By Dr. Rev. Barbara Barkley
Scripture reading: Genesis 11: 1-9, Acts 2:1-21
Sermon for June 4, 2017
What is Pentecost? It is the birthday of the church. But as the two Biblical stories for today show us, Pentecost is also a reversal. It is reversing the story of the tower of Babel. So let’s review for a minute. What is the story of Babel about? What happens in the story? People start united. They all speak the same language; they all understand each other. But then something happens and the result is, what? They no longer speak the same language.
Whether or not you take this story literally, there are oodles of deeper meanings here, tons of insights into the human condition through this story of the tower of Babel. Because we still don’t speak the same language, do we? Even here in this church, even when we are all appearing to speak English, we don’t always speak the same language. We misunderstand each other, we hurt each other, we mis-communicate, we argue, we struggle. We don’t speak the same language. We are torn apart in this world, in families, in cultures, in groups by our inability to hear, to speak clearly, to be understood and to understand.
To give some funny examples: When I was pregnant with Aislynn, I went in for a blood test that required fasting for the 8 hours before the test. While on my way, Jasmyn or Jonah asked for some goldfish crackers. While handing some back to the kids, I automatically popped one in my own mouth before remembering that I was not supposed to eat anything before my exam.
When I went in to take the test, the nurse asked me first thing, “have you eaten anything in the last 8 hours?” “No,” I replied. But then remembering the cracker I added, “Oh, except for a spare gold fish.” Well apparently this was someone who did not have kids and was not familiar with the goldfish snack crackers. He blanched for a minute, looking a little pale, and then quickly moved away like he had just met some crazy woman who might say something else off the wall or do something even more strange. I was confused by his response at first, and I only realized as he was leaving the room that he thought I meant an actual goldfish. I’m sure hearing my hysterical laughter after he shut the door behind him did nothing to improve his image of the crazy woman behind the door. We were both speaking English, but we were not speaking the same language.
When Jasmyn was in kindergarten, I showed up to be a volunteer for her library time, only to discover that the kindergarten library time had been moved to another day. When I asked Jasmyn why her library time had been moved, she told me in all seriousness that they had to move the library time because her library teacher had to “run up and down the stairs during her normal library time.” “Oh,” I said, “Ms. Roby was really busy doing other work at the school.” But no, Jasmyn was insistent. They changed the library time because Ms. Roby literally had to run up and down the stairs during her normal library time. I’m certain the children were told exactly what Jasmyn repeated to me. And little kids are literalists. If Jasmyn was told Ms. Roby had to run up and down the stairs, then that must literally be what Ms. Roby was doing. Our little literalists often don’t speak the same language as we do.
When I was a kid I remember being told that the world was round. I thought we were all on the inside however, and kept looking up to see if I could see the people on the other side of the world.
A few years ago I was running an errand at Office Depot when the cashier asked to see my driver’s license. I flipped open my wallet, showing the cashier the license through the little window in my wallet. After looking at it for a moment, the cashier suddenly said, “Why don’t you have more tigers?”
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Why don’t you have more tigers?” the cashier insisted. “Every time I go to the zoo,” she continued, “I want to see the tigers and I can never see them because there just aren’t enough. Why don’t you get more?”
For a moment, this monologue just puzzled me until glancing down at my wallet I noticed the picture space across from my driver’s license held our Oakland Zoo membership card. The cashier had seen the card and instead of recognizing it as a membership card, she had assumed that I was an employee at the zoo. That was an easily cleared up mistake. But for that moment at least, we were not speaking the same language. There was a gap in communication. We did not understand one another.
David, as you know, spent most of his life in Ohio. The first time I took him to San Francisco, at one point after we had been walking through Golden Gate Park, he asked me where all the Rice-a-Roni stands were. Childhood commercials had miscommunicated to him the belief that just as there are taco trucks in other places, in San Francisco, there were Rice-A-Roni stands on each corner.
Sometimes our failure to understand one another is not so funny, though. Sometimes it is downright tragic. In foreign affairs, there have been far too many wars started over miscommunication: sometimes this miscommunication is as simple as a non-intended slight or failure to recognize the necessary manners and customs of another culture. More immediately, how many divorces are caused by failure to communicate well? How many broken-hearted children have been punished over misunderstandings with parents or teachers?
I went to Korea while I was in seminary, with a group of students. We had spent the semester studying Korean culture, and had been told on countless occasions that dressing up for church in Korea was extremely important. People would feel it was disrespectful to do otherwise and would be highly offended. None the less, one of our group failed to bring anything nicer than jeans. When we had offended and this offense was being explained to this young man, his response was, “Well, I would have known if I was being offensive!” He failed to understand all of the communication he had been given through our readings and lectures and from the responses of the people themselves, about the differences in our cultures and what would offend and he stubbornly insisted that his way of seeing the world was the only way.
People who suffer from schizophrenia often have an incredibly difficult time being understood. They speak our languages, whatever they are. But we struggle to understand people with schizophrenia, to make sense of what they say. I had the privilege while studying in college of volunteering with an amazingly loving, intuitive, giving Chaplain to the Homeless in Berkeley.
Alexia met people of all kinds, and she really listened and heard them in ways that were deeply profound and truly life-giving. One time when we were together, a schizophrenic homeless woman approached Alexia. Alexia and I were deep in conversation and Alexia knew that for me, people who said things I could not understand were probably the people I feared most in the world. So at first it looked like Alexia was going to put this woman off for a moment, when suddenly Janet blurted out, “I am God.” Her statement made me uncomfortable. I stood up and was ready to be on my merry fear-driven way. Here was the thing I feared most: craziness, unpredictable behavior: that which made me most uneasy, that which I did not choose to deal with, right in front of me, demanding my energy and attention, and I could not accept her. But Alexia gently indicated to me that I was to stay. She turned to Janet, “Tell me. I’ve always wanted to know...what exactly does it feel like to be God.” Janet looked straight at Alexia with relief in her face, but also urgency to speak, to tell. She sighed a big sigh, “I care and love and care and love but no one pays any attention to me.” Alexia gave me a very poignant stare as we both nodded our heads in understanding. This woman I was about to dismiss because I had no energy for her great needs, had deep needs, but also had gifts for us: gifts of insight, gifts of wisdom. This woman felt ignored, unseen, unvalued. I am sure she was also accurate that God must feel ignored at times, too. Until she said it, I never knew the god right in front of me and present in this woman.
I learned in my psychology class shortly after that event that the ramblings of schizophrenics are not recognizably different from quotes from poetry. No one, not even the most highly trained psychologists and psychiatrists can tell the difference between phrases of poetry and schizophrenic phrases. Schizophrenics talk in poetry. But Chaplain Alexia was a person of Pentecost. When she was faced with a person whose language seemed different, other, hard to understand, Alexia listened, asked questions, and came to understand. Though we would think Janet was speaking in a different language, for those with ears to hear, for those Pentecost people, she was speaking the language of God.
In the story of the tower of Babel, the creating of multiple languages, the destroying of people’s ability to understand one another - this was a story about people losing power, losing strength, losing focus and the ability to be united and together! The story of the tower of Babel tells us God created many languages so that the people could not “do anything” - could not become like gods and accomplish anything they put their mind to.
So if the Pentecost story is the reversal of that, what does that now tell us? God has given back to us the power to understand one another. God has given us the ability to choose to listen to what we are really saying to one another. With that power, we can do anything! We can choose once again to be united. And as a united people, we can be part of healing this earth. We can be God’s hands bringing peace to the world. We can do God’s will and love God’s people and bring the world together. It is out of this experience of unity and understanding that the church was born. It is out of this love from God; the love that gives us the understanding and power to love and unite with others that our church has come into being.
Before I conclude I want to tell you one more story. In this story, about a century or two ago, the Pope decided that all the Jews had to leave the Vatican. Naturally there was a big uproar from the Jewish community. The Pope made a deal. He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community. If the Pope won, the Jews would have to leave.
The Jews realized they had no choice. They chose a middle-aged man named Moishe to represent them. Moishe asked for one addition to the debate - to make it more interesting, neither side would be allowed to talk. The Pope reluctantly agreed. The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Pope sat opposite one another for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger. The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed at the ground where he sat. The Pope pulled
out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple. The Pope stood up and said, "I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay."
An hour later, the cardinals were all around the Pope asking him what happened. The Pope said, "First I held up three fingers, representing the Trinity. He held up one finger to remind me there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my fingers around to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything! What could I do?"
Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe. They also asked what had happened. "Well," said Moishe, "first he said to me that we had three days to get out. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he said the whole city would be cleared of Jews. I told him we were staying right here." "And then?" asked a woman.
"I don't know," said Moishe. "He took out his lunch and I took out mine."
So as we celebrate the birthday of the church today, do we choose to remain a people of Babel, lost in the confusion of voices and understandings? Or do we choose to remember the miracle of Pentecost? Do we choose to speak the same language, or rather to do the work to truly and deeply understand one another across all barriers knowing that God has given us that gift of hearing, of listening, of understanding? Do we choose to turn from Babel and claim the new life, the birth of our church, the new way of being in this world, knowing that the reward is heaven itself? Yes! And again I pray, Yes!
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