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St. Luke Presbyterian Church

Making a Name for Ourselves

Here we are at Pentecost, the day we call the birth of the church. We celebrate the entrance of the holy spirit. We didn’t hear about that in our scripture reading, because I chose another story, the story of babel in Genesis. n case you need a recap- The people are living as one people with the same language, and all is well. They don’t want it to end…so they decide to build a tower to reach God. 

Their motivation is to stick together and keep this uniform, homogeneous community together. 

Vs 4-“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.” 

Otherwise, we’ll be scattered. Who wants to be scattered when everything seems to be going so well in a society where they speak the same language and have the same words? It was out of fear of being scattered, that the Israelites decided to build a tower. And as we all know too well, when fear is your motivation, especially in the bible and in our lives, when fear is the motivation it generally doesn’t turn out well. Making choices from a place of fear, will most of the time, backfire. 

Which is what happens in this story. The very thing they feared and tried to avoid, God causes to happen.

7Come, let us go down, (God says that by the way. I love when God says us, who is God talking to? Other Gods of the day? That’s another sermon) God says, lets us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.9Therefore 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. 

Some interpret this story as a curse even though the word curse is never used. 

God created a universe of diversity not homogeny. We know this from the earlier stories of creation but just look around. If you’re ever wondering about God’s motivations, just look at the natural world around you. True unity, especially in the Bible doesn’t from us all being the same, but grows out of a call to discovering our unity through diversity.

 

The people then, just as today, carry an innate desire to belong. It’s in our evolutionary DNA… as far back as a tribal people when if you didn’t belong to your tribe you faced life-threatening danger. And when we don’t belong to a family, a group, humanity, we come up lonely or afraid. It turns out the number one reason people turn to violent white supremacy groups is because they’re desperate to belong somewhere. 

Like the people in the Genesis story, when we fear being scattered, when we witness that the world is changing, our neighborhoods are changing, when we fear takes over or pride takes over, or self will takes over, wanting to stay safe in our own bubble takes over, we build towers. We build towers of nationalistic pride. We build towers of county pride, we build towers of even city pride and we begin to make decisions based on fear rather than God’s will for a place where we were never meant to sound the same, use the same language or even think the same, except in one very important way. We’re called to love one another with our differences. Unity in diversity. (That’s a Presbyterian Foundation in our Book of Order)

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Earlier this week I was in Rustic bakery. I like going there, because it’s in my backyard and the food is good. And I always like to connect to the people who work there. I like feeling like I’m in Mayberry where everyone knows one another’s names. On this particular day, the person behind the counter was in a conversation with another employee and so there wasn’t room for my usual, hey how you doing today? And there was no room for me to add to their conversation because it was in Spanish and I don’t speak Spanish. So for that one minute, I was the outsider looking in. What is God calling on me to do in that minute? To build a tower out of fear of being the other? Or to use it as a moment of humility and trust that God is as ever present in that moment as God always is. 

Then yesterday I went to someone’s home who had a guest who spoke no english. As I introduced myself I could see she and her 8-year-old daughter didn’t know what I was saying and they looked somber and a little afraid. So I smiled. Because we all know that language, they smiled back and we shook hands. That’s the language of the Holy Spirit. It transcends all difference and brings us together as belonging to God. This is the Sunday we celebrate the spirit who united us into being church, not with one language but the ability to understand one another in ways that transcend language.

God did not send the spirit so Sunday at 10;00 could be the most segregated hour in our nation. God sent the Spirit so we could understand one another native tongues, in a language that transcends our difference, celebrates our difference, because difference is no longer seen as a threat or a curse; it’s a blessing.

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Norah Jones said we find our sound through our limitations. As a singer you explore what you can’t do as much as what you can do. I can’t reach this note, but I can stretch myself to trying. And when I do, I find that the notes I can make, take on a kind of confidence of expression that develops into my sound. That’s not pride, that’s a humility of accepting what I cannot do and celebrating what I can. The same is true of the church.

God calls us to reach outside our comfort zone with curiosity not fear. When trying to reach those notes I can’t reach, or to be in the company of those who don’t speak the same language literally or metaphorically, I could choose to shut down and have no part in it, or get mad at the fact that I live in a world where I can’t always understand the people around me, or I can try in humility to reach them, not by building a tower, but by asking God and the spirit to help me get there. Help me be curious, help me enter into dialogue with humility, and then, we can find our own sound together.

As a follower of Jesus our sound is one of love and acceptance. Our sound is one that welcomes in the other, the outcast, the foreigner, the widow, the orphan the hungry, the unhealthy. That’s Jesus’s sound, and he sang from that place so loudly it got him killed on a cross.

There is one interpretation of Babel that embodies what it means to be a Christ follower…It was written by a rabbi who was not thinking of Jesus when he wrote it but  it embodies the way Jesus lived his life-

The Rabbi writes-
There were steps going up one side of the tower and down the other. The people would take the bricks up one side to build the tower higher, and go down the other side, having carried the bricks up. If a person fell down the stairs and died, the people didn’t care. If, however, a brick was dropped and broke, they would weep and wail, saying, “Oh, no! When will we be able to get another brick up here?” [1] 

The point is to call out how ludicrous as a people we can be when we become so hyper-focused on our own ability of what we can accomplish together towards greatness that we forget who we’re hurting in the process. When we lose sight of the suffering of human beings for the sake of progress we’re living antithetically to the way Jesus led his life. If Jesus had a unique sound it was one of compassion for all God’s people.

What is our sound as a people and as a local church?

I’m forever grateful to God for calling me to this church. We’re not like minded in the ways of the world. We have a difference of opinion. The protestant way is not to talk too much about it. And I try to respect that even when I don’t want to. It’s a gift- because it’s required me as your pastor to read more, to enter into dialogue with curiosity, to be sensitive to the diverse ways of thinking about ideas and history and personally I’ve learned so much.

There are so many people in our country these days, who surround themselves with others who think exactly as they think, so much so that the  primary thing that bonds them is who they hate. That’s not a healthy foundation for a group of friends anymore than it is for a church. And so we celebrate today, on Pentecost, that what we value most is a God who is calling on us to learn from our differences. We love one another because we are inextricably bound together by something greater than ourselves. Something rooted in love and compassion. We call that God, Christ and Spirit.

When the spirit enters the scene in Acts, everyone understands one another another native tongues because the Spirit is at work. When we allow that to happen we do so out of recognizing our own limitations. Our limitations are a gift.

God’s response at Babel was a gift not a curse. It was a gift of limitation as we are forever reminded by God that we are not God, and thank God for that. The Spirit is our lead, our guide, our way. It takes an enormous letting go of fear, of control and trust in a God who never created us to be the same, but equal- in love, and rooted in compassion.

Allow your limitations to create your song. Let us pray to God for a church song. One that sings of unity in diversity and lives out here what the world needs there.

Amen.

[1] paraphrased from New Studies in Bereshit, by Nechama Leibowitz, p. 103)

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