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May 20, 2013

“Both/And” Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21 © 5.19.13 Pentecost C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“Live United” says a slogan on the United Way poster on the door of the animal shelter in Starkville.

“Coexist” pleads a bumper sticker, with the word spelled out using symbols of all major world religions.

“Let us be one in you” prays one singer, while another asks for the day to come when unity is restored (“Let Us Be One” by Love Song and “We Are One in the Spirit,” by Peter Scholtes, respectively).

A rock song from the turn of this century goes like this: “The goal is to be unified; take my hand, be my brother…. The world is headed for mutiny, when all we want is unity. We may rise and fall, but in the end, we’ll meet our fate together. One, oh one, the only way is one” (“One” by Mark Tremonti and Scott Stapp).

And of course the late Rodney King once famously wondered: “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Whether song or saying or slogan, the common theme is the hope, the longing, that the many chasms and rifts that mar the human landscape will be somehow filled or at least bridged. Everywhere there is suspicion, disharmony, and outright warfare among races and nations and within nations, between people with different lifestyles and religions, the generations and the genders. What should be civil and respectful dialogue about disagreements degenerates into accusation, name-calling, smear campaigns, and refusal to yield on even the smallest point lest someone give the appearance of being weak or willing to compromise values. Our nation and our churches are split on policies, procedures, and programs because we are divided on the big questions, like what is the proper role of government? How do we read the Bible? Who ought to decide moral issues and how broad are the choices? We long for harmony and peace, the end to bitter fights and the coming together of people around common goals and ideals.

But is there a unity that is not God’s will? And is there a scattering that may in fact fulfill his purposes?

For some clues, let’s take a look at the story of Babel. On the surface, it seems straightforward enough. After the great flood, the survivors migrate to a place called Shinar, which is the location of the city of Babylon. They can communicate very well with each other because they all speak one language. The plain seems a nice place to settle, so they decide to build a city. In the center will be an artificial mountain, a terraced pyramid called a “ziggurat.” At its top is the place where priests talk to the gods.

The project is not pleasing to Yahweh, though, so he comes down and makes sure they don’t finish building. Suddenly one guy asks for a hammer and his partner gives him a drink of water. Another wants a brick and gets a saw. They can’t understand each other! Unable to communicate, they give up on the city, separate into language groups, and scatter to the four winds. The place is therefore named “Babel,” which sounds like the Hebrew word for “confuse” and, of course, the English word “babble.”

The story is usually thought of as a tale of divine judgment on human pride, symbolized by the city and its towering temple. God punishes the arrogance of the people by making them speak different languages and running them out of town.

And this text is a reflection on pride and arrogance and their consequences. It is also true that it has to do with language. It would be interesting and useful to talk about those things.

But this morning I’m going in a different direction. I believe the story of Babel is most of all a tale about the refusal of mission. It’s also about the action of God to ensure that his purpose is nevertheless carried out. Here are people who build a city and a temple out of a self-serving, isolationist agenda. “Let us make a name for ourselves,” they say. “Otherwise we will be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” They are afraid. The renowned commentator Terence Fretheim has written: “We do not discover [here] fear of other human beings, but fear of not being able to keep their community intact in the face of a perceived peril of dispersion into a threatening world…. The building projects constitute a bid to secure their own future as a unified community, isolated from the rest of the world.”

Well, so what? What’s wrong with their motivation or their project? Just this: God intended for humanity to fill the earth, to multiply. In spreading abroad, human beings are to fulfill their vocation to be caretakers of all the world on God’s behalf. With Fretheim again: “An isolationist view of their place in the world, centered on self-preservation, puts the rest of the creation at risk.” So God has to act. He has to force the people to fulfill their calling, which is to go out. His judgment is actually hidden grace. The confusion of tongues that leads to the scattering of humanity is for the benefit of creation and ultimately for the good of humanity. It is only in hearing and following the call of God that we discover our true selves.

So there is a unity that God doesn’t will, and a scattering that he wants. By the same token, there is a scattering he does not desire, and a oneness he does. Our calling is not to unity or to scattering, but to both unity and scattering. Either one alone can be wrong and against God.

Walter Brueggemann says there are two kinds of unity. One is the sort where people want to stay in their own safe group with people just like them. The other is the kind God wills. It’s “a unity which permits and encourages scattering. The unity willed by God is that all of humanity shall be in covenant with him and with him only, responding to his purposes, relying on his life-giving power. The scattering God wills is that [people should be] working in his image [everywhere] to enhance the whole creation.” So different families, tongues, lands, religions, lifestyles, and nations are not intrinsically bad; diversity is part of God’s will. But God wants all humanity to be united in following him.

A unity that seeks harmony to serve God’s purposes is the kind he wants. A unity that is self-serving, a “fortress mentality” of fear is not the sort God desires. A scattering that pleases God has people of different needs, views, and ideas all serving God. A scattering that is against God emphasizes differences and makes them blocks to fulfilling God’s plans. Both/and. Not either/or.

This is hard stuff. It calls for a different way of thinking. But it is a biblical way of thinking. Jesus is the Lion and the Lamb. He is both Sacrifice and the Priest who makes the sacrifice. He is God and he is human, the Word made flesh. And this Word said: “Those who want to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives will find them.” And it is the approach that is being heard more and more in today’s world, the culture we call “postmodern.” It is the language not of science, but of poetry. Not of certainty, but of mystery. The theologian and futurist Leonard Sweet says: “If the Modern Era was a rage for order, regulation, stability, singularity, and fixity, the Postmodern Era is a rage for chaos, uncertainty, otherness, openness, multiplicity, and change.” He goes on to explain what this shift means for the work of the church: “The mystery of the gospel is this: it is always the same [as far as content], and it is always changing [its containers]. In fact, for the gospel to remain the same, it has to change. The old, old story has to be told in new, new ways” (AquaChurch). Timeless yet bound by time. Old but new. Both/and.

There is one either/or we need to hear, though. The church, including this one, can be a Babel community, locked up, setting out to survive, but ultimately confused and babbling, making sense to no one. Or the church can be a Pentecost community, where there is genuine understanding, and the presence of the Spirit means the doing of mission. The church that embraces Pentecost seeks unity and diversity, scattering and gathering, goes out for the sake of the one truth of God.

A previous edition of the Book of Order said that the church is the “provisional demonstration of what God intends for all humanity.” In other words, in these days between creation and the end of time, we are to show the world what God is like and what God wants. And what he wants are people who are one with his will and ready to fulfill his dream for all creation.

Let it be so.


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