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11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 11:2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 11:3 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. 11:4 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.” 11:5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 11:6 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. 11:7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 11:8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 11:9 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.
2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2:2 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. 2:3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 2:5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 2:6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 2:7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 2:8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 2:9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 2:10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 2:11 Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 2:12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 2:13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 2:14 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. 2:15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 2:16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:2:17 ‘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.2:18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 2:19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 2:20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 2:21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
When I was preparing for this sermon, I quickly skipped the reading from Genesis, thinking that it was straightforward, and that it said what it said, and I didn’t have much more to add to it. It wasn’t until yesterday, when we gathered for dim sum and the coffee that came after, when Zihao asked me if i was preaching about the tower of Babel, that I went back to revisit this passage that I realized there is something more here.
But before i go further, i want to say a few things – i have heard comments before about my preaching, and comments about preaching at FCC in general. One, my sermons (and this one is quite particular to me) are often “scolding” sermons, and two, sermons at FCC did not make people feel good about themselves – some people weren’t inspired after hearing it, and felt that something was missing.
My preaching mentor, Rev Dr Penny Nixon, “If I distress you, i am sorry, but if i disturb you, i am preaching.” Disturbing is not the same as distressing. Distress means 1. To cause strain, anxiety, or suffering to, and also to cause mental suffering. I hope my preaching doesn’t cause mental suffering.
Disturbing someone, on the other hand, means we interrupt what they are doing and cause them inconvenience – breaking them out from their routine and the status quo.
For those of you who studied science – you do know that to make things happen, you have to introduce energy into the system. You shake things up, then things would react. If you leave things as they are, things will settle down, and things will become stagnant.
Yes – many of you come to church to know God’s love – and many of you come for healing and reconciliation, and to be built up. But part of building up, is to tear down what is not useful or helpful in our growth. Part of becoming who we are called to be, of following Christ, is recognizing the parts of ourselves we need to reflect upon and change.
But that is not all there is to it. It is not all just about me, me , me. Not just about what I get out of church. Not just about how good it makes me feel. This is the product of a consumerist mentality. Religion is a product / service that we consume. Worship is a concert. No. This isn’t Christianity. At the heart of Christianity – it is us that is to be consumed – consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit so we are transformed. We are to be disturbed, shaken, so there is change, there is transformation, there is to be new life.
When i re-read the passage on the tower of Babel, it dawned upon me.
Is it talking about us? It is less than 2 weeks after the Big Commune – which has a huge success, raising 25K – which was way beyond any of our expectations. Even the most optimistic amongst us thought we would raise just 15K.
The common interpretation of this passage is that this is an example of human pride and divine punishment. Humankind was so full of themselves – 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.”
Is this talking about us? Is this a reminder why we are doing what we are doing? Are we building ourselves a tower with its top in the heavens, and are we seeking to make a name for ourselves?
We should always remember – what we are called to do – What are we called to do?
You can, like Jesus in Matthew 22:37, quote Deuteronomy 6:5 – Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and great commandment.
Or you can quote the prophet Micah, from Micah 6:8 – God has told you, O mortal, what is good and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Chase asked me, and he added after the video clip on the Big Commune – What’s Next, FCC?
Yes, What’s Next FCC?
Are we building ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, making a name for ourselves?
I love the prophet Micah’s simple message. It is like a sound bite – short, sweet, and easy to remember, and it stays with you. But does it stay with us on the surface, like a good quote, or does it seep into the ground of our being like water and nourish our roots? Do we take to heart what it means? Do we even know what doing justice means in our lives? Yes, i think to a large degree, we love kindness (even after Singa the lion quit, i think we know how to be kind) and to some degree we do know how to walk humbly with God, but do we do justice?
Can we, in the process of building something, remember we are called not to build walls around ourselves, but rather build a space that create the 5 different environments a church should be – Healing, Welcoming, Learning, Liberating, Thriving?
(And those of you who missed that sermon “The Mission of FCC,” go and watch it or read it here –https://freecomchurch.org/05-041112.htm . It is one of the three membership sermons that you have to watch or read to join as an FCC member)
We need to remember not to measure our success with numbers, yes – raising 25K in a day is amazing and reflects the amazing love of this community – but we need to measure our success in how we translate what we have been given into how we impact the world.
One of my mentors said – the measure of a church is its footprint in the environment it is in. Not the size. A megachurch of 10,000 members with little impact on the community / society it is in is a failure. How much transformation can 10,000 people bring? A friend of mine started a project called “A Packet of Rice” last year. Instead of having a birthday party in a hotel suite (which is quite common), or receiving birthday presents, he asked friends to contribute to a small fund to provide and distribute meal boxes to low income needy residents and senior citizens residing in rental flats. Last week, 10 of them repainted the flat of one of the senior citizens.
FCC did something like that before. Let us not rest on what we did in the past, but think of what we can do now. Now. Not one day when we have time. Not some time later. We are 10 this year. What can we do? What’s next FCC?
Let us remember that we are not building a church to hide in, but a church that nourishes and sustains and heals people, and send them out to bring nourishment, sustenance and healing out into the world.
We need to ask ourselves not just what is next, but also where are we FCC? Rev Yap was just talking to me just now, and we were talking about the AIDS candlelight memorial that is going to happen later this evening. He remembered the times when FCC would show up at these events in numbers. We were present. We were there. Where are we now? Are we participating in what is happening around us and what concerns us? I’m not just talking about Pink Dot – but to many other events that happen here.
What is our footprint, as individuals, as God’s people, as FCC?
There is something else interesting, as I read the Tower of Babel again. Dr Theodore Hiebert, Professor of Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary, in the footnotes of the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, writes:
“This story has often been interpreted as an example of human pride and divine punishment, but it is more likely an account of the human drive for homogeneity in conflict with the divine plan for diversity.”
Huh? In other words, Dr Hiebert is saying – Diversity is in God’s plan. We are created / planned to be all different.
He gives a few reasons – “the theme of the homogeneity of the human race is emphasized by the word one, used four times in the story.” Also, “the motivation for building the city and the tower is human resistance to being scattered, a word repeated three times in the story. It is not a wish to gain access to heaven because of human arrogance. Neither building a tower nor making a name are necessarily expressions of human pride. A tower with its top in the heavens is a cliche for a tall tower, and making a name (or reputation) may have positive connotations.” In Gen 11:6, God is displeased with homogeneity, not the pride, of the human race. The translation of v6b adopted by NRSV unnecessarily emphasizes the idea of human pride. The verse may also be translated “this is the task they have begun; and now nothing will keep them from accomplishing what they have planned.”
For those who know me, i love this! This is the richness of the Bible, and of biblical studies. The Bible is textured and multi-layered. It needs to be explored and discovered, and sometimes, recovered.
First – what we read, and what we understand to be the meaning of the texts we have read, may not necessarily be correct. A lot of what we understand today about what narratives in the Bible are shaped and framed with certain assumptions. This one – interpreting the Tower of Babel as an example of human pride and divine punishment – comes from the interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve as a story about human pride and divine punishment – the understanding of the casting out of the Garden of Eden as the Fall.
Second, this is a timely reminder to us here at FCC – are we building a church of homogeneity? Or are we called to be a diverse church? How do we go about being a diverse church? How can we increase diversity?
It is human nature to hang out with people just like us. Homogeneity. It is not as stressful, and a lot less work. We talk the same lingo, we like similar things. But, like the Dr Hiebert’s interpretation, i do not think that is God’s will that we become homogeneous. We are meant to be diverse. That colourful community of different people representing how wide and how deep God’s love is. (and God’s love is probably wider and deeper than we can represent.)
Are we, like the people building the city and the tower, afraid of being scattered? If home is within us, if this kingdom, this kin-dom, this commonwealth of God is within us like Jesus says, then we are no longer afraid of being scattered. Because we abide in God and God abides in us, everywhere we go. We bring church everywhere, and we behave like we are in church everywhere. We bring the commonwealth of God with us.
My hopes, and i have said it both publicly and privately, is that 5 year’s time, a third of our church would be non-LGBT folks. We will always remain a home and a safe place for LGBT people – that FCC will always be – but we would become irrelevant one day, just like many MCC churches today. We are not called to hang out with people just like us. We are called to be a community of diverse people.
In July, I plan to visit cell groups – but this time not to drive top down ideas of how to run cell groups, but to find out each groups’ needs and how to meet those needs. We have been devising and coming up with curriculum and bible studies and driving them down from the top. Perhaps it is time to approach this in a different way. Instead of putting the cart before the horse, perhaps we can start by asking – what do we need to grow spiritually?
But it won’t be just about meeting needs – that would just fall back into the “me, me, me” mindset. We will also be pushing each other out of our comfort zones to areas of discomfort. Our God is most present at the threshold – at the points in life where we are most uncomfortable. The times when things are most shaken, most disturbed – those are the times we see the Divine. This is our God, the God that challenges us to grow into the fullest of our being, the abundance of our lives.
We are the people of Pentecost. We are called to be like the people in Jerusalem, the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – all united in one Spirit – the Spirit of God.
‘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… Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’[/column]