Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. The Day of Pentecost Genesis 11: 1-11 Acts 2: 1-18 May 31, 2020
Broken Towers; New Songs Lord, take my lips and speak through them. Lord, take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.
Today is the day of Pentecost, the time when the Church celebrates the arrival of the Holy Spirit among the disciples. Traditionally, the Church prefaces the reading of the Acts account with the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. For most of my life, I could not see what these two stories had to do with each other. It wasn’t until I told the Pentecost story from a children’s curriculum called Godly Play, that these two stories together made sense to me.
A people united by their common language and hubris build a Tower that is displeasing to God. In the words of the Godly Play script, “The Tower crashes down and at the same time, the one human language is broken into many different languages. Each language was beautiful, but the people of God could no longer understand each other.”
Language is the bridge between this story and the Pentecost narrative in Acts. The power of the Holy Spirit gives Peter and the disciples the ability to preach the Good News to a crowd of many nations and languages. Amazed, the crowd asks “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” What had been broken has been made whole – and the Church is born.
This is a familiar pattern in our Scriptures. God creates a Garden; human pride sends Adam and Eve into exile. God tries again and again – giving the people law and then a Temple. But human beings being human, these too end badly and the people are exiled to Babylon, believing God has abandoned them. God sends Jesus to re-create God’s vision of wholeness for the people, but human choices result in his execution. The disciples flee into a self-imposed exile until Jesus rises from the dead and meets them in the Garden and the Upper Room. But then, Jesus ascends to heaven and again, the disciples are abandoned – until the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus arrives with her flames and wind – and a new creation is birthed.
The passages we heard today do not speak to the time between the breaking of the languages and the wholeness re-created through the Spirit. But the Bible tells us over and over that God’s people often felt abandoned while exiled.
We know that same experience all too well in this time of pandemic. We are exiled from our building. As people we love die alone from this virus, and the violence of systemic racism erupts in our streets, how can we not feel abandoned? In an essay in Time Magazine this week, New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright calls us to “to recognize the present moment as a time of exile. We find ourselves “by the waters of Babylon,” thoroughly confused and grieving for the loss of our normal life.” We miss our sanctuary. We miss each other. And we have no idea if that for which we yearn will be possible again.
Bishop Wright reminds us, “Jesus does not need church buildings for his work to go forward . . . A proper theology of “sacred space” ought to see buildings for public worship as advance signs of the time when God’s glory will fill all creation. Church buildings are not an escape from the world, but a bridgehead into the world . . .”
“Bridgehead” is a peculiar description. The dictionary defines it as “the strategically important area of ground around the end of a bridge or other place of possible crossing which at time of conflict is sought to be defended or taken over by the belligerent forces.” While I dislike using martial imagery – particularly when preaching – I think the metaphor is an apt one as we see the death and violence around us. We at Eliot are the Church, but not physically within it. I envision us standing on the front lawn with the Eliot Church building and all the love, service and creativity it holds supporting our backs. Grounded by Eliot’s past, we are ready to spring from our “bridgehead” of faith to extend it out into our city and the world which so desperately needs us. Exiled from our building but standing firmly on the “bridgehead” looking out into a world made unfamiliar by pandemic and the injustice of systemic racism we ask as the Babylonian exiles did: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Today, the Holy Spirit answers with fire and wind, empowering us to sing the Lord’s song in a new language of hope and possibility. But before we can sing, we must listen. We must listen deeply to the pain and despair beyond Eliot’s walls.
We must listen as we prepare for our annual meeting, continue our discernment process, and share our experiences through our Building Blocks of Faith project. All reveal something about what the Lord’s song has been at Eliot Church. And if we listen deeply, beneath the blowing winds and crackling fire of the Holy Spirit, we can also hear strains of the new language in which we will continue to sing the Lord’s song in a land made strange to us by Covid-19 and broken by systemic racism. This song demands that we “seek the welfare of the city” where we are, as the prophet of the Exile, Jeremiah wrote so long ago. In so doing, we claim the promise that Peter quotes from Isaiah at the end of the Acts reading we read today: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams.” Expanding our bridgehead, listening for the Spirit’s guidance, a renewed Eliot Church will be born. Amen. Alleluia.