|Homily Pentecost C Genesis 11:1-9
May 23, 2010 Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Valparaiso Chapel of the Resurrection Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, 25-27
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Have you ever played Toppling Towers? There is a tower structure about this high, narrowing toward the top, with various plastic parts and beams, red, yellow, blue and green, and a tiny bell at the top. The object of the game is for players to carefully remove various parts of the structure, one after another, without the rest of the tower swaying precariously in the breeze, and toppling over.
It was no game when terrorists on the morning of 9/11 nine years ago flew two commercial planes filled with fuel into the Twin Towers of New York City. Seared into our memory is both where we were when we first heard of the attack and the horrific images of that day: the flames coming out of the windows, the firemen in all their gear entering the building and going up the stairs to almost certain death, the pictures of those jumping from the upper stories, and then the dark, billowing smoke chasing survivors down the streets as the two towers, one after another, collapsed in on themselves.
In today’s reading from Genesis there is no toppling tower. There is a tower left unfinished, halted in mid-construction. This was no Chicago work stoppage caused by a grievance of the pipe fitters union. No materials shortage, of drywall, for example, or cement. And it wasn’t that the developer ran out of money, like when we see the skeletons of some buildings standing unfinished against the sky for years. No, this building project came to a complete halt because of a language problem. Because, all of a sudden, somebody would shout down, “We need more bricks up here on the sixth floor,” and the person he talked to down below would nod, and immediately bring him up rolls of carpeting. And somebody else, told clearly and specifically to haul up some mortar, would drop his wheelbarrow and head off to the nearest Starbucks for coffee break. Well, something like that happened anyway in Genesis when God confused their language. They couldn’t understand one another’s speech, hear what the other wanted or needed, and the tower of Babel was quickly abandoned.
In Akkadian, the language of the Babylonians, Babel literally means “gate of God.” The townsfolk had wanted their tower to reach the heavens, and the town to become famous for it. What God had wanted after creation, however, was quite different: not for people to reach for the skies, but for people to disperse, to fill every nook and cranny of the earth and live out their true vocation as caretakers of one another and of earth’s seas and land and vegetation and animals and winged creatures, faithfully trusting in God to sustain them. But people wanted to live their lives without reference to God, to erect a skyscraping tower as a monument to their own creativity and ingenuity and self-reliance. They wanted to make a name for themselves, rather than live with the imprint of God’s name on them.
Valpo could call itself part of the Greater Chicago area, I think, a city which, through the years, has surely made a name for itself. Big Shoulders, poet Carl Sanders called it. Home of the stockyards. Travel overseas and say you’re from Chicago and people usually respond, Al Capone, and Michael Jordan. Or Chicago’s known for the Sears Tower, now the Willis Tower, for many years the tallest skyscraper in the world.
And this is a chapel with a magnificent tower, a landmark that can be seen for some distance along highway 30. Is our tower “gate of God”? What would make it – and us – be so?
Poet Thomas Lynch has said that “of all God’s gifts, the best one is language.” (The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, p. 72) Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman says, “More than anything else, language determines the way in which…persons care for each other….the ways in which human communities conduct their business and arrange power….the way we bestow upon each other the gift of life and death.” (Interpretation Commentary on Genesis, p. 103) There is a lingering legacy in our world from Babel. Modern societies continue to reach for the sky with their church spires and Trump towers. And there is other less satisfying debris from Babel that we recognize as well, whether we live life at the top or the bottom, or somewhere in the middle. Humanity’s inability, our inability, so often to understand one another, especially those who are different from ourselves. Brueggemann says that the Hebrew verb shema’ in verse 7, generally translated as “do not understand,” could also be translated as “do not listen to one another.” In the interactions of nations and groups and individuals, even on this campus and in this community, we frequently see the failure to listen to others in a way that might permit a new level of understanding, or a readiness to be changed by what is said. Towers of misunderstanding abound. Between Palestinians and Israelis, in the Middle East, and Moslems and Christians here and around the world. Between rich and poor. Black and white. Heterosexual and homosexual. Political parties. Teenagers and parents. Colleagues. We talk past one another. We don’t trust what the other says. We don’t understand one another’s hopes and aspirations and dreams. We struggle to find common ground that we can agree on. This university is uniquely situated – with its international student community and strong faith commitment – to search for and build on that common ground.
There was one on this earth who listened, truly listened to the yearnings of those he encountered, and whose speech, too, was inviting, healing, life-giving, as nothing else before.
Preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “When Jesus let go of his last breath – willingly, we believe, for love of us – that breath hovered in the air in front of him for a moment and then it was let loose on earth. It was such pungent breath – so full of passion, so full of life – that it did not simply dissipate as so many breaths do. It grew, in strength and in volume, until it was a mighty wind, which God sent spinning through an upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. God wanted to make sure that Jesus’ friends were the inheritors of Jesus’ breath, and it worked.” (Home By Another Way, “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit,” p.143)
You know what happened next. A reversal of the Tower of Babel story. Of course, some sneered and thought that the disciples’ tongues were loosened by too much new wine. But others heard in their own language, and believed that Jesus was the “gate of God.” Not through a tower but through a cross that stood silhouetted against the darkened afternoon sky, Jesus toppled all those towers and walls that stand between ourselves and other people, and between us and God. Babel is reversed. Through the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, a new community was created, redeemed sinners from every language and color and nation under the sun. Word and water and wine and bread, not brick and mortar, cemented them together as one, and the Spirit sent them, scattered them, dispersed them, throughout the world and throughout the week, to offer to others the good news of new life in Jesus’ name.
Barbara Brown Taylor says the real question for Pentecost “is whether we still believe in a God who acts like that. Do we still believe in a God who blows through closed doors and sets our [hearts] on fire? Do we still believe in a God with power to transform us, both as individuals and as a people, or have we come to an unspoken agreement that our God is pretty old and tired by now, someone to whom we may address our prayer requests but not anyone we really expect to change our lives?” (p. 145)
Thomas Lynch, in his wonderful book, The Undertaking, says “the monuments in graveyards…are the traces left of the species before us.” Whether in granite or bronze, “a pyramid or Taj Mahal, a great vault in Highgate or a name on The Wall, we…visit them. We trace the shapes of their names and dates with our fingers. We say the little epitaphs out loud….We try to reassemble their lives from the stingy details, and the exercise teaches us something about how to live.” (p. 117) Easter and Pentecost mean that we don’t have to live out our lives in a graveyard, trying to reassemble Jesus’ life from the stingy details on some tombstone. The Holy Spirit, poured out on us in baptism, teaches and reminds us of everything Jesus did and said, and fills us again and again with Christ’s own invigorating breath. For what purpose? So that we can be shaped and sent, scattered and dispersed, to various nooks and crannies of this world to live out our vocation as members of Christ’s own body. In the last week some 800 young people were also scattered and dispersed from this place, and many of you here have played a role in preparing them or others before them.
I was with one recent Valpo grad, Pastor Tim Brown, this week in his nook and cranny at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church on the north side of Chicago. He is receiving 27 adults and children into membership today, among them staff and fellow patrons from a neighborhood coffee shop and local bar – both of which he visits regularly for evangelism purposes, he says. One of the new members, a waitress at the neighborhood bar, is recovering from surgery for an aneurism in her brain. “I think,” she told Tim, “God led me back to church to prepare me for this.”
I’d bet on it. And on the fact that the Spirit is still blowing through closed doors, and setting hearts on fire.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.