This is the story of the Tower of Babel, and it’s a strange one. A group of people discover how to make bricks and then they decide to build a city with a tower that can reach to the clouds, which is where God can be found. In the bricks they see a way of controlling their destiny. They can protect themselves from outside and they can build a rampart so they can touch the heavens and therefore touch God. For some reason God sees this as some sort of threat, as if this group of mortals will storm the gates of heaven and take over. To keep them at bay, God decides to confuse their languages. And when this happens the people scatter leaving their tower incomplete. And thus the threat to heaven is stopped.
THE PATH TO ALIENATION
At the heart of this story is the problem of hubris, that arrogant sense that we can control everything, even our relationship with God. And the result of this attitude is confusion and even anarchy. Where once there was clarity, now there’s only confusion, and that’s what happens when we find ourselves separated from God, from each other, and even the creation itself. It all happens when we choose to go our own way and refuse to listen for God’s voice.
THE PATH OF RECONCILIATION
Pentecost is a natural response to Babel, but it’s a culmination of many steps that begins almost immediately after things get out of hand. You see, God begins to set things in order by calling Abraham to be the means of blessing. Through his seed we’re told, the nations of the world will be blessed. And as Christians we believe that this seed is Jesus, and it’s through him that the world will be blessed. Pentecost is the next step, for with the birth of the church and the coming of the Spirit, the process of reconciliation is set in motion. What was lost in the confusion, is restored in the gift of languages.
There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that illustrates how confusion is overcome through the telling of stories. In this episode, Captain Picard finds himself alone with an alien who speaks only in stories, stories that Picard doesn’t know or understand. They need to find a way off the planet, but unless they can communicate that won’t happen. But Picard discovers that if he uses the great stories of his own people, he can find a connection to these seemingly obscure and meaningless stories of his opposite. As he learns the stories, the sense of separation is overcome. What we learn from this is that if we’re willing to learn each others stories, we’ll find a bridge that leads to healing and hope.
I don’t need to tell you that we face a world that’s full of confusion and even chaos. Even as the world seems to get smaller because of air travel and communication devices, we still find it difficult to understand and communicate with each other. We still struggle to find the words, the stories, even the language that will help us bridge the gaps that lead to suspicion and anger.
Pentecost is a sign that the Spirit is present and if we allow the Spirit to work in our lives we can become agents of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19-20). The Spirit provides the language so that we can build the bridge that will bring us together.
BUILDING THE BRIDGE THAT CROSSES THE DIVIDE
There’s something else interesting about the story of Babel. In building a city they would have built walls, and we build walls out of fear. In life fear results from a lack of knowledge and a lack of knowledge begins with a failure to communicate. And there’s no better illustration of this failure than the predicament our nation finds itself in today. We find ourselves bogged down in a war because apparently our leaders had no clue about the culture, religion, or history of the people in that region. They made assumptions that proved wrong. In other words, they acted out of hubris and not understanding.
When I announced last week that we would observe Pluralism Sunday in addition to Pentecost, I did so because I thought there was a connection. Now I’ve not said much about Pluralism Sunday so far today, but I think there’s a relationship between the two. You see Pluralism Sunday is also about building bridges. It calls on us to not just celebrate our differences, but to find ways of hearing God’s voice in the lives and experiences of others whose professions of faith are different from our own.
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Pentecost Sunday/Pluralism Sunday
May 27, 2007