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Pentecost Sunday — May 19, 2024

Teri McDowell Ott considers Acts 2 in light of the Tower of Babel. Perhaps the gift of Pentecost is the cure for a lonely world, she writes.

Acts 2:1-21
Year B

Power-hungry people seeking to make a name for themselves, building a tower to heaven, acting as if they are God. Chaos. Confusion. Division.

This Sunday’s lectionary calendar doesn’t include the tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-11. But considering today’s divisions and disagreements, violent power grabs, the willful siloing behind lack of understanding or desire to understand, the borders and barbed wire, I think Babel should be juxtaposed with Acts 2:1-21 this Sunday. We are a scattered and increasingly disconnected people. We are living in a state of confusion and chaos.

The Pentecost story in Acts is often called the Tower of Babel story reversed, bringing diverse people together. The Holy Spirit bestows the gift of understanding. The community of faith that we call the church is born. What a gift to celebrate!

In Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy emphasizes the importance of building a more socially connected future to stem the rise of loneliness, division, anger and resentment. Social connection stands out to Murthy as a largely unrecognized and underappreciated force for facing the critical problems with which individuals, our society and our world are currently dealing. Murthy cites research revealing the physical harm of social disconnection. Lonely, disconnected people are at a higher risk for coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia, depression, and anxiety. They are more likely to have lower-quality sleep, immune system dysfunction, impulsive behavior, and impaired judgment.

This social disconnection grows into a larger problem when, as Murthy warns, severely lonely people are so preoccupied with their own emotions that they have little energy for empathy. Loneliness begets more loneliness, disconnection to deliberate detachment, further isolation and conclusions that “other people” just don’t understand. In severe cases, loneliness and disconnection lead to reactivity and even trigger violence.

The miracle of Pentecost is the cure for the curse of Babel. Acts 2:1-21 is a beautiful reminder of God’s desire for us to be a people connected, to strengthen our sense of community, to understand and empathize with one another. My favorite part of the Pentecost narrative is how the people were given the ability to both speak and listen to those of different languages, cultures and customs. Conflict and disconnection often boil down to a lack of communication, or misunderstanding. Pentecost is the church’s annual reminder that the Holy Spirit not only calls us together but equips us to listen and learn from one another, to grow in understanding and empathy, to be God’s people and Christ’s church together.

Religious communities are celebrated in Together as places where our connectedness raises the stakes above and beyond our self-interests. We meet and connect with children, families and friends outside our personal circles. These connections might lead us to attend a school board meeting, even if we don’t have kids, or engage in a campaign for better public transportation if we’ve connected with friends who can’t drive.

Recently, at the Presbyterian church where I worship, the pastor invited us – as part of the sermon, no less – to move and sit with someone we didn’t know. Audible gasps could be heard in response to the pastor from this sanctuary full of discomfited Presbyterians. You want us to move? But this is where we always sit!

I welcomed the pastor’s boldness, though, because I was hungry to build connections beyond the superficial. I was known to most of the people who sat around me as the editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, but not as Teri, daughter of Tom and Sue, wife of Dan, mom of Isaac and Ella. I moved to sit with an older couple, the wife using a wheelchair so they couldn’t relocate easily themselves. They didn’t know me beyond the lady they occasionally see sitting a few rows in front of them. But they were thrilled that I chose them. Ecstatic, even.

The pastor led us through some conversational prompts about the Scripture passage for the day — quickly leading us deeper than cursory introductions. This sermon “experiment” didn’t take long. We made our connections then returned to our seats. But now, whenever I come to church, I try to find my new friends to say hello and inquire about their lives. This doesn’t feel like much of a miracle. But Pentecost tells us otherwise.

To know and be known, to understand and be understood, to be reminded of the power of community and connection, well, this is the stuff of our salvation. No wonder the church was born from this and for this on Pentecost.

Questions for reflection

  1. What does the miracle of Pentecost mean to you? What thoughts, feelings, ideas or images come to mind as you consider this story in Acts?
  2. Who have you met through your church community who you would not have met otherwise? What does this connection mean to you? What do you think it means to them? To your church?
  3. How might you build more connections at church or within your community? In what ways might you need to move outside your “comfort zone” to make these connections?

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