people living in Shinar, thinking themselves wiser than either God or Noah, decided that they did not want to disperse. They were happy to stay just where they were. They were all of one language, they were getting along famously and they found it a very convenient and commodious place in which to settle; a spacious and fertile plain, able to contain them all, and support them at their present numbers. It seems that they had not considered how this land would provide for them as their population grew. Nevertheless, instead of enlarging their borders by a peaceful departure under divine protection, they decided to settle together and build a city. And in a posture of defense they built a tower to fortify themselves. Scripture states that they used bitumen, the same tar-like substance that was used to waterproof the ark. Though God had told them that he would not drown the world again, it seems that rather than trust God’s promise they relied on a tower of their own making to secure themselves against the waters of another flood; just in case.
So a quick recap of the story: Once upon a time these smart and crafty people decided that they didn’t trust God very much and wanted to protect themselves. They also weren’t crazy about God’s plan that they scatter and populate the earth. They liked it right here at home, thank you very much, and so they decided to build a fortress, a tower. And God, being God, said, “I don’t think so, and so created a situation in which they couldn’t understand one another, and so could not work together. The tower was built, but it could not be used as intended. Speaking different languages drew them apart from one another.
Now we come to our second reading. Again, it’s helpful to understand this passage by looking back at what had occurred only a few days earlier. Ten days previous, Jesus had left disciples; had ascended into heaven. Scripture says, “So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” They are still hoping that he is a militant and political messiah. He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. Again we have the cloud. This is not the outcome that they had hoped for. They are still under Roman rule, and now Jesus has left them.
So on Pentecost, in today’s reading we find our timid disciples back in the upper room, huddled together. You remember that they were very much afraid after the crucifixion but at least they were visited by the risen Christ on occasion. Now he had left. Jesus had promised to return, and some among them thought that it would be soon. So maybe they huddled in that upper room waiting. Maybe, in their grief, they stayed there for each other’s comfort.
While there, they heard a strong wind and saw what looked like “tongues of fire”. Notice, the text does not use the word “flames”, but “tongues” appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.
This is the reverse of the story of the Tower of Babel. This time the disciples’ ability to speak “in other languages” is not a deterrent to their mission, but an asset. Scripture says, “At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem . . . and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers.”
Did the disciples actually speak all of these foreign languages? Or was their courage to come out and share the good news, their enthusiasm, their joy, their gratitude for experiencing God in the spirit just so infectious that all who heard them got literally caught up in the Spirit? It’s as if, with the coming of the spirit the divisiveness after the Tower of Babel, now is healed. Now there is understanding in the diversity.
When I was studying for my doctorate in ethics with a specialty in medical ethics I took a number of classes with the student nurse practitioners at the University of Maine. Each year those students went to Nicaragua to volunteer in a hospital and clinic, and so after studying with them, the professor who headed the program invited me along. I agreed and busied myself brushing up on the Spanish that I had taught myself years earlier. A few weeks before our departure, however, I learned that we would be staying and working on the Mosquito Coast and that the people there did not speak Spanish at all, but rather Mosquito. The language is a form of creole, and so though I could understand the gist of what people were saying from my knowledge of English, French and Spanish, I could not communicate to the local people by speaking. Since I was the only one in our group that did not have a medical degree, I was assigned to change diapers in the NICU and give infants to their moms who came in several times a day to breastfeed them. Though we couldn’t talk to each other with words, I could certainly sense the concern and the love these women had for their infants, and I believe that they picked up on my concern and care for them. We were one in the Spirit.
Another of my many roles, is that I’m a certified Christian clown; a mime. The white face that I put on symbolizes death to self, and the colorful face painted on stands for new life. My clown name is Joy. Joy went to Nicaragua with me and visited an orphanage and a school. There I painted children’s faces and my pockets were filled with matchbox cars that I palmed and pretended to extract from the children’s ears. Again we didn’t speak to each other, but communicated very well. One of the classrooms in the school was filled with children who were deaf. Their inability to hear was not a handicap when they were visited by a mime. We were one in the Spirit.
Last December, The Huffington Post printed the following news item, entitled, Speaking with One Voice to Solve the Climate Crisis “Today, the nations of the world concluded a bold and historic agreement, clearly demonstrating that the global community is speaking with one voice to solve the climate crisis. Years from now, our grandchildren will reflect on humanity’s moral courage to solve the climate crisis and they will look to December 12, 2015, as the day when the community of nations finally made the decision to act.
“This universal and ambitious agreement sends a clear signal to governments, businesses, and investors everywhere: the transformation of our global economy from one fueled by dirty energy to one fueled by sustainable economic growth is now firmly and inevitably underway.”
This article went on to describe the elements of the Paris agreement. Obviously the individuals from the various countries didn’t actually all speak the same language. But they were one in the spirit of care for our earth and they were able to speak to the whole world with one voice.
Union Church is a diverse faith community; not unlike those “devout Jews “ that we heard about this morning, “from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem”, we are Christians from a variety of religious traditions. If we began to talk about our beliefs in theological terms it might sound as if we were speaking different languages. Yet we all come here each week and celebrate our faith. We come here and experience God’s presence together, in the service, in the word, in the assembly. This is our upper room. And like the disciples we are touched by the Spirit and sent to spread the Good News. Most likely we will not do this through words but through the care and concern for the people we meet and in the service that we provide. We will communicate through our interactions with others; perhaps through what are sometimes referred to as the gifts of the Spirit: by our knowledge, wisdom and counsel, gained through our life experiences, by our understanding, as we take the time to really listen to another, or by modeling moral strength or reverence. When those interactions are difficult, when we face challenges, it is helpful to remember that we are not alone. We are one in the Spirit.