Genesis 11:1-9 (NRSV)
11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east,[a] they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
I love Pentecost. Of all the church’s holy days, this one is my favorite. Mind you, Easter is amazing. We celebrate the risen Christ and our liberation from bondage. Christmas is filled with music and food - how can I not love Christmas? But Pentecost is the birthday of the church. It’s the day when the Holy Spirit came to be with and in the disciples. All of the disciples. Not just the twelve, but every one of the Christ Followers who were gathered in one place in Jerusalem on that Holy Day. Men and women. All of them.
You all know the story, I think. After Jesus’s resurrection he spent 40 days with his disciples, teaching them everything they would need to know to carry the Good News to the ends of the earth. Then he ascended - rising up from the earth to disappear into the clouds - and just before that happened he told them to go to Jerusalem and wait, for the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, would come to them and give them everything else they needed. So they did what they were told, for a change, and on Pentecost day, when they were all gathered in one place, there came the sound of a great wind, and what looked to be tongues of flame appeared on each one’s head, and they began to speak. Now Jerusalem was filled to overflowing with Jewish pilgrims from around the world - from every country where Jews had escaped to during the times of conquest and exile - from Ethiopia and Rome and Greece and places no one had ever heard of. All of those pilgrims spoke different languages but somehow, each one heard the disciples speaking in their own language. Each one of them understood what was being said. And 5,000 of those people listening to the disciples on that day were baptized! I don’t know a single preacher who doesn’t, now and then, pray for that kind of eloquence, that kind of fire and passion. On that day in Jerusalem, it was as if the events that had happened on the plain of Shinar had never happened. Once again all the world had one language and the same words. God had taken away the ability for everyone to understand every other one when they tried to use it against Him. And now God had given it back through the Holy Spirit.
I imagine everyone here had to take some sort of language class in school. I started taking French in 6th grade, continued to take it through my junior year of high school, then took 2 more semesters in college. Can I speak French? No. Likewise, during the 12+ years I lived in Southern California I tried several times and a number of different ways to get at least a smattering of Spanish. I took Spanish for Ministers, and got a couple of different computer programs of the listen and repeat variety. Mind you, I pronounce the few words I can keep in my mind very well, but I usually can’t even remember how to say Good Morning in Spanish. Unless, of course, it is afternoon, at which time I can remember Good Morning but not Good Afternoon. I can understand a lot of what I hear if people speak slowly, but I can not make the words come out of my mouth.
So when I read about the Babel Fish in Douglass Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” I recognized that this was exactly what I needed! You see, Ford Prefect was a Galactic Hitchhiker, wandering from planet to planet just for the experience. Sort of the way people used to hitchhike across Europe in the 1960s. Obviously, someone who comes from a galaxy far, far away might not understand English, so he kept a Babel Fish in his ear. A Babel Fish is a tiny yellow fish that feeds on brainwave frequencies in such a way that it instantly decodes all language so that you can understand everything being said to you, regardless of the language. Awesome! On that day in Jerusalem, it was as if every person present had a Babel Fish in her ear. Everyone understood every word being said. And it was, indeed, awesome.
Once, the people of the world all had one language and the same words. They all understood one another easily. And they chose to use that ability to gain power - to build a great city and a sky scraping tower, to dominate the world and to make a name for themselves. And because they were misusing the ability God had given them, God took away that ability. Then on Pentecost, that ability was returned, if only for a brief time. The Holy Spirit acted as sort of a cosmic Babel Fish, allowing everyone present that day to hear the words of the disciples in their own languages. And what they were given to understand was the Great Good News of God’s love, of God’s desire to be reconciled with the people of the world. What they heard was the language of love - true love, the love that God’s people have for God and for one another.
There is another language that is all too readily understood in the world today. You have heard it. You can’t help but have heard it. It is the language of hate. It seems inescapable. It seems to be getting louder every day. People, politicians mostly, but also ministers, are loudly proclaiming that we need to protect ourselves from “the other.” That we need to build a wall - like the one that used to divide Berlin, or the one that keeps the Palestinian people from being able to go to school or shopping or to work on their own farms. We hear people talking about Mexicans as if they are all rapists and other sorts of criminals. We hear people talking about Muslims as if they are all terrorists, who, if already present in the U.S. need to be registered as if they were sex offenders, and kept out if they want to come here. We hear people talking about women as if they are all weak and manipulative and not very bright, unable to make decisions about their own bodies and futures so men need to give them good direction. We hear people talking about African Americans as if they are all lazy, drug addicted and violent. We hear people claiming that all gay men are pedophiles, as are all transgender women, so our bathrooms must be policed to make sure no one who wasn’t born female can use the ladies room.
I need you all to understand that none of these things are true. Some of these things may be true about a few individuals in some of the various groups being denigrated, but none of them are true for everyone being spoken of this way.
There is not just one person saying all these things, although there is one who seems to be closely identified with much of the above, who seems to be inciting his followers to ever greater levels of hate. But this isn’t so much about him as it is about the seemingly meteoric rise of the language of hate. He didn’t invent any of these things . . . he only repeated out loud things that people were whispering, fearful people, hate filled people. The incidence of hate crimes is rising. The level of hate speech is getting deafening. And the language that everyone could understand on that Pentecost Day is being drowned out.
Understand this: “Every time we use religion to draw a line to keep people out, Jesus is with the people on the other side of that line.” (Hugh Hollowell) Unfortunately, much of the hate speech we are hearing these days comes out of the mouths of ministers and persons who identify as Christians. I have to stand against this hate speech. Any hate speech. From any person, any organization. From ministers, politicians, or private individuals. Hate is not a Christian value. It is not an American value. It is not a value, period. It cannot be allowed to rule our hearts and our nation.
The theme this year for the Pentecost special offering and for our own reception time after worship today is Second Wind. Second wind, that opportunity and ability to continue just when you think you can’t possibly go on. It fits, I think. On that Pentecost Day in Jerusalem, God gave humanity a second chance to get the message right. God gave us another chance to speak one language, to use the same words so that each of us could understand the other. It’s not a world language - not Roman or Greek or English or French, not Chinese or Japanese or Arabic, not German or Tagalog or Korean or Spanish. Not even Esperanto. The one language God would have us all speak and understand is the language of love. The language of forgiveness. The language of peace. The language that ends oppression. The language Jesus came to teach us. The language Jesus used when he asked the lame man at the Temple if he wanted to be healed. The language Jesus used when he told the centurion his faith had enabled his servant to be healed. The language the disciples used when they told the pilgrims in Jerusalem about God’s forgiveness, and God’s love for not just them, but for all peoples throughout the entire world.
We have received, this morning, a symbol of peace and solidarity that comes from Palestine. I know many of us have seen the stories that make it sound like all Palestinians are Muslim terrorists and suicide bombers whose main goal in life to kill Israelis. We may have heard that the wall is in place simply to protect the people of Israel from them. It’s not true - the vast majority of Palestinians just want to go to school and work in peace. Many are Christian. Some are even Jewish. What we hear about them and what the reality is are very, very different.
It is the same with all of the hate speech we hear. I would hope none of us repeat any hateful things being said about our brothers and sisters on this planet without first finding out what is true. I would hope that we would, at least, try to learn more about people who may be different from us. I would hope that each of us would be willing to speak up on the side of love when we hear words of anger and hatred spoken.
On Pentecost the disciples gathered in one place. And the sound as a great wind came, and what seemed to be tongues of fire appeared above their heads. And they began to speak, so that everyone present heard them speaking, each in their own language. And they spoke of God’s love so convincingly that 5,000 came forward and were baptized. They spoke of God’s love so convincingly that 5,000 came forward to have the hate and greed and lust of power and anger and fear washed from them in the waters of repentance. They spoke of God’s love, of God’s forgiveness, of Jesus’ commandment to love one another so convincingly that the language of love prevailed, at least for a short time.
May we be given that gift, to speak so convincingly of God’s love, and of the healing of our hearts, our souls, our nation, that is possible only when we love one another, that others hear and understand as well as if they had a Babel Fish in their ears. May we each be so open to the Holy Spirit that our words of love, compassion and healing touch the hearts of every person with whom we interact, so that they may become willing to leave behind their hatred, fear and anger, embracing love, so that this one language may again be heard and understood by all.