Aren't You Glad We're Not All the Same?
Remember the great job the Confirmation class did presenting the flood story at the Easter Vigil—with Noah playing Noah? In the Bible, right after Noah and the ark comes the Tower of Babel story. It’s a favorite in special children’s editions of the Bible, and I remember it as a kid. And: it’s our first reading today. Here’s the simple version. The people all speak one language. They build a skyscraper because they want to be like God. Because of their pride, God punishes them by scrambling their speech. They can’t understand each other. Everything sounds like babble. And that explains why we have so many different languages on earth! At least that is the usual interpretation. Diversity of language seems to be the punishment!
On my recent travels to the Balkans, our guide told us that one of the results of so many different ethnicities, languages, and religions in such a small area is that the people hate each other. There has been conflict there for generations. Albanians, Croats, Bosnians, Macedonians, Serbians. Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, Jews, Muslims. So much war, violence, despair. There diversity doesn’t seem to be the gift, but the problem.
And as much as people celebrate our country as the melting pot of many ethnicities, we also bear the stain of racism, sometimes called our “original sin.” Think of our displacement of native peoples, the slavery of African Americans, and throughout our history periodic displacement and detention of immigrants or certain ethnic peoples.
Diversity sounds like a great idea. But it actually goes against the normal human tendency to divide into tribes and groups and hang with people that look like us, worship like us, vote like us, or think like us. Sometimes this leads to corruption, prejudice, oppression, war, and hatred—what we call sin. And at the extreme people look for excuses to wipe each other out because their way is the only way.
Pentecost is a celebration of diversity—not only our multicultural church, but humanity created in extraordinary variety. In our Acts reading, people from every nation start speaking in languages they never learned in school. Not only do they understand each other, in the risen Christ they sense a unity that transcends their differences.
Though we think of our country as polarized, there are places where people are learning to listen to each other and learning to live together in new ways. In of all places, Willmar, Minnesota. People think the diversity of our country is only on the coasts or in large cities. Not so. This town of 21,000 used to be all white, Lutheran and Scandinavian. Now Willmar is half Latino, Somali, and other Eastern African and Asian immigrants. A map in the high school reveals thirty countries where students are from. There are faiths that were not previously in those parts: Islam, Buddhism, and Bahai. And there are new kinds of head coverings that aren’t baseball caps.
I wish that I had grown up with the kind of religious and racial diversity that our confirmands experience in their Chicago schools. In their faith statements they named the radical welcome and inclusivity that this church values. For several decades there has been an intentional welcome to people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. For over fifteen years we have joined a movement that seeks to dismantle racism in our various institutions. And though we have so far to go in our city, in our congregation, and in our country, we now have both a black mayor for Chicago and as of yesterday, a black bishop for the Metropolitan Chicago Synod.
One of our confirmands wrote: “I think diversity is a core conviction of Holy Trinity because we know that everybody is different and has different backgrounds and opinions, but we also know that everybody wants to be accepted and loved. You can also learn a lot of things when you are around people with different experiences and backgrounds.” Another student named that though there are many different religions, these are other forms of God.
So what shall we do with the traditional interpretation of the Tower of Babel story—in which different languages seem to be a curse. A new children’s book called God’s Big Plan debunks that version. It’s written by seminary scholars who have looked more closely at the text in Genesis.
After the flood a very large family spoke the same language and lived in the same place. Because they wanted this to be their home for a long time, they began to build a city.
They said to each other, “Let’s build a very big city with very tall buildings. Shinar will be a home for us. If we build a big city with a very tall building, then we can stay together. This building will be so tall that its top will be in the clouds. It will scrape the sky! Our city and our skyscraper will keep us together forever.”
They liked living together in a city where everyone knew one another. They liked speaking the same language. They liked being all the same.
God saw them building their city so they could all stay in one place. God listened to them talking in the same language. And God said, “If I don’t do something, everyone will be just like everyone else forever.”
God had a different idea—a plan for the world to be full of many kinds of people. First, God give them different languages to speak. Then, God sent them out to live throughout the whole earth. Because God gave them different languages to speak and different places to live, they didn’t finish building their city. If they had, they could have called it Manytown, because that is where the many languages of the world began. Instead, they called the city Babel, because that was their word for dividing the language into many.
Just as God created the earth with many different fish, birds, animals . . . and just as God created many different things that grow and live on the earth . . . so God created people. We speak many different languages. We move about in many different ways We eat different kinds of bread. We eat in many different ways. We live nearly everywhere on earth. We come together to worship in many different places.
The people who were building Babel had a plan to stay together. But God had a bigger plan. God wanted to fill the world with different languages, different people, and different ways of living. And that’s what God did.
Holy Trinity is a Pentecost community. Our differences make life interesting and reveal that God loves diversity and is the very source of infinite variety. The Holy Spirit is the energy that unites us and challenges us to not only bang our diversity drum and say what a great church we are because we try to welcome everyone. Rather, we are empowered to move beyond mere acceptance of others to transformation. As we listen and learn from those most different from us—racially, ethnically, religiously, economically, politically—we become more.
We discover new ways of thinking, serving, loving. We become transformed by this Spirit of God, this Advocate, the One that abides in us forever.
Ellie, Kyla, Jake, Parker, Reid, Katie, and people of God, aren’t you glad we aren’t all the same? Joined together in baptism, and united this table, we go forth from here to be signs of the Spirit, bearing witness to the God of Pentecost.