The First United Presbyterian Church of Loveland
Rev. Amy Morgan
June 9, 2019
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.
2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
3 And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
4 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."
5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.
6 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.
7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech."
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
9 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.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
2 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.
3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
11 Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."
12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"
13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning.
16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 '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.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'
“What happens to a dream deferred?”
Poet Langston Hughes ponders this question in the context of 1950’s America, the Korean War, McCarthyism, and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.
Hughes began writing during the Harlem Renaissance, a period of hope and creativity among black writers, musicians, and artists. But he was criticized by other black poets and authors for parading the unattractive aspects of African-American life before the white audiences of America.
Hughes’ critics wanted to utilize the opportunity of the Harlem Renaissance to mainstream African-Americans into American culture. They wanted to use their creative powers to show white audiences that blacks were equal in stature - respectable, intelligent, and gifted. Hughes, on the other hand, depicted people as he saw them – unique, individual portraits that did not always fit the image of an idealized American.
During the same time as the Harlem Renaissance, a white writer named James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “the American Dream,” a term that came to be synonymous with equal opportunity and upward mobility. What Langston Hughes saw and wrote about was all the ways this idea was bankrupt for people of color. The “American Dream” was a dream deferred.
While the term “American Dream” wasn’t coined until 1931, our country has struggled since the beginning with this dream. When our founders asserted that “all men are created equal” and have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they were giving these rights only to the white men with voting rights – not women, Native Americans, slaves, and many other immigrants and minorities. Even as the dream of this nation was born, many other dreams were deferred.
The struggle for the American Dream is the struggle of Babel. It is the struggle to be one people with one language. It is the struggle to unify for the purpose of power and achievement. Most of us feel positively about these values, because they have been our values for centuries. With unity comes power, which gives us security and prosperity. We can be autonomous and self-reliant and successful. Who wouldn’t desire these things?
But God confused the languages of Babel for a reason. Because God knows the human temptation to act like God, to desire God’s power, to assert God’s authority. And God knows how devastating this can be for the whole creation.
It was this dream of Babel that drove human beings to genocide in the Ottoman Empire, Nazi Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, Myanmar. The dream of a unified people – one race, one language, one central power. Building a tower to the heavens, becoming so powerful that nothing is impossible for them, not even the elimination of an entire people.
The Roman Empire had this Babel dream as well. The Pax Romana, or peace of Rome, had at its core the assimilation of conquered peoples. In the East, including Jerusalem, Greek was the language of Empire. With the exception of the Jews, all citizens were required to worship the Roman gods. Local customs, economic systems, and governments were supplanted by Roman clothing, manners, coins, and rulers. The Babel dream was one Rome, united across many lands and powerful beyond measure.
But this unity came at a cost. Dreams deferred for conquered peoples.
The Jewish dream of the Messiah, God’s chosen one, was one of those dreams deferred by the Roman dream of Babel. They had been waiting and hoping for the one who would inaugurate God’s supreme reign over all other earthly authorities.
Numerous Jews with Messianic aspirations arose around the first century, and all of them were quickly snuffed out. Including a Galilean named Jesus.
People had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel from her slavery to the Romans. They cheered him like a conquering hero and flocked to him in droves.
But as he gained the attention of Roman authorities, some of his own people criticized him. He didn’t follow the Roman custom of dining only with the most important people. He reminded them that their first allegiance was to God, not the Emperor. He taught with the authority of the prophets, not the submission of an assimilated Jew.
In order to achieve the dream of Babel, their identity as God’s chosen people frequently had to give way to their Roman citizenship.
Finally, the Messianic dream was put to death on a cross.
But it was revived three days later with the news of the resurrection. This dream – of God’s kingdom on earth, of salvation for all humanity, and now the added element of life everlasting – was brought back to life. In the days between his resurrection and ascension, Jesus stoked the fires of this dream, promising a power greater than any earthly power, the power of the Holy Spirit.
And on the day of Pentecost, that dream deferred, that dream that has been pent up for so long, finally explodes. With a mighty wind and tongues as of fire, this dream explodes. And the dream of Babel is subverted. The disciples do not share the dream in Greek, the language of Empire, though that would have been the common tongue among all those gathered from the far reaches of Rome. The disciples and the crowd do not suddenly acquire a new language that could unite them all, though that would have been effective in communicating the good news.
The power of this dream is the power of the Holy Spirit, which allows each person to hear, in their own language, the message of Jesus Christ, God’s Messiah, the dream of God’s people.
The diversity God created at Babel, the confusion of languages, stands. And God’s Spirit gives the disciples the power to communicate and cross boundaries without assimilation to the Roman Empire or Nazi propaganda or the American Dream.
The Jewish holiday of Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Torah, the formation of Jewish people. And so it is fitting that on this day, God once again formed a people out of the followers of Jesus Christ and all those who hear his message and place their trust in him.
And the truly miraculous thing, the thing that tells us this is God’s work and not ours, is that, on Pentecost, a people are made, are unified, not through a single language, race, or culture. They are powerful, but not successful. They are diverse, and become even more so. They are oppressed, and become even more so.
And still, they are a people. And they grow. And God’s dream is dreamed all over the world today. Prophets and visionaries and dreamers from all walks of life live this dream of a Messiah named Jesus, of salvation for all humanity, of life eternal.
There is no doubt that, as a nation, we are still dreaming of Babel. We talk about wanting a united America, but united by assimilation to our values, our culture, our customs, however we each define them. We talk about bringing back the American Dream, so that we can be more powerful, more secure, more comfortable. But this comes at the cost of other dreams deferred. Oftentimes, our security is the result of someone else’s instability. Our power comes from disempowering others. Our comfort comes at the cost of another’s discomfort. This is the dream of Babel.
And this dream is not just about politics and business. We dream of Babel every time we demand assimilation from our peers, our neighbors, even those in our congregation. Everyone who’s lived through the 7th grade knows what I’m talking about. Dressing alike, using the popular slang words and catch phrases, sitting at the same table in the lunch room. It’s all a dream of Babel, it makes us feel more powerful, more safe, more comfortable. And most of us don’t grow out of it.
Several years ago, on a trip through the countryside of northern Greece, I was awoken from my own Babel dream with a jarring experience. Our GPS had led us astray, down and then up these steep, narrow, roads that turned out not to be roads at all, but donkey paths. Along our wandering way, we had passed two women who were harvesting walnuts on the hillside. When we drove past them a second time, hopelessly lost and terrified, after damaging our rental car trying to turn it around, the women flagged us down, and we stopped. “Greek?” one of the women said. I shook my head. “English?” I asked. They shook their heads. Then one of them brightened up. “Italiano?” she said. Impossible as it seemed that these ladies from a remote shepherding village in the mountains of northern Greece would speak Italian, I felt hopeful. I didn’t speak Italian, but it was close enough to Spanish that I thought we might be able to get our ideas across.
And, in fact, that is just what happened. The women wanted to help us, and they needed help, too. They had six large bags of walnuts to transport back to their house, and we needed help finding our way off these treacherous paths and into town. So we packed the women and the walnuts into the tiny back seat of our VW Golf, and through points and gestures, broken Italian and broken Spanish, we made our way to their home.
They invited us inside where, we met “the papa,” an aged fellow who explained how he had built their home with his own hands. We also learned that the town had once had an Italian dentist, from whom they had learned the language. Later on, we found out that Greek was not the native tongue in that village, either. The people were part of a small micro-ethnic group with its own language called Aromanian. Had it been the only language spoken by this family, we would not have been able to help each other as easily or converse for hours over cups of thick, Greek coffee and home-made cookies. If I had not learned a little Spanish, and they had not learned a little Italian, if each of us had not broken away from the power of the Babel dream, our day would have turned out very differently.
As Christians, this Babel dream is not our dream. We are those people born out of the Pentecost explosion, the people who dream of a Messiah who will inaugurate the reign of God over all earthly authorities. We are those people, unified not by sameness or power but by citizenship in the commonwealth of God, membership in the family of Jesus Christ, and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit.
And this means that we live differently. We are not governed by the expectations of corporate America. We cross borders and boundaries, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people of every tribe and nation. The Holy Spirit ignites us, again and again, to subvert that dream of Babel, to speak of the power of God, to relate to all of those gathered in this place – in this city, this state, this nation – from all over the globe, in all our diversity, beyond all our divisions.
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it explode?
Yes, yes it does. Thanks be to God.