GLORY TO THE FATHER AND TO THE SON AND TO THE HOLY SPIRIT, AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING, IS NOW AND WILL BE FOREVER, AMEN.
The Japanese have a saying: The nail that sticks out gets hammered. Many think this is the key to Japanese culture—the individual is part of a community and the entire community works together, leadership is shared and no one sticks out.
I wish I could say that in Japanese. We took two quarters of the language last year but I have forgotten pretty much all of it. I can say in German, “Ein Mensch ist kein Mensch.” A person alone is really not a person. It means that we are fully human only in relationship. I took German all through school and college; I can understand it and read some but don’t ask me to do much speaking. Now we are taking Spanish on Monday nights. I was at such a disadvantage this past winter on our mission trip to Guatemala —I couldn’t say anything and sign language and drawing pictures just didn’t work very well, so now I am trying to hablar español.
The theme of community and language are at the center of our lessons today—the first lesson from Genesis is of a unified human community with one language that seeks to build a great tower to reach the heavens. God comes down to look at it and wonders what the people will do. God destroys the Tower of Babel and scatters the people. Humans no longer have one language and the same words. They are divided one from another and the human family is no longer one.
Our second lesson is the Pentecost story where the Holy Spirit comes down upon the gathered disciples and people from many nations speak but all can understand. It is a reversal of Babel; in Christ there is a common humanity. We are brothers and sisters of one another and we can understand each other. We are many people, diverse in so many ways, but we are one in Christ.
Last week our synod assembly met to elect a new bishop. Even within the same Lutheran Church there are different words and different understanding behind them. I found myself voting for a candidate who was theologically astute but came off as, I suppose, a Garrison Keillor with a Norwegian brogue. He was pretty unassuming. I had people ask me if he even wanted the job, the way he came off. I tried to tell them that Norwegians from North Dakota act that way—it is Upper Midwestern Scandinavian culture to not put oneself forward. I grew up in that culture—act nice and don’t pretend you are any better than anyone else.
I have read studies on Scandinavia itself on why those countries are at the top of all the world lists for prosperity, education, health, environment—you name it they are the best places to live. It is because as a culture no one comes ahead of anyone else. The rich are highly taxed to help the poor and no one flaunts their wealth. That is the Scandinavian way and the Upper Midwestern way. I suppose it is why Minnesota and Iowa come in at the top all the time in United States listings too. It is perhaps the opposite of western rugged individualism and almost Japanese in its strong sense of shared community.
It is not the usual American way to be unassuming and humble and community-minded. Most Americans have the motto “If you’ve got it flaunt it.” We admire the billionaires. The Greeks have a word for this, HYBRIS—overweening human pride. Humans have tried since the dawn of time to transcend their human condition. They have fought wars to end all wars and wars on poverty and drugs and inflation. The law of unintended consequences tells us that the First World War led inexorably to the Second. The world was not made safe for democracy and I am afraid that the Iraq intervention is not leading to a safe and stable and democratic Middle East. It certainly hasn’t lowered the cost of gas at the pump!
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Lutherans are realists. During World War I many were branded as traitors, not only because of German heritage, but because they were too realistic about human sin to think that fighting a war was the way to end war. Lutherans tend not to get on the bandwagon of social improvement. We know human nature does not change, that government programs, however well-intentioned will not bring a perfect world or a great society. Our confessions teach us that the Kingdom of God will not, ever, come on this earth. As this same candidate said to the convention, “The Gospel is when the Word of grace is preached and the forgiveness of sins comes through receiving the Lord’s Supper.” All the rest is Law and we use reason to decide what to do with social ideas or how to organize the church.
He didn’t get elected.
So we come back to our story of the Tower of Babel. It takes place just where our troops are fighting in Iraq and the Israelites used the name Bab-el which means “Gate of God” for Babylon the great city and saw in the word the Hebrew word Balal which means confusion. The people of Sumer which was where this story takes place created the most ancient civilization—I once read a book entitled, History Begins at Sumer —and the people built stepped pyramids, ziggurats, to reach the heavens. In 1000 BC Babylon still had the tallest tower in the world. Like all the ziggurats in Mesopotamia it was built of glazed brick and held together by asphalt, bitumen. It was destroyed because of human hubris, people who thought they could be like God instead of worship God. The nail that stuck out got hammered and it was all humanity who forgot their relationship with God.
Isaiah looked at people in his day and wrote, “You said in your heart, I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high…I will ascend to the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.” The sin of people from Adam and Even until now has been to worship themselves not God. The punishment: to have the tower destroyed, the people scattered and language confused. People were punished for their pride. They were the nail that stuck out and got hammered.
“And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the children of humanity had built…” It is a quaint picture from the most ancient of times that God came down from heaven to look at what the people had done. God is not nearsighted, but wants us to understand how what looks so mighty and powerful to us is tiny and insignificant to God. “God came down…” It is almost as if the Almighty had to examine the tower under a magnifying glass. So much of our pride is just the same—not really very significant. But people are significant, not things but people. We find our true humanity in relationship—in liking things, but loving people.
On Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the people of God. A mighty wind, divided tongues of fire, ability to speak and understand different languages—God came down at Pentecost and united all people: Galileans, Parthians and Medes and Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappodocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and Cyrene, visitors from Rome both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. God’s Spirit came and now all flesh were children of God. Son and daughters would prophesy, young men see visions and old men dream dreams. Even upon slaves both men and women God poured the Spirit. I would like to add Oregonians and North Dakotans, Americans and Iraqis, Japanese and Guatemalans, jocks and nerds, gays and straights, pastors and laity. What does the Bible say, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Someone once said that the Church is not an institution but a relationship. Of course it is an institution—otherwise we wouldn’t spend so much time on constitutions and bylaws and elections, worrying about who is inside and who is outside the fellowship. But I remember the Alban Report telling us at Central Lutheran that we should not be concerned about membership—do you remember that?––but about discipleship.
We are called by God’s Word, Christ’s Word, to make disciples of all nations baptizing and teaching. All nations not just those who are descendents of the original membership or people who have come west from the same communities back somewhere who know the same language and the same words, the same hymns and the same white food. We are to call all people, all people, to discipleship. No one is excluded from God’s word of grace. There is no longer circumcision or uncircumcision, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Every living being has been created by God, every breathing soul redeemed by the Lord Jesus who forgives all sins unconditionally, every son of Adam and daughter of Eve is called, enlightened and sanctified to be a child of the Spirit. Thanks be to God for the Law that judges human pride; thanks be to the Gospel that tells us for Jesus’ sake, we are forgiven. Amen.
Copyright 2007, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.