Old Testament: Genesis (11:1-9)
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and 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.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
The Response: Psalm (104:25-37, 37)
25 O Lord, how manifold are your works! *
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
26 Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number, *
creatures both small and great.
27 There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan, *
which you have made for the sport of it.
28 All of them look to you *
to give them their food in due season.
29 You give it to them; they gather it; *
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.
30 You hide your face, and they are terrified; *
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.
31 You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.
32 May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; *
may the Lord rejoice in all his works.
33 He looks at the earth and it trembles; *
he touches the mountains and they smoke.
34 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; *
I will praise my God while I have my being.
35 May these words of mine please him; *
I will rejoice in the Lord.
37 Bless the Lord, O my soul. *
The New Testament: Acts (2:1-21)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
The Gospel: John (14:8-17, 25-27)
Philip said to [Jesus], “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
There is a quote that I have used in sermons at least a couple of times before. That tends to happen when you get older — and when you’ve served in a church for almost 23 years and have delivered more than 1000 sermons there. But I wanted to start with that quip again today, because it’s a quote that is applicable in multiple contexts, including today’s readings. According to an unknown, 19th century author, “What gets you into trouble is not so much what you don’t know, but what you think you know that just ain’t so.” That observation has been validated time and time again in many aspects of life, including in people’s approach to the Bible, its teachings, and its stories.
Among them is the story told in today’s first reading. The tale of the Tower of Babel is one of the most ancient ones in all of scripture and one that many people remember from their Sunday School days. It is one that has, for much of the church’s history, been used in connection with the feast of Pentecost. The thinking is that, at the end of the Genesis account, the languages of the people of the world are confused, and they can no longer understand one another. But at the Pentecost event, as it is described in our second reading, that effect is reversed as people from many nations, speaking many different languages, together hear and understand the same message of the gospel as it is proclaimed by the apostles.
At the end of the story, God scatters the people throughout the earth: a process that results in a multiplicity of languages and cultures. And, most people who are familiar with the Tower of Babel story will tell you that that scattering was a punishment from God.
But once again, “What gets you into trouble is not so much what you don’t know, but what you think you know that just ain’t so.” A closer look at the first eleven chapters of Genesis – the so-called “pre-history” that prepares the way for God’s call to Abraham – offers a very different view of God’s intent. It seems that, in scattering the people, God is simply accomplishing what God intended for the human race from the beginning.
If you go back to the first of the two great creation stories that begin Genesis, you’ll find that the first one reaches its culmination when God creates, not one or two people, but the human race (1:28):
“So God created humankind in his image,
In the image of God he created them;
Male and female he created them.”
Then God commanded them to be fruitful and multiply and to scatter throughout the earth, filling it, and caring for it. That scattering, with the diversity of languages and cultures that would necessarily result from it, was God’s intent from the beginning.
But as the pre-history in Genesis ends with the Tower of Babel story, humans have rejected God’s intent and have decided that they will all be the same. As our reading begins, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” And the people together migrated to a place called Shinar. And there they began to build a monument to themselves. They were determined to avoid the diversity that God intended for the human race. As the reading puts it, “let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” – which, of course, is exactly what God wanted them to be.
Since that scattering, that diversity, was so important to God, and since the humans involved were determined not to allow it to happen, God decided to take matters into the divine hands. So, as the story ends, “the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” God was determined that the human race, those created in God’s own image and likeness, would not be monolithic, that it would be diverse. It just might be that we need that multiplicity of cultures and experiences and perspectives in order to reflect the divine image in any effective and reliable way.
As human beings, we tend to keep our distance from, and sometimes even fear, people who appear to be different from us because of race or nationality or language or religion or culture or whatever other criteria we use to try to distinguish “us” from “them.” And would-be autocrats in all ages try to exacerbate that tendency for their own purposes. They use distortions and outright lies in order to stir up fear of others, in the hope of gaining support and power for themselves. They manipulate their audience by stoking fear of the other. They encourage a mindset that insists that, to be truly one of “us,” people need to fear and reject those who are different and to strive for a monolithic identity.
It is here that the story of the Tower of Babel, viewed within the context of the entire Genesis pre-history, serves as a reminder that the diversity of cultures and experiences and perspectives in the world are not at all a threat to the human race. Rather it is God’s intention for the human race, one which greatly enriches humanity, enabling us to reflect more fully and more faithfully the one God in whose image and likeness we were all created.
As we celebrate today the fulfillment of our Easter celebration on the great feast of Pentecost, we join in thanking God for the marvelous diversity of the human race. We join in thanking God for the life given to all people by the one Spirit. And we join in asking God to enable us more fully to recognize and celebrate the many diverse ways in which God reveals the divine self to us through the world’s many diverse peoples.