Whenever we tell stories, we make decisions about where to start the story and where to end it; and depending on the start and the finish, we give power to different aspects of the story. One example is the story of Sam Cerio. Sam, like our high school graduates here, recently graduated from Auburn University with a degree in aerospace engineering. She’s about to start a career as a structural design analyst at Boeing and this week, with tears in her eyes, walked down the aisle to marry her fiancé. Sounds like your average fairytale, doesn’t it? A bright woman with a promising future. But the story sounds different if I back up two months and tell you that in April while Sam was competing at the NCAA regional semifinals as a gymnast, she dislocated both of her knees, tearing many of the ligaments. At her graduation ceremony she hobbled across the stage on crutches to get her diploma, and her one goal was to be able to walk down the aisle at her own wedding, just two months later. Sam’s tears weren’t just about the emotion of getting married, but also her courage and determination to walk again and to do so on her wedding day.
Where we begin a story is a powerful decision for those telling the story. In Genesis we have this odd little story that kind of sticks out of the narrative. It’s not really connected to much around it. And in this story the narrator chooses to begin by telling us that the whole world was speaking one language— at least, the narrator’s whole world. He begins his story with the people who are migrating east. And he says that as they migrated, they came upon the Land of Shinar. Except, of course, that the land couldn’t be named anything unless there were already people settled there. The Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Lartey, a theologian raised in Ghana, now teaching at Candler Seminary, comes to this story of the Tower of Babel with a different perspective than the typical western understanding. Growing up in a country that was colonized by another people, another culture, another language, Lartey reads the story of Babel and sees that what God was upset about was not the peoples’ power itself, but the fact that this one people was choosing to dominate— to build— to conquer. They were using their power to oppress those that were living there before them. God saved them from themselves by confusing their language so that they could not finish their project of domination because God favors the diversity of people in the world over the domination of one people. (2)
Think about that for a moment. In all of God’s wisdom, God felt that human beings having many different languages was better for us than to have a single language. If we listen to the story of Babel, than we can recognize that when we all think we are the same, we stop listening to one another and get too focused on things that are destructive rather than life giving. When we don’t choose to listen across difference and get to know one another, we make broad assumptions and judgments about those we don’t know or understand. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche calls this the danger of a single story. When we only tell one story about a whole people, or even about an individual, it limits our ability to see them for who they are.
In order to tell the Pentecost story as it comes to us in the book of Acts, it is important not just to start with the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit; not just to back up to where the disciples are hiding in the upper room; not just to go back to the resurrection or even the crucifixion of Jesus; not even to go back so far that we see a bunch of fisherman in a boat who don’t seem capable of leading an entire movement of people to follow Jesus, but to go all the way back to Babel. This Pentecost story was written as a kind of antidote to Babel— a time when the Holy Spirit sees fit to bring everyone together with all of their different languages in order for the good news of Jesus Christ, the Gospel, to be shared with people from all different places and times. But they don’t all of a sudden all speak Galilean— the accent of the disciples; no, each person from all different parts of the world, hear what the disciples are saying in their own native tongue. They don’t have to learn a new language to hear what God is telling them. They don’t have to give up who they are to hear about Jesus; they are amazed because it is in their own language that they hear about God and they ask each other, “What does this mean?”
One thing it means, is that God isn’t interested in a single story of humanity. While Pentecost may be the bookend to the Babel story, it doesn’t undo in any way God’s celebration of diversity— it strengthens it. Nowhere do people have to learn Greek or Hebrew in order to be saved; nowhere do people have to get a translator in order to experience God’s presence. The Spirit of God is not the private property of an elite few called the disciples. It is not meant to stay in one language or culture or people. For anyone who wants to keep a lid on the whims and ways of the Holy Spirit, you’re just tough out of luck because this Spirit blows where it will; and speaks to whom it wants; and opens ears in ways that no one ever imagined. (3)
Which is exactly what we are called to as well. God calls us— each one of us— not to cling to that which we know above all else, but rather to marvel in God’s amazing diversity. To wonder at all the variety of humanity and creation that God has made. To appreciate each language, and to know that God’s Spirit speaks in all of them. We often meet God within our cultural context but in order to follow God, we must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did, that’s what the Holy Spirit does, and that’s what followers of Jesus have always done. (4)
The Story of Pentecost, while often seen and understood as a miracle of speech— the disciples speaking in a variety of languages— is also equally a miracle of listening— because the people in the streets hear God’s Word for them in their own language and they understand that something is happening that could only be of God.
Today after worship we will have the chance to listen to one another in what we’re calling a Listening Cafe. We will break into groups of 6-7 and for about 45 minutes, we will listen to one another’s thoughts and feelings about the decisions of the global church. And not many of us will have to speak a different language, but I pray that we will listen just as well as if we did. That we’ll bring grace and humor and patience to this conversation. I pray that we will breathe deeply and, if only for today, set aside the single stories we may have about one another. To be able to open our ears, to see Christ’s face in one another, and to listen for God’s Holy Spirit.
As we know, after this moment in Acts, the disciples were no longer heard speaking in different languages. I don’t know how long it lasted, a few moments, an hour, a day. But after that, they had to go about sharing the Gospel in the ways they knew how, digging in deep to listen to their neighbors and doing the hard work of getting to know people outside of their own culture and language. God’s Spirit was still with them. They had to do the hard work of listening and learning and keeping their hearts open to God’s Spirit in their neighbors, friends, and enemies. And isn’t that truly, the work of God? For each one of us to step outside of where we are comfortable and rely completely on God’s Spirit to translate our vulnerability into grace? May we have ears to hear one another; and may we, as a church, practice listening for God’s Spirit which will lead us into places we may not choose to go, and offer us joy we didn’t know we could experience.
Resources Consulted: 1) Yahoo Sports 2) Holy Envy by Barbara Brown Taylor (p. 179) 3) Acts Commentary 4) Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (InterVarsity Press: 2013), 20-22.