Russ Dean is the co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. Park Road is a BPFNA Partner Congregation.
May 15, 2016
Genesis 11.1-9; Acts 2.1-6
This story from Genesis is confusing and confounding. In our Men’s Study on Thursday morning one member said, with exasperation in his voice, “If God really did this… this ticks me off!” And you can understand…
There isn’t a picture in our scriptures, anywhere, that depicts people who seem to have gotten their act together any better than this text. Just imagine: The people had one language and the same words. No communication barriers. They had migrated together, and had settled, in order to build community. They knew their strength was in numbers. They didn’t want to be scattered so they stopped, to build the first city in the world!
Instead of warring among themselves, as we see throughout ancient and modern history, they used their gifts for a common purpose; they worked diligently, intent on making a name for themselves – as the Bible says “A good name is more desirable than great riches…” (Prov 22.1). While this tower they were raising seems to have been the initial source of God’s curiosity and concern, it was not (please excuse me…) “Trump Tower” they were building! The text does not say they were working to make a name for one of them – for their leader, for the richest of them all, for the most popular.
They were making a name for the people, all of them, together. This centerpiece of supposed presumption and arrogance deserves to be considered otherwise. There is nothing in the text to indicate the people sought to supplant God by their industrious ambition. Maybe the tower was to stand as a symbol of their hard work, a monument to cooperation. Maybe the tower was to point into the heavens as an architectural paean to the praise of God.
This is a grand picture of unity and common purpose. It’s a reminder that we need so much today – frighteningly divided as we are by partisan ideologies, socioeconomic strata, racial identities, cultural expressions, religious convictions… This ancient tale reminds us of our country’s motto, “E Pluribus Unum” – out of many, one. We need to be reminded that united we stand, scattered we fall.
In the midst of this incredible picture of beautiful humanity at work, God’s words are just stunning. Many of us were raised in the Protestant tradition, which still lurks in the long, menacing shadows of John Calvin’s theology, which managed to shame the Church into its paralyzing guilt, for the innate wickedness of the human creature. The “depravity of man,” he called it. There is nothing good in us. We are black to the heart of our soul. We will always be selfish. We will never work together, not of our own initiative. We will always build our towers in place of God, creating idols of arrogance. John Calvin thought we were helpless – and worse than helpless, harmful to ourselves and others – without the dramatic intervention of God. I don’t know how Calvin overlooked this story affirming the inherent worth, the infinite power that has been bequeathed to us – because God’s own words challenge Calvin’s despairing anthropology.
This is just the beginning… nothing they choose to do will be impossible... What an incredible affirmation of our potential. So, God says… “Let’s get down there – and stop this.”
It makes you want to scratch your head, or shake your fist, and say, with more than a little condescension, “God… what don’t you get about this!?” Don’t you understand? Can’t you see what a good thing this is!?”
Yes, God could see what a good thing it was – but God also knew that too much of a good thing… Human beings, as innately powerful as we are, having been created in the image of God, having the power, literally in our hands to accomplish all things… God also knows, looking across human history, that we have never been able to handle too much of a good thing.
That one language… has always been used, ultimately, to enforce conformity. What would be wrong with having the same language… but using different words? We’ve never trusted that. Heil, Hitler... And look at North Korea today. It’s not just the army that marches in precise lock stock. The words of the starving population praise their dictator. Or, what would be wrong with using the same words, in a different language? We’ve got this fight going on in the US these days.
“They need to learn our language.” And exactly what would be wrong with the world’s greatest melting pot, the world’s most successful immigrant democracy being bi-lingual… trilingual – like the rest of the world?
No – diversity is a dangerous thing. “If we let them use their own words, before long they’ll be thinking their own thoughts – and we can’t have that.” And that tower they were building… well, as you well know, it has always ended up with someone’s name on it.
Have human beings ever proven we could handle too much of a good thing?
We have not.
So God says, “Look, they are one people… Apparently God wants many peoples. Obviously God prefers the beautify of difference, “Red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and black and ocher and peach, and ruby and olive and violet and fawn and lilac and gold and chocolate and mauve, and cream and crimson and silver and rose and azure and lemon and russet and grey, and purple and white and pink and orange and blue.” The beauty of difference: Republican, Libertarian, Democrat, rich and poor, capitalist and communist, gay and straight, bisexual and transgender. You cannot read the Bible, which includes this confounding story, however, and think that God has anything but the best intentions for us. The Jewish scriptures follow the narrative of God, and the one people God has chosen, through whom God intends to bless all nations. It’s there in the very next chapter of Genesis, when God calls Abram and Sarai… The Jewish scripture traces the love of God for this small band of Hebrew migrants, who traipse all across the ancient middle-East, getting it right and getting it wrong, finding God’s forgiveness and starting all over, again and again.
And then we come to the Christian narrative that says God took that same initiative another giant step. It looks as if God realizes we’re having a hard time with a Chosen People and a set of laws, so God comes down again, this time to pitch a tent among us (John 1.14), to live with us, to help us live in abundance, by knowing what it means to wear our skin, even to die our death.
You cannot say God does not want us to succeed, that God’s final intent was to confuse us. But, every good Parent and Teacher knows that children don’t learn when we succeed easily, don’t succeed when we are given everything. Success comes from working hard for something worthwhile and from learning the beauty of diversity. So, God says… let us… confuse their language so they will not understand one another’s speech… unless they work at it!
I don’t know how Pentecostal Christians (no offense intended), but I don’t understand how they derive their belief in speaking in tongues from the Pentecost story. The story never says, or even implies, that there was some new, ecstatic utterance spoken that day. There was no glossolalia, no “speaking in tongues.” What the Elamites heard in Jerusalem that day was a Galilean speaking… Elamite-ish! The Romans heard a Galilean speaking Latin. The visitors from Asia heard, Turkish, Bulgarian, Greek… So, despite the many sermons to the contrary, Pentecost was not the reversal of the confused tongues of Babel. The whole earth had one language… which God confused into many languages. At Pentecost God did not bring them all back to one language.
What we have is a greater miracle. What we have is the equivalent of Americans learning to speak to our Hispanic roofers and brick masons and day laborers – in Spanish! God didn’t overcome the people’s intractable problems by miraculously putting one language back into all of their mouths, but somehow… for just a moment, those Galilean followers of a Jesus, whose resurrection had changed their world, learned that we don’t need one language. We need to learn to speak each other’s languages.
You see, nature loves diversity – which is exactly what God gave us at Babel, and affirmed at Pentecost.
We are living through a crucial, if excruciating moment in American life. The changes are long, long overdue. Every culture known to history has had homosexual members. Dealing with these members of the human family is nothing new. But the political movement that has swept the nation, in just a few years introducing the idea of marriage equality, then making it the law of the land, the speed of that movement has been overwhelming to many. Change does not come easy, especially if your frame of reference to the world is always looking back.
And now, just on the heels of marriage equality, we are introduced to an issue that is new even to some of the most progressive among us. The Charlotte City Council’s non-discrimination ordinance and the reaction of HB2 have brought the word “transgender” into our televisions and laptops and iphones. The blogosphere and ever-dying print media have exploded with stories and explanations, experts and uninformed pundits. Almost overnight, the veneer which has conveniently concealed the lives and struggles of transgender children from the rest of us (that false veneer) has been ripped off. Nature loves diversity – and a lot more of it than most can admit. (“Red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and…”)
The abundance of research and the stories of so many of God’s beloved children makes clear the incredible variety and range of God’s creativity. Perhaps this is nowhere more uncomfortably obvious to some than in the variety of gender and sexual expression – but we are going to have to come to grips with the reality, of an animal kingdom and a humanity, that never has conformed to the one language of binary expression. I know the Bible says God created them, “male and female…” (Genesis 12.27), but this will hardly be the first time we have learned to read our scripture differently. And, scary though it may be, as we learn to read anew, as we begin to hear the sounds of other languages of experience, we must pray for the Hope of Pentecost.
The first philosophical thought I ever had was this: [point to the parament hanging from the pulpit] What color is this parament? Red. Of course… but, does this “red” actually look the same in your head as it does in mine? I mean, maybe it actually looks in my mind like what you call green, it’s just that we have been taught to call this, however it looks in our minds, by the same word. (Hurts your head, doesn’t it.)
I bring that up because it’s not at all clear what it was the people from all around the world heard that day. Were those Galileans, who all spoke Aramaic, actually speaking Turkish, Greek, Elamite-ish… Or, were the brains of those Turks and Greeks and Elamites just actually able to hear Armamaic in a new way, that made it sound like the language they knew?
I will never speak the transgender language, nor the homosexual language. I will never speak African American. I’ll never be able to speak the “language” of being a woman! I will never understand those words. But that’s not really the point, is it? The point is that somehow, in the miracle of Pentecost God takes all the beautiful variety of our expressions, our voices, our very different “languages”… and somehow, in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power…
And when we hear, when we finally hear… nothing we propose to do will be impossible.
May it be so.