A Sermon for the Day of Pentecost – Sunday, May 19, 2013
by Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 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.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs– in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
- `In the last days it will be, God declares,
- that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
- and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
- and your young men shall see visions,
- and your old men shall dream dreams.
- Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
- in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
- and they shall prophesy.
- And I will show portents in the heaven above
- and signs on the earth below,
- blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
- The sun shall be turned to darkness
- and the moon to blood,
- before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
- Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ “
Last Fall, my husband and I took a trip to France as a delayed 30th anniversary celebration. It was the first time in quite a while that we had traveled to any country where we couldn’t speak the language – and it took us out of our comfort zone. But when I closed my eyes and listened to what was being said, I was caught up more by the energy, cadence and inflection with which French was spoken and less by what I couldn’t specifically understand.
Language was an important theme in this morning’s readings from Genesis and Acts. The Babel story took place early in Genesis, even before God’s call of Abraham. It happened at a time when “all the peoples of the whole earth” consisted of the offspring of Noah’s many sons. They all spoke the same language and were of the same mind as to what they wanted to do – and that was to settle down in Shinar and build something substantial out of bricks and mortar so that they could make a name for themselves.
That doesn’t strike me as being such an unusual plan. But according to the story, God and the heavenly host thought it was and interfered with that plan by imposing a diversity of language on the people so that they couldn’t understand each other. They abandoned their building project and scattered out of fear and confusion, taking with them all hope of making a name for themselves.
During Jesus’ lifetime, the Jews were making a name for themselves when it came to temple life inJerusalem. It meant upholding Jewish laws and traditions without exception. Jesus was the big exception, however, and forced the Temple leaders completely out of their comfort zone by his words and deeds. Even after Jesus died, there was still confusion about who he was and the confusion seemed to reach a climax when as we hear in Acts, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) were all gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost.
Into this sea of people, Jesus’ apostles tried to witness to what they believed to be true about Jesus; but they couldn’t make themselves understood among the diversity of languages spoken there. So, the Holy Spirit endowed the apostles of Christ with the gift of fluency in every language imaginable. Anyone and everyone who had made the pilgrimage to that holy city for Pentecost would have been able to understand what the apostles were saying.
But when it came to the apostles, it wasn’t about making a name for themselves as much as it was about making a name for Christ. And there were enough bystanders caught up in the passion, cadence and inflection of what they heard that they wanted to be part of the mission of those early Christians.
It’s a natural tendency for us humans to want to make a name for ourselves. We want to leave our mark on something or leave behind something tangible for maybe no other reason than in hopes that we won’t be forgotten. And there is nothing wrong with that unless we become so focused on what it is we want to leave behind that we miss out on everything else going on around us.
That seemed to be happening in the Babel story. The people of Shinar were trying so hard to make a name for themselves by building something large and impressive that they were missing out on the rest of God’s creation, especially the natural diversity of it. They were looking up instead of out in all directions.
In contrast to the Babel story, the birth of the Christian church which we celebrate on the Day of Pentecost didn’t depend on a big structure such as a Temple or tower. It literally started in languages – a diversity of languages which allowed it to move out in all directions through stories of witness and testimony.
There truly is beauty in diversity and sometimes it’s easy for us to forget that when we find ourselves focused on a single purpose and staying in our comfort zone.
About 20 years ago, Dr. Julian Metts stepped way out of his comfort zone. He embarked on a dental mission trip to a third world country and was struck by the number of children who were dying there because of the lack of basic critical medical care that we take for granted here in the United States. When he came home, he resolved to do something that would give these children the gift of a future. So he told his story and inspired enough people that the International Hospital for Children was founded in 2001; and in 2011 it merged with a nonprofit organization in St. Louis to become World Pediatric Project.
WPP is a hospital literally without walls and it accomplishes its mission either by sending volunteer surgical teams to developing countries or by bringing children to its partner hospitals here in Richmond as St. Mary’s helped to do last Spring with Merlik Cobbe.
It’s proof of how the apostles’ resolve to bear witness to the love that Jesus showed them is still alive and well today.
Nothing lasts forever, not even the tallest tower or the most substantial building. So, maybe instead of trying to make a name for ourselves in tangible ways, it’s more important to help others make a name for themselves by living a life of service and love based on the teachings of Jesus. And then by telling our stories in a diversity of ways and words of how being witnesses to that love has changed our lives.