Day of Pentecost 2022: Story

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Endre Rozsda, La tour de Babel (1958)

A video version follows the text

I am going to preach on a story
we didn’t even read out loud today.
But that’s okay,
because I think you know that story
and it is rooted in the one we did hear.

We know
that archaeology
is not an exact science.
For example, the estimates
of the population of Jerusalem
at the time of Jesus,
range from 20,000 to 250,000.
The middling view of many
hovers around 75,000.

There were three festivals each year
that male pilgrims
were obliged to attend
at the Temple.
Passover, of course,
Sakkot (Feast of Tabernacles),
and Shavout (Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost).
At these three festivals
the number of people in the ancient hilltop city
would blossom.

Today on the Christian calendar,
it is the Day of Pentecost
that marks the memorial
of that cinematic story from the Book of Acts
when a handful of people
who still believed the dead Jesus had been Messiah,
started speaking in every language
represented in that part of the world.

Tongues of fire, it says,
lighted upon their heads
and a mighty, even violent, wind
blew the sound of their yammering
across the crowded city.
We do not know for certain
where this cadre of women and men
had gathered, but I vote for the theory
that they were somewhere
in the “Lower City.”

That was the southern quadrant
on a downhill slide
where poor people lived.
And I see them nudged together somewhere
near the southern stairs entrance
to the Temple,
right near the Mikvoth —
or ritual baths
where people cleansed themselves
before entering the Temple.

It was undoubtedly grimy, dry,
stinky, crowded, hot,
and unpleasant
from the point of view
of people like us
who live in the spacious
and pastoral cool
of the Finger Lakes.

Like I said, archaeology
is not an exact science,
and that makes biblical theology
or interpretation
not a science at all.
But that is okay
because what we have
in the Book of Genesis
and the Book of Acts
and everything in between,
is story.

in the sense that I am using the word,
is full of truth
whether or not
there is a single fact
found within it.

Truth and fact
have little to do with one another.
Although, on occasion,
they do both rest upon
the same event
at the same moment
and generate a shared artifact.
But that’s not what I want to talk about.

I want to compare two stories
from two bookends of the Bible
and point to a truth or two
held within those stories.

You can speculate for yourself
whether they represent any facts,
but I for one,
could care less
if they are factual.

The Tower of Babel story
is an awesome, odd, and revealing story.
It is also the left hand bookend
to the Christian Pentecost story.

In fact, I would go so far as to say
that the Pentecost story from Acts
was first told
with the Tower of Babel story
from Genesis in mind.
It was told by Jewish-followers
of the dead Messiah
to explain where they came from.
That is my theory
but as I said,
I am talking story here, not facts.

In that book of Genesis story
we read today about Babel,
God a sundered humankind
by causing us
to have different languages
so that we could no longer communicate
with one another.
It was not exactly a punishment
but rather, a tactical maneuver on God’s part.

It was in response
to our rascally capacity for engineering
and technology,
and our voracious appetite for more.

As it says, we humans
had succeeded in building a tower
too high into the sky.
God recoiled at this human encroachment
upon the divine habitat.
Remember, we had been thrown out
of The Garden
because we were an unruly bunch
from the very beginning.
Here we were again,
building a stepladder back up there.

Babel is a story that also shows its pre-literate origin
well before monotheism is in place,
since it hosts a conversation between the gods
about what to do
in response to these human vermin.

It was a clever response.
The gods decided to divide us
by inflicting us with a variety of languages
so that it would be difficult for us to collaborate.
It worked.
And right there
is the counter-story for Christian Pentecost.

The Book of Acts
makes an intentional contrast to Babel.
Where God once separated us with language,
God now unified us with a Spirit
that enabled understanding without shared language
and so overcame any human division.

The punch line to the Pentecost story,
if we were hearing it
steeped in the stories of ancient Israel,
would be that God
had made all of those people
speaking in different languages
understand one another.

Think about what a miracle that would be –
if suddenly we could understand each other.
It’s a heck of a punch line,
and it is a reversal on God’s part
that suggests God suddenly trusted us again.

What we need to realize
is both of these are foundational stories:
Babel and Pentecost,
Genesis and the Book of Acts.

Genesis is a collection of stories
that tells us how it all began.
The exodus and kingdoms of David and Solomon
had already happened,
as had the civil war
and eventual exile.

The people called Israel
started to collect and tell the campfire stories
about how it was before the time
that anyone remembered how it was.
They were stories
that explained difficult to understand things.
Things like, what’s a rainbow?
Things like, why do we wear clothes
and how come, if God loves us,
we have to work so hard and suffer so much?
Stories that explain things
like why we can’t all get along
and why those other people
don’t speak our language?

The Book of Acts does the same thing.
The gospels tell the story of Jesus
and convey his teachings,
but the Book of Acts
tells stories about how Christians
became Christians
and churches became churches.
It tells stories to explain things too,
like how things got started
after Jesus was gone.
Things like how Judas got replaced
and how the numbers grew.
Other things like splitting with the Synagogue
and baptism
and transfers of power.

The Book of Acts
is the New Testament Book of Genesis —
lots of stories
about how it all began.
Are they factual?
It doesn’t matter, because facts
are not what Acts is all about.

These two stories —
Babel and Pentecost —
tell us a truth we already know:
our inability to understand one another
is deeply destructive
and likely the source of our inability
to build the kingdom on earth
as it is in heaven.

At the same time, it also tells the truth
that sharing the love of God
in the same place and same time
with one another,
can create a bond between us
that bridges our limited capacity
to understand.
It doesn’t suddenly cure us
but it gives us a moment
and a shared experience
that forms a bond
enabling us to forgive,
and move on,
and keep working together.

Those aren’t big secrets
deserving a loud “Ta Da!”
Just two simple,
ordinary truths
we know from experience.
Our limited capacity
to truly understand one another
is a killer.
The opportunity to share
the love of God
in the same time
and within the same space,
offers us a reprieve
in the form of a bonding agent.

That’s why we engage in spiritual community
in the first place.
We know something happens here,
together, over time,
that makes this different
than other places and people.
It is not a difference
we can describe with facts,
but we can tell a few stories
about being part of a community like this
that may convey its truth.
I have a friend
who just got back from Nigeria
where he visited a single church building
that accommodates one million people.
He studies mega-churches.
Can you imagine one building
holding that many people?
Me either.
But I will tell you a truth,
that is even a fact:
Any experience of the love of God
between and among those million people
that bridges our limited capacity
to understand one another,
is no different and
no better
than what happens here
in this old wine bar
among us.
Three, twelve, twenty-five, a hundred
or one million…
no better
among many
than a few.
No better among a few
than many.
When it happens —

whether in a story from the first century
or among us today —
it is the same love of God
creating a bond
that we can nurture
so it will help us bridge
our lack of understanding.
It won’t take away our different languages
but it will empower us to touch and be touched
by one and the same spirit.

That is the truth embedded
in the Babel and Pentecost stories,
and by the way,
it also happens to be a fact.