God’s Language

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A Pentecost Sermon

Preached May 15, 2016
Texts: Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21

Rev. J. Mark Davidson
Rev. J. Mark Davidson

In the story of the Tower of Babel, humanity has come together under a single vision. They speak only one language. They are powerful and ambitious. Their goal is to build a glittering monoculture symbolized by a great city and a great tower. In their vision, there is no pluralism, no differing visions, or minority groups, or varied cultures or languages. There is no diversity. It is a juggernaut made possible by the eradication of diversity. All the cultural, linguistic, religious barriers that make bringing people together challenging have been removed. The biblical writers do not call it fascism or totalitarianism, but that is what the Tower story represents. Society has been organized in such a way that it is ruled by a dictator or dictating elites; the people’s lives are controlled. The natural richness and diversity that exists has been suppressed through force and fear.

The Tower story tells of “the mighty works of humanity” – of towers reaching into the heavens, of mobilizing the masses under a single vision of reality, of “making a name for ourselves.” This is the logic of empire. One can imagine that this great city would have high walls around it to keep out those it considers undesirable – the ancient equivalents of Syrian refugees; Iraqi and Afghan refugees fleeing war and destruction in their homelands, Mexican and Central American immigrants fleeing poverty and hopelessness. One can imagine that in this great city, authoritarian rule keeps everyone in line.

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Taken together, the Tower of Babel and the Pentecost stories teach us that God loves diversity and wants us to honor the precious uniqueness of each created being. We see God acting against human attempts to suppress diversity, and we see God acting in support of a new unity based on love and justice.
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When the God of love and justice looks upon this “great city”, what God sees is idolatry and overreach and the suppression of diversity. So God intervenes, deliberately undermines their empire, deprives them of the language of power and fear. Their idolatrous project unravels, they lose their false unity, they scatter, and they leave off building the great city. This is God’s anti-imperial strategy. The Tower story did the job of undermining fascism and empire, and preserving diversity, but it left humanity scattered.

Tower of Babel, by Lucas van Valckenborch (1594)
Tower of Babel, by Lucas van Valckenborch (1594)

Fast forward to first-century Palestine and the Pentecost event described in Acts. The scattered tribes are gathered, all the people from all these nearly-unpronounceable places: Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents from Mesopotamia and Asia…places like Phrygia and Pamphylia. It’s tempting – for casual readers and preachers alike – to skip over this part, but then we would miss what Luke wants to show us: the very diversity God treasures. It’s the Bible’s way of saying “Here comes everybody!” All these people from all these different places with their unique identities, cultures, languages…the scattered tribes of the earth.

Then the rushing Spirit of God does an amazing and glorious thing: it empowers the Galilean followers of Jesus to speak of God’s mighty deeds in such a way that the members of the scattered tribes hear the message in their own tongues. The scattered tribes are brought together by God and they understand each other, the very opposite of what happened in the Tower story. The God who once scattered, here unifies. But in this new, unifying experience diversity is preserved and honored, for we hear the listeners marvel, “We hear, each of us  in our own language.” In the Fiery Spirit story – the Pentecost story – the focus is not “the mighty works of humanity” but the mighty works of God. All the cultures of the far-flung world are included, none rejected, none discriminated against, none belittled. All are invited to bring their particular richness to the Table.

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Trumpism would be right at home in the Tower of Babel story; in fact, he even has a tower named after himself!
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A new and unifying language is introduced: it is God’s language and its message is love and justice. It is a profoundly democratic vision, for it comes from the dreams and visions not of powerful, self-serving elites, but of young and old, sons and daughters, slave and free. The outpouring of the Spirit crosses the generational divide – “the young shall see visions, the old shall dream dreams”; it transcends the gender gap – “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy”; it overcomes class barriers – “my menservants and my maidservants shall prophesy.” In short, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” – and “in that great and manifest day, whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

photo of a candleHere is God’s recipe for the flourishing of all – promoting deep appreciation of diversity and uniqueness, and the hope that emerges when love and justice are at the center of life. I’ve always liked the definition of love I learned from my seminary mentor Jim Loder: “Love is non-possessive delight in the uniqueness of the other” – the other person, the other culture, the other religion, the other experience. And I don’t think we can improve on Cornel West’s definition of justice: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Taken together, the Tower of Babel and the Pentecost stories teach us that God loves diversity and wants us to honor the precious uniqueness of each created being. We see God acting against human attempts to suppress diversity, and we see God acting in support of a new unity based on love and justice.

With this foundation in mind, a national group calling itself Faithful America has invited clergy across the country to preach on this Pentecost Sunday against the bigotry, mean-spiritedness, and dangerous public policy proposals put forward by Presidential candidate Donald Trump. They invited clergy not to speak about voting or not voting for specific candidates – which would be a violation of the church’s 501c3 non-profit status – but to address policies and rhetoric from the perspective of Christian Scripture and tradition.

In a moment of national crisis, a call went out to speak out against messages that stoke fear and hate by targeting desperate Syrian immigrants, smearing Latino/as as rapists and murderers, threatening to deport 11 million undocumented Americans and divide families, banning Muslims, patrolling Muslim neighborhoods, building a wall, inciting violence, mocking women and people with disabilities – and all of the so-called “Make America Great Again” agenda.

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I must be honest: my problem with mainstream liberal groups is that they don’t go nearly far enough. Trumpism is only one version of the brazen, idolatrous human city. The militarism, interventionism, and regime-change foreign policy of the leading candidate of the Democratic Party is another version of the Tower myth, and it is more far-reaching.
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Trumpism would be right at home in the Tower of Babel story; in fact, he even has a tower named after himself! He suppresses diversity, bans so-called undesirables and builds walls, and seeks to build “the great city”. Long ago, they left off building the great city; but with Trump in the Oval Office, work on that project would resume. It’s a no-brainer to speak against these values; especially here at the Church of the Reconciliation, it’s like preaching to the choir. But we are against these messages not just because they clash with our values; we’re opposed because God is opposed. These are not just offensive values; they’re doomed values because God has denounced them.

Graffiti voicing frustration with electoral politics
Graffiti voicing frustration with electoral politics

But I must be honest. My problem with the Faithful America call is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Trumpism is only one version of the brazen human city, the idolatrous human city. The militarism, interventionism, and regime-change foreign policy of the leading candidate of the Democratic Party is another version of the Tower myth, and it is more far-reaching. It should disturb us that the neo-cons of the George Bush, Jr. era have named Hillary Clinton as the most hawkish candidate in the field and have declared that they’re quite happy with her approach to foreign policy. They base this not on changeable campaign rhetoric, but her voting record as a Senator and her track record as Secretary of State. Two of the victim groups so viciously lambasted by Mr. Trump – Mexican immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries – arise from disastrous trade policies and foreign wars that Ms. Clinton strongly supported. We should be deeply concerned about hateful, divisive rhetoric, but shouldn’t we be just as concerned – if not more so – about the policies that cause these human crises and stop supporting them?

My sense is that the quandary for Christians in this election is more profound and unsettling than mainstream liberal groups like Faithful America suggest. With all due respect to the individual decisions we all will be called to make, in my humble opinion, not as a political pundit (which I neither am nor desire to be!), but as a preacher speaking from scripture and Christian tradition, and seeking to be guided by God’s language of love and justice, neither of the leading candidates are walking in the Light. Neither of them is being guided by love and justice. Clearly, other goals guide them, such as lust for power and a sense of entitlement.

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Voting happens one day of the year, and it’s certainly important in its own right. But we have 364 more days in every year to do the works of love and justice.
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I understand that there will be political considerations that could compel Christians to choose the lesser of evils in order to keep what they perceive as the greater evil out of office, and I don’t deny the validity of that limited moral reflection. But no one should deceive themselves into thinking this is a Christian choice. In fact, the very premise of voting one’s faith is deeply problematic. Our faith is so much larger than any vote. Our faith shapes the whole of our life.

Heart and Cross - PDDon’t misunderstand me. I understand and deeply honor the fact that people have died for the right to vote, and I believe strongly that it should be given to all, including formerly incarcerated felons, and not restricted. It is an important tool in the self-determination of downtrodden groups. But important as it is, I would say voting is actually one of the least important political acts in which you and I can engage. Far more important are our daily acts of faith – partnering with others to challenge racism and injustice and the ruination of the earth, performing everyday acts of love and justice that affect hearts and minds and make a real difference in the world. Voting happens one day of the year, and it’s certainly important in its own right. But we have 364 more days in every year to do the works of love and justice.

So, by all means, let us each vote our conscience. But, more importantly, let us be on fire with the Spirit and be about the business of living God’s language of love and justice – non-possessive delight in the precious uniqueness of the other, and enacting justice – what love looks like in public form.

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AUTHOR BIO: Rev. J. Mark Davidson is Pastor of The Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, NC. He is co-founder of The Abrahamic Initiative on the Middle East, an interfaith coalition working for a just and lasting peace in Palestine/Israel, and a spiritual director. Mark writes at the intersection of Christian spirituality and social justice.

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