The Spirit: Celebrating Difference
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scriptures: Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21
(While the audio starts immediately, the video picture starts at about 21 seconds.)
The juxtaposition of our readings today is quite interesting. In the Genesis scripture, we’re told, “now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” The people of the world use that sameness to band together and build an idol. A tower with its top in the heavens so that they could make a name for themselves.
I think sometimes we can get a bit literal when it comes to idols. We think of the golden calf or images of Baal or whatever other representations of gods. Or the tower of Babel. Things we don’t have in today’s world anymore.
Except we do. We may not have brick edifices or golden statues that we literally bow before, but that’s not exactly what an idol is. An idol is actually anything we prioritize in our lives ahead of God and the love God calls us to.
Those who made the tower of Babel wanted to preserve their sameness. So much so that they sought to build something literally higher than God. To make a name for themselves.
In response, God confuses their languages and scatters the people over the earth. Now we can read God’s reaction in a few ways. We could read it as God getting jealous of their power and wanting to knock them down a notch. But I don’t read it that way. I read it as God recognizing the need for difference in this world.
It makes me think of monoculture farming. Monoculture farming is when a farmer plants the same crop in the same plot of land season after season. Farmers adopt monocropping often because the crop that thrives best in that soil, that yields the most, is going to be the most profitable.At least in the short term.
To plant something different every year means buying different seeds, and perhaps different equipment to plant and harvest the crop. To rotate crops or, even worse, to let the ground lay fallow for a season, means making less money. At least in the short term.
The thing about monoculture farming, though, is that it degrades the quality of the soil. Too many of the same crop in one field robs the soil of its nutrients, which decreases the bacteria and microorganisms that are needed to maintain the fertility of the soil.
In the short term, monocropping can be highly profitable. In the long term, it destroys the land, eventually making farming any crop there impossible, at least for a good long while.
It reminds me of what Paul said in what you probably by now know is one of my favorite Bible passages: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”
God built diversity into the very fabric of our world because we can’t survive if we’re all the same.
Because we’ve seen what valuing artificial sameness brings. Valuing one religion over all others has brought us war after war. Valuing one gender expression and one practice of sexuality has brought brutal attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community—not to mention the suicide rate within that community is astronomically higher than in the non-queer community. Valuing one race and their ways of being led to slavery and lynching and Jim Crow and redlining and the perpetuation of racial injustice across our institutions.
But like I preached about last week, it’s easy to default to sameness. When people look like us, talk like us, believe like us, we’re tricked into thinking that the world is safer, more predictable, more certain. And there’s nothing our lizard brain, the part of our brain that defaults to survival at any cost, likes better than safety, predictability, and certainty.
But it is a trick. Sameness is a trick. Each of us, every single one of us, is unique in our own ways. The sameness we create is most often artificial.
Which brings us to Pentecost. So often Pentecost is described as the reversal of Babel. But I don’t think so. The reversal of Babel would be to have everyone once again speaking the same language. To become the same. That’s not what happens on Pentecost.
What happens on Pentecost is the Spirit comes and suddenly the disciples could speak and understand other people’s languages. It’s a huge Jewish festival in Jerusalem that day, and there are people there who have made pilgrimages from across the known world. Dozens of languages. Huge variations in ways of being. And the Spirit doesn’t collapse them all into the same language, doesn’t change everyone to be the same, but instead makes it so the disciples could understand across those differences.
The very first gift of the Spirit is both the honoring of difference and the bridging of difference. If we’re going to talk musically, this means everyone singing their different notes to create one song. Because just like you can’t have healthy soil with just one crop, you can’t have a song with just one note.
This is actually what Pride this month is all about.
It’s also what stewardship is about. I know we think of stewardship as giving money, which is obviously important to the thriving of a parish, but to be stewards of a community means to tend to the health of a community.
That means bringing all of who you are to this community. Whatever your gifts are, there’s a place for them here.
We thrive because we have people who are willing:
to make a call or bring a meal when someone is struggling
to think critically about important issues in our parish
and make hard decisions
to read or chant or play music during worship—
or to organize the readers or chanters or musicians
to call contractors to fix things in our building
to greet people when they come to worship and make them feel welcome
to set up our altar and worship space every week
to tend to our budget and finances
to come early on Sundays, put on a robe,
and serve with the clergy during worship
to operate our Zoom setup
to make art for our worship booklets
I can’t name all the amazing ways you offer yourselves and your gifts to this parish. We would be here all day. What I can say is: Your gifts matter. Your unique way of being matters. Who you are not only matters, but bringing all of who you are is absolutely essential to the thriving of this community.
That day of Pentecost served as a model for the world God wanted to build through the power of the Spirit. Honoring difference while also bridging difference. Creating a song from all our different notes. That’s how the disciples went forth and built the Church.
My hope is that St. Luke’s serves as a model for the world God wants to build, for living Christ’s love every single day. Recognizing that who each of us is, how God made each of us, what gifts each of us brings, are absolutely essential to manifesting the kingdom of God in our world.