(Genesis 11: 1-9; Acts 2: 1-13)
A father and his 5-year old son are touring the sights of New York City. They take a walk in Central Park. They visit the Statue of Liberty. They hang out for a bit at Times Square. And near the end of their trip, as the grand finale, they make their way to 350 5th Avenue and the Empire State Building. There they wait in line as it zigzags through the innards of the first few floors until they finally reach the elevator. They enter it, the doors close, and it begins its long journey upward – 102 floors to the top.
The first few floors are no big deal. But around the sixtieth floor, the boy begins to feel the effects of the altitude, as his stomach tightens and his ears pop. Nervously, he clutches his father’s hand. Up, up, up it goes, floor by floor – now 97, 98, 99, 100. And as the elevator slows at its final destination, a wide-eyed boy looks up at his dad and says, “Daddy, does God know we’re coming?”
Now I could be wrong, but I doubt that kid saw God when those doors opened. Although anyone who’s been to the top of the Empire State Building can testify to the breathtaking view that 1250 feet gets you – the skyline of New York City, all the buildings, the harbor. They say on a clear day you can see up to 80 miles away into New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut.
The thing is, the Empire State Building is not the tallest building around these days. Not even close. In fact, on a recent list of the tallest buildings in the world, the Empire State Building ranks a paltry 24th. Right around the corner, the new One World Trade Center, reaching 500 more feet in the air, comes in 4th. The tallest building at the moment is in Dubai, measuring in at over 2700 feet. And guess what? Saudi Arabia is preparing to build one even taller: 3200 feet – one full kilometer – requiring, for the record, 5.7 million feet of concrete and 80,000 tons of steel.
All of which begs the question: when will it end? When is a tall building too tall? There’s a deeper philosophical issue, isn’t there? We’ve been to the moon; now there’s talk of going to Mars. We’ve discovered the atom; now we want to decipher the genetic code. But is bigger, stronger, faster, always better? When is more simply too much?
It’s the kind of question our first scripture today gets us thinking about; a people gathering together to build a tower long before the days of 3200-foot tall skyscrapers. These people in the 11th chapter of Genesis had had a vision:
Come, let us. . . build 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.
It sounds like a noble enough idea. And yet, as scripture tells us, for whatever reason, God does not share their enthusiasm. So God “confuses their speech” – God causes them to speak all different kinds of languages. Imagine trying to accomplish some huge task like building a tower when you can’t even understand the person working next to you. Things are going to go nowhere fast! And that’s exactly what happens. The tower project is abandoned, and we never hear of it again.
So what’s the point of a story like this? Well, it depends on how you look at it. From a practical standpoint this story gives context to the existence of all the languages around the world – by current counts, some 6500. It’s no surprise that the tower was called “Babel,” which in Hebrew means “to confuse.” Even today we use the term “babble” to describe speech we can’t understand.
Going deeper into the story, there’s the understanding that it serves as a metaphor of sorts for the perils of human vanity and the foolhardiness of any quest to try and be like God. Certainly at first glance that’s hard to argue with. These people built a structure that encroached on God’s territory; and God just couldn’t stand for that.
But is that really what’s going on here? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time buying into the line of thinking that suggests God would be fundamentally threatened by something we would do. I mean, do we really think God got nervous when a bunch of humans started building a tower? What kind of God does that leave us with? And that’s not to mention all the skyscrapers out there right now, skyscrapers that are much taller than this little tower was. God doesn’t seem all that bothered by them.
Which is why I begin wondering if the deeper meaning here has less to do with the tower itself and more to do with the motivation behind it. And that motivation, contrary to popular belief, was not about “reaching God” but about the fear of being “scattered over the earth.” What do you think? Building the tower not out of some noble purpose to unite for the betterment of the world, but out of fear of what would happen to them if they didn’t. Not to bring the peoples of the world together, but to draw a distinct line over who was “in” and who was “out.” That was the real motivation for the tower – fear. And that’s ultimately why it failed.
Kind of begs the question: how many things today do we “build” out of fear? When it comes to being the church, do we think “reaching out” or do we think “preserving what we have?” When it comes to our giving, do we give out of our sense of abundance, or do we give out of our sense of scarcity? When change happens, as change inevitably does, do we view it as an opportunity for growth, or as a threat to be worried about? It all boils down to our perception of the building project, doesn’t it? How ironic, that the higher the tower got, the more those people fell further and further from the God they were trying so desperately to reach.
Now contrast that to what we find in our second scripture. A bunch of people are gathered “in one place.” They’re united by the fact that they are followers of Jesus; and in his absence they have been called to serve as witnesses to the risen Lord. Because his work is far from over – there is still much to be done. They just don’t know how or by whom.
And then suddenly, God’s presence comes into that place in such a mysterious and powerful way that the only words the writer of Acts can find to describe it are “a violent wind” and “tongues of fire” on their heads. And as if that isn’t shocking enough, suddenly everyone there gains the ability to speaks in all these different languages, none of their native tongue.
And you know, what’s interesting is that over the years, many well-meaning Christians have interpreted this event as what’s commonly referred to as “speaking in tongues” – a mysterious divine language that sounds a lot like babbling and amounts to an exclusive holy experience between one person and their God.
But when we read this passage closely, that’s not what’s going on, is it? They weren’t engaging some mysterious language, they were given the gift of actual dialects uses around the known world. Which, you have to admit, was not only a pretty cool thing, but a mighty practical one, too. I mean, if the world outside the Aramaic-speaking arena was ever going to hear about Jesus, they’d have to hear about him in their native tongue, right? And that’s precisely what those disciples did, scattering with their newly-acquired language skills to go grow the church. Which is exactly what they did. And when they did it, they didn’t do it out of fear, but out of hope and love. Not out of scarcity, but out of abundance. Not out of a sense of preserving what they already had, but reaching out and flinging the gates open wide.
Two stories at near opposite ends of the Bible. Both involve a group of people coming together for a common purpose. Both involve a God who acts decisively and causes them to speak all different kinds of languages. And in both instances, when that happens, the people scatter. Except they’re very different kinds of scattering, aren’t they?
What if, on this Pentecost Sunday, we were to look at these two stories not just as stories but as models of being the church today? The first one, we’ll call the “Babel church.” In this church, people are busy working, but not necessarily on the things God wants them to be working on. The doors of this church are closed – perhaps not literally but in a way that everyone can sense, from the longtime member to the new visitor who shows up one Sunday. They’re friendly but they’re not welcoming – and those are two very different things. People in the Babel Church tend to view things through the lens of scarcity instead of abundance – there’s never enough. They view change as something to be afraid of – a threat to the way things have always been; a source of a whole lot of work and effort. Most of all in this church, fear rules. And when everyone scatters at the end, the mission and vision of the church scatter with it.
Then there is the “Pentecost church.” The doors of this church are flung wide open, welcoming one and all into the vibrant family of faith, friendly and welcoming. Love, not fear, is the motivation here. At the heart of this church lies a strong sense of mission, one that far surpasses the traditional understanding of financial support for local benevolences. These people don’t just show up for the church, the are the church. They see abundance rather than scarcity; they recognize and celebrate what they have rather than pining for what they don’t. And when people in this church scatter, the mission and vision doesn’t die. It thrives, it grows! They don’t “run away from;” they “run to” – to find the least, the lost and the otherwise left out, and bring them back into the community of faith.
Two models for the church – can you guess, my friends, which one God wants us to be? Which one do you want us to be? It sounds odd to say it this way, but God is calling us every day to be a “scatterbrained church.” A vibrant church. A church that’s not afraid to fail, because it knows that taking risks is what often leads to the greatest successes . A church that understands that things are always changing, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A church that loves all and strives to be welcoming instead of settling for just being friendly.
Is this the kind of church we want Trinity to be? Is this the family of faith we are in the process of becoming? May God continue to work in and through this scatterbrained people; the Holy Spirit igniting our vision, setting us on fire, to scatter and to grow, all for God’s glory. In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.