Rev. Sarah Buteux

June 5, 2022

Pentecost, Year C

Genesis 11:1-9  Acts 2:1-21

(You can watch this morning’s service here. The sermon begins at the 37 minute mark.)

The heat was almost unbearable this past Tuesday night when we hosted the Town Hall Meeting for Congressmen Jim McGovern and Jaime Raskin, and yet they kept coming. 

We filled up every last pew, and yet they kept coming. We put out extra seating. People lined the walls. They crammed into the narthex and they sat on the floor even as dozens were turned back at the door and hundreds more fired up their laptops and watched us on-line. 

But as the temperature rose and the evening wore on, it became very clear to me that people had not just come out in droves to hear Raskin talk about the January 6 committee and the future of our democracy. 

People came out this past Tuesday night because they are hurting. People came out demanding answers. They came out because they are angry and afraid and desperate…desperate for hope. 

You could hear the pain and frustration is question after question. What will it take to get Congress to act? We have voted. We have made our demands clear. The majority of Americans support stricter gun control and reproductive freedom for women. 

When will our elected officials honor the will of the majority and enact the sort of legislation that will protect us: protect our children, protect women, protect LGBTQ rights and communities of color, protect the environment and our right to vote; protect us all from a minority of voices who are stripping the majority of Americans of our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Those little kids deserved to live. 

The people at Tops deserved to live. 

George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Name after name after name. 

They deserved life and so much more. 

We should be allowed to make decisions about our own bodies. 

We should be allowed to choose whom we will marry. 

And every last one of us deserves to feel safe in our own communities. 

But we don’t. And all that fear breeds despair. 

Raskin is a master orator and, from what I can tell, a man of deep integrity. I would say that the crowd was, for the most part, on his side. But that didn’t stop the hard questions from rolling in. And all his talk about filibusters and Republican obstructionism was not enough to counter the growing sense of disillusionment in the air. So at some point in the evening, Raskin did something very wise. 

He stopped. 

He stopped trying to explain how the elected officials were going to fix things and called everyone in. 

When one woman asked, “what are you democrats going to do about your lack of a clear message,” he turned the question back to the crowd and said, “Please don’t say, you. Say we. What are we going to do?” 

And toward the end of the evening when yet another young person confessed that they were losing faith in the system, Raskin stopped again. He took a deep breath, acknowledged her despair, and then shared with us something his father used to say to him when he was young: “When everything feels hopeless, remember that you are the hope.”

“When everything feels hopeless, remember that you are the hope.”

Now I don’t know what those words meant to that young person. And had I been sitting there, one individual among many, they very well might have struck me as nothing more than empty rhetoric. 

But thanks be to God, I am not just one individual among many. I am a part of First Churches. And when I heard those words, they went straight to my heart. I knew that was the message for all of us this morning. 

“When everything seems hopeless, remember that you are the hope.” 

All of you. All of us. Together. I am distraught by what I see happening in our country right now. But in spite of it all, I find so much hope here with you and I think the two passages before us today go a long way toward explaining why. 

I think we’re on to something here in this church. We’re practicing something here in this church. We’re part of something here in this church that could go a long way toward healing the world. 

So I want to tell you a little bit about these two stories – the “Tower of Babel” and the day of Pentecost – and then connect them to what I see happening here at First Churches so that maybe, just maybe, you’ll find some hope here too.

How many of you are familiar with the story of Babel? 

I can’t speak for you, but I was taught at a young age that this was a tale of pride and punishment. Does that sound familiar? 

From what I heard, the people of Babel got together and tried to build a tower that would reach all the way to heaven. God felt threatened (?!) by this act of hubris – which is a little weird when you think about it – and like a wizard out of central casting, used his power to cause them all to speak different languages so they couldn’t work together anymore and storm the gates of heaven. Does that sound about right?

Well, since then, I have learned that this is actually what you would call an origin story; an ancient story people came up with to explain why things are the way they are. The Tower of Babel was simply an attempt to explain why there are so many different languages in the world spoken by so many different kinds of people. And a close reading of the text bears this out. 

In fact, when I read it now, what strikes me most is not how proud these folks were but how fearful. 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. 

They weren’t going after God when they set to work on their tower. They were simply trying to solidify their sense of who they were by solidifying their position. “Otherwise,” they said, “we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 

And I get it. There is something undeniably comforting about knowing who you are and where you belong. Who to be and how to act. Something undeniably comforting about creating a church or community or even country where everybody is on the same page, doing things the same way, and working toward the same goal… until that conformity becomes the goal, an end in and of itself. 

Think about that for a moment, because that’s actually what we see happening in this story. That’s how the people of Babel talk and that is how they act. Notice that they don’t speak in the first person singular but in the first person plural. No one says: “Hey, I have an idea; let’s build a tower.” No. They say things like: “come, let us make bricks.”  “Come, let us build a city.” 

Forget diversity. Amongst the people of Babel there was not even an ounce of individuality. These folks are not building a healthy community. They’re actually on the verge of inventing Totalitarianism. 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 as a kid it sounded like God was scared of what we might do if we all banded together against God. But when I hear those words now, I can’t help but think of all the impossible things we have done to one another… war and terror, imprisonment and exclusion, pogroms and genocide …. done in the name of conformity, orthodoxy, purity, or national identity. 

And so God steps in, not to punish the people of Babel, but to redirect them, shall we say. 

God scattered the people of the earth and confused their language for their own good. God’s initial charge to humanity was to go forth and multiply, and God sets humanity back on that path. 

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 which reaches a fulfillment of sorts in our reading today from the book of Acts.

Because the lectionary pairs these two stories together, Pentecost has traditionally been read as a reversal of the Tower of Babel. Where once God had scattered the proud by confusing their language, God is now gathering everyone together again in common understanding. 

But a true reversal of Babel would have meant that when the Holy Spirit came all the people of other nations gathered in Jerusalem 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. When the Holy Spirit came upon them, the disciples spoke in multiple tongues in such a way that people from all over could 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 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. Please remember that Jesus’ disciples were one of the most varied and diverse groups one could 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. Sex workers are preaching to Sadducees. 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 united by the love of One Spirit that has been poured down from heaven upon them all.  

Friends, these two stories reveal that God’s ultimate dream for this world is not one of conformity, but of a unity forged in the midst of our diversity. God wants us to receive, respect, welcome, and give thanks for one another in all our differences. And that celebration of diversity is at the heart of our vision here in this church.  

Look at the front of your bulletin: “We invite ALL into joyful Christian”… conformity? No. Community! We invite all into joyful Christian community not so we can tell people exactly what to believe and how to act, but so we can learn from one another as we listen together for a God who is still speaking. We invite All so we can hear God’s word in new ways thanks to one another. And then, having heard, we work to make God’s love and justice real …together. 

We invite All because we believe that every person is created in the image of God and has something unique to teach us about God. We invite All because God loves us all, each and every one of us, not in spite of our differences but in all of our differences.

A number of you came up to me on Tuesday night and said wouldn’t it be amazing to see our church this full on a Sunday morning. Friends, it would be amazing. Amazing because I believe that the faith we are learning and practicing and trying to live into here is the cure for so much of the hate and violence and discrimination we see in our country right now. 

This idea that all people are God’s children, that diversity is not just healthy but holy, is the antidote to Christian nationalism and white supremacy and patriarchy and heteronormativity, and all those ideologies that privilege a few at the cost of far too many. 

This is the hope that Raskin spoke of, the hope hundreds turned out on Tuesday to find, the hope you and I can embody together when all seems hopeless. First Churches, we can show the world there is another way. Amen? Amen.