A Homily for the Day of Pentecost – Sunday, June 5, 2022 – Preached at Sunday Assembly of Holy Wisdom Monastery, Middleton, WI
Text – Acts 2:1-21 and by proxy Genesis 11:1-9
So let me tell you a story. In some ways it’s sort of “the elephant in the room” story for today. We didn’t actually “hear” it today because in the season after Easter a reading from the book of Acts “bumps” a Hebrew Scripture passage as the first reading for each Sunday. But it really should be heard. It’s that important.
Now I must confess that this story which should be heard has always seemed fanciful to me, one of the many in the Old Testament that border on the mythological. Almost too grand to be comprehensible. And besides that, it is one of those obvious “explanation” stories, like so many myths, designed to explain the reasons behind the way the world is.
In this case, with this story, apparently someone once wondered, “Why are there so many different languages and cultures in the world? And voila, the narrative of the Tower of Babel appears in Genesis 11:-19.
I’m not going to read it all because you know the story. “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words…And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks…’ Then they said, ‘Come, let us build a tower…’ And God said, ‘Come, let us go down and confuse their language…so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So God scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city” (Genesis 11:1-9).
And there you have it, a babbling story about a tower and the languages and the scattering and the sin. Except, it’s sometime hard for me to see the sin. It’s more like God picked a fight! Oh, I know, I’ve heard the explanations. They were thumbing their noses at God. Well, maybe. Though there isn’t a real clear taunt against the divine power in this all too brief account.
That said, the Babel story begins with a monotony of a single language in one place and ends up in a babble of multiple tongues all over the place! And it is God who transforms this erstwhile uniformity into multiplicity!
On the other hand, God’s dispersal at Babel also seems fairly consistent with what the book of Genesis has already told us about what God intends for humanity. At creation God tells human beings to “fill the earth” and, after the flood which is sort of a creation 2.0, God wants humanity to again “spread abroad on the earth.” It would seem that God likes variety, not uniformity. The God who sees that everything that was created was very good apparently abhors conformity and sameness. God the Creator of all that is delights in differentiation and is no big fan, it seems, of all the cultural, social, religious or political conformities that we human try to construct. The Babel narrative protests against every human effort to achieve unity through uniformity.
So…and now we get today’s namesake story, when Luke wrote his account in the Acts of the Apostles of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, he, Luke, probably had the narrative of the Tower of Babel in mind, and seems determined that his readers would remember it too.
In Babel and at Pentecost, people have gathered together “in one place.” In both, divine intervention “from heaven” transforms the circumstances of those who have gathered. I learned this week that there is an ancient Jewish writing called Jubilees which is earlier than the New Testament where we encounter a tradition that “the Lord sent a great wind upon the tower [of Babel] and overthrew it” (Jubilees 10:26). That’s not dissimilar to the Pentecost story of the sound of a coming Spirit being “like the rush of a violent wind.” But the main similarity between Babel in Genesis and Pentecost in Acts is that they both focus on language and stress hearing. So, you see, these two narratives belong together, opposite sides of the same coin; they elucidate each other.
With the builders of Babel, God intervenes so that they “will not understand one another’s speech” (Gen. 11:7). The Hebrew word we translate as “understand” has the basic meaning of “hear” or “listen.” God confuses their languages so that they might not “listen” to one another. If this seems a bit harsh, it is helpful to remember that often the writers in Genesis describe human existence as it IS, but should NOT BE. Like the account of the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden tells of pain, toil, and death, so the Babel narrative says that people who live in sin and alienation from God do not LISTEN to one another. In other words, the story is a negative pitch, describing the way we have botched up how God intends human life to be.
In a flip-flop, God intervenes in Luke’s Pentecost narrative so that people will understand one another’s speech, making the miracle of Pentecost not so much about speaking as in listening, hearing. “Each one of them speaking in their native language…And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” The miracle of Pentecost, the gifting of the Spirit, creates “a fresh capacity to listen,” to quote Walter Brueggemann in his book GENESIS. The Spirit brings a capacity to hear and to respond to persons who are different than we are. Pentecost is presented by Luke as a veritable festival of listening, involving diverse persons from every corner of the known world, the list of which is a hurdle for anyone ever assigned to read this passage out loud!
I know it will date me, but do some of you recall an ad campaign some years ago for a stock brokerage firm that used the refrain, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen”? The implicit assumption behind the slogan was that ordinarily when someone talks, people don’t really listen. That’s because listening, really hearing what other people are saying to us, requires special effort and sensitivity.
In his book LIFE TOGETHER, Dietrich Bonhoeffer castigates a common “kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other has to say.” He goes on to describe an impatient, inattentive kind of listening that really can’t wait for the other to shut up so that I can say something!
I don’t need to tell you that we live in a time divided, where we speak past each other, dare I say shout at each other, and where if we listen at all, it is with only half an ear! Our times are bent and broken because we do not bend an ear to listen to each other.
So at Pentecost we celebrate the gift of God’s spirit that creates in us a fresh capacity to listen. In the Spirit, the continuous din of our own concerns and views and opinions need not keep us from really hearing and responding to others. In the Spirit, the loud certainty of our own convictions need not keep us from really hearing and considering the ideas and perspectives of other persons. In the Spirit we are brought out of the locked door mentality of natural self-centeredness into lives of genuine encounters with diverse persons, just as the first fearful disciples were drawn from an upper room with locked doors into Jerusalem’s bustling streets teaming with visitors from all over the world.
In the Spirit when we hear that every minute 11 people die of hunger, or that millions have become refugees across borders, or that yet another mass shooting has occurred, we can listen to the statistics, sense the pain they endure, and try to respond. In the Spirit, when others share their burdens with us, we can listen to those persons, sense the weight they carry, and try to help.
Luke’s report of Pentecost holds up before us both the necessity of our listening to and the reality of our connectedness to people unlike us, people near to us and far from us, both geographically, but also ideologically, religiously, or politically. By God’s Holy Spirit, we can hear them…in love, and we can thereby begin to bring about in our own lives that unified diversity, that differentiated oneness for which God created us, and for the sake of which God sent the Spirit into the world.
In an age of increasing cultural diversity, religious pluralism, with the perpetual rubbing of shoulders across lines of race, nation, class, politics and more, God offers us a more authentic human communion. Through ordinary human speech, the Holy Spirit establishes unity amid diversity, a fulfilled promise that even the most divided of churches and nations and communities can take to heart.
As people of faith in a community rooted in Benedict’s great emphasis on listening as the way to find God, the Spirit’s gift of listening to each other is how we discern the way forward. It’s what ultimately will change us…and the world.