Sermon for the Day of Pentecost, June 5, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Acts 2:1-17+Psalm 104:1-4+Romans 8:14-17, 22-27+John 14:8-17

Back at the beginning of the bible, in the 11th chapter of Genesis, we read the story of the Tower of Babel. Now, a straight reading of this would be that humans, who all lived in the same place and spoke the same language at the time, got too big for their britches, as my mama used to say, and decided they wanted to take control of their destiny, to be like god. Now you would think that they had heard this story before with Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the garden and then the great flood that wiped out everything except Noah, his family, and mating pairs of all the creatures of the earth. Apparently, they had not yet learned their lesson.

They worried that God was going to come scatter them, and so they built a tower up to the sky, just to show how awesome they were. So, God got wind of this and went down to take a look. And I imagine God here kind of like the Grinch up on Mount Crumpit, holding Max the dog by the collar and saying:

This cannot be! Who do they think they are?

If we let this stand, nothing will stop them from being as powerful as me!

And so, God and Max hop on the sleigh and knock down the tower, scattering the people to the ends of the earth and confusing their speech. And the story ends, “Therefore it was called Babel, because the Lord confused their speech” (Genesis 11:9). This is generally interpreted as a bad thing.

The Babel story is often read today to accompany our reading about the first Pentecost found in the 2nd chapter of Acts. Luke is very specific about where all these people gathered in Jerusalem have come from. He could have kept it simple and saved from humiliation Sunday readers of this passage since time immemorial, so that he includes so much detail is something we probably ought to sit up and notice.

All these people had come to Jerusalem for another festival.  Jews observed three pilgrimage festivals each year, which required those who could make the trip to go to Jerusalem. Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In the gospels when Jesus journeys to Jerusalem, this is why he goes, as did all faithful Jews. What we know as Pentecost was Shavuot to those gathered in Acts, the festival of the first harvest (and, later, a celebration of the giving of the Law, or Torah, to Moses on Sinai). So, faithful Jews from all over the place were here, in the city, for that.

And Luke wants us to know where they are from: what we now know as Italy, North Africa, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Greece, and Crete. When placed in contrast to the Tower of Babel story, this appears to be a correction, a fixing, of the separation.

I’m not so sure about that.

We could read the Babel story as the creation of multiple ethnicities. Rather than a punishment for trying to be like God, maybe God was continuing to expand on the depth and breadth of creation, celebrating different places of origin and dialects and dress and customs. And they come together here, in Jerusalem, for a festival, where they speak in these varieties of language and yet are understood. We come together through the power of the Holy Spirit in the fullness and beauty of who we are, and we can then see and understand how we are all one in Christ Jesus.

After this indescribable encounter, Luke seems more at a loss for words, like a child trying to tell a parent what happened at school: there was this loud sound like the wind and these things that looked like tongues, no flames, and it blew all around us in the house and that fire landed on our heads – everyone started talking but we understood what everyone was saying, and we went out into the city where people crossed to the other side of the road because they thought we’d had one too many mimosas at breakfast time.

But no, what happened was another fulfillment of God’s promise to pour out the spirit upon all people so that the old will see visions and the young ones will dream dreams.

It is this unpredictable, indescribable Spirit that we invoke here this morning to bless the waters of baptism and seal these children as part of the family of God forever.

It is a celebration of all of who we are – where we come from, what language our ancestors may have spoken, what customs we developed, all that goes into making us us – God takes all of that and lifts it up and calls it good. God calls each one of us good and beloved and fills us with the Spirit’s power.

That first Pentecost was like the big bang, the beginning of the Church. It started with a tiny band of believers and scattered across the known world and beyond. All the way to the corner of 7th & Washington here in Hoboken, NJ, 21 centuries later.

So, buckle up your seat belts. That same Spirit is here, and one never knows what she might do.

ASEPSermon for the Day of Pentecost, June 5, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas