June 4, 2017 Pentecost!
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-12
What Does This Mean?
You know it all started when somebody, somewhere, asked their mom: “Why are there so many different languages? Why can’t the whole world speak the same language?” And oh my child, she smiled. Let me tell you a story…
Ages and ages ago, after the flood, after the LORD hung the rainbow in the sky, the whole earth had one language and the same words. They settled in the land of Shinar and said, “Let us make bricks. Come, let us build ourselves a city. We’ll build a tower so tall that its top is in the heavens, and we will make a name for ourselves!”
Well, the LORD got wind of their murmuring, and God said, “I’ll have to go down there and see what the people are up to.” God came down, and looked at the city, and looked at the people beginning to build the tower. “See the problem is, they are one people, with one language. Now nothing will be impossible for them.”
So the LORD our God hatched a plan. “Come, let us confuse their language so they will not understand one another’s speech.” The LORD scattered the people all over the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city, and the tower never made it to heaven. Now you see, that’s why people come from all different places and speak all different languages.
The story of the Tower of Babel is a cautionary tale against hubris.
The authors of Genesis nestle it right in between two early genealogies. So there’s a list of names of Noah’s descendants, then pause for this legend of the languages, then we’re right back to another version of the same list of names. As scholar Marty Alan Michelson observes, the only people in these chapters who are not named are the people in the story who set out to build a city, to make a name for themselves. So let that be the lesson! is how it sounds. As though God is punishing the people for their pride by confusing the languages.
With this background, it’s no wonder we might feel like the diversity of languages is a problem, like it’s the impediment imposed on us because our ancestors tried to get too close to the sun. But what if our many languages are not God’s fault? What if they are actually God’s dream for creation? What if not knowing the language is an experience that could make us stop and see we are standing on holy ground. And there is all the grace in the asking: What does this mean?
Now I know. It is one thing to appreciate the idea of many languages. It’s another thing to be thrust into a situation where you don’t know the language being spoken around you. Doesn’t matter whether it’s our fault or God’s dream! In that moment, you are in over your head. This has happened to me on multiple occasions. At some point or another, it has probably happened to you.
Seven years ago, about twenty of us from suburban Ohio traveled to Costa Rica for a mission trip to help build a house for a family living in a shanty town. The senior pastor from my church helped establish this trip, and he had gone many times, but this time he was staying in Ohio. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “They know you don’t speak Spanish; most everybody you’ll work with speaks English. It will be fine.”
Still there was something strange and humbling about bringing a group of teenagers right into the mercy of a community whose language we did not speak. I felt embarrassed. Who am I to expect these people to speak my language in their home, but I can’t be bothered to learn a little Spanish? How is that not classic American arrogance!
I also felt nervous. Now I’m a city bug. In the U.S., I’m not afraid to walk through busy cities at night. I can read the signs, and talk to strangers, and ask for help if I have to. My words are what I have. Here I was responsible for a group of teenagers in a city where I couldn’t talk to the people or understand what they were saying about us.
One day, our leader, Maximo, took our group to the outdoor market in San Jose. When we got there, we split into smaller groups to go to different restaurants for lunch. I went with two high school girls to a little cafe. As we slid into the booth, a woman in her early twenties came up and sat down with us. “You don’t speak Spanish,” she said smiling. “I’m going to have lunch with you.” She explained that she was studying to become a translator, and after a few minutes, I realized Maximo must have noticed the three of us setting out together and sent her to find us.
Well, we definitely needed her help! I could identify some of the entrees on the menu, but I didn’t know how to order. I didn’t even know the currency! I remember taking out a handful of cash so this woman, doing the work of Christ, could say, “Here you need this much to pay. Put the rest away.” We needed her help, but we also needed to talk with her, to hear about her children and her experience juggling family life with college classes. We needed to have lunch together.
There’s something about being left out of the language I’m not sure we could learn another way. Nobody’s saying, it’s a good thing to exclude people. But live in the world for a little while, chances are, you will find yourself left out. When this happens, first it is embarrassing. Next it is scary. You might feel the flash of fear that goes, What if I become invisible? As though nobody can see you if they can’t understand you! But what if this is exactly the moment to hold on and pay attention…
Jesus is fluent in the language of Left Out. Stay here a little while and see, this is exactly the place to encounter Christ. Jesus will find you, and sit down at your table. “I’m going to have lunch with you,” he’ll say, as though that explains everything.
And so it is, every time I have been in over my head, not knowing what was being said or how to speak, pretty much the same thing happened: Someone who could speak English found me and reached out to help. It happened in Costa Rica. It happened when I went to church at Light Mission. It happened last summer when I needed to talk to our neighbors in the house right across Twelfth Street.
As it turns out, this is not an uncommon phenomenon. The travel blog called “Be My Travel Muse” gives advice for what to do if you find yourself somewhere in the world and don’t know the language. The author talks about body language, using context clues and hand gestures, then she explains: If all else fails, help will find you. Someone will come to your rescue and step in to translate; this happens all the time, she says. 
Now part of this is because we English speakers enjoy unearned privilege. English is the language of tourism; a lot of the world’s people speak English. But part of this is because there are people who have a remarkable gift for noticing the person who is left out, then stepping up to help. It takes a certain blend of perceptiveness, and assertiveness, and compassion, and I want to learn how they do this!
Sure, knowing more than one language is good; this can equip us to help those who get in over their heads. But noticing the person who’s left out and summoning help, this is the work of the Holy Spirit.
This is something we can do in this community no matter how many languages we speak. This is something we do as Church of Peace. I was once a stranger and you welcomed me. I was once in over my head in a language I couldn’t speak, terrified of becoming invisible, and people I didn’t know found me, and rescued me, and you know we can do this for each other. We will see you. We will see Jesus. No one will become invisible.
Today we are celebrating Pentecost. This story is often called the Reversal of the Tower of Babel. You’d think if it were really reversing that story, then all the people from all different places would begin speaking one language, but that’s not what happens. Instead, we get a glimpse of God’s dream for creation.
When all the believers were together in one place, the Holy Spirit poured out upon them, and everybody began speaking in their own languages. In all the confusion and the chaos, all the people were in over their heads, and all the people were mercifully rescued. How is that we understand each other? The people in that fiery house spoke the words that summon the angels every time. “What does this mean?” they asked right out loud.
See all the grace in asking for help, all the grace in seeing the people who are asking for help.
Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.