Pentecost Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

A moving worship service on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, was celebrated at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Prayer of Confession

During the first part of the service (“Preparing for the Word”) Associate Pastor, Rev. Brennan Blue, led the congregation in a short, meaningful Prayer of Confession: “Almighty God, you poured your Spirit on gathered disciples, creating bold tongues, open ears, and a new community. We confess we hold back your Spirit among us. Transform our timid lives by the power of your presence, and fill us with a flaming desire to be your faithful people. We pray this in the name of Jesus.” (Emphasis added.)

Reading of the Holy Scripture

The second part of the service (“Listening for the Word”) had the reading of the Scriptural passages for the day. First was Genesis 11: 1-9 (NRSV), which states in part:

  • Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. . . . 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.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  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. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 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.” (Emphases added.)

The New Testament passage was Acts 2: 1-17 (NRSV), which states in part:

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they [the 12 Apostles] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. . . . [Responding to the crowd’s belief that the disciples were drunk and not understanding one another, Peter said,] “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘’In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’” (Emphasis added.)

After the reading (in English) of these passages, Psalm 104 was read simultaneously in Italian, Russian, Korean, German, Pidgin, Arabic and Mandarin. Here is the beginning of its text in English (NRSV): “Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment.”

The Sermon

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered a thought-provoking sermon, “What Happens When Faith Catches Fires?”

“We call it the Tower of Babel, but on a closer read, it turns out to be a story about a city, a city unlike any we know in our time – without discord or diversity. A city without division of culture or ethnicity.” (Emphasis added.)

“’Now the whole earth had one language and the same words,” Genesis tells us.(Genesis 11:1).”

“Babel is a city where all are alike. And God is not happy about it. Genesis 11 describes an ancient version of what author Bill Bishop calls The Big Sort: the effort in America – sometimes unconscious, but often intentional – to cluster ourselves into like-minded units. We see it all around us: communities and neighborhoods where we think alike, look alike, act alike, consume alike, worship alike, vote alike.”

“Come, let us build ourselves a city,” the people of Babel said, “And a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” At first blush it seems like a good idea: stick with those in your camp politically, religiously, socially, racially. If need be, make rules to enforce all that sorting out. Put up gates if you have to.” (Emphasis added.)

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.(Genesis 11:1) That’s history according to those who built and ran Babel, those in control. That’s the perspective of privilege, the version of reality those in power want us to believe. But there never has been only one language, one narrative in any community. That’s what Black Lives Matter is telling us. There never has been only one way to tell the story of who we are, and every time some group wants to do that it leads to discrimination and intolerance at best, and sometimes to violence and death. It’s no wonder God wants to confuse their language and, thereby, bless and affirm and celebrate human diversity. It was God’s way of protecting the minority narrative in that ancient city. ‘Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’” (Genesis 11:7) (Emphases added.)

“That’s not the Almighty trying to fend off a human attempt to attain Godlike power, as is often supposed. God has nothing to worry about from humankind. No tower will ever reach the divine precincts. The sin of Babel is not the effort to be like God or to try to reach heaven; it’s the human inclination to exclude the other in an attempt to create a community of one kind only.” (Emphasis added.)

“God wants to terminate our tendency to tribalism. God wants to undercut our capacity to create closed communities that admit – or think of themselves as – only one kind and push the rest out, one way or another. God wants to lift up the narrative of those on the margins of that ancient city, confined to the underside of history of biblical history.“ (Emphasis added.)

“Suddenly things begin to change in Babel. People start asserting their own story in their own way and in their own words. The human family spills out across the land speaking different languages and eating different food and making different music and wearing different clothes and worshipping in different ways. And that’s precisely what God intends. God creates us for that kind of community – diverse, mixed, richly varied in hue and culture and opinion. But we humans never quite get over the dream of building Babel.” (Emphasis added.)

The result is what we have today among the peoples of the earth, in our cities, our neighborhoods, our schools, and, even, our churches. It shows up among those on the right and among those on the left. It’s found wherever people work toward ideological purity, wherever people write off “the other” not like them. Pentecost is God’s attempt to put an end to all that, to put an end to Babel’s hold on the human heart. For fire to burn there has to be heat, and there was heat that day in the flames that danced above their heads. For fire to burn there has to be air, and there was air that day in the rush of a mighty wind. For fire to burn there has to be fuel, and there was something ready to burn that day, in the hearts of those gathered. Faith catches fire on Pentecost.”(Emphases added.)

“Those lit up by the wind and flame that day are the same people they were before the conflagration and chaos. Nothing has changed. Injustice it still injustice. Despair still abounds in the world. Human enmity still has a stranglehold on the people of the earth, and yet there is something burning now in their hearts that gives them hope, something that gives them courage they never thought they would have.”

When faith catches fire the future opens wide. In contrast, at Babel the future is foreclosed by human pride. The Tower we build is a mountain of individualism and self-importance and fear of those not like us – a tower that wants to have supremacy in our lives, as if we were better than others, as if we did not need one another, as if we were not made stronger by the different voices of the human family. Babel has no future in either its ancient or modern forms. (Emphasis added.)

“This isn’t the detached stuff of abstract religion; it’s the stuff of real human life. We face it every day, at school and at work, on the street and in the news, and certainly, in this season, in our politics. We politely call it “polarization,” but that’s just another name for all of us striving for Babel, where, to God’s distress, ‘The whole earth’ – supposedly – ‘had one language and the same words.’” (Emphases added.)

The future belongs to Pentecost, not Babel. It belongs to those who discover in their very differences a oneness that had always been there but they had not seen before. The people at Pentecost are still Parthians and Elamites, Cretans and Arabs, Romans and Egyptians, but by the power of the Spirit they have figured out how to build community. They listen and hear one another for the first time.” (Emphasis added.)

Jesus tells us to love one another, even to love our enemies. When faith catches fire that’s what happens. Barriers are overcome, strangers welcomed, the outcast brought back in. When faith catches fire the insurmountable is suddenly not so overwhelming, the distance from here to justice is shortened, and that which once seemed impossible becomes something that might actually happen. You and I have hearts that need heating up. The wind of Pentecost is already blowing. The flames are dancing all around us. Our faith is starting to catch fire, and when it does, the gates of Babel shall not prevail against it. Thanks be to God.” (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

I had never studied or thought about the two main scriptural passages except I remember the Tower of Babel as a tale of a place where people talked in different languages (in a babel of confusing tongues) and the Pentecost passage as a hard-to-believe tale of people understanding one another when they spoke in different languages.

I see the Genesis passage as describing people who only spoke one language and who were supremely proud and self-confident. They were building a tower “to make a name for themselves.” In other words, they suffered under the sin of pride. God did not like that situation and, therefore, made them speak different languages to make it more difficult to get along by themselves. It was an affirmative action program of creating diversity. Just think what a boring world it would be today if the earth were occupied by over seven billion identical human clones.

As the Senior Pastor said, “Jesus tells us to love one another, even to love our enemies. When faith catches fire that’s what happens. Barriers are overcome, strangers welcomed, the outcast brought back in. . . . You and I have hearts that need heating up. Our faith is starting to catch fire, and when it does, the gates of Babel shall not prevail against it.”

But we need to confess that we hold back God’s Spirit among us and that  our timid lives need to be transformed by the power of God’s presence so that we have a flaming desire to be God’s faithful people.

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[1] The bulletin for this service is available online as is the text of the sermon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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