Sermon; Pentecost C; Gen. 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-11
Alleluia. Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
Over the past several weeks I have been preaching on the newness of the Easter season. Easter is about resurrection and an empty tomb. It is about experiencing the life of the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, in the upper room, and here with us. Easter brings us images of the new heaven and new earth. All of these are part of seeing and living in new ways. I have said these are Easter messages that a Good Friday world needs to hear. That Easter message of newness – a new heaven and new earth, loving others as God loves you, the tree of life, and everything else we have heard this season – is set before us today with the stories from Genesis and Acts. These two stories reflect what is and what will be.
The Tower of Babel story has been used to explain many things over the centuries. Everything from the multitude of languages on earth to why towers were built in the first place to why groups of people are alienated to why people are scattered over the face of the earth are given as reasons for this story. The great thing about this is that there is no, one correct interpretation, leaving it open to further future interpretations. This wide swath of interpretations helps to establish scripture as pertinent to all ages.
One interpretation I read said this story wasn't really about the origin of many languages or about the desire to storm heaven through building projects, but that the purpose was to “make a name for ourselves lest we be scattered.” The author said, “The people want to become a self-sufficient elite who are free from any need to answer to others. They want to make a name for themselves so that they can say to their challengers, 'Who are you?'”
Over the past month or so I have seen many pro-patriarchy, anti-women, and racist posts from a variety of places. One woman proudly posted she earned her theological degree, which was met with an outcry from men that women had no business speaking, teaching, or pastoring in the Church. This was the reason, according to them, the Church was failing – because it allowed feminism and effeminate theology into its sacred walls. There was also the ongoing discussion/rant about women needing to wear modest clothing and avoid wearing leggings in order to keep men from committing sexual misconduct (I'm not kidding).
You may have heard about the sexual abuse report within the Southern Baptist Convention that came out two weeks ago. It is filled with stories and testimonies about predatory pastors abusing and raping women and girls. It is filled with stories of systematic cover-ups designed to protect the abusers, the pastors, and the denomination. It is filled with stories of abused women who were forced to publicly confess their sin of leading men astray with no accountability on the man's part. It is every bit as damning as the reports of abuse and cover-ups in the Roman Catholic Church. Overall it shows that the problem with abuse wasn't priestly celibacy but a patriarchal system that elevates men and denigrates women.
As far as I can tell, the response to the SBC report from the necessary parties has been either overtly quiet or to double down and protect the system and abusers by more vigorously attacking women and those who push for equality and transparency.
This is what a patriarchal system does. It creates an environment where women and children dare not speak up. It creates a system that hides abuse and protects the abusers. It creates a system where the victims are held responsible. It creates a system where the men are the only people with names worth knowing. It creates a system where male leaders are free from any need to answer to others because “biblical authority.” It creates a system where those in power can say to those who challenge or report them, “Who are you?”
Various churches and our society in general have created multiple Towers of Babel through patriarchy and racism that allow those with power and resources to say to women, people of color, children, and any other at-risk group, “Who are you?”
Who are you to think you can speak up? Who are you to think you can speak? Who are you to think you can lead? Who are you to think you have equal rights? Who are you to challenge me?
When we fail to listen to others we declare them null and void. For too long those in power have been declaring others null and void.
But there is a different way.
The story from Genesis raises questions about how we speak to others and how we listen. It points out that the people of Babel spoke without listening. It points out that there was no care for the other if there were barriers. Verse 7 is often translated as, “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech.” But it can also be translated as, “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not listen to one another's speech.”
What does it mean to listen? How much better off would we be if we actually listened to the stories of those who suffer from abuse, racism, and other injustices?
We get a glimpse of this in the reading from Acts. Notice how often listening/hearing is mentioned: a SOUND like a violent wind; the crowd gathered at the SOUND; each one HEARD them, how is it we HEAR; in our own languages we HEAR them; LISTEN to what I say.
The Pentecost reading from Acts corrects the problem we encounter in Genesis at the Tower of Babel. Whereas the people of Babel were focused on making a name for themselves, on creating a system of not needing to answer to others, of dismissing others with a petulant, “Who are you?” and of a fear of being scattered by God, the story from Acts is directly opposed to those things.
In Acts the focus is on establishing the name of God with the people, of creating a system of answering God's call, of welcoming outsiders, and of a willingness to allow God to send (scatter) us where we need to go. In Babel we saw a breakdown of the community of God. In Acts we see that community of God being reestablished.
The breakdown of the community of God at Babel was a direct result of people wanting to make a name for themselves. It was a direct result of people not listening to what others were saying. It was a direct result of self-importance so one could say to another, “Who are you?”
We face the same issues today. There are people willing to do, or not do, anything in order to make a name for themselves. We have leaders who don't listen to what others are saying. People become so puffed up with self-importance that they can say to another, “Who are you?” And in the case of religious leaders, they, like the story in Genesis, can falsely claim, “God ordained this.”
The beginning of the reversal of the Babel story is the Pentecost story. In the aftermath of the resurrection we need to not focus on making names for ourselves, but to work to glorify the name of God. We need to learn to listen to others in order to help heal our divisions. We need to ask, “Who are you?” not to make the other person null and void, but to listen to their stories in an effort to make their lives worthwhile and meaningful.
Pentecost is a fun story about the presence of the Holy Spirit, about the apostles speaking in other languages, and about people hearing that message. But it is also about having the courage to speak up about our faith and, in light of the Babel story, about our willingness to listen.
May we elevate God over self. May we ask, “Who are you?” to learn and not denigrate. May we listen to the stories of others. May we have the will to unite rather than the desire to divide. May we have the courage to speak of our faith in ways that others will hear.
May our proclamation of, “Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia,”
help to bring us together rather than drive us apart.