For most of us, when we are scared or alarmed, we get loud! A Youtube video that was trending last week was of a raccoon appearing on the hood of a car driving home in Tennessee. The women in the car were screaming, unsure what to do with their unexpected passenger! Fear elicits NOISE! Two of the lectionary passages for Pentecost tell stories where you can practically hear the clamor!
Our Genesis narrative comes from chapter 11: The Tower of Babel. The beautiful story of God’s creation of the earth is not so far behind this reading. But a population of people has come to a rather unholy moment. Folks discover a pleasing piece of real estate on the plain of Shinar. They decide it would be a great place to raise their families so they join together in a common purpose that has nothing to do with God. They are focused on their own power, puffed up with pride as they swing hammers to erect a monument to themselves!
This migratory population must have liked each other enough to want to build a town together. Their stated purpose is to stay in this place they have found. They have one language which allows them to communicate easily with each other. Make bricks. Check. Stir up a batch of mortar. Check. Stack them into an impossibly high tower that stretches up to heaven. Check. Do a press release and social media blitz to make a name for our new, fine city. Check!
Cultural uniformity was appealing to these primitive people who never knew when a band of roving strangers would act as aggressors. So sticking together was the plan and they had the technological know-how to do that. In and of itself the work was not evil. We see new technology fly off the shelves all the time that makes our life enjoyable, easier, more productive. But no sooner is there a new device to help us and someone learns how to abuse it. You stop to fill up your car with gas and learn that your credit card information has been secretly scanned and is now being used to order a computer in Cairo! The sin of these people on the plain of Shinar was not their masonry or their blueprints. It was their heartfelt motive to stay put and glorify themselves. That’s what rubbed God the wrong way! (Before we get too critical with these territorial impulses we would do well to acknowledge how much we love to stay put in our own pews each Sunday—every congregation has a seating chart, right?!) So God dispersed these folks as they purposefully built their city. God mixed up their languages as easily as they mixed up a batch of mortar. Then they could no longer understand the foreman or the neighbor next door. Mistrust crept into the town and they were driven apart. It turns out that God isn’t interested in folks who unite for the purpose of showcasing their own glory. The Babel residents discovered that their Creator was not a sanguine figure who slumbered happily while they schemed. This is the same God Mary met 2000 years later who told her that her faithful behavior gave her the honor to be the Mother of the Messiah! She got loud with her own response to this unlikely privilege with what we call the Magnificat. In it she sang of the very character of God that we see at work in Shinar: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Bummer for the folks who were putting the finishing touches on their alabaster city on the plain of Shinar!
Babel has come to represent individualism. From this significant mix-it-up moment, cultural diversity arose. Different languages and the fun of being with someone different from yourself was born. Our instinct to push ourselves beyond our own boundaries so as to understand someone else’s world surfaced out of the Babel event. But what also emerged after the great scattering was the divide between different people. Injustice, discrimination, the gap between rich and poor, the desire to own people and condemn others came out of the chaos on the plain of Shinar. Our tendency to build walls is a direct result of God’s action in Babel. We still regard our differences with suspicion.
Our second reading is the Pentecost passage from Acts 2. We move forward about 2000 years from the Babel scene. Jesus has died, risen and ascended into heaven, promising His disciples that they won’t be left alone. But they are scared, not sure how His promise can be carried out. As Jews gathered for the Festival of Booths, a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest, Jesus’ words came to fruition. In this story we hear noise! The room is filled with a mighty wind—think tornadoes sounding off like a freight train for folks hiding in their basement! Then crazy things begin to happen: “tongues as of fire” came to rest on each one of them and they began speaking in foreign languages they had not known just moments before! The noise brought a crowd—as is usually the case—and different nationalities of folk in their audience understood these backwoods Galileans. What did they say? They preached about the glory of God who authored the miracle. Pentecost gave permission to Jesus’ followers to speak the languages of the world. In Babel our common humanity was fractured with new languages and scattered towns. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit is poured out and fear is replaced with bold evangelism—unapologetic preaching about a God who breaks into our world with power!
Good preaching is often mocked by those who are threatened by the message that God is in control. At the Pentecost event there were scoffers, pessimists, know-it-alls who accused these followers of Jesus with being drunk. It was only babble that came from too much wine, they accused! This elicits a response from Peter, a sermon actually. He preaches that everything changes with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The clock is reset as the disciples enter a new age of following Jesus through the power of the Spirit. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. Christians have been reliant on the work of the Spirit to be convicted in our hearts that Jesus is the Christ and to have the courage to tell others about Him. With this reboot of history comes responsibility. We set our course through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and yield our plans—our blueprints—to the will of God.
I spent Memorial Day weekend in Phoenix with my mother’s childhood friend and her family. Jean mapped out a wonderful itinerary for my time there, traveling between their home in Scottsdale to their cottage in Prescott. But we needed to be at their church on Sunday night, she told me. Their congregation participated in this program called Family Promise and we were needed on that holiday weekend to serve a meal to our guests. I smiled and told Jean that our congregation, located 1500 miles north, had just voted to be a host site for Family Promise! That evening I sat at the table with two families and asked them about their children, their background, their hopes and dreams. A mixed race couple were near me with the woman’s two African American teens sitting apart from their elders. The other woman had a three-year old who played with the sons of one of the church volunteers. She was expecting her second child in a matter of months and dreamed of moving to Texas for a fresh start. She grew up on a nearby reservation that belonged to the Maricopa, one of the more than 20 tribes of native people who claim Arizona as home. We ate together and spoke each other’s language. Our differences faded into friendship.
At the end of a worship service when I was the guest preacher, a man shared with me a moment when God had given him tremendous reassurance. He told me his father had died and he had worried about his father’s eternal well-being. The dad had lived a rough life and made things difficult for his children. This weighed on the son because he wasn’t sure how God’s justice is meted out. He confided that one night he awoke in his room to find Jesus standing next to his bed. He said Jesus looked as you might imagine Him: a white robe and a crown of thorns. Jesus had His arm around the man’s father who never said a word but whose smile told this son that he was just fine! He has hung on to this gift from the Holy Spirit that left him with tremendous peace.
The two scripture passages from Genesis and Acts tell us that there’s no messing around when it comes to following God. God is nearer than we think! God knows our hearts’ deepest desires. God knows when we are building a kingdom to glorify ourselves and when we are laboring to preach about the love and mercy of Jesus. We baptized two young children into the faith and family of Jesus Christ on Pentecost–a fitting Sunday for a baptism! They have parents and a church community who will protect them from the hardships of life and teach them about the joy and responsibility of being a Jesus follower. Baptism is a reset of their spiritual clock. It’s a reboot offered by the gift of the Holy Spirit. We also commissioned about 25 youth and adults who are going on summer mission trips to Honduras, Ohio, and Kentucky. Having done youth ministry for more than a decade, I expect these folks to make some noise on their trips! I know the van ride will not be quiet! I know life in the dorms will be loud! I expect the worship services in the evening will be filled with heartfelt singing, praying and sharing. What we learn from these Pentecost scriptures is that our noise ought to be about our faith. Our words should unify, not divide. Our actions should tear down cultural walls, not build them. The team traveling to Honduras will face language barriers. (There might even be language barriers with some of the folks in Kentucky!) But I am certain that the Spirit of God will bridge the Babel language divide even if it’s not through words. There’s power in a smile, a helping hand, the symbol of a cross our “missionaries” wear around their necks and give away as gifts to others. It is in our quiet praying that we often preach the most loudly about the God who is at the center of our lives. I urged our mission teams to think about the folks on the plain of Shinar whose goal was to gain attention for themselves. Our folks aim to glorify God through their service! They worked hard all year to raise money in order to work on behalf of the improved lives of others. God will unify our group with those they serve and there will be tears when it’s time to say goodbye.
With the gift of the Holy Spirit we reset our spiritual clock. Everything changes when we decide to follow the leading of Christ rather than setting our own agenda. It’s a calling that comes with a great deal of responsibility—and blessing. Let’s make some noise about that good news!