Saturday, May 26, 2007


Acts 2:1-21 ; Genesis 11:1-9

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.


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.

What gets confused at Babel is sorted out at Pentecost. When the Spirit falls on the people, they begin to share the good news in languages that everyone can understand. What was confusing, became clear, and the alienation that separates us from God and from everything else began to dissipate. The Spirit becomes for them and for us a sort of universal translator – to borrow an image from Star Trek.

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.


The story of Babel is about people trying to find a way to touch God, but the way they do it is apparently inappropriate. Perhaps they weren’t ready or their motives were wrong. Whatever the case God put a stop to it. But with Pentecost the bridge is provided and we’ve been invited to enter into God’s presence. Where reckless ambition led to confusion, now trust in God brings reconciliation.

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.
Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Spirit to empower the church to carry the message of God’s reconciling grace to the world. Pluralism Sunday asks us to listen for God’s voice in unexpected places. For that to happen we’ll need the presence of the Spirit of God to help translate this voice. And if we’re open to the Spirit’s leading then perhaps we’ll discover that we have more in common with people of other faiths than we think.
Babel is about arrogance, but hearing God’s voice in the stories of others requires humility. It takes humility to recognize that we don’t have all the answers to life’s questions, and that God might chose to speak in ways we don’t expect and which we can’t control. But if we trust in God and let the Spirit move in our midst then we’ll begin to hear God speaking to us, and maybe God will speak to others through us. The fact is, even as similar as we might think we are, here in this place, really we’re all quite different. Each of us brings to this service our own sets of experiences, questions, and encounters with God. If we’re going to hear each other then we need a common language. That common language is found in the stories of our faith, in the words and the themes we find in Scripture. If we learn and understand these stories, like the story of Babel and of Pentecost, then we have the foundation for understanding the ideas and beliefs of others. If you’re like me, this is all new territory, but this is our calling from God.
Just the other day I sat down with three other people to talk about ways in which the religious community could be involved in solving Lompoc’s gang problem. I think that if we as people of faith could listen attentively and respectfully to one another, perhaps we could provide gang members a model for resolving their own differences peacefully and productively.
Today we come to celebrate God’s gift of a bridge to understanding. May we hear the this word and take it to heart!

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Pentecost Sunday/Pluralism Sunday
May 27, 2007

1 comment:

Adam Gonnerman said...

Very good. I like how the Book of Acts takes us through the Spirit breaking down one cultural barrier after another.

First it was the traditional Jews and the Hellenists.

Second it was the Jews and the Samaritans.

Third it was the Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles brought together into one church universal.

God clearly doesn't want us broken down into our little isolated sub-cultures.