The Unfinishable Tower – PRIDE Eucharist – June 9, 2019
Sermon preached by the Reverend Curtis Farr, Rector, St. Paul’s Fairfield
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
PRIDE Eucharist – Pentecost
Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard,
may the Spirit of God be present. Amen.
Good evening, Happy Pentecost, and welcome to this Eucharistic celebration of Pride! This is a holy space, and I want you to feel comfortable making holy noises, so if the Spirit moves you, feel free to shout out an “Amen,” a hearty “Hallelujah,” or spectacular “Yasss Queen.”
It is a privilege to be here, to serve with these wonderful colleagues, and to celebrate with you. And it is especially wonderful to preach on an occasion such as this, because even though many of us live in relative safety, it is still not a safe world for a lot of folks. For those who are still working out who they are deep in the solitude of “the closet,” our heteronormative society can feel like a dangerous place.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Curtis Farr. I serve as the rector of another St. Paul’s—St. Paul’s Church in Fairfield. I have been at that post for a little under two years. Before that, I served a church in West Hartford. Now when I announced to my friends and parishioners in West Hartford that I would be heading down to Fairfield, I always heard the same response:
“Oh, Fairfield, eh?” As if to say I would really be rubbing elbows with the muckity-muck.
The funny thing, was that when I got here and told everyone I had been serving a church in West Hartford, they always gave the same response:
“Oh, West Hartford, eh?”
We have a way of using qualities like our geography to construct identities that pit us against other towns and other people. Usually we do so by participating in constructing stereotypes that reduce human beings to one or two qualities, making a judgment about those qualities, and insulating ourselves from them to protect our identities.
Recently, a story appeared in the Connecticut Post about how one town has been able to—over many years—create laws and codes, elect like-minded officials, and construct numerous rationalizations that keep affordable housing and those who need it out of their community. There is no need to name the town because, in truth, this exclusionary practice is done all over Connecticut and throughout our country.
What the people of these towns have done is essentially to build themselves up these invisible structures that protect the identity they feel is so crucial for their survival and ability to thrive in the world.
At the moment, it appears to be working for them, but time will tell.
On the plain in the land of Shinar, when humanity was still somewhat new after the great flood, it is said that there was a people that was so risk-averse, so hung up on their hunger for power and prestige, that they attempted to cultivate an entirely homogeneous community by building structures of their own—a city with a central tower that would ensure that their one way of existing would reign supreme above all others forever.
As the story goes, God comes down, isn’t having any of it, and scatters them abroad and confuses their speech so that they will speak different languages and no longer understand one another.
The irony of this story is that it is in the people’s pursuit of power in uniformity and unity that they are diversified and displaced. Even more ironically, it is in their reach to be recognized and remembered that they are given the name that remembers only their utter confusion: “Babel.”
So we be wondering: did jealousy and insecurity motivate God to confuse the people, or is it possible that this forced diversification for the people’s own good?
The story operates on a number of different levels—as a primeval narrative that describes how the world we know came to be, as a critique of the hubris of Mesopotamia and the imperial powers that followed, and perhaps also as a lesson applicable to any nation or people. But when read on the Feast of Pentecost, the unfinishable Tower of Babel takes on another special significance.
When the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples of Jesus on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, there are devout Jews from every nation present. To the joy of our lector, each nation is named (and pronounced beautifully, might I add?). They are all present, with all of these different languages and cultures, and this rush of wind blows through the house before their heads go aflame. Suddenly, they’re speaking all of the languages represented by the diverse group gathered—it sounds like the United Nations in there—and everyone is amazed because they are all hearing the same unifying message of God’s love in Jesus Christ in their own language.
In part, this scene caused by God’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost sounds like an answer to the confusion caused by God at the Tower of Babel, but the presence of the doves and flames does not undo the diversity of many languages, cultures, and identities, it reinforces them. When God’s Spirit descends on the people at Pentecost, everyone retains their unique identity, those identities are affirmed, and it is through their diversity that they all hear what was once spoken by the prophet Joel, who essentially says that in the world God is bringing about, the tables will be turned:
Young ones will be the ones who see mystical visions. Old ones will dream of the future. Those with no voice will be empowered to speak to and for all the people. Tables will be turned, and everyone in all their diversity will seek not the glories of power and wealth, they will seek not to homogenize and control their society. They will seek unity through the Spirit that binds together our whole, diverse, and wonderfully-made creation. This is the world God is creating.
This is the world that God is bringing about, but before that happens, we will no doubt continue to see more structures that seek homogeneity, more abuses of power, and more of the kind of feckless babble that dominates our airwaves.
I know that you are scared of the incessant, hatemongering that comes from…well…I’ll be good…it comes from all directions. I know you are scared of losing rights, of being excluded, or of being harmed.
I am too.
A few days ago, the banner for Pride in the Park was vandalized. Someone spray-painted the word “shame” over the word “pride.” They burned a hole in the face of a performer’s likeness with a cigarette.
When I heard this news, I was a bit frightened for yesterday’s event. And I worried about those in the closet who would see this as one more sign that their identity was invalid and unwelcomed in this world. I was worried that they might harm themselves because of it. I was worried that it was but the first of more homophobic and transphobic acts to come during this Pride month. It worries me that this kind of nonsense is supported, if not promoted, at the highest levels in our country, in communities of faith, and in the world at-large.
When I walk down a sidewalk at night with Eleanor Roosevelt (that’s my dog), or if I hold hands with my beloved in public, I wonder if this will be the time someone spews that kind of trash in my face.
But as much as I, and as much as we may be tempted to live in fear, we must remember that those aspects of our identity that set us apart are not qualities to disguise or soften—these are the God-given aspects of our humanity that God fully endorses, joyfully celebrates, and is eagerly hopes that we will use for the betterment of those who sit in trenches of marginalization along with us.
We must remember that what happened to that banner and what happened on that bus in London, along with every other similarly ugly word and action, is nothing but the pathetic whimper of defeat from that which has already been demolished by the love of God.
Love has already won.
A homogenous society is an unfinishable task—God’s Spirit will disrupt its engineers every single time.
So, as we celebrate the pride we have or the pride we seek, we also make a proclamation. We proclaim that God has been victorious over the powers of hate.
And whenever we love ourselves and we love one another, that is the sign that the day of God has come.
May God bless you. May God strengthen you. And may God’s Spirit fill you with boldness to be proud of who you were made to be. Amen, God bless.