Monday, May 24, 2010

Babel or Jerusalem?

I have to admit that I think I would have liked Babel. In my mind’s eye I see a combination of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Babel is a city of architectural marvels. It has the tallest sky scrapers, the greatest museums. Its orchestras and musicians play in the finest concert halls. It even has spacious and reverent cathedrals that soar upward, filled with prayer, chant and incense..

The problem with Babel is that it is a destination. Once you have come to Babel, there is no point in going anywhere else. Its people are proud and complacent. They have the finest of everything and not only do they know it, they let everyone else know it, too. To live in Babel is to have arrived.

Jerusalem, on the other hand, is different. Jerusalem is a little shabby. Its buildings are a collection of different styles, different materials. One building may be part gothic, part Romanesque, and then when they ran out of money, they just completed it with plain, unadorned concrete blocks. Jerusalem’s streets are narrow and the streets are not well maintained and you can’t get anywhere without making a dozen turns and asking directions at least five times.

But Jerusalem has a sense of excitement and adventure that Babel lacks, because Jerusalem is not a destination; it is an embarkation point, a launching pad. Jerusalem is where one goes to be equipped for mission.

The most arresting phrase in the story about Babel is “Let us make a name for ourselves.” In the Old Testament in general and in Genesis in particular, to name is to control, to master. God names each part of creation as God creates it: “God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night… God called the dome Sky and the dry land he called Earth…” And above all God named the first human being – Adam.

But the people of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves. In other words, they wanted to control themselves, their lives, their own destinies. But this is not an option, and the older we get, the more we understand that we are not the masters of our fate and the captains of our destinies.

Our only choice is to cooperate with God and become a part of God’s story, a part of the city that God is building, or to resist God. Babel was a city that defied God. They not only wanted to make a name for themselves, to be in charge of their lives, they wanted to build a tower that touched heaven. In other words, they wanted to be God’s equals. But that is not an option. God is God and we are not. Babel’s ambition is the essence of sin – to move God out of the center and take God’s place.

What does all this have to do with St. Alban’s? First, note that St. Alban’s is located at the end of a dead end street. That’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because people do not drive by and see us and say, “That looks like a nice church. I think I’ll visit it some Sunday.” It is also unfortunate because of the symbolism. It suggests that St. Alban’s is a little like Babel, that we too, are a destination rather than a launching pad, that we are less like Jerusalem and more Babel.

But sometimes the Spirit breaks through. The Spirit broke through to the disciples on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit came as fire and wind to a bunch of dispirited and disillusioned disciples. Jesus had left them. He had gone away to his Father in heaven. What were they to do? Their Lord and master had gone and the authorities were seeking to do to them what they had done to Jesus. And then in the midst of their pity party, the fire of the Spirit descended upon them.

And that is what is happening to us, I believe. Last Christmas it is EXACTLY what happened, when, in the midst of the Christmas Eve service, George swung the thurible and it hit the altar rail and hot coals flew out all over the carpet. George, you thought that was an accident, but I believe it was the Holy Spirit!

In the great scheme of things, burning a few holes in the carpet was no big deal. But the coals that escaped from the thurible did more than burn holes in the carpet. They began to ignite our imaginations. What if we replaced the carpet? What if we painted the church? What if we made those renovations that we’ve been talking about for years? What if we put in new windows?

And so we have. The carpet is gone. The paint on the walls makes the building look bigger, brighter, and more welcoming. And it is no accident that we now have windows that open outward. They open to let the Spirit in and to let the good news of the gospel out.

The Spirit is also at work among us as we reach out to our sisters and brothers in Haiti and at home. We are becoming known in the diocese as a small church with a big heart for outreach.

It is a lot easier to live in Babel. As I said at the beginning, I think I would have liked Babel. It is a beautiful city and has everything in it to delight the mind and the senses. But there is something missing – a sense of adventure, a purpose.

We are not meant to live in Babel. We are meant to come to Jerusalem so that we may be sent out proclaiming the gospel in every language.”Every language” means not only French and Yoruba and Mandarin. It means the language of the school teacher, the dialect of the accountant, the accents of the insurance agent and the banker. Each of us speaks a different language. Try to find a way to proclaim the gospel in the language that you speak, whether you are a doctor, a lawyer, or an Indian chief. And if you have trouble proclaiming the gospel in your language, ask the Spirit for help. Because when the Spirit gets hold of you and sets your heart on fire, there’s no telling what you will say or where you will end up.