Moving Out In Strength

Rev. Sarah Buteux
May 26, 2013
Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21

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“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” George Eliot


A number of years ago I did a wedding for an incredible young woman named Liberty. Libby, as she was known to her friends, was just 26 when I met her. Like most brides, she was deeply in love with her fiancé and extremely excited about her wedding. But unlike most brides, Libby was also living with terminal cancer. Four years after that celebration, in a room packed full of young people, I officiated at Liberty’s funeral, and this past weekend, I gathered with many of them once again for the wedding of Libby’s best friend, Mary Ann.


It was an honor and a joy to be there with all those folks again, but Libby’s absence is still felt very deeply by them all. And so, as I looked at the young couple standing before me, I took the time to acknowledge their loss and the fact that they already know something of what it means to love one another in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, through good times and bad. “Life can be terribly hard,” I said, “and you already know that more than most. So in the context of your marriage, don’t make it any harder on each other than it has to be. Be good to each other. Be patient with each other. Be kind and gentle.


I once heard another pastor say that, “When your marriage is strong, you move out into the world in strength. When you marriage is weak, you move out into the world in weakness.”[1] It’s such a simple; such an obvious statement, but it’s also all too true. If your marriage is strong, you can handle just about any challenge the world can throw at you, but if your marriage is weak, if your marriage is hurting, if your marriage is in trouble, then it doesn’t matter how great life outside your home is; you’re still going to be a mess.


So I told them to be strong for each other, but even more than that, I said, “do what you can to strengthen each other. Be the other’s greatest supporter. Be the other’s truest friend.  Be the one thing in each other’s life that works, the one person the other knows they can count on no matter what. Because life isn’t easy, but it’s a heck of a lot easier if you’re grateful and on good terms with the person standing right by your side.” Amen?


Well I’ve been thinking a lot about that wedding and about how church, for better or for worse, is a lot like marriage. That is, if your church is strong - if the community is healthy, if things are working smoothly, if everyone’s treating each other well and acting in good faith - then the people of the church move out into the world in strength. 


But when the church is weak: weakened by controversy or parsimony, impropriety or abuse, lack of vision or a crisis of faith, than her people move out into the world in weakness. They move out exhausted rather than invigorated, distracted rather than focused, drained rather than inspired; with nothing left to offer, with nothing left to give.


I know that with all the changes afoot here at First Church that some of you are feeling that way.  I know there are days when I feel that way myself, so although the readings for today were actually meant for last week, I didn’t want to skip over the story of the Tower of Babel or the story of Pentecost. I didn’t want to have to wait a whole year to read them once again, because I think these two pericopes give us great insight into how and where true strength can be found for us here in this church, especially in times like these.


Now you all probably know the story of the Tower of Babel, and some of you might even think you know what it means, though for all its familiarity, you’ve got to admit it is still a really strange story. I was always taught that this was a tale about God punishing the peoples of the earth for their pride. Anyone else raised on some variation of that interpretation? The whole point of the story, at least according to what I was told, was that once upon a time there were a people who got together and tried to build a tower to heaven. God felt threatened (?!) I guess, which is a little weird when you think about it, and made them all speak different languages so they couldn’t work together anymore.  As a result, heaven was safe and all people would now think twice before acting with such arrogance and building such ridiculously high towers. Does that sound about right? 


Well, I’ve since learned that this is one of those tales in the Bible or folklore that is known as an origin story; a story that explains where something comes from or why things are the way that they are.[2]  In this case, we have a story that was never intended to be one of “pride and punishment,”[3] – (we kind of read all that into it) - but rather an attempt at simply explaining why there are so many different languages spoken in the world by so many different kinds of people; which, when you think about it, is a perfect valid question.


I mean, where did all the different languages come from? How did all this diversity come into being? Why do the French look, sound, and cook so differently from, say, the Filipinos? What’s up with Finnish? Why are Canadians so polite?


Well apparently, at least according to the Bible, it wasn’t always this way.  There was a time when all people were all together all speaking the very same language. They traveled together. They did everything in unison. And then one day they got it into their heads that they would build a great city with a tower that would reach all the way to heavens. They weren’t going after God per say, at least not according to the text, they were simply trying to make a name for themselves; solidify their identity by solidifying their position. “Otherwise,” they said, “we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”


Now I want to stop right there and have you to notice some things about these people. First, notice that their primary motivation is not pride, but fear. They are afraid: afraid of being scattered, afraid of losing their identity as one people with one language all living in one place doing everything one way. Notice as well that there are no individuals in this group. They speak to one another not in the first person singular, but in the first person plural. “Come, let us make bricks,” they say. Or, “Come, let us build ourselves a city.” As opposed to someone saying, “Hey, I have an idea, let’s build a tower.”


You know how they say there’s no “I” in team? Well, there was no “I” in the city not yet known as Babel either. (Ayn Rand would have hated this place.) Forget diversity, there was not even an ounce of individuality. These people were all mind melded, which is kind of a freaky when you think about. I mean these folks were definitely not the sort with whom you’d want to drink Kool-aid after a hot day of making bricks and mixing bitumen, if you catch my drift; and apparently a lot of scholars are in agreement about this.


Contrary to the interpretation with which I was raised- the idea that God scattered the peoples and confused their language to punish them for their arrogance- there are now a whole lot of scholars saying that perhaps what happened at Babel wasn’t a punishment at all. Perhaps God scattered the peoples and confused our language not to punish us but to protect us…protect us from an overweening desire for conformity.


I mean, sure, there’s something really nice and comforting about creating a church or a community, a city or even a country where everybody is on the same page, doing everything the same way, and working toward the same goal; until that conformity we’re all enjoying becomes the goal; the ultimate goal, the end in and of itself.


Think about that for a moment, because that’s actually what we see in the people of Babel. That’s how they are talking. That’s what they are working toward. These people weren’t building a healthy community; these folks are on the verge of inventing fascism. And God says, NO!“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.”


When I heard those words before it used to sound like God was scared of what we might do if we all banded together against God; which again, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But when I hear those words now, I can’t help but think of all the impossible things we have done throughout history; done in the name of conformity, orthodoxy, purity: things like terrorism and torture, concentration camps and ghettoes, war crimes and genocide.  I hear those words, “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” and those words take on a whole new meaning.  


So, after much thought and study I’ve come to read this story of Babel in a whole new way. I now believe that God scattered the peoples of the earth and confused our language for our own good. God wasn’t punishing humanity when he drove us apart, but blessing us that we might become a blessing to one another in all our variety and diversity.  Rather than see the results of Babel as a curse, I think we are invited to see that a multiplicity of languages and cultures is actually part of God’s dream for humanity, a dream we see affirmed here and there throughout scripture and one which reaches a fulfillment of sorts in our reading today from the book of Acts.


It’s no accident that the lectionary pairs these two stories together and as a result Pentecost has traditionally been seen as a reversal of the Tower of Babel. Where once God had scattered the proud by confusing their language, God was now gathering everyone together again in common understanding.


But if you think about it, a true reversal of Babel would have meant that when the Holy Spirit came all the peoples of other nations gathered in Jerusalem that day would have heard and understood one tongue. Were Pentecost a complete reversal, there would now be but one dominant language under heaven, a language that would draw all nations together and gradually meld us all back into one people.


But that is not what happened; not exactly. When the Holy Spirit came upon them, the disciples spoke in multiple languages, languages they had never spoken before.  They spoke in such a way that Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and yada, yada, yada… could all hear, each in their own language, about the wonders of the living God. God doesn’t abolish the diversity of Babel, but sends the good news out through all the channels that were created at Babel, sends the good news of Jesus out to all the world, in the many languages of the world, that all the world might be saved. 


And perhaps even more miraculous than the many and varied translations of the message that day was the nature of the messengers themselves. Please remember that Jesus’ disciples were nothing if not a motley crew. This was not a bunch of priests from one culture speaking to the priests of another culture. This was the most varied and diverse group one could ever imagine.


On the day of Pentecost women taught men and men taught women about God. Slaves could be seen instructing the free. Fisherman from Galilee were imparting their knowledge of the gospel to learned men from Rome. Prostitutes are preaching to Pharisees. Zealots are sharing with Herodians. People of every race and class are speaking to people of other races and other classes with mutual respect and mutual understanding. They are not just imparting the good news of Jesus, they are embodying the good news; the good news that in Christ there is now no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, but one people from many nations, one word in many tongues, one family with many faces, one body with many parts; all of which are useful, all of which are worthy, all of which are needed each by the other, because every last one of us has been blessed to be a blessing by the one God who created us all. 


I think God’s ultimate dream for this world is not one of conformity, but of a unity forged in the midst of our diversity, a unity wherein we receive, respect, welcome, and give thanks for one another in all our differences. That’s not always easy, which is why the Spirit comes among us the way it does. The Spirit comes the better to help us understand one another in all our variety, not to break us all down into one monolithic herd of people who march in lock step with one another because we don’t know any better or because we’re too afraid to step out of line.


Our strength as a church is grounded in the work of the Holy Spirit, a Spirit that is hovering over us even now, drawing us together and inviting us to open ourselves to one another, no matter how other we might seem, inviting us to truly listen to one another as hard as it can be sometimes to understand, and bidding us remember that even though we may disagree with how or what needs to be done, we’re all ultimately on the same side, part of the same family, all beloved children of the very same God.


Friends - our greatest challenge right now, the challenge of integrating new folks and new ideas into the full life and mission of such a well established church – our greatest challenge has the potential to be our greatest strength if we can just get out of the way and let the Spirit move such that everyone feels welcome - whether they’ve been here for 50 years or just the last 50 minutes - and everyone feels understood.


So let the Spirit move…because here is the thing: life is hard. The world is full of such deep sadness and brokenness. It just is. Life is hard. So here in the church let’s not make it any harder on each other than it has to be. The world needs us to be strong.  The world needs our help and the healing only Christ can bring. So let us be good to each other in here, patient with each other, gentle and kind. 


May we be strong for each other, but even more than that, let us do all that we can to strengthen each other. May we be each other’s greatest supporters. May we be each other’s truest friends.  By the power of the Spirit, for the love of Christ, and through the grace of God, may our church be the thing in our lives that works; a place full of people we know we can count on no matter what. Because life isn’t easy; but thanks be to God it’s a heck of a lot easier if you’re grateful and on good terms with the people standing by your side. Amen?




[1] The Rev. Timothy Keller

[2] Feasting on the Word, pgs. 2-7, was invaluable in piecing all of this together.

[3] Ibid, Ralph W. Klein