Genesis 11:1-9 & Acts 2:1-21
Calvary - St. George's Church
When I was a hospital chaplain I’d visit a lot of very lonely people. Many who I’d see had no other guests. Some of these patients would regularly apologize for talking without breaking the whole time I was with them. I’d often feel bad having to tell them it was time for me to see the next person.
At the end of one visitation, one woman suddenly interrupted her train of thought mid-sentence and told me, “I feel so lost, so cut off, so alone,” and then she apologized. I told her not to. Then she said something unexpected: ‘I'm not apologizing to you, I'm apologizing to myself. Hospice is horrific, to be sure, but what I've realized being here is that I've felt disconnected for decades; even when I was surrounded by family and friends. I’m sorry to myself for not noticing this when I was young. Sorry that I never did anything about it.’
And when I got home that night, I laid in my bed and stared at the ceiling, and wondered if I didn't feel the same.
Why are we so alone? So unable to share with one another what moves us?
We see other people coming and going each in their own way, and it saddens us that we are so cut off from each other. That there are so many different worlds -- you in your house and me in my house, you with your thoughts and me with mine. We feel this is simply not the way life is meant to be: this separate life we all lead. And we know that with a single change we could have infinitely more joy and connection, if only we could open our hearts and talk with each other.
But then we experience the fact that we are mute. Our lips bound. Yes, we certainly talk with each other, we find words all right, but never the right words; never the words that would really do justice to what actually moves us; never the words that would really lead us out of our loneliness and into community.*
Today is the day of Pentecost -- the feast of the Holy Spirit. But in order to understand what the Holy Spirit did in our reading from Acts 2, we must first be familiar with our reading from Genesis. We’ve just read the legend. At Babel, just as in Eden, God judged humanity. For instead of living into the plan that God had for us, multiplying and spreading across the earth -- birthing cultures and societies of various sorts -- we hunkered down and resisted his purpose. Once again usurping his authority; once again going at it our own way. And so humanity was judged; our punishment the confusion of tongues.
Hearing the curse, I’m immediately reminded of our own predicament. “Come, let us go down,” the text reads, “and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Here, in response to our defiance, the LORD cut us off from each other.
Now if you’re familiar with the rest of the book of Genesis you might know that Babel is the backdrop for the calling of our father Abraham. In light of this judgment of the world, God blesses a single people so that they might bless all peoples; and ultimately undo the curse and the confusion of Babel. And so what we learn about our second reading from Acts by understanding Genesis is that at Pentecost the calling of Abraham to undo the curse of Babel is arriving at its full purpose.
But how? Well, in Acts chapter 2 Jews of every tongue from across the known world are gathered together at Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks. On this day, 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus and 10 days after his ascension, the Holy Spirit descended ‘like the rush of a violent wind’ upon the disciples gathered there, and the text says that ‘divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. And all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.”
This loud sound was evidently not isolated to where the disciples were gathered because it attracts a crowd from the festival. Confused that each had heard in his or her own native tongue the declaration of God’s great deeds, they marvel at the fact that they can understand these uncultured, backwoods Galileans each in their own language. “What does this mean?” many ask in wonder. But others, so terrified of the unknown, and being known, at the slightest sign of exposure, pull up their defenses and mock.
The discerning reader of Scripture, though, can put together what this miracle means. For the tongues once scattered in confusion at Babel are here brought back together in understanding at Pentecost. Here, in Jerusalem, the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit is undoing Babel’s curse. But not in the way we might think. The confusion of languages is reversed but with a variation. For those gathered together are still speaking in different languages, only now there is no confusion. Now there is mutual understanding.
So Pentecost reiterates the lesson of Babel. That it was always God’s purpose that humanity should multiply and go out into all the world. Here at Pentecost the curse is reversed and mutual understanding is won, but the multitude of languages and cultures is preserved. Here we see an emphatic ‘Yes’ of God to the goodness of human diversity. For while the confusion is done away with, the differences are not collapsed but brought together, all in worship of the LORD.
For Luke, the author of Acts, Pentecost is all about the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. That by him and his people the curse of Babel in the confusion of tongues might be undone; that in our otherness our lips might be opened one to another.
But what does this mean for you and me living in the 21st century? Why don’t we see our lips opened to each other? Why are we so often mute? Why, even after Pentecost, are we still so cut off from each other; even from those that we love?
So often I feel like Tom Townsend in Whit Stillman’s movie ‘Metropolitan:’ An Upper West Side socialist in a WASP-y Upper East Side world. In the movie, Tom was never able to speak the lingua franca of the elite. This becomes clear as Audrey, his love interest in the film, decides to be with the pretentious pretty-boy villain, despite her affection for Tom, because Rick speaks a language that she knows. By the end of the film Tom has had a Pentecost-like experience. The confusion of the Upper West Side/Upper East Side tongues become undone, and he decides to spend hundreds of dollars, money that he does not have, to take a cab from Manhattan to the Hamptons to find her and win her. But by the end of the movie the viewer never really finds out if Tom finds the right words to say; we never discover if Audrey’s defenses come tumbling down... Why, post-Pentecost, are our lips not opened to each other?
So often we find that we are the problem in our inability to connect. We’re so terrified of being exposed and rejected, of trusting someone new after having been betrayed, of what might happen if we actually opened our lips.
In our own way, we’re like those in Jerusalem who called the disciples drunk, so afraid of being known that we’re hopeless to knowing others; so scared of what the in-breaking of God might mean for us... that we explain it away... What hope do we have? Who will break down our fortified defenses?
Other times the problem isn't with us. It’s completely out of our control. It has nothing to do with a lack of trying. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we simply can’t break through, we can’t disarm,... we can’t win over. Who will open our closed lips; who will give us the right words to say?
Well, the message of our reading from Acts today is that the in-breaking of blessing at Pentecost points to an answer to these questions. On this day lips were momentarily opened and defenses temporarily shattered to God and each other. In this historical instance we have an in-breaking of an eschatological reality. For the promise of the Scriptures and particularly the last book of the Bible is that at the final and everlasting Eucharistic feast we will witness the full consummation of this initial in-breaking when every tribe, tongue, and culture is gathered together in that heavenly city connecting with God and with each other in various tongues but with one voice. Where lips will be forever opened and defenses eternally broken down.
But what about until then? What about right now? We do believe in the same Holy Spirit who continues to intervene even today, do we not? But, it’s true. Sometimes, for whatever reason, he does not. And I don't know why, it frustrates me too. Though even when he doesn’t, even when things don’t work out our way, even when we feel lost, lonely, and cut off, the promise of the gospel is that the Spirit of our living Lord sits with us those dark places. The promise is that the violent wind is up to something even there. So until then, we anticipate further in-breaking from this same Holy Spirit. Until then, we pray for loosened lips and ruptured defenses from the one who ‘raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.’
Maybe you're here this morning and you’ve found that you are mute, that your lips are bound. You feel cut off from God and your neighbor; from strangers and even family and friends. You wonder if the problem’s with them but you suspect it’s with you. Maybe you’ve been so afraid of being known that you’ve cut yourself off from knowing others? Or maybe a dullness to the world has taken root, and you've simply lost your relational verve? Or maybe you’ve been hurt and you’re terrified to let someone else come that close again?
If you’re here this morning and you don’t want to be cut off from God and your neighbor anymore, know that the declaration of Babel, confirmed at Pentecost, is that our failure of mutual understanding and the troubles that accompany it were not built into creation; they were not a part of God’s original plan. We are right to feel that this is not the way things were meant to be, and this is decidedly not the way things will be. And so we anticipate resurrection; we anticipate further in-breaking of the Holy Spirit in power in the here-and-now.
Therefore, may the same Comforter who descended at Pentecost -- who is living and active and 'can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine' -- move like a violent wind upon you and me to unbind our lips and break our defenses.
*Paragraphs 4-6 were heavily influenced by Karl Barth's Advent meditation "To Believe."