Print Version May 31st, 1998
Is school over yet? I ask because I want to start with a quiz, a tough one: what phrase appears on every American coin but on no American bank note? … It’s OK you’re allowed to cheat … … …
“E pluribus unum.” Any of you know what that means? … It’s Latin: “Out of many, one.” It’s an idea so close to the American heart that it’s inscribed there on every quarter, every dime. … In honour of that sentiment I decided to bring along this morning something I was given recently as a gift. … You like it? I’m not sure how it will play back in England!
Well here we are, as the day of Pentecost comes round, gathered in one place. We are English and American; Vietnamese and Filipino; Irish and German and Italian; Chinese and African; we are black and white and pink and who knows how many shades of brown; we are tall and short; we are gay and straight; we are woman and man; we are young and old. As on that first Pentecost all humanity is here—it wouldn’t surprise me too much if there weren’t even a few Medes and Elamites here among us.
So here we are, brought together by one Spirit into one Body. Baptized into one Community. All of us drunk on the one Spirit. “E pluribus … unum.” Doesn’t Pentecost sound so American? All our differences dissolved in a melting pot of freedom—blind to colour and race and religion—where what separates us is forgotten and unity prevails. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one!
I think that’s so close to being true that we might easily miss how close it is to being completely false.
A story … Once upon a time the people of the whole world spoke a single language and used the same words. But as they saw themselves spreading out over the face of the earth they began to worry that if this carried on they would soon become scattered and, being separated from one another by distance, they would cease to be one people. So they decided to build a great city where they could all gather and be one and, at the heart of that great city, a great monument to their unity, a hard work of hope and courage, a feat of technology to testify to the power of people working together: the Tower of Babel. You know the story. You know how God sabotages their efforts by the simple move of multiplying their languages. Instead of one tongue they find they have many. And since they fear they’ll no longer be able to understand one another they scatter and divide. The tower is never finished: the monument to their unity falls to pieces. Out of one, many. Ex Uno Plura. The Babel Event.
When one person talks while another listens you have a conversation (or half of one, at least). When two people talk at once you have babble. If we all started right now to say the Our Father in our own languages that’s what we’d have—babble, noise, confusion. It would even be hard to get the words right in our own tongue with all the competition going on. So what’s the alternative? That we undo Babel and all stick to one language? Well sometimes we have to do just that. But there’s a better way.
(Choir sings in three languages at once)
What is babble when spoken, can be harmony when sung. And harmony can only happen if the voices are different. No single voice—alone, unaided, can never manage harmony.
The Pentecost Event with its rushing spirit blows down the doors to intoxicate the gathered disciples and undo Babel. But not by making many into one. Instead, the whole bunch of them are all chattering away in different languages and yet every one hears and everyone understands the message. Pentecost undoes Babel not by dissolving human differences but by making something beautiful out of them. Babel drove the people of the earth far from each other in fear and loathing but Pentecost brings back the scattered into one community burning with the fire of many cultures. Pentecost doesn’t just reverse Babel and give us back one tongue and one ear. Instead the Spirit goes further. Here we are with all our differences, all our languages, and yet still we can worship God together.
The one God has made us full of difference so that in our care for God and God’s world we might make something beautiful together which we could never make alone.
And when our differences get too much for us, as they must always do, the remedy, the Gospel says, is not to diminish the difference but to forgive one another; neither to assimilate the other nor to punish her but to do her justice.
This morning Pentecost is with us as we share Eucharist. Eucharist isn’t possible without Pentecost. The one bread gets taken, blessed, and broken up into many little pieces so that we many different people might gather around one table and be life for each other. This morning eleven young people are asking for a place at the table. They bring their differences too to our feast so that we all might be richer, and the noise we make together more beautiful. The test of our Spirit, sisters and brothers, is how well we make room for them and how well we make room for all the others who want to join our feast.