Babel, Undone

A Homily for Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21

El Greco’s Pentecost, 1596

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who sends the Holy Spirit upon us that we may be one. Amen.

Confession time: I’m not good with languages. My pronunciation is terrible, I have no ear for accents, and, worst of all, I don’t devote the time to studying them that proficiency demands. It’s a shame, too, because I’ve always actually really liked languages, especially the history of how they evolve and borrow from one another. Over the past twenty years, I’ve studied French in middle school, Spanish in high school, German in college, and Greek and Hebrew in seminary.

In fact, I took a full two years of German in college. When my parents were stationed there my senior year, I excitedly went to visit them in Heidelberg, and I was confident that my semesters of anguish would producing stunning results. First night in country, we went out to eat at a local restaurant; I placed my order in my most polished Deutsch:

Ich moechte einmal Radler und ein Jaegerschnitzel bitte.

…only for the waiter to respond in perfect – but frustrated – English. So much for that idea.

What’s worse, I remember more about episodes of The Simpsons I watched once in 1995 than I do about the order of the Greek alphabet. Alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon…and I’m gone. I can give you more digits of pi than I can letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

I can safely admit to this because I know I’m not alone. There’s a reason that science fiction creators so often dream of universal, instantaneous translators – from handheld computers featured in Star Trek and Men in Black to the more fantastical items such as the babel fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the TARDIS’ translation matrix in Dr. Who. In our own consumer culture, one prominent tech company promises such an accurate text-to-voice translation service that you can use it to order Thai food over the phone – IN THAI! But wait, there’s more! This same tech giant is developing augmented reality software for their smart phones to translate written text: point the camera at a Mandarin sign or a Russian book and see it on your screen in English! Now that’s a brave new world. Given that this same software produces comically unreadable and hilariously profane translations of rather simple phrases, though, I wouldn’t rely on their software to place my order, much less to navigate the streets of Istanbul or Tokyo.

google translate fail
My order, translated — between my poor grammar and the translation service, I would have starved were it not for a talented wait staff.

All of this is to say that we recognize language as a barrier between us. Words are packed with so many layers of meaning beyond their dictionary definitions, with subtle shades that change how we use them from region to region, even when we all think we’re speaking the same language. Ask your waiter for a tea in Macon, you’re going to get something cold and sweet. Ask your waiter for a tea in Oxford, and you’ll get something piping hot that may be served with cream. (Some have even joked that the United States and the United Kingdom are two nations divided by a common language.) These shades of meaning shape how we understand the world around us. The language barrier is not just about my ability to accurately order dinner and a drink but even more so about different ways of existing.

This Atlanta brewery gets it.

Here’s an example in English: There’s a text we didn’t read in today’s lectionary from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. He writes:

You received a spirit of adoption.

This simple translation – you – has led many English-speaking Christians to assume that Paul is writing about individuals. But in Paul’s original Greek, he’s using the plural, and here in the South, we have a better word to offer: y’all:

Y’all received the spirit of adoption.

Paul isn’t writing about individuals but a community, an entire family. It’s not about you or even y’all but about all y’all.

And this barrier is nothing new. The mythical story of Babel, which we read this morning, attempts to explain the origins of our numerous languages. Humanity, in their hubris, decided that they can build their way to heaven. They have the technology: baked bricks. Now they can build the best buildings; everyone says so. As the texts puts it, the people of Babel want something to unite them – the same way that Notre Dame or Saint Paul’s came to stand as symbols of Paris or London. More than that, though, the builders wanted to “make a name” for themselves. If they were contemporary developers, you can bet they’d slap their name on the tower in big letters at the very top.

The building effort is going well until the heavenly court takes notice and God gets angry. (This, by the way, is a recurring theme in the first eleven chapters of Genesis and other ancient mythology: as human civilization advances through new technology, divine beings plot to thwart their development. It’s a useful reminder that the newest and shiniest technology is not inherently good.) Genesis doesn’t describe exactly how the new languages arrived other than that the Lord “confounded” them by scattering the people, but I’ve always pictured it as instantaneous: one mason turns to his apprentice and asks for the mortar, but the apprentice doesn’t understand, and confusion quickly turns to anger and the entire city falls into disarray as the tower crumbles from neglect and the people go about their way with the folks just like them. Regardless of how it happens, the Lord brings about new languages, the tower of Babel is left unfinished, and high school students the world over now get to spend their evenings figuring out why “rough” and “through” don’t rhyme in English or how to conjugate “-ir” verbs in Spanish. More to the point, though, the event fundamentally changed the world, dividing us into unique tribes – and, because language shapes the way we understand the world around us, rending humanity.

But the story isn’t over yet, not by a long shot. Shortly after Babel is left to ruin, a wandering Aramean arrives on the scene, and the Lord makes a covenant to bless the world – not just this family or their tribe but the entire world, transcending ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Some centuries later, that plan came to fruition as the power of sin and death were defeated by the power of Christ’s resurrection. But the story still isn’t over – because the world is still in disarray and the nations are still divided, even after that glorious Easter morn. But Christ’s resurrection has echoed out over these fifty days, undoing the destructive power of sin, re-setting things to right and re-creating the world as it was meant to be.

Which brings us to today – when the apostles were gathered in Jerusalem for another feast. And just as at the Passover, the city is crowded with pilgrims, but this time the apostles aren’t locked away in an upper room out of fear. This time, the crowds come rushing in – and see a sight to behold, flaming tongues floating over the disciples, and they hear the Gospel proclaimed each in their own language.

Babel has been undone.

Last week, Christ prayed that the Church may be one. And today, the Spirit answers that prayer, bringing us into greater unity – wiping away our boundaries, our human-made distinctions, and uniting us in spite of our differences. Whether you speak Spanish or English, German or Swahili, Arabic or Hebrew, Korean or Russian, we are all still united in Christ through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. You’ve heard me use this quote from Paul frequently, and I say it again because it is so important in our divided age:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

In our own age, we might add to that: Guatemalan or Somali, Palestinian or Israeli, Democrat or Republican, black or white, gay or straight, native born or immigrant, Lutheran or Catholic, Baptist or Methodist, all of that is falling away as we are united by the Spirit into the one Body of Christ. There is no group outside of God’s love, no tribe that God does not intend to bless through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In these holy waters, all division is washed away. Here, at this altar, those scattered like grains of wheat are gathered into one.

It’s a radical proposal in a world so divided. Welcoming in the stranger who is our sister in Christ or the immigrant who is our brother – the world simply will not understand. Yes, people will mock us, deride us, heap scorn upon us. They accused Peter of being filled with new wine. Let them, and be prepared to pray for them, even as you recall those beautiful words from the prophet Joel:

The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s