Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-12
This was the Facebook meme that started my week. The first panel shows Jesus saying “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.” A voice from the crowd says, “But Jesus, what about if they’re Muslim?”
Next panel: Jesus says, “OK, I’m going to start over from the beginning. Let me know where I lost you.”
I thought it was a no-brainer. Until I read the comments. One was “So, love people who want to kill you, love those who don’t deserve your love. That’s a pretty stupid idea.” He was serious.
Another one: “Uh . . .there were no Muslims in Jesus’ time.” I’m not sure whether that person meant that we couldn’t take the meme seriously because no one in a crowd around Jesus would have literally said it. Or if Jesus’ instructions to love only apply to first-century enemies.
And another: “The church needs to stay out of this one.” Stay out of loving other people? Stay out of relating to people of other faiths? Hmm.
As you might imagine, “stupid” was among the nicer words that people used. People quoted scripture and called each other heretics.
And one person said this, “It is a great comfort to me to see that the loving comments outnumber the hateful ones on this thread. Thank you to my fellow Christians for being a light in the world. You are honoring this day with your compassion.” Yep, I’m pretty sure that was sarcasm.
Hugh T. Kerr, former editor of Theology Today, wrote an editorial some decades ago on communication in which he said, “Our failure to communicate is not a failure of technique but of will. We don’t want to communicate. We’d rather shout one another down.” It was true long before the advent of social media, but also accurately describes much of what passes for conversation now – We don’t want to communicate. We’d rather shout each other down.
Today’s texts have a lot to say about language and communication. First the story of Babel in Genesis 11.
The most traditional understanding of that story goes like this: The people of Babel were so full of pride that they thought they could be like God, so they built a tower to heaven. This made God mad. God punished them by making them speak different language and scattering them throughout the world. The moral of this interpretation is that humans speaking the same language and working together smacks of pride and is sinful. A second, underlying message is that cultural and language differences are bad, because they were inflicted on humans as punishment.
Many scholars have reconsidered this interpretation. Babel is the ancient city of Babylon. It had a tower, a religious temple known as a ziggurat. It was a common building style in that time and place. To say that its top was “in the heavens” was a Near Eastern cliché for the height of a building, much like we might say that a building is a sky scraper. The story never says that they were trying to be equal to God or to reach heaven. This is read in by interpreters. What it does say is that they wanted to make a name for themselves and to avoid being scattered.
Making a name for themselves is not about being arrogant, but about establishing a cultural identity. At the beginning of the story, all humans live in one place, all speak the same language, all exist within a single culture. They want to keep it that way.
What if the traditional interpretation is wrong? What if these humans are not motivated by pride, but by fear? What if they just want to stay together where they know each other and things are familiar and safe? As one scholar wrote, “There is something very human in this portrayal of a people who . . . attempted to preserve . . . unity. . .. [It is] that dimension of life that underlies human conflicts: fear of geographical dispersion, fear of linguistic and ethnic diversity, fear of differences of race, religion, custom.”
We might sympathize with them. We can understand their fear, their desire to stick with the known. However, to interpret the story we need to remember Genesis 1, where God gave humanity directions to multiply and fill the earth. The problem is not building a tower. It is resisting God’s purpose of being scattered to other places in the world.
Walter Brueggemann wrote, “The scattering God wills is that life should be peopled everywhere by his regents who are attentive to all parts of creation, working in God’s image to enhance the whole creation, to bring “each in its kind” to full fruition and productivity. This . . .does not presume that different families, tongues, lands and nations are bad or disobedient.”
Contrast the fear of the people of Babel with the courage of the disciples in Jerusalem on Pentecost. The disciples had spent the last forty days together, gathering in the same room with familiar people. These were people who agreed with them about who God was and what Jesus taught, people who were familiar and trusted. Many of these people had shared their life experiences on the road with Jesus over the last three years. But the disciples leave the security of that room to go out into public space to talk to strangers in response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
In Babel, the people were afraid of being scattered. In Jerusalem, the disciples were anticipating it. Remember that 10 days earlier, Jesus had told them “you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.” In Babel, they wanted to make a name for themselves, to define their own reasons for existence. In Jerusalem, they were praying, seeking God’s purposes. In Babel, they spoke only one language. In Jerusalem, on that day, many languages were heard and understood. It was not coercive conformity, but unity in the ongoing presence of real diversity.
In Jesus’ day, as in many places in the world now, many people spoke multiple languages. Latin was the official language of the Empire; however, most of Roman daily affairs were likely conducted in Greek. Likewise, Hebrew was the religious language of the Jewish religion, but many of the Jews in Israel at that time conversed in Aramaic. Acts 2:5 says “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” For everyday life and business in multi-cultural Jerusalem, people would have found a common language in which to communicate. The apostles probably usually did that as well, except on the day of Pentecost.
Amy Allen, New Testament professor at Columbia Seminary says “The miracle of Pentecost is not so much a miracle of understanding as it is of hearing. What caught people’s attention, what gave them pause, and led even to the frantic search for explanation, is that these Galileans were now speaking in the people’s own native languages.
When someone makes the effort to cross language barriers and to speak in your own native language, it makes an impression. It conveys purposeful care and concern, a kind of incarnational love. When someone does that, it improves the chances for meaningful relationship. It increases the odds that you will hear what they have to say, that you will listen, because they took the time to speak your language. And the reverse is also true, when we make the effort to speak in someone else’s native language, we will make an impression about our desire to be in relationship and we will be received better.
President Kennedy would have been 100 years old last Monday. One of the things I heard this week was part of the speech he would have given in Dallas. In it were these words, “There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternative, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. Those voices are inevitable. But today other voices are heard in the land — voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness.” (Isn’t it amazing how contemporary some of this sounds?) It goes on: “We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.”
I am thinking about Pentecost, about the prompting of the Spirit, about how that shape our communication. I’m thinking about some of you who are grandparents who have learned how to text message, so that you can speak the native language of your grandchildren. I am thinking about some white people here who are working hard to be aware of our privilege so that we can speak more accurately and truthfully about the racist systems we all live in, which is like native language to brown and black people. With all the words we are throwing at each other today, what are the ways that we can express more intentional love and concern, that we can speak other people’s native languages?
Kennedy’s hope has not been realized. Even though we have more devices on which to communicate, more ways to share more information faster, there is no shortage of people listening to nonsense. The idea that Jesus did not intend that Christians should love Muslim neighbors/enemies, because Muslims did not exist in Jesus’ day, is sheer nonsense. The idea, which I’m hoping is limited to a few, that what we need is a more aggressive, violent Christianity to make America great again, is dangerous nonsense.
Barbara Wheeler is a Presbyterian minister. Now retired, she was President of Auburn Seminary in New York City for almost 30 years. She wrote, “God hates walls and divisions and intends to save the world by breaking them down. If we want to stay close to God, we need to participate in this barrier breaking project, not frustrate it. Churches, for all their awful mistakes, have a unique power to do that. The community of God has no barriers to membership, not even sin. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. He didn’t wait until we got over it. . .. When the church lives up to its charter, nothing divides its members. . .. People who wouldn’t come together for any other reason, who don’t share nationality, race, opinions, who don’t even like each other, can draw close to each other here, because God chose all of them.
On this day of Pentecost 2017, loud, fear-mongering voices urge us to return to Babel, to build a tower (I mean a wall) to create a monolithic culture where everyone looks the same and speaks one language. But the Holy Spirit summons us out of our safe familiar spaces into God’s wide-open world of diversity. We are granted both ears to listen and tongues to speak. Ears to listen with incarnational love. Tongues to speak the truth, the whole courageous truth, carefully, in ways that with the help of the Spirit, will be received and understood. And so, we pray “Come Holy Spirit. May it be so even now.” Amen.
 Theodore Hiebert, “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 126.1, 2007, p. 37
 Bernhard Anderson, Currents in Theology and Mission, 1 April 1, 1978.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 99
 Barbara G. Wheeler, Who Needs the Church? Pamphlet published by Geneva Press, Louisville, KY 2004 http://www.ppcbooks.com/pdf/price_gwynn/whoneedsthechurch.pdf