So here’s a draft of my sermon (presumably) for Yuba City this Sunday:

What are we to make of the story of the tower of babel – a sort of anti pentecost – as our first reading today on the day of Pentecost?  And really, what’s going on in this story?  Is our God a God who wants to hold people back from becoming all they can be?  Is our God a God who wants us to be unable to communicate and cooperate with each other?  Or is this really more of a description of the human condition?

As we receive the story, it is a story of human arrogance.  God, any relationship with God, any desire for a relationship with God, is nowhere in the picture.  Instead, like Adam and Eve before them, people are trying to put themselves in place of God, in this case, literally in the heavens.  In effect, they are trying to become their own gods.  Which is really simply descriptive of the human condition, isn’t it?  We want to be in charge of ourselves.  We want to go our own way.  We don’t want to be accountable.

And as we look at the world around us, it’s also clear that the world abounds with selfishness and miscommunication.  Not, mind you, that we are unable to communicate.  Not that we cannot cooperate.  But so often, in so many ways, we do not communicate or cooperate with each other.  Often, it seems, we don’t even want to.

So, in my mind anyway, this is a story about the way we live in the world.  It’s an imaginative story about how we came to live that way.  When clearly our God desires better for us, how did we come to live this way?  It was our own willfulness.  It was because we ignored God.  It was because we thought we could do it for ourselves.

And we know God wants better for us.  God created Adam and established a relationship with him.  God looked to provide fit companionship for Adam.  When the animals were insufficient to the task, God created Eve to be Adam’s companion, and he hers.  Male and female God created us so that in spite our differences we could cooperate and learn to be in relationship with each other.  Just as God, in trinity of persons, is relational in God’s self.  Just as God, from the beginning, has worked hard to be in relationship with us.  Even as we turn away, again and again.

Eventually God came in person.  Jesus lived and died among us.  Jesus established personal relationships among us.  And when he was no longer personally among us, after he rose from the dead, Jesus sent us a gift to help us live as God wishes us to live with each other.

Today, or at least on the day we celebrate today, God’s Holy Spirit came to the disciples.  The community was gathered at prayer – seemingly still not clear on how they should proceed.  They were waiting, together, for God to tell them.  Or maybe the problem was simply they hadn’t fully processed things yet.

Anyway, there they were, when something simply overwhelmed them and sent them running out into the street.  They were, will you or not, proclaiming the good news of Jesus to everyone they saw.

Some people were not receptive.  They heard nothing more than what they took for drunken babbling.  But it seems like the disciples were speaking in all kinds of languages.  And, perhaps even more amazing, everyone who heard them, everyone who was receptive, heard them all speaking in their own language!

We usually talk about the gift of tongues when we talk about the day of Pentecost.  But it might be even more appropriate to talk about the gift of ears.  Because, suddenly, it didn’t matter what language people were speaking.  Those who were listening heard them in their own language.  Communication was taking place, even without a shared language.  Relationships were being built across national and cultural lines.

Would it be too much to say that this was like God intended things to be from the beginning of creation?

But it took intent.  Not everyone heard the good news.  You had to be listening, or all you heard was chaotic babbling – the tower of Babel all over again.  You had to be listening, or there was no relationship and no communication.

We think about the disciples as the primary actors on this day.  But the primary actor, without question, was God.  Then, I would say, comes those who were listening.  Because they had a choice, and not everyone listened.  The disciples, in my mind, were simply there, when God took control.  It wasn’t like they had a choice or made a decision – except for their earlier decision, to make themselves available for God’s use.  So God used them!

It doesn’t really matter what is said, does it, unless someone is listening.  We know that.  And there were people in the crowd that day, to use words that Jesus often used, with ears to hear.

Usually, I think, we are much more worried about what we’re going to say than about what we’re going to hear.  Maybe that’s because we can control, at least in theory, what we say.  But we have no control (no “say,” if you will) over what we will be told.  The only thing we can control there is how well, how truly and deeply, we listen to what the other person is saying.

It seems to me that listening is at the heart of evangelism.  If we’re not listening, we don’t know what the other person is looking for in their life.  We won’t know the language and the framework from which they approach things.  Without listening, we are simply selling a pre packaged product.

And if we want to cross cultural lines, it seems to me that deep listening is, once again, the place from which we must start.  Because different cultures think differently and have differing values.  Sure, there may be a lot of overlap.  But until we truly begin to hear and to understand how people of a different culture approach and think about things, we can never truly cross over into another culture.  That’s true, I think, across ethnic lines and national lines and generational lines.  We have to be willing to at least suspend our place in things and come into their place in things.  Or we can’t really communicate.  We won’t really understand.

It all starts with listening.  I think that’s true even when we want to start a ministry to meet the needs of others.  I was impressed, at the Bishop’s Conference, by the woman from Arcata, who talked about their listening and learning process, once they had decided they wanted to reach out to the local Native American community.

Thy had to start by figuring out who that community was.  They didn’t know.  They had to figure out how to approach that community, once they identified it, in a way that honored the integrity and autonomy of that community.  And then they met with that community, and listened to that community, and tried to respond to the needs expressed by that community, within the framework of that community’s values and expressed needs.  In other words, they listened to the other, and then tried to reach out to them on their own terms, with humility.  It wasn’t pre packaged.  It was tailor made to fit them.

In my mind, we started this morning in Babel, where people’s focus was on expressing themselves on their own terms.  And where God wasn’t even in the picture – not in their picture anyway.  And we ended the day on the streets of Jerusalem, where God’s presence simply couldn’t be ignored – at least if you had ears to hear, and used them.  The focus has moved from saying what we want to say to listening to what the other, and God, has to say to us.

And I’ve tried to suggest that this shift in focus, this shift to real, active and respectful listening, can serve both us and our God well in our own day – on this, our own, day of Pentecost.

Because we live our life, as a Church, in the season of Pentecost.  We live our life together in the power of the Holy Spirit – who gives us ears to hear.  If we will only use them.

And I say this to you in the Name of God:  Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen.

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