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 (104:25-35, 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 Epistle: 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
Charles Farrar Browne was a mid-19th century, American humor writer, who published his columns under the pen-name “Artemus Ward.” His musings were favorites of Abraham Lincoln and are said to have inspired the work of another American writer who used a pseudonym, Samuel Longhorn Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Depending on what source you consult, one of the two of them – Artemus Ward or Mark Twain – originated the saying, “What gets you into trouble is not what you don’t know, but what you think you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
That’s a maxim that I have found to be true with the understandings that a lot of people have for many of the stories in the Bible, including the Tower of Babel narrative that we heard today. Originally, it seems to have been a tale that was told to explain the diversity of human languages. In its final form, the one that we have in the book of Genesis, people often view it as a tale of human arrogance, which it is; but many also interpret the scattering of people and the diversity of languages that come at the end as God’s punishment for the intent to build the Tower. But that’s one of those things that we think we know for sure “that just ain’t so.”
The tale of the Tower of Babel brings to a conclusion the prehistory of Israel as told in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. It comes shortly before God makes a new beginning by calling Abraham. That prehistory begins with the first of the two great creation stories that reaches its culmination in God’s command to the group of men and women whom God has created, to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth”. “Filling the earth” will necessarily result in a scattering and in a diversity of peoples and languages and cultures and ways of life.
The stories that follow, in the next ten chapters, portray humans as rebelling against God’s intentions for them; and the story of the Tower of Babel completes that pattern. Instead of spreading out over all the earth, with all that that implies, the people in this account were determined to do just the opposite. They decided to build a city where they could all come together. That would have allowed them all to speak a single language and, therefore, to have the same culture and the same practices. They would make the human race a homogeneous group, and so would not have to deal with the messiness that inevitably comes with the diversity that God intended for them.
But God would have none of it. A key word in this passage is the verb translated as “scattered”; it comes up three times in these eleven verses. Despite God’s initial intent and command for the human race, the people in this tale declare that they are going to make sure that they will not be scattered. But God decides otherwise. God essentially tells them: “You weren’t listening the first time. I created you to spread out in the world and become a diverse family of peoples.” And so, the passage tells us, God “scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth,” and they were scattered.
The people in the Tower of Babel narrative found that diversity was hard to live with. It still is. And there are many people today who still try to avoid it and to make sure that they live and associate only with those who are pretty much just like them. They try to avoid contact with people in their wider community who might be different from them, staying, as much as possible, in their own immediate neighborhoods or suburbs. They resist calls to welcome the alien, the immigrant. They want to expel from their country large numbers of people who appear to be different from them and who speak a different language. They want to build walls to keep “those other people” out. They want to impose religious tests to determine who is allowed to enter the country in which they live, and who is kept out. They try to enact laws that purport to be about “religious freedom,” but are in reality only very thinly veiled attempts to allow them to discriminate against others who appear to be different from them. Essentially, they try to create their own towers of Babel.
Yet the Spirit of God, working through people who are faithful to the call of the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, is still at work trying to ensure that that doesn’t happen. They recognize the fact that the diversity that we experience in the world is, in fact, a wonderful gift from God: one that enriches and deepens the lives of God’s people.
That awareness sometimes comes as a shock to those who suddenly recognize it: people like those who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost at the time of today’s second reading. When God sent the Holy Spirit to touch the lives of the diverse group of people gathered in the city, God’s Spirit didn’t make them all the same: speaking the same language, embracing the same culture and customs, thinking the same way. Instead, the story tells us, that Spirit enabled them to hear in a new way: to experience the life of the one God who embraced them all in their diversity as God’s children, members of one family.
The emphasis in the Pentecost story is not on speaking, but on hearing: hearing one another and hearing God present within each person’s language and culture and life-experience. Just as the word “scattered” appears three times in the Tower of Babel story, so does the word “hear” appear three times in the Pentecost story. As Acts puts it, “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each”; “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”; “In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” The Spirit of God never tried to make them all the same. Instead, the Spirit of God enabled each of them to hear the good news of God’s life-giving work in each person’s language and culture and life-situation.
The Spirit of God, whose power and life we celebrate today, is not a spirit leading into isolation and provincialism and narrowness of mind and of heart. Rather, the Spirit of God, whose power and life we celebrate today, is the force that has scattered the human race across the face of the earth, giving us a marvelous diversity. And the Spirit of God, whose power and life we celebrate today, is the force that gives life and breath to all that is; and that “all” includes those of “every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev. 14:6).
Pentecost is a feast of unity: the unity that all people share in the life of the one God, given to us in the one Spirit. But Pentecost is also a feast of diversity: the marvelous God-given diversity that was God’s intent for the human race from the beginning, a diversity that enriches and deepens our experience and our understanding of what it means to be human, of what it means for all of us, whatever our language and nation and culture, to be created in the image and likeness of God.