Readings for Day of Pentecost (C)
The season of sandcastles has arrived, or is surely about to, when families descend on beaches, and backyard sandboxes, and children fill their buckets and begin to build their towers. We gather and disperse in the great outdoors of summer, and sandcastles are the monuments we leave in our wake.
I remember – just barely-- playing in the sand with my brothers and sister and cousins from Texas, in the summers of rural Wisconsin. I still remember the very spot amidst tall pine trees that we considered our own personal sandbox, and have actually returned to it a few times over the years, half expecting my castles and towers to greet me and come to life! But, I found no such archeological evidence, and I question now the grandiosity of my creations, so well constructed in my tiny toddler mind! Now, sure only that we had gathered there, and been dispersed, when our moms said it was time to go, pulling us away kicking and screaming, as I recall.
And, I have been to Rhode Island beaches with Kim many times during visits to family there, and seen cities of castles, made all the taller and more impressive on the ocean’s edge, with the help of the salt water, like a mortar or tar substance to strengthen the layers and levels of the towers, as they reached ever higher. Yet they were also endangered by that same sea, as the tide came in, suddenly flooding their foundations or crashing their outer walls, and slowly but surely they were all washed away, despite the objections of scurrying children, determined to patch them up.
“Now the whole earth” gathered together, it says in our First Reading from Genesis 11, “in the land of Shīn’ar,” which would be named the city of Babel. Since they had just migrated there “from the east” after the flood, they all had “one language.” And to express their unity, they begin to “build themselves a city, and a tower in the city,” very tall, saying, “let us make a name for ourselves.”
I suppose we could read into this story something like the building of the Sears, now Willis tower, or else the Twin Towers in NY. But the comparison is only accurate in the sense that “making a name for ourselves” is a deliberate decision to put ourselves at the center of the world, and, consciously or not, to keep God out of the picture. For the real reason the people of one language want to build, comes last in this story’s telling, when they say: if we don’t, “we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” It seems the city of Babel is mostly motivated by their fear of being dispersed, scattered, losing their unity – their self-crowned sovereignty. A legitimate fear, I suppose, like any child on the beach, afraid the tide is about to wipe out their creation, or their parent is about to pull the plug on their grand kingdom-making plans, in their tiny toddler minds, and scatter them to their homes.
So where is God in this story, we might ask? Actually, God is quite personally present, though, God can’t actually make out the puny little tower from the heavens, it’s worth noting, but must come down to find it. God is not really threatened that the tower would be some kind of stepping stone for humans to come up on the same level with the creator. But God sees what will happen to them, to all the people, if they keep going in this direction – “this is only the beginning of what they will do,” God concludes upon inspection. “So the LORD scatters them, disperses them abroad from there, over the face of all the earth…”
In a sense, they are not yet ready for their mission of being the people of God. So God saves them by scattering them and confusing their speech into many languages, so that they will not continue on their path of making a name for themselves, leading them farther and farther from the name God wants to name them with – chosen. God knows that gathering and scattering is our pattern, but God wants to give it a purpose!
Now, “when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all [gathered] together in one place,” waiting as Jesus had told them to do 10 days earlier at the Ascension. “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.”
And so it has been said that, the day of Pentecost reverses the story of the City of Babel – gathering people of many languages back together in one place, in order to release them, disperse them once again, this time having received an understanding and a purposeful unity, for a mission that God will give them, their mission as God’s chosen people.
They have been waiting patiently – well, fearfully too – behind closed doors in that Upper Room in Jerusalem. But they don’t make the same mistake of trying to make a name for themselves. They don’t begin to build a sandcastle, or tower, to memorialize their own name and satisfy their fears. Instead they pray together, and they gather for the purpose of what Jesus promised them, to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which gives them what they need for that day, the gift of other languages, but also a monument for all time, and for us in our day, a message and a mission God was bestowing on them, with Jesus the anointed one, the self-giving risen one, at the center. Even in their diversity, they were united by the spirit’s power to give them understanding and a message that, in Peter’s words, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” And so all of us on this Pentecost Day are strengthened and unified, not by making ourselves infamous in sandcastles and monuments to ourselves, but to the extent that we are chosen and raised up and Sent with a purpose, by the power of the Spirit.
Can this help us as we are dispersed and sent out from this place? Are we better equipped to recognize the ones who ”babel” today, and who desire to make a name for themselves, whether politicians or corporations, individuals and even churches? Are we ready to recognize those leaders who react out of fear, making decisions that blame others, or even attack them? Are we ready with a message of salvation, very near – on our lips, that comes from the loving forgiveness we know in this powerful wind of Pentecost? Has this been a place of gathering for socializing on Sundays, but unclear about the Sending, the vision and mission we have been chosen to enact the rest of the week out in the community?
The Holy Spirit empowers us and Sends us. In these times, in this post-Christian world, we already know how it is no longer enough to believe in our hearts, and hide it away from our lives. How even if we keep our noses clean, it’s not enough, because the systems we live and participate in, contain the same self-centeredness that need transformation by the Spirit. Living out our faith, being sent by the Spirit, experiencing renewal in the church based on the words and deeds of Jesus, is fueled by the blowing wind, increasingly louder and more insistent, burning in our hearts so that it can no longer be contained there, but now rests visibly on our heads, like on the disciples, “a smoky mist,” compelling us to take responsibility for all our actions, individually and institutionally, to make God’s world into the vision of peace and justice, he died for.
Pentecost reverses the city of Babel story – and now it is safe to gather as one people, united in diversity. Here at Unity, we are united in our diversity too. And we continue to make it a safe place to gather, and to invite in other partners to this Community Center, a center for life and a diversity of languages. Immigrants from the east, speaking in languages from Africa and Asia and the Middle East, gather here; and residents from uptown and downtown, from north and south, east and west.
How can we build our sandcastles, to the glory of God, instead of monuments to our own glory? In what ways can our vast diversity in this neighborhood unite us and make us stronger, now that God has filled us with the power of the Holy Spirit? Does the water of baptism make us stronger, like the mortar of our childhood sandcastles? Can we build on the gift of the Holy Spirit that gathers us for praise and prayer, and scatters us back out to feed the community as Jesus feeds us here at this table?
Every week we are gathered in to hear God’s word and share Christ’s supper, and then Sent out by the Spirit to joyfully share the good news. Gathered and dispersed, gathered and dispersed, we pulsate like the oceans tides, and the powerfully creative winds, blowing through the pine trees of our lives. Breath in this breathe of life, deeply, and share it with the world!