Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21
May 15, 2016/Pentecost Sunday
Everywhere you go, people talk funny. In every region and in every state of our country, people have different ways of pronouncing words and names. This is true for places. In Tennessee, we pronounce the town Lafayette as Lah-faaay-it. In Iowa, the town spelled Tripoli is pronounced Tri-pole-ah. Traveling in New York State? You'd think you were making a stop in Cairo, but you are actually in Kay-roh. Is there anyplace like that in Oklahoma? Perhaps Prague, better known as Praygg.
Everywhere you go people talk funny. The different accents you encounter in our land are great too. My name in Oklahoma and Tennessee is pronounced Aimee (the way God intended it). But in Iowa and Minnesota, I'm called Eemee. In Oklahoma, we might say, "Oh my gosh." In the upper Midwest, you'd hear, "Oohhh my gaaaahsh!"
Most of the time I find the differences charming. I love the quirks of language and the variations in accent and dialect. But there have been times when the particular pronunciation of a word sounded more like nails on a chalkboard . That was true when we lived just outside of Albany, New York. Phoebe was born there. And from the moment she came into the world until the time we moved to Iowa, people would comment about how quickly she was growing. Before I knew it, she would be starting "Eluhmentairrry" School.
I'm sorry, what? She'll be starting what?
In upstate New York -- at least the part where we lived -- Elementary school was pronounced Eluhmentairrry School. Whenever someone would say that to me, I would nod and try to smile. But in my head I was thinking, "Phoebe will never start Eluhmentairrry School. She will, however, begin Elementary School. In fact, if Phoebe ever says that she is going to Eluhmentairrry School, I will take her back to Nashville for a month so that particular pronunciation is knocked right out of her."
Don't misunderstand me, I was blessed to know so many good and kind and generous people in Albany. I've been blessed to know good, kind and generous people everywhere I've lived. Oklahoma has been no exception. I've learned that everywhere you go, people talk funny. But I've also learned that kindness, compassion and generosity smooths over our differences in language, accent and pronunciation. But eluhmentairrry ... that still gets to me.
I wonder if the people in our passage from Genesis struggled with differences in pronunciations and accents. We know that what they didn't have to wrestle with was understanding one another. At the beginning of the story, we read that there was only one language in the world, with all the same words. So the folks would have had no trouble understanding each other; different pronunciations and accents or not. We also know that they had access to technological advancements: bricks. The ability to make bricks meant that they could build structures that were not only sturdier but could soar much higher and taller as well.
According to the writer, the people wanted to use these things -- their language and their ability to make bricks -- to build a great city with a great tower. Their city and tower would make a name for them; it would make them known. It's important to understand that a scriptural and historical understanding of "city" was not just an urban community. It was a place of refuge. It was a place of walls. Walls that kept the city dwellers in and others out; and to build a tower was a show of strength. The people wanted to unite to build a strong city, where they would be protected and safe. They wanted to build a tower to show others that they were protected and safe.
At first reading, it would seem that this was an ideal situation. They all spoke the same language. Communication was not an issue. They wanted to protect themselves and others. They could reach new heights in architecture -- literally and figuratively. What was so bad about that? When I've read this story in the past, I've never understood why God did what God did. What was the problem? What were they doing wrong? Wouldn't God want them to be living in unity? Did God just want to make things harder? Was this a sign of God's contrariness or arbitrary nature?
That's a lot of questions to ask at once, but I suspect that many of us have had these or similar questions. However, let's take a closer look at what the people were actually doing. Again, they wanted to build a city to keep them in and others out. The implication being that they wanted to stand together against others. They wanted to use their abilities, their technology to show strength and power. This implies that they had the means to do whatever they wanted to do. They had strength and power, and not only could it be demonstrated but used. God saw this. God saw their plan, and understood what it could mean and lead to.
“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.”
Obviously if they could not understand one another, they would have a much harder time working together. This seems counter-intuitive. I can understand why God wouldn't want them working together against others, but it would seem that God wanted it to be all but impossible for them to come together at all. It would seem that God wanted them to be set against one another rather than living together in unity.
Yet was the people's purpose unity or uniformity? It seems to me that they wanted to build a homogeneous society, where everybody spoke the same and lived the same. But God wanted the people to move across the earth, to be fruitful and multiply. If the people continued in the way they were going, that would never happen. Diversity was required in order for God's purposes to be fulfilled.
Diversity was required in order for God's purposes to be fulfilled.
Social scientists are recognizing that when it comes to creative problem solving, diversity is also required. When a group of different people work together to solve problems, the more diverse that group is the better. Teams that are homogeneous are far less creative in their approach to whatever task is set before them. But teams that are diverse in ethnicity, background, belief, etc. bring fresh vision to their work. The more homogeneous a group is the less creative they are; but the more diverse they are, the more creative their response.
Diversity was required in order for God's purposes to be fulfilled. But that doesn't mean that diversity is easy. Diversity presents challenges. When you speak different languages, you have to find a way to communicate that overcomes that difference. When you believe differently, you have to find ways to respect the different beliefs and negotiate within the parameter of that respect. When you come from different backgrounds and different cultures, you have to try and see the world through the other person's particular lens and frame of reference. Diversity is hard, no doubt. But no matter how challenging or tough it may be, diversity presents us with opportunity -- to be creative, to think in new ways, to broaden our understanding of God's world and God's people. Diversity was required in order for God's purposes to be fulfilled.
When the Holy Spirit descended like tongues of flame and rested above the heads of the apostles who were waiting in that upper room, it didn't just land on them and stop. The Spirit opened their minds and their mouths to address all the people who were gathered there. Each apostle began to speak in the different languages of the people represented. Every person, regardless of nationality or language, could understand the good news of Jesus because of the power of the Holy Spirit.
Is this because the Spirit made it possible for them to speak only one language, or is it because the Spirit met each person where they were, how they were, as they were. The vivid and awe-inspiring account of the Holy Spirit's descent on Pentecost has been described as the culmination of the story of the Tower of Babel. Yet it is not a culmination or a completion because the difference in language was changed back to just one, or that the diversity of the crowd was vanquished. It is a culmination because the gospel was translated through the power of the Holy Spirit into each unique language. If anything, the diversity of the peoples gathered there was celebrated and affirmed.
Diversity was required in order for God's purposes to be fulfilled. It seems to me that it still is. Unity is not achieved by uniformity. Homogeneous groups are not the blueprint for an equitable society. Unity is achieved when our diversity is celebrated. Unity is achieved when we see each other and understand one another through the power of the Spirit rather than through our own limited vision. Maybe to an outside observer, that day of Pentecost sounded like nothing more than incomprehensible babble. But through the gift and the power of the Holy Spirit, the good news, the gospel of God's love and reconciliation, was proclaimed and every person heard it in his or her own distinct and wonderful way. I would wager that we in the Church are viewed in the same way. To others what we do and say may seem like babble. But when we welcome diversity and embrace diversity, we too have the power to proclaim God's love to our broken and hurting world. So my sisters and brothers, let us babble on.
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"