Christ Lutheran Community Church
June 9, 2019 Worship Sermon - "The Gift of the Holy Spirit"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Scriptures: Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17 [25-27]
Last week, leaders from around the world gathered in Portsmouth, England, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. D-Day was one of the largest military invasions in history and it was the beginning of the end of the Nazi dream to carve out of Europe a colossal German empire that would last for a thousand years. One of Adolf Hitler’s visions for this empire was to transform Berlin into a monumental city that would inspire awe in all who visited. There would be a great victory arch, forty stories high, many times higher than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and a great hall that would be the largest covered building in the world. The labor to construct these mammoth buildings would come from the gypsies, the homosexuals, and the prisoners of war who had been forced into slavery. Tens of thousands of homes would need to be demolished in order to accomplish this vision, but the displaced citizens could be housed in all the homes now vacated by Jews who had been transferred into extermination camps. Interestingly, people who study urban design look at the plans for Hitler’s city and believe it would have been a truly awful city to live in since its scale was designed to inspire awe with no regard to what it would be like to actually live in it.
We can all be grateful that the D-Day landing was successful, and the Nazi dreams of an empire and its monumental city were never realized. Only a few of the smaller buildings and boulevards were ever built. There is, however, in Berlin, one rather strange reminder of what the Nazis had hoped to accomplish. It’s a huge cylinder of concrete, seventy feet wide and fifty feet high. The Nazis had poured it in 1939 to test the soil and determine whether the land upon which Berlin was built could support such monumental buildings. The plan was for the cylinder of concrete to be encased in the granite that would ultimately form one of the columns of the great victory arch. After the war, the citizens of Berlin wanted to get rid of this colossal cylinder, but a 12,000 ton hunk of concrete is not so easy to destroy; so it remains to this day, an eerie reminder of a vision that was – thanks be to God – never realized.
That concrete cylinder and the colossal victory arch came to mind as I read the story in Genesis about those people in the land of Shinar who planned to build a city with a tower that reached to heaven. It’s a quirky story and I remember reading it as a kid and wondering why God seemed so intimidated by the people’s plans. What was God afraid of? Now, I kind of understand why God was so apprehensive. Narcissistic men love to build towers in order to make a name for themselves. I saw this when I was in banking: it was a lot easier to find investors to build a huge skyscraper than it was to build affordable housing. Skyscrapers are sexy projects. It’s glamorous to have your name associated with one. Affordable housing, not so much. And the narcissistic men who want to make a name for themselves tend not to be concerned with human values like compassion and empathy. Those human values get in the way of progress. They’re inefficient and they prevent the strong and the powerful from accomplishing their dreams. But compassion and empathy – caring about those who are vulnerable – that’s what makes human life beautiful.
God confused the language of the people of Babel and scattered them so that they would not organize themselves into an oppressive, fascistic, inhumane society. Babel lives on in the story of the Bible as Babylon and Babylon becomes a symbol of any arrogant society, any society that sacrifices the well-being of people in order to project divine power. Babylon is any society that chooses awe over compassion.
God confused the language of Babel and scattered the people not because confusion and scattering are good things. It’s not a blessing that we human beings can’t understand each other. Sometimes, our misunderstandings can lead to hatred and injustice. But perhaps misunderstanding is a better alternative than an arrogant and oppressive uniformity. The Nazi vision was one of arrogant and oppressive uniformity. The Holy Spirit had something better in mind.
We read the story of the Tower of Babel on Pentecost because in some ways the descending of the Holy Spirit seems like a reversal of what happened at Babel. When the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, they were able to speak in foreign languages and be understood by people from all over the world. But what happened at Pentecost wasn’t so much a reversal of Babel as a healing of Babel. People still spoke different languages, but those various languages were no longer an obstacle to communication. The rich cultural diversity of the many nationalities who were present at Pentecost was preserved. The Medes could still be Medes and the Parthians could still be Parthians. But the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to communicate across ethnic and linguistic boundaries. The Holy Spirit enables people to experience unity without uniformity. The Nazis saw ethnic diversity as a curse and sought to purify the German race. The Holy Spirit sees ethnic diversity as something to be preserved, even as it finds ways to build bridges among various peoples.
One of the joys of being a pastor here at Christ Lutheran Church in Upper Darby is that I get to see this Pentecost miracle happen all the time. One of the ministries that we host is a program that teaches English as a second language. Granted, it’s not quite as dramatic as what we read about in Acts. If a Spanish speaking person rings our doorbell, I can struggle to get out a few words in Spanish, but unfortunately my fluency in other languages ends there. But week after week, people from all over the world gather here to learn together. Some are Muslims, some are Hindus, some are Sikhs, some are Christians, some have no faith. They don’t speak the same language, but that doesn’t prevent them from experiencing the care and the love of the teachers who welcome them into the classroom. They are welcomed and shown respect even as some voices in our society want to say No to immigrants, No to people who don’t speak English. In this little Pentecost ministry, I see the Holy Spirit forming relationships between the students. A sense of camaraderie develops. Fear and distrust diminish. In the midst of diversity, there is community, a community that is inspired not by awe, but by love. That is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Christ Lutheran Community Church