This is the Sermon I offered for Pentecost, Sunday, May 24th, 2015 at the Lincolnville Church. The readings were the story of the Tower of Babel, and ACTS 2:1-11
If you knew you’d be cast away on a desert island and could only take four books with you, what four books would you take?
I think it was Mark Twain who said he would bring four blank books—-which was my answer, too, for a long while. Now, I think I’d take three blank books—-as thick as I could find—-and a Bible. Not because I’m pious, (though I guess I am) but because then I’d have a whole lot of people (long-dead prophets) to argue with…
But I’m cheating, really, because the Bible isn’t a book, it’s an anthology; a library, even. It it, we find poetry, hagiography, myths and history, instructions for building an ark, rules and laws and folktales.
There is a particular genre of folktale known as the Just-So story, after Rudyard Kipling’s famous series—- “How did the elephant get its trunk?” and “why is the rhinoceros’ skin so wrinkly?”
The Just-So story is an answer to an implicit question. Usually it’s a question about a very ordinary phenomenon, something you don’t really think all that much about until a little kid pipes up: “Mama, why is the sky blue?”
If you hear a just-so story, you’ll be able to come up with the question that inspired it. Here, for example, is a Danish Folk Tale:
There was once a little boy by the name of Hans. As his parents died while he was very young, his grandmother, his Farmor, took care of him. Farmor was good to Hans, and they always had plenty to eat.
One day, his Farmor said, “Hans, I am old. I may not live long. You have always been a good boy, and therefore you shall have my only treasure.” She brought forth an old, and rather battered coffee mill which was always kept at the bottom of the kitchen cupboard. “This coffee mill will grind coffee, but it will also grind anything you wish for. If you say to it, ‘Grind a house, little mill,’ it will work away, and there the house will stand! Then you must say, ‘Tak, Tak, thank you little mill,’ and it will cease to grind.”
“Tak, tak!” Thank you Farmor!” Hans said. His Farmor died soon afterword. After the funeral, Hans packed the coffee mill into his knapsack and went off to see the world.
When he had walked a long distance, and needed something to eat, he placed the coffee mill on the grass by the side of the road and said, “Grind some bread and butter, little mill.” Very soon Hans had all that he needed. “Tak, tak, little mill!” Hans said, and the mill stopped.
The next day Hans came to a large seaport, and when he saw the many ships, he thought: I shall sail away to foreign lands! He boarded one of the ships and offered his service to the sailors. As it just happened that the captain needed a cabin boy. As soon as the ship was out of port, however, the sailors began to be really mean to Hans. They made him work very hard, and didn’t give him anything to eat. He bore the harsh treatment as well as he could, and of course, the coffee mill ground all the food he could eat. The sailors wondered how their cabin boy was managing to stay so fat and happy. One day one of them peeped through a hole in his cabin door and saw Hans with his coffee mill. “Grind me a sandwich!” Hans said, and the coffee mill ground him a sandwich.
‘Wow!” said the sailor, and rushed off to tell the others.
Now the sailors offered a large sum of money to Hans if he would sell his treasure. Hans refused, however, because the mill had been a gift from his Farmor. So the sailors seized the coffee mill, and they set Hans adrift in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean! You will be happy to hear that Hans eventually drifted ashore on the island of St. Croix, and lived happily ever after, even without his coffee mill.
But back on the boat, the sailors needed some salt. “Grind me some salt!” they said, and the mill began its work. Soon they had enough.
“Stop!” they said… but the mill didn’t stop. The sailor who had peeped through the hole into the boy’s cabin hadn’t waited long enough to hear Hans say “Tak, tak, little mill,” so they didn’t know the formula. They kept shouting more and more desperately at the mill, but it kept making more and more salt until at last the ship was full of salt and sank under its weight. The mill went down to the bottom of the sea, where it kept grinding salt. It is down there still, grinding away…
What’s the question this story is meant to answer?
Right: Why is the sea salty?
Once you get the formula, you can recognize stories in the Bible that may well have begun as Just-So stories.
Which story might have begun as the answer to: “Mummy, why is their a rainbow in the sky after it rains?”
How about: “Papa, why are there two sexes?”
The story of the Tower of Babel may have begun as a Just So story too. Ancient Israel, like modern Israel, was both blessed and cursed by its geography. Trade routes between Eqypt to the South, and Assyria and Babylonia to the North wound through Israel, avoiding the desert to the West and, to the East, the depths of the Mediterranean, so Israel’s essentially agrarian and pastoralist economy was supplemented by the ancient equivalent of a hospitality industry, providing meals and lodging to merchants, traders and the occasional military expedition. Foreigners, in other words, were a common feature of life in Israel—-Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, Mesopotamians and Egyptians, Cappadocians, Phrygians and Pamphylians, all of whom spoke in their own native tongues.
So we can imagine a little Israelite child, perhaps the daughter of an innkeeper listening to the hubbub in the coffee shop one morning and asking “Mummy, why are there so many different languages?”
“Well, once upon a time the whole earth was of one language, and all the people spoke it. One day, they said to each other, let’s build a city and a tower, whose top reaches all the way to heaven…”
Folk stories have a way of evolving according to the interests and priorities of the storyteller and her listeners. In the original version of the Danish folktale about little Hans, the cruel sailors throw Hans overboard where, presumably, he drowns. Since the charm of any story is diminished, for me, when a child gets murdered, I changed it.
The story of the tower of Babel may have been changed when its tellers thought to incorporate a Babylonian tower temple sited north of the Marduk temple, which in Babylonian was called Bab-ilu (“Gate of God”), Hebrew form Babel, or Bavel. The similarity in pronunciation of Babel and balal (“to confuse”) led to the play on words in Genesis 11:9: “Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.”
If you are an atheist, you may be grimly gratified to hear that the story of the Tower of Babel is “just” a folk tale. If you are a fundamentalist, you will hotly insist that no, there was an actual building project undertaken by the descendants of Noah for the purposes and with the materials described, and on a specific day at a specific time God halted construction. With all due respect, I think either runs the risk of missing the point —-I believe the story is in scripture because language is a problem. And it is especially a problem for a religion that has been complex and paradoxical in its theology, and intentionally evangelistic in its ambitions right from the start—-language a problem, that is, for Christianity.
The story of the Pentecost is the story of the un-doing of Babel: a devout Jews from any nation under heaven was able to hear of the mighty acts of God in his or her own language. Like the descendants of Noah, they were “confused” by the power of God. It was a miracle but, like so many of the Bible’s miracles, a sadly temporary one. The early Christians like later Christians and like Christians today must struggle with the problem of language—-and not just whether we are speaking English to one another, but whether the words that mean one thing when they leave our mouths are subtly or outrageously distorted by the time they reach the ears of our listeners. Distorted, that is, by history, or culture, or the mood of the crowd.
Danes back in the day could tell each other a story about a coffee mill that created riches, and they were okay with the part where child is thrown overboard. Danes in the old days weren’t as squeamish as we are—-thank God—-today, but it is generally considered okay to alter a folktale on the fly. While you can’t really edit the Bible, still in deference to the same modern squeamishness, a Christian eagerly describing the birth of the Son of a loving God to a potential convert nowadays might delicately skip over the part in Matthew where Herod murdered all the little boy babies in Palestine so that the prophecy in Jeremiah 31 might be fulfilled.
—-“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”[a]
And that’s before we even get to the problem of how a Priest accompanying the Spanish Conquistadors could explain the concept of the Good Shepherd to native Americans who not only did not speak Spanish, but had never seen a sheep?
Swords were involved.
But the earliest Christians, lacking the power to convert at the point of a sword, and who spoke various actual and spiritual languages, nonetheless made converts—-a lot of them. How did they do it?
The earliest Christians in the Roman Empire were known not by their spiritual consistency—-there were a lot of versions of Christ’s meaning and message floating around back then—- and not for their swordsmanship, but for their charity, the kindness they showed to one another and to strangers as well. This was the language that impressed people.
A second century Roman was so surprised by the behavior of the Christians in his vicinity that he described it in a letter to a friend: Christians, he said, make meals and share them with everyone, but especially the poor. Christians marry just like everyone else, and they beget children, but they don’t throw out their unwanted babies with the garbage—-a common practice at the time. In fact, Christians will sometimes be seen at the dump picking up unwanted children and taking them home!
This, ultimately, is the universal spiritual language isn’t it? Charity, compassion, kindness?
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was imprisoned and you visited me.
Here is the powerful language—-the tongue of fire—-Jesus spoke so beautifully and worked so hard to teach to his disciples. In our polyglot world as in theirs, deeds of charity, kindness and practical compassion are the universal logos, the Word, the language that speaks powerfully and eloquently of the truth and power of God.