Once upon a time, many years ago, all the people of the world lived in one place and spoke one language. There were not very many of them-a few hundred at the most-and they wandered all over the face of the earth until one day they found a little spot of land perfect for a city. The earth was red and dense-perfect for making bricks. So, they packed the mud together, made and fired bricks, and started piling them together. Soon they had made several houses and even a town hall. While this was the grandest city any of them had ever seen-it was the first city, after all-they decided these buildings were not quite spectacular enough. What they needed was a tower-a tower that reached the highest heavens.
As soon as they had made enough bricks, they began the tower. After the first week, it was as high as the tallest man’s head. After the second week, it was taller than the tallest building. By the end of the first month, you had to crane your neck waaaay up to see the top of the tower. It was a magnificent sight.
God was keeping an eye on this city, and particularly on this tower. He saw how well the people were working together, how powerful they became. While he loved them, the way they were grasping for power, grasping to conquer the heavens concerned him. The tower was all anyone talked about. People were skipping meals, neglecting their children, forgetting to say I love you when they left their homes in the morning. All the people thought about was reaching the top of the heavens.
God knew this kind of behavior would only end in disappointment for the city dwellers, so he made a difficult decision. Rather than everyone on earth being the same, God would give them differences. They would speak in different languages, live in different countries, have different colored skin. That way the human race would never grow too powerful. When people saw the remains of the tall tower, they called it the Babel Tower, because they remember that it marked the beginning of all the languages of the earth.
For many years, people were separated from each other. And those separations caused huge problems. First, all the different language groups retreated to their own corners. They spent so much time with just themselves, they forgot other groups existed. When they did come across the other groups, they would fight for power and land. Many people died because these different groups could not resolve their differences with words. One group even got special treatment: God chose them, and only them to be his people. He blessed them with his presence and even gave them permission to invade other groups’ land!
One day, however, everything changed. A man named Jesus had come to earth. The people who knew him got very excited about him. They were all shocked when he died at the age of 33. That shock didn’t even compare to the surprise they felt when he was resurrected! They practically danced in the street! However, Jesus gave them other instructions. He told them to stay put, to meet together in an upper room. Jesus explained that he had to leave, but that he would send someone to take his place-someone to be an Advocate and a Comforter to his people.
One day, fifty days after the day of Jesus’ resurrection, the people in the upper room had the strangest experience. This spiritual presence rushed into the room-it felt like. . .like wind, or fire. . .something that rushed over them, but also into them. And when it rushed into them, something changed. They began to understand what all the strangers outside their door were saying, and suddenly, they were speaking their language! A language they didn’t even recognize before that day. And as they found themselves speaking, they felt a little delirious, but just kept telling these strangers about the wild experiences they had had with Jesus and how he came back from the dead.
This weird energy did not leave them, either. The energy felt less intense after awhile, but it remained with them and gave them strength and courage and helped them to understand the mysterious things they heard Jesus say. This Advocate, this comforter, also helped them to reach out. Suddenly it did not matter if someone spoke Greek or Aramaic or Coptic or some language you had never heard of. They understood that God loved the whole world, not just their language group. They understood that the days of division between languages, cultures and race were over.
I wonder how these early, Spirit filled Christians would feel if the saw the state of our world today. Even with our global economy, we as humans seem unable to get over our differences, unable to give up fighting for power, land or ideals. Do you know what the name of the town where Babel tower was built is now? Baghdad. The irony that the center of our current conflict is in the very place where we were first experienced differences in language haunts me. The tower of unity has collapsed indeed.
For goodness sake, even our churches have become battle grounds for ideologies and moral codes. The words some Christians use to attack other Christians are just as sharp edged and ugly as words used to attack another culture or country.
Where has the life and language giving Spirit gone? Are we doomed to repeat this cycle of violence and misunderstanding? Are we doomed to live without the Spirit?
I was at a conference at Virginia Seminary this week. The keynote speaker was a man named Graham Standish, who has written a book called, “Becoming the Blessed Church.” His hypothesis is more or less that Mainline Churches: Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists, have gained a reputation for being Spiritless, functional churches. They may be nice, warm places, but they have lost that visionary drive to follow Christ, so in response, people have fled to non denominational, charismatic churches.
He argues that this reputation is not necessarily true. Though on a denominational level, all four denominations have had internal fights worthy of newscoverage, on an individual level many parishes are thriving and are filled with God’s life giving Spirit.
I know I have felt the Holy Spirit in this place. I have felt it most in the St. George’s chapel, during my own prayers and healing prayers. I have felt it in the movement of your lives and in Chuck’s words. The trick for us is to pay attention. God’s Spirit is here among us, just as it was that first day of Pentecost.
As Episcopalians, we’re a little uncomfortable with the Holy Spirit. After all, we see what happens in those charismatic churches. Heaven forbid one of us start speaking in tongues or prophesying! However, not being a charismatic church does not give us permission to resist or ignore the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the force that connects us to God and helps us to discern what God’s will is for us as individuals and as a church. The Holy Spirit is the force that, like on Pentecost, gives us the power to reach out to neighbors and strangers and welcome them with the Good news of God’s love for them. The Holy Spirit is the force that guides us on the path to our true calling and helps us resist temptations along the way.
So, how do we interact with the Holy Spirit? There’s no mystery here. To open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, we need to pray. We need to pray and we need to create a few moments of silence in our lives.
And it is critical that we engage in prayer for this church and for each other, as Emmanuel continues to discern its role in this community.
I was hired, and began this job a year ago, because this part of Albemarle County is experiencing incredible growth. While this is exciting, any change, in any community, is also a little unnerving. Emmanuel has a very distinct character and I have heard some anxiety that Emmanuel’s uniqueness might be lost if the church grows. That kind of anxiety leads to much speculation.
Here are some of the rumors I have heard.
First, that the diocese will start a mission church in Crozet. As far as I know, this is not true. Emmanuel is the church that serves this part of the world, and it is our responsibility and our delight to welcome those that move here.
Second, that we are going to build a larger church. This is also not true. This building is precious to us, and before we change anything structural, we would add more services on Sunday. Even this change is not happening any time soon.
My favorite rumor is that we are going to pave the grassy area in front of the church so that people can park. The vestry is researching options for parking, but I can assure you none of them involve the view of the church from the road.
Keep in mind that change comes very slowly to churches. Any change will be discussed and deliberated with the parish. There are no secrets here. And this is why we all need to pray for the Spirit’s guidance. We need to listen for God’s will for us as a team, together. God is so clearly working in this place, let us make it easy for God to continue that work by prayerfully listening for what his will is for this place.
We can choose to be Tower of Babel people-striving on our own strength to create change that is on our terms, or we can be Pentecost people-open to the Spirit, open to change in God’s time, and in God’s ways.