Pentecost, May 19, 2013

Drunk and Disorderly

Genesis 11:1-9
Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All 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. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But 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. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, 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.”

Guest Preacher:  Sue Washburn
My daughter came into the world talking. That might be an exaggeration, but as a child, she talked early and she talked often, following me around like a little chatterbox. At first we couldn’t understand her words, but she was so intent with her talking we intuitively knew that they had meaning to her.
Some were easy to figure out –
Gock was sock.
Ptse was pizza.
Goobiga was a little tricky. We finally figured out that was my mother—her grandma.
The most puzzling of her words was gubadee. For weeks, she’s say gubadee. Gubadee she’s say to me or my husband and we wondered to ourselves, What does this mean? Was it a toy? Was it a person? What was she saying with gubadee?
Despite our desire to understand, gubadee remained a mystery.
Learning to speak is the cornerstone of knowing ourselves and God. It allows us to reflect on our lives and connect with others. It is through the power of the Word that we experience Christ.
The Tower of Babel and Pentecost stories are foundational to the way we encounter each other God.  In these two stories we see that language can be used to create shared understanding, keep order and unify communities. Language can also be used to create new paradigms and shift our understanding.
In the Babel story, the tower builders were seeking to create order and avoid chaos of the big, outside world. As Presbyterians, we can relate. One of our foundational understandings is that we do things decently and in order.
In the stories we can also see language can create a healthy disorder—shake up expectations so that they can be realigned in new ways. God creates disorder though language in both the Tower and Babel story and the Pentecost story. But that disorder serves a purpose. In both cases it leads to a greater understanding of who God is what God can do.
The Tower of Babel describes our fear of the unknown. Biblically, it’s placed in the Old Testament between the story of Noah’s sons and God’s call to Abram to leave his country. It describes a paradigm shift as the world becomes a much bigger place—bigger than their own tribe and their own story.
Before Babel the Bible story is about a small tribe of people and one language and after Babel it’s a multicultural world of Egyptians and Canaanites and beyond. It shows the world expanding in much the way our experience of the world is changing through cheap travel and improved communication technology.
The Hebrews build the tower to keep themselves contained, to keep them from scattering. They burn their bricks and begin piling them in a careful and orderly way to build the tower. It was their beacon. It was their boundary. It was the symbol of their unity, but it was also the symbol of their fear
They feared the big world that was beyond the edges of their knowledge.
In fact, when we read the opening of Genesis 11 we read that the whole Earth had one language and the same words, but safa, the Hebrew word for language  can also be translated as edge. The opening of the story could also be translated as the whole earth had one edge and the same words, indicating that the Hebrews were concerned with protecting their edges, their boundaries.
Who can blame them? When we go to a country beyond our own borders, there’s no telling what might happen. We might order the wrong food, end up lost or be without a restroom for far to long.  We may get sick or be unable to read the road signs. In other words, we are vulnerable.
The tower builders wanted to remain secure, not vulnerable. Their fear pulls them together and keeps them close, but God scatters them by confusing their language.
In the New Testament reading, the disciples are gathered together for Pentecost or the Jewish Festival of Weeks. The holiday brought together Jews from different cultures. The hustle and bustles of people and languages might be like visiting some of the tourist sections in New York City.
There you can see people from all over the world in a clash of fabric, language and culture. Today, you don’t even need to leave the United States to be overwhelmed by the diversity of culture.
It is into a setting like this that the Holy Spirit blows in at Pentecost. Suddenly, everybody can hear and understand the good news of Christ. People talk. Words fly. Understanding abounds. The good news of Christ’s resurrection breaks out in different languages and disorder ensues.
 The people are bewildered, amazed and astonished. This isn’t the brick by brick wall dividing people into groups because of fear. This isn’t a safe and stately sermon in the temple preserving unity. This is God at work in a holy disorder, a reorganization of expectations, a breakdown of walls. The people who witnessed the event looked on with skepticism and decided that the people in the crowd must be drunk.
When I try to picture this, I think about the joy and abandon that would take place if the Pens win the Stanley Cup. It’d be crazy and unsettling. There would be throngs in the streets and people on the sidelines shaking their heads. The more reserved among us would assume that all of the revelers are drunk and disorderly and dismiss them with a shake of the head.
It’s the same shake of the head that we in the mainline churches give to the non-denominational or Pentecostal churches because they unsettle us. Their churches may be hastily constructed in shopping malls, not made of bricks. They don’t have bulletins to tell them what comes next. They shout out of turn.  They stand and wave their arms. They may even fall down in the aisles. These Christians don’t know what might come next in worship—and they are OK with that.  They are “drunk” with Spirit and disorderly as well.  But God is there amidst all that craziness.
When I read about Babel and Pentecost, I can see the spirit of Christ weaving through them in ways that are puzzling and compelling.  They force me, and I hope you, to ask that we hear in acts: What does this mean?
What does this mean? It’s a question we ask ourselves all the time. What does my daughter’s babbling mean? What do God’s words mean for my life? What is the meaning of my illness or healing? What is the meaning of my job loss or sudden raise? Sometimes the answer reinforces what we know. Other times it breaks what we think we know wide open. It is when we experience disorder, both good and bad, that we ask this question. It is when we experience disorder that we change the most.
I confronted that question head on when my family and I went to visit the World Trade Center site. I was a little leery of visiting, fearing that there would be an undercurrent of hostility. I worried that it might be like the Tower of Babel—a monument to a culture that wanted to stay isolated, to lift itself above others, to insulate itself our of fear.
But when I got there, it wasn’t like that at all. The line was filled with people from all over the world—Arabs and Asians and Africans and Americans. The workers who took the tickets and answered questions varied were different than what I expected. Some wore headscarves and others spoke with accents and others fit the true, blue American stereotype to a T.
As I stood at the memorial pool, I traced the names that were engraved on the railing along the outside. I realized that they weren’t all traditional American names. They were names from around the world.
That visit made me realize that I was connected to all of the world, that the edges or boundaries are more often than not illusions of our own making.  Reading the names showed me how narrow my own vision was of that event. I had reduced to a polar tragedy of us versus them rather than a world event with a web of connections reaching out to all the world.
I was very much like the Tower of Babel builders in my thinking without even intending to be. In that moment, Jesus’ call to love my neighbor seemed like a much bigger endeavor. I stood there with the brand new impression of the impact of the tragedy of 9/11 and wondered, what does this mean?
That moment disordered my thinking and gave me a new understanding as to who I was as an American in the world—as a Christian in the world and who we all are in a big world that belongs to God. At that moment, I felt so connected to people I hadn’t ever met. I was moved by their loss.  My eyes filled with tears.
I was experiencing a world without edges. A world with many languages. A world that is disorderly yet loved by God. The world isn’t just my people. It is God’s people. It’s God’s world.
This experience ties in to the Babel and Pentecost stories because it caused me to think about my own boundaries. It helped me to understand God’s scattering at Babel and the joining of hearts at Pentecost happen all the time, in big and small ways all the time. We as people, nations and the world move from unity to diversity to unity in diversity as the Spirit flows among us.
That’s how we are here in this sanctuary and as Christ’s church in the world. We are united in diversity as the Holy Spirit brings us together and enables our understanding.
As individuals we are joined in our differentness by something bigger than ourselves.
As a church are connected to Christians—to people— around the world in the power of the Holy Spirit despite our different worship styles and theologies.
Sometimes this unity in diversity is decent and in order. But a lot of the time it’s disorderly. But in each moment, the Spirit, continues to call us into deeper relationships with each other and with God. The Spirit gives us new understanding of life’s events.
At the nudging and prompting of the Spirit, we ask: What does it mean? in big and small ways. It took time for me to figure out what my daughter was saying each time she said gubadee. I’d think about that word while I placed some cheerios onto her high chair tray, while I bathed her or watched her play on the living room floor while I sipped my tea. 
Then one day it happened. I put a few toys out for Sarah to play with and was sitting on the corner of the couch. I had placed my tea on the steam register to keep it warm. After a few minutes she lost interest in the toys and walked up and pointed to the cup. Gubadee, she said.
I knew exactly what she meant. Cup of tea. 
I gathered her up in my arms laughing and she looked at like I was crazy. I wasn’t drunk or even disorderly, just filled with joy. Yes, I exclaimed to her, cup of tea, enunciating it clearly over and over.
Gubadee. Cup of tea. One word or three, it didn’t matter. We were connected and communicating. And so on Pentecost, I want to thank God for the gift of language and the Spirit for enabling a greater understanding. Amen.
Sue Washburn is a freelance writer and candidate for ministry in Redstone Presbytery. For more sermon excerpts and .jpgs and random musings, check out her blog at Find out more about her freelance work at