Preached by the Ven. Robert Franken at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, May 23, 2010
In a certain place in the winter months, the ducks collected in great numbers. When any one approached them, they would rise and fly away, making a whistling-noise. One morning two hunters went down to the river to kill some ducks. They had each obtained one, when a dispute arose over the question whether the whistling-noise was made with the bill or with the wings when they rose to fly. Neither could convince the other, and the words became bitter. Finally they agreed to take it to the chief, and let him settle the dispute.
The chief heard the story, and looked at the ducks. Both of them were dead and could not make any noise. Therefore he called a council to listen to the dispute; people came from all around to deliberate. They spoke one language and had only one chief.
The ducks were brought in, and the chief explained the question. The people said, "We do not wish to be unjust, we will go to the river and hear for ourselves. These ducks can do us no good." So they went down to the river and frightened the ducks that flew over their heads. Part of the Indians said the noise was made with the bills; part said it was made with the wings. They could not agree. Therefore the ducks were made to fly once more. The people began to quarrel violently, and separated in an ugly mood.
All during the winter the feeling grew, until in spring the mutual hatred drove part of the Indians south to hunt for new homes. This was the first division of the people into tribes. They selected a chief from their own division, and called themselves by another name.
Finding new objects, and having to give such objects names, brought new words into their former language; and thus after many years the language was changed. Each split in the tribe made a new division and brought a new chief. Each migration brought different words and meanings. Thus the tribes slowly scattered; and thus the dialects, and even new languages, were formed.
Language is at the core of Pentecost for the Christian Church and yet the story that I have just told is an ancient myth from a Native American tribe. Similar myths can be found in the historic tales of India, Mesoamerica, ancient Greece, Australia, the Andaman Islands, and many other cultures. Many of these myths are also tied to a story of a flood, just as today’s reading from Genesis immediately follows the story of Noah, his family and the great Flood.
In the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, as well as in the Native American legend, it is about the arrogance of the human race.
The Old Testament stories of God’s people as they populate the earth – are important stories in sharing our separation from God back to our earliest days. These sometimes-mythical stories are accepted as a history which serves to explain the worldview of a people, and are embedded with important truths. These ancient stories tell of our struggle to follow God - but also how often we fail and instead are overcome by our need to fulfill SELF instead.
Many years ago as I was mentoring a group in a program called Education for Ministry from the University of the South, we started each year of the 3-year program with every participant sharing his or her faith journey. One day, as I was listening to yet another of these stories I suddenly understood that our stories are the same as the stories of the Old Testament people, and of each other.
Today we celebrate Pentecost – another story of God and language. Often, in our sort of arrogant way, we think about Pentecost, with our red balloons and stories of tongues of fire as a uniquely Christian celebration – and yet…
The Jewish feast of Pentecost, in Hebrew Shavuot, was the Feast of Weeks, one of the three pilgrimage festivals, which arose as the celebration of the end of the spring grain harvest, which began formally at Passover 50 days earlier. This was one of the feast days first commanded by God to the Israelites and recorded in Exodus 34. From early rabbinic times, the festival served to commemorate the giving of the law to Moses at Mt. Sinai. God’s attempt to bring order to a people wandering in the wilderness who so often seemed to go astray… sound familiar?
On the other hand for the Christian church, Pentecost also falls 50 days from the Passover but is tied to that Passover day when Jesus was crucified. As we heard in this morning’s reading from Acts, the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in the form of tongues of fire accompanied by the sound of a rush of wind, and gave them the power of speaking in such a way that people of different languages could understand them. The Christian feast of Pentecost is our annual commemoration of this event, and it is solemnly observed as the birthday of the church, and the feast of the Holy Spirit.
We celebrate Pentecost as the polar opposite of the Genesis event at the Tower of Babel – a time when God transcends the diversity of our language by giving us the Spirit as a living presence to be our translator, advocate, and mediator.
Earlier this week Nancy and I were sitting in a busy and vibrantly noisy restaurant in Brussels, Belgium. As I listened to the myriad of conversations around us, unable to eavesdrop because of the multiple different languages being spoken in the room – I had a glimpse of what it must have been like on that day at the Tower of Babel after the language had been confused or at the Disciple’s Pentecost moments before the Spirit came.
It would be wrong of us to think of Pentecost as a single moment in history – it would be equally wrong to think that the story of the Christ child – birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension – wipes out the need for the rest of the stories.
Instead our story of language starts at the Tower - along with people of many other faiths – it continues as God tries to provide a lighted path through the Law of Moses (which we also managed to misuse) – then comes in the gift of love through the Christ child – and finally followed by the Spirit of God at Pentecost.
Today is not the end of the stories but rather an important marker along the way – if we don’t misuse it and if we don’t let our arrogance of Self get in the way. We are called through the power of the Spirit given at Pentecost to speak in the universal language. This is a language not of words but rather a language of action. It is that language that Jesus used when feeding the 5000 or washing the feet of his disciple’s moments before his arrest. It is the language of love and of service.
Listen again to the words from this mornings Gospel:
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. … If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
And from the book of 1st John come these very powerful, challenging, and often uncomfortable words:
For those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: Those who love God must love their brother and sisters also.
Love everyone and serve their needs – not only those I feel comfortable with or those of certain economic status, those of certain political persuasion, a certain color, sexual orientation, or religion. We need to love the homeless, mentally ill, criminals. I am called to love every human being I touch, and most especially those I try to avoid. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan. It is not about words but about actions – it is easy to talk about justice or dignity for all people, it is much, much harder to live it.
How often I struggle to live out this love of neighbor…. to live out this love of self … how often I struggle then with my love of God.
How about you? Do you struggle?
Instead of building a tower, an empire, a fortune, a long life – you and I should strive instead to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves?
For it is only then that the story of language will have come full circle from the Tower – the story of God’s language will be complete in us – and we can become part of the Pentecost event.