Diversity is Never a Punishment

Day of Pentecost, Year C - Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21

Today is a principal feast day in the church. It’s an occasion for celebration. It’s day when we can be proud of the mission and ministry of the Jesus movement we’re all part of, which began over 2000 years ago, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples during Shavuot, or, the Festival of Weeks, which took place in Jerusalem fifty days after the Resurrection. It’s a day to be thankful for the gift of the Holy Spirit and the spreading of the Gospel. We at Christ Church certainly have a lot to be thankful for and proud of. But the Good News of Pentecost comes with a commission - a commission that, in the midst of our enthusiasm, we tend to overlook. The clue is in the language. But before we get there, let’s back up just a bit.

It all starts in Genesis, with the Tower of Babel. This story follows immediately after Noah and his ark. These are the descendants of the family who survived the flood. They have begun new lives in a covenant with God, as God’s people. They were to be faithful to God, to be fruitful and multiply across the earth - presumably spreading God’s love in the process. But before too long, the people got a little complacent. They got to a place they liked, where they had everything they needed and could thrive, and thought, let’s just stay here. Things went well for them there, and, as happens to the best of us in times of success, their communal ego got a little inflated. They thought, we’ll show God and everyone else how wonderful we are by building the most magnificent tower ever seen on earth.

We are no strangers to an inflated communal ego. Having the tallest building on earth is still a source of pride for the nation that builds it. In fact, for 65 years in the 20th century, the tallest building in the world was in New York City…but it wasn’t the same building. NYC out-built itself 6 times during those 65 years. In 2017, the Pew Research Center reported that 85% of Americans consider the U.S. to be one of, if not the, greatest nation in the world. Now I sport my American flag sneakers proudly every Independence Day, but reading statistics like that, I can’t help but think of the Tower of Babel, which, as we all know, did not turn out the way the people hoped it would.

Upon seeing their plan, God stifles their progress swiftly and firmly. He doesn’t send their bricks tumbling or smite them with fire. Instead, he confuses their language. He humbles them, makes them work harder at working together, forces them to spread out. This feels like a punishment. The text certainly makes it seem like a negative thing, and I know from experience that being humbled, being made to work harder and abandon my comfort zone, has felt like a punishment to me. But for God, diversity is never a punishment. I need to remember that, so I’m just going to say it one more time. For God, diversity is never a punishment.

We know that this is true from another stop on our scriptural journey, the Acts of the Apostles. The joy and terror of the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension are still fresh for the disciples. They know they have been given an incredible gift in Jesus Christ, but they aren’t sure what to do with it, and they’re apprehensive of outsiders. They have holed themselves up in an apartment in Jerusalem. Like their Hebrew ancestors in Genesis, they’re circling the wagons a bit. And then something miraculous happens. They are overcome by a physical sensation, not unlike being on fire, as the Holy Spirit enters them. And the powerful words of the Gospel story that they’d been bending over backwards for weeks to translate, suddenly manifest in all their native tongues. Like their Hebrew ancestors before them they are both humbled and diversified.

My own Pentecost experience happened at 13,000ft above sea level in the tiny lakeside town of Carabuco, Bolivia. Carabuco is quite rural and largely untouched my modern society. In fact, the people there don’t speak Spanish, they speak an ancient, tribal language called Aymara. It really didn’t matter, because in the handful of college students I was traveling with, not one of us spoke anything other than English. We had two chaperones who doubled as translators, but altitude sickness had sent them both to a hospital three hours away. So there we were, in the middle of our very first night, in the middle of nowhere, South America, huddled close together on a pallet of straw mattresses in three room, concrete hut. We were cold. We were frightened. We were in our own kind of Upper Room.

But then, there was a light tap at the door. No one moved. Finally, the door opened, and two very small and very old women came barreling in with mugs and hot tea and made themselves at home on our pallet. Over the next hour, as we fumbled through introductions and small talk, Celia and Catalina kept repeating the only phrase they knew in English, “it’s ok.” I was overcome that night by a kind of safety that I had never felt before and have rarely felt since. Like our Hebrew and first century Palestinian ancestors before us, we were humbled by diversity.

The glory of Pentecost is not about a universal language. It’s about the Holy Spirit spreading the Gospel to all languages. Pentecost means that sitting still, complacent in safety and success does not fulfill the Gospel. If we are to embody Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, then our job has been expanded. We can’t just spread the Good News to people and places that will experience it just like we do. We have to share the gift of God’s love with people who are vastly different from us. And we have to do it even and especially at the risk of that same Good News losing its familiarity, and making us to discover it all over again.

This is no small task. It’s particularly challenging for communities like the ancient Hebrews, or middle and upper class Americans, for whom the world does seem to have a universal language. Our nation is vast and varied, but almost everyone in it speaks English. And it doesn’t stop with spoken language. Most of us, in our privilege, get to avoid situations in which diversity of any kind might cause us to be lonely, confused, or misunderstood. But on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit roars in and says, you don’t know what you’re missing!

Pentecost has brought with it the mission of spreading and diversifying the Kingdom of God. It will be challenging and uncomfortable. Sometimes we will be lonely, confused, or misunderstood. We may very well find that the Gospel has become unfamiliar and have to discover it all over again. But the Kingdom that will break into our midst along the way is filled with love and safety and understanding like we can’t even imagine. Enlivened by the Holy Spirit this Pentecost, I can’t wait to see how the Christ Church family begins to spread and diversify the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Hannah Hooker