Sunday, June 9, 2019

Sermon: “Unity Without Uniformity”, Genesis 11:1-9/Acts 2:1-21 (June 9, 2019--Pentecost)


I feel compelled to begin my sermon today with a disclaimer. Nothing I say here today will be a new idea. None of this is groundbreaking. The thoughts that I’m sharing with you this morning occurred to me immediately after reading the scripture passages, and then nearly every commentary I read afterward affirmed them—which leads me to believe that this particular interpretation of Pentecost is based in a deeper, already-known truth. But you can judge for yourself.

Even though there is “nothing new under the sun”, at least in this sermon, I believe that this is a message we all need to hear again (and again). It speaks so clearly in scripture and though so many independent theologians that it’s irresponsible for us not to listen, even if we feel like we already know what God is saying. So today, on Pentecost, a day celebrating words and messages with the power to transform humanity, let us listen with new ears.

At the beginning of time, God created the universe in boundless diversity. We didn’t use Psalm 104 as one of our scripture readings this morning, but the Revised Common Lectionary lists a portion of it as a compliment to the Genesis and Acts passages that we did hear. It reads, in part, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great…May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works.”[1] This is a familiar theme in the Church—a kindergartner in Sunday School could readily tell you how God created all things and called them all good.

And yet, by the 11th chapter of Genesis, humanity is already pushing back against this divine diversity. The people speak a single language; they say, “Come, let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”[2] Their greatest fear is being separated and becoming different from one another—the very diversity that God celebrates. They determine that greatness and unity are the antidote to their fear, and they decide that the best way to pursue those things is through uniformity and personal achievement; they must preserve their homogenous, monolinguistic society at all costs, and they must build the most impressive tower that the world has ever seen. These are their self-stated top priorities. These are the things that they believe will lead to their success. But when God sees and hears this, God takes immediate action, dispersing humanity all over the earth and putting a stop to their plans.

Many of us read this story as a cautionary tale against humanity’s hubris. It makes sense that God would punish humankind for presuming a level of greatness that seems to challenge God’s own creative feats. Certainly, God’s reaction sounds like a divine desire to humble this haughty creature. This fits right into the common narrative of a wrathful “Old Testament” God who regularly punishes humanity to keep them in their place. But what if…what if God’s actions weren’t divine retribution. What if they weren’t the actions of a jealous and capricious god, but of a loving but frustrated and fearful parent? Fearful not of what humanity might do to God…but what humanity might do to itself? What if the story of Babel is the story of God telling humanity that, although greatness and unity are noble goals, personal achievement and uniformity are the wrong way to go about seeking them?

Humanity has the unique opportunity, having been created in God’s image with free will, to plan, create, and accomplish more than any other creature on earth. This isn’t of our own doing; it’s a gift directly from God. So why would God want to stifle this potential that Godself has offered? Jealousy? Is God threatened by our industriousness? I doubt it. Instead, I think that at Babel, God was trying to protect us from the consequences of our selfish and sinful motivations.

When someone truly aligned with God’s will encounters a clear, unobstructed path before them, only good can come of it, because they’re driven by God’s goodness. If the tower builders were responding to a divine imperative—like Noah, for example—it would be a wonderful thing that “nothing [is] impossible for them.” We could trust that anything they produce would be good because it came from God. But consider what happens when there are no barriers, no consequences, no accountability for someone whose only motivation is self-aggrandizement and conformity. Suddenly, “nothing being impossible for them” is a terrifying prospect. Their stated goals may be the same, but the results will be disastrous for everyone. God’s goodness would be missing from the equation. So God foiled these plans for a tower not out of spite or anger, but out of love and divine wisdom.

There’s a saying that goes, “God only gives three answers to prayer: ‘Yes’, ‘Not Yet’, and ‘I have something better in mind’.” From my perspective, the Tower of Babel situation falls into the latter two categories—which brings us to Pentecost. After Babel, we’re left with the unanswered question, “If achievement and uniformity don’t lead to greatness and unity, then what does?” Through the events of Pentecost, God finally answers that question: greatness and unity come through the Holy Spirit and diversity. When the Holy Spirit descended in Acts 2, she didn’t undo the events of Babel by restoring uniformity through a single language. Instead, she transformed the people’s existing diversity into a sign of her presence and a tool for unity. Through the countless languages spoken in the gathered community, all were able to hear the same Good News and feel uniquely included in the gospel’s message.

In case you were wondering if this strategy was effective, keep reading chapter 2. It says, “God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day. The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything.”[3] That sure sounds like greatness and unity to me. Certainly a better result than the Babel workers could have hoped for.

The Holy Spirit shows us that diversity doesn’t mean isolation and separation. Diversity doesn’t mean weakness. Diversity means accountability, the opportunity to check our motivations through the eyes of those with a different perspective. Diversity means influence, the ability to reach far and wide without needing to expend energy forcing everyone to fit into a single mold. Diversity means strength, the result of combining our various unique talents and skills and ideas. Diversity means a better reflection of God, a divine Trinity that expresses unity though three distinct persons. Diversity means trust in God, who deliberately created humanity in all of its glorious variety. Diversity is faithful. Diversity is authentic. Diversity is holy.

The question we should be asking now is where do we see ourselves in these stories? Where do we see ourselves reflected in Babel? Certainly, none of us here today have plans to build a tower that reaches to the heavens…but how many of us deify achievement and uniformity as the solution to our problems? How often do we obsess over increasing our Sunday morning attendance, or having the best ministry programs, without stopping to think about WHO is taking part in our community life? How many of us surround ourselves with people just like us, creating an ideological “echochamber” of our own opinions and views, measuring our success as Christians by how many self-righteous articles we post on social media or how many times we “correct” someone who’s “got it wrong”? How often do we try to advance God’s kingdom by trying to eliminate the very diversity that God created and called “good”? Probably more often than we’d like to admit.

But it’s not all bad. We should also be asking where we see ourselves reflected in Pentecost. Where do we see ourselves turning to the Holy Spirit and her gift of diversity as sacred tools in service to unity in Christ? Where do we find ourselves listening, really listening, with patience, love, and respect, to someone whose experience is different than ours? Where have we discovered value in what they have to offer? When have we listened to scripture with fresh ears and no agenda, and discovered God giving us an entirely new message—a Word so different from what we’ve always assumed that it feels like hearing a new language? When have we sought out diverse perspectives as a new way to hear the Holy Spirit speaking to us?

None of this means that we’re absenting ourselves from the conversation. Seeking unity doesn’t mean that we should tolerate hatred and ignorance for the sake of diverse voices. We need to be careful not to make diversity itself into an idol. Unity doesn’t always mean compromise, either…compromise is just a version of uniformity where noone’s entirely satisfied. Unity means wholeness, completeness. Encompassing all, making space for all, and welcoming all as unique and intentional gifts from God. Unity means that we need to be deliberate about not preferencing ourselves and our perspectives above all others. Especially for those of us with privilege borne of our race, gender, sexuality, or anything else—those of us whose voices are readily heard because they’re viewed as the default in our contexts.

Our perceptions feel wholly true and indisputable to us…but the Holy Spirit is all about disrupting perceptions. For example: creation isn’t meant to be perfectly uniform; it’s meant to be perfect in its diversity. Humanity shouldn’t be gathered in one place; we should be spread far and wide. These aren’t drunk as you suppose; they’re preaching the Gospel. If we want to be people of God, we MUST be prepared to understand things in a new way.

What would a modern Pentecost look like? Well, we probably won’t be able to miraculously understand French or German anytime soon, but there are other aspects of communication that the Holy Spirit might be able to help us with. The editor of the Presbyterian Outlook magazine, Jill Duffield, asks the question, “Could it be possible that this Pentecost enables us to hear and understand languages that are not native to us?” Languages like that of the non-white experience. Languages like that of the urban coastal perspective. Languages like that of the political extremes, or of the politically moderate (depending on where you stand). Perhaps the most important lesson that we should take from Pentecost is that God’s kingdom relies on diversity, and human diversity relies on our willingness to embrace, rather than eradicate, it—even when it’s difficult for us to understand. Are we up to the challenge?

We know that God has made God’s presence known in all sorts of ways throughout history—through pillars of clouds, through disembodied voices, through dreams, through tongues of fire. What would the Holy Spirit have to do today to make us pay attention? Does it need to be miraculous, bordering on unbelievable to our modern sensibilities? Or is it enough for us to see and hear God’s presence through those who aren’t like us? Is it enough for us to recognize that God speaks through difference and diversity, and to be willing to listen? I pray that it is. May a new Pentecost of unity without uniformity descend upon the earth in our lifetime…and may it begin with us. Amen.


[1] Psalm 104:24-25, 31 (NRSV).
[2] Genesis 11:4 (NRSV).
[3] Acts 2:41b-44 (CEB).

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