Diversity isn’t a punishment: June 5, 2022

June 6, 2022

 Year C, Pentecost                                              Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21                                                                      

            Every once in a while, our lectionary gives us options on what readings we can use on a Sunday.  Typically we have a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament and then a Gospel reading.   You might have noticed that in the season of Easter, we haven’t had an Old Testament reading.  Instead we have read from the Book of Acts.  On this Pentecost Sunday, we have the option of skipping the Old Testament reading again.  Often I do that on Pentecost, because it bothered me the way the story of the Tower of Babel was always set up against the story of Pentecost, as if Pentecost was a solution to the Tower of Babel.  It’s more complicated than that. 

            This year I found myself curious about the Tower of Babel. So often when we hear or tell the story, we tell the children’s Bible version of it. The people were bad and God punished them accordingly. If you read it that way, then one could conclude that diversity is God’s punishment to humanity and that just doesn’t ring true.

Photo by Ronan Furuta 

            When we tell or interpret the story of Babel, people often talk about the pride of the people.  It makes sense given what we hear from the people who are building the tower. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  They were trying to reach the heavens.  Why else would you try to reach the heavens unless you are competing with God? There probably was a bit of human pride going on.   However, I am not sure that was what was really bothering God.  If God punished humanity every time we demonstrated pride in an achievement, we would be in serious trouble.

            Instead, look at the actual reason they gave for building the tower.  “…otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  They were looking to settle in one place.  It says that in the 2ndverse of the chapter.  “And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.”  The word that is translated to settle is the same word as sit.  It literally means that the people stopped moving.  And who can blame them? They had been traveling, wandering perhaps. They were ready to settle down.  They didn’t want to live out of tents anymore.  It’s like how you hear people talk about moving into their “forever home.”  It’s usually when people are a little later in life, they realize they don’t want to move anymore. They are ready to settle in one place, the place.  So maybe these people are just ready for their forever home.  Is that so bad?

            Let’s consider where we are in the story of the people of God.  This is the book of Genesis. It’s actually pretty early in the Book of Genesis.  (Show where we are in the Bible)  We have a lot more to this story.  You don’t settle in your forever home at this point in the story, especially when the story is God’s story and the people are God’s people.  Of course you can’t really blame them. They might not have realized how important it was for them to continue to scatter and migrate. They were thinking of their own stories.  And you know what sounds great in our own stories?  Big accomplishments.  Big towers.  But God was carrying a much bigger vision.

            When we consider God’s response, we tend to focus on what he says.  He says, “Let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”  That just sounds kind of mean.  Instead, let’s focus on God’s action.  What did God do?  “God scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”  God forced them to keep moving.  God would not allow them to get comfortable in their mammoth tower where they could protect themselves from outsiders.  No, God forced them to leave the confines of this walled city and scatter. 

            Was it a punishment?  Maybe, but it was an effective punishment in that it forced them to learn and to grow.  Sure, it started with some confusion.  But so much of our education and formation begins with a little confusion.  I feel like every time I have learned something really important, it started with me completely baffled.   Confusion is only a bad thing if we choose to dwell in the confusion and never find our way out.

            A lot of people say that the story of Pentecost in Acts was a solution to the confusion and scattering that happened in Genesis.  In Acts 2, everyone  was together.  But they weren’t living together on a commune. They had come together for a festival in Jerusalem.  When the Holy Spirit descended, the apostles were able to speak in different languages and the people present were able hear in their own language.  The Holy Spirit didn’t meld all the languages together or make Hebrew the official language.  The Holy Spirit simply allowed more people to hear the word of God in their own language.

            If Pentecost was the solution or the opposite of the Tower of Babel, the people would have all started speaking in the same language and subsequently stayed in Jerusalem.  But that was not what happened.  The people retained their native tongues and the apostles learned to speak in new languages. And after the sermons and the 1,000s of baptisms, then what?  Did they all decide to form a tight knit community and stay in Jerusalem? No!  The people who were visiting presumably went home. The disciples moved outside of the walls, far outside of their comfort zones. The Spirit descended on the disciples when they were in a locked room, but the Spirit also inspired them to break out, to break out of the locked room and scatter.

            God doesn’t want some kind of monoculture.  If that was what God wanted, we would all look the same, talk the same, think the same.  And perhaps we would be united in our sameness.  Maybe there would be less division.  But we would be boring.  And we would probably fight more.  Have you ever noticed that the people who are hardest to get along with are the people most like you?  We should thank God that he scattered the people who were building that tower. He gave us a beautiful gift in doing that.

             I think most of us are pretty capable of embracing diversity.  Once I heard the Mayor of Hampton point out that we started as the most diverse city in this nation.  We of course had the Native Americans, the first Africans and the colonists from Europe.  It took us a long time to figure out that was a good thing. We committed some grave errors at the beginning.  But now I think most of us can embrace the beauty of being in town with so many different kinds of people. The great thing about Hampton is you don’t have to go very far to meet the other.  You might only have to walk about 10 feet.  But you do have to leave your comfort zone…your safe place. 

            Our church is a safe place and it should be…but it shouldn’t be safe in a way that shields us from different people or different opinions.  It’s not a place we can cloister ourselves.  This cannot be our Tower of Babel.  We must scatter through the city, maybe even to Newport News and Norfolk.  We don’t have to move—just visit. We must scatter because we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit and it is God’s divine mandate that we scatter and share it.