May 23, 2010 – Pentecost Sunday
“Earth, Wind, and Fire”
I attended a worship service in Kentucky last week where the preacher stood up and said, “I have no idea what I’m going to preach on today, but I’m hoping the Spirit will give me something real soon.” With only one day to prepare this sermon I seriously contemplated getting up here and relying on the spirit as well…. Luckily the words did come.
On Thursday night I flew into Logan airport in Boston after spending eleven days traveling through the Appalachian mountains of central and eastern Kentucky. Our group contained 10 seminarians from 4 different schools, two seminary professors and a local guide from the Appalachian Ministry group that organized the trip.
13 people, 11 days, traveling in one passenger van, and spending the night in group lodgings. We got very familiar with each other very fast.
We hailed from 5 different states, represented 5 different Christian denominations, and held a multitude of differing theological beliefs, but as we traveled through the mountains of Kentucky we quickly realized that as different as we were from each other, to the Kentuckians that we visited it was as if we had dropped out of the sky from another universe.
We were outsiders for sure. Our accents, our dress, our theology and our politics labeled us as such, but at times it seemed as if we were not even speaking the same language, and I had to wonder if and how we would ever come to understand one another.
Last Sunday our group attended worship at the Blair Branch Old Regular Baptist church in Jeremiah, Kentucky. For those of you unfamiliar with the many, many different kinds of Baptists in the world, there is a denomination called “Old Regular Baptist” – the name was chosen back in 1892 to distinguish the primarily Appalachian based group from the Regular Baptists, who were apparently too regular and not theologically conservative enough for the old regulars.
The Old Regulars believe in keeping with the "old ways." Their patriarchal organization follows a set of rules lifted from the New Testament. Women are denied a formal voice in church governance and are not allowed to speak in Worship, although they are allowed to sing.
Men are commanded to cut their hair, and women are admonished not to do so. Women must wear dresses or skirts; no slacks, jeans, or pantsuits; and Men are in command of the household while the women are to obey. The Old Regulars pride themselves on the belief that their church is an accurate representation of the early Christian Church of the New Testament.
So you can imagine how our rag tag group of seminarians must have looked when we walked into the Blair Branch Old Regular Baptist worship service last Sunday. The women in our group all wore pants, four of the women had short hair and two men had long hair, and we were led by two female professors, one of whom stood up during worship and rather proudly and loudly introduced our group to the congregation.
But our dress and our customs were not the only differences that separated us.
Theologically, it was if we were speaking two different languages.
During worship there was no mention of Jesus’ teachings or his instruction to go out into the world and be forces of change.
The theology of the Old Regular Baptists, and most of the churches in Eastern Kentucky as we discovered, is centered on the idea of personal salvation and the future resurrection that we will all experience after the second coming.
We must repent, or change our inner selves to receive our rewards in heaven, and accept the fact that true change will only come to the world on Judgment Day. We are powerless to change the world through our own actions.
In an area of the country that has traditionally been racked by poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, drug addition, high teen pregnancy and drop out rates, and has long had a love-hate relationship with the coal industry that both sustains its economy and threatens the environment and the health of its citizens, its easy to understand the appeal of a theology that is based on future rewards in the hereafter and denies that change is possible in the here and now.
If one feels powerless in the face of systemic imbalances that are seemingly resistant to change, then one has little choice but to throw up one’s hands and leave it all in the hands of God.
In eastern Kentucky, as in all parts of the Christian world, the theological language that is used to speak of God’s work and Jesus’ saving power in the world is a direct reflection of the culture in which it was developed.
Language and culture are inherently intertwined.
With each arising from and continuously influencing the other.
Both of our scripture readings today center on the power of linguistics – the power that language has to bring us together, and the power that it has to tear us apart.
In our reading from Genesis, we are given a glimpse at pre-history - the time after the Creation and before Abraham. Here we have a story that attempts to explain why the world has so many different cultures and so many different languages.
In this story, all the people of the world live in one place and share one language.
But they fear being scattered from this place so they decide to build a city to anchor them there.
They make bricks of earthen clay and burn them to build a tower that will reach to the heavens.
This passage is often interpreted as being about pride.
It is said that the people built a tower to make a name for themselves, to show that they had the power to create great things just as God had created them.
But in the Hebrew scripture, the phrase “making a name for oneself” is rarely used to denote arrogance or pride.
Rather, it implies an act of establishing an identity that is meant to endure.
In this case, the act of building a city to keep everyone in one place, to establish a common culture, a single culture, and to protect the single language.
The goal of the building project was to keep the people together.
To keep them from scattering. We know today that once people become scattered by distance they begin to develop their own ideas, their own culture, their own language, which over time can become vastly different from that of the originating group.
There is strength in sameness.
And difference has the potential to be a threat if the difference contradicts one’s own way of being.
But the conviction that humanity was to remain in one place with one single language was not part of God’s plan.
We are created in the image of God…God breathed life into us with the intention that we would continue to breath life into creation.
We are to be stewards of the earth.
God commanded humanity to continue to multiply, to care for the earth, to fill all the earth, and to remain faithful to God as it cared for God’s creation.
Humanity was honoring its own will rather than God’s will by attempting to stay in one place and by focusing on making a name for itself rather then moving out into the world as God intended.
So God put a stop to it.
God confused the language of the people and scattered them over the earth.
And once God did this, the people stopped building the tower.
They could no longer communicate with one another, and they no longer had a reason to build one great city.
They no longer shared a common goal.
According to this interpretation, God scattered the people not as punishment for building a mighty tower, but rather to squelch their desire to stay in one place, with one culture and one language.
But even in our scattered state we still hold within us the desire to build the Tower of Babel.
We still build cities, towers, and walls to celebrate our oneness, our sameness, and prevent us from becoming scattered and confused.
We build these cities, towers and walls because we are afraid that exposure to difference will shake the foundations that we stand on.
We build them because we’ve become so focused on our own will, we forget to ask ourselves if we are honoring God’s will.
God breathed life into us and gave us the ability to create as God created, but while we are using this creative ability we must ask ourselves, does this thing that we are creating honor God’s intentions?
Does God want this tower, this city, this wall to exist?
The wall that separated East and West Berlin.
The wall that separates the Israelis from the Palestinians.
The wall the separates the United States from Mexico.
And then there are the intangible walls and towers that we build to protect ourselves from becoming scattered and confused.
We build religious bodies that seek unity by throwing out those who do not conform.
We build economic systems that reward the haves and punish the have-nots.
We build family and social structures that promote uniformity and shun those on the margins.
The differing cultural, socio-economic, and theological languages that we speak can divide even those who speak the same native tongue.
Even when we’re speaking the same language the regional accent we use to speak that language can be a barrier to open communication.
As our seminarian group traveled through Kentucky last week, we asked the adults and young adults that we encountered to name the primary stereotypes that outsiders have about people who live in the Appalachian region of Eastern Kentucky. Many of them bemoaned the fact that because they speak with a southern drawl, outsiders automatically assume that they are slow witted, closed minded, and uneducated.
When we visited a non-profit health clinic, the woman running the clinic named her accent as the biggest obstacle that she’s had to overcome when interacting with potential donors from areas outside the south.
Yet right after calling out this stereotype, she invited her colleagues into the room and introduced us by saying, “This is a church group that is visiting Appalachia and they’re smart people, I mean really smart people.”
At that point the only interaction we had had with her was to tell her our names and where we were from – Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Washington DC. She didn’t yet know that we were grad students or that we were studying for the ministry. She simply heard our accents and the names of our home states and automatically assumed that we were “really smart people.”
In eastern Kentucky, as in many parts of the world, when one encounters a stranger his or her accent will instantly identify them as being an insider or an outsider in the dominant culture.
As human beings, we have a primitive need to know who we can trust, which is why we often feel threatened by those who are easily identifiable as outsiders.
We have a need to feel safe in our surroundings, so we use our creative abilities to build walls and to write laws that restrict the access that outsiders have to our world.
But all of our attempts to remain a people of one language and of one place seem to backfire on us. We assume that making a name for ourselves, expending energy to keep everyone on the same page with a common culture and language is what breeds unity and harmony, when in fact it often has the opposite effect.
Our world’s history is full of tragic attempts to legislate and enforce uniformity, from genocide to police states to dictatorships to Empires bent on world domination.
As we see in the Tower of Babel story, where we desire uniformity, God desires diversity. But what if we began to see cultural diversity as the consequence of God’s design for the world, rather then the result of God’s punishment of it? What if God confused our language and scattered us about the earth not as punishment for building the tower, but to kick start the process that we were intended to begin on our own?
In reality, most of us in the UCC view the Tower of Babel story as a mythical rather than literal account of how the diverse cultures of the world came to be. We may already believe that God intended the world to be diverse culturally and linguistically, but for some reason that doesn’t quell our need to seek uniformity, especially when it comes to issues of faith.
We hear the New Testament passages that compel us act as one body in Christ; to preach THE gospel to the ends of the earth; and to be united in our faith in the service of God.
But could it be that God desires a world full of faithful people that express that faith through the lens of different cultures, ideas, and languages?
I believe the second reading that we heard today from the book of Acts, the story of Pentecost, offers a resounding YES to that question.
In the Genesis reading we hear that all the people of the world are gathered in one place.
The Acts reading begins with a similar pronouncement.
On the day of the Pentecost, the disciples are all together in one place, gathered inside the walls of a house in Jerusalem.
And then in a rush of wind and fire God draws them outside.
They are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in other languages. The scripture tells us that faithful Jews from every nation under the heavens were present and each heard the disciples speaking of God’s love and grace in their own native language.
Contrary to many interpretations, the disciples were not speaking in tongues, as we would define it in modern terms. They were not speaking gibberish, and they were not speaking in one language while the interpreters heard another. The Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak the words of the gospel in the native tongues of every person present.
This was the unique charge of the newly emerging Christian faith. Jesus called on his disciples to carry the message of the gospel to all the nations of the world. Whereas the Jews were a people of one land, and a people of one book which was written in one language, Hebrew, the writer of the book of Acts foresaw that soon Gentiles of every stripe would be coming to Christ, and to spread the message of God’s inclusive love the language of God had to be inclusive as well.
The faith would also need to be culturally inclusive, as later on in the book of Acts we hear of the loosening of restrictions that at one time required new Christians to be circumcised and to honor the Jewish dietary and purity laws. One by one the walls that championed uniformity began to fall.
The people may have been scattered and their language confused, but through the work of Jesus and his disciples, God met the people where they were.
So what will it take for people of diverse cultures, languages, and theologies to communicate? Perhaps we can learn something from the people of the Blair Branch Old Regular Baptist Church in Jeremiah, Kentucky.
After our hodgepodge group of Yankee seminarians burst into their worship service last week with our pants wearing women, long-haired men, and outspoken female professors, the Old Regulars greeted us with open arms.
Every single member lined up to shake each of our hands, they gave us a tour of the church, handed out copies of their congregational yearbook, and invited us to a church supper they were holding later in the week. In a church that does not allow its women to speak in worship, the members embraced the women in our group warmly and seemed genuinely thrilled to hear that we were attending seminary to become pastors.
Despite our theological and cultural differences we were never judged, never chastised, and never shown anything less than genuine hospitality from every member present.
We had no intention of becoming members of their church and they knew it, and given their restrictions, many of us couldn’t become members even if we wanted to.
But none of that mattered to them.
We were alien visitors. Strangers in a strange land. With strange accents, strange clothing, and strange customs. But they welcomed us with the hospitality of Christ.
I like to believe that the Holy Spirit was moving through all of us that day. There was no wind, and tongues of fire did not descend from the sky, but we had ourselves a moment of Pentecost right there in the Blair Branch Old Regular Baptist Church. And if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.
May we all challenge ourselves to create such a moment in our own world, this week and in the weeks to come.
To reach across a barrier that we’ve erected to make ourselves feel safe, and to invite the Holy Spirit to move through us in whatever way God wills.
For a brief moment we may feel scattered and confused but this feeling is only temporary, as our ears and hearts begin to open to a language that is both strange and unfamiliar but speaks to us as if it were our own.
This is the language of God’s unconditional love.
May we hear it, and speak it, as often as we can.