We Cannot be Both Great and Good

A Sermon on the Feast of Pentecost

Jeffrey Metcalfe

Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, 25-27

It’s a story of pride. The belief that when humanity comes together, it can achieve anything.

It can build a tower to heaven.

It can make its own way to salvation.

It can become God.

The Tower of Babel is a story of pride, a story of how quickly pride in our abilities, our technology, our wealth, and our power can lead to idolatry. And how idolatry can leave us scattered, confused, and destroyed.

The people who built the tower of Babel were not bad people. But they were a proud people. They knew that no other people before them possessed the resources, the knowledge, nor the desire to do such great things. And they wanted to build a monument to their greatness.

A tower.

A tower so tall it could prick the heavens.

A tower the world would remember forever.

As the theologian Reinhold Neibour taught, a people cannot be both great and good. At some point, they have to choose who they are going to be.

The people of Babel, chose to be great.

And as the scripture tells us, while they worked on this project of pride, God came and gave them different languages, which caused them to become confused.

Without a singe language, the engineers could no longer tell the workers how and where to lay their bricks. Without a single language, the people became divided, and scattered. And the tower fell into ruin.

Pride led to idolatry, and idolatry destroyed not only their tower, but their culture as well.

When I was a kid, I use to laugh at the story of the tower of Babel, and it’s warning against pride. The idea that human thought they could outmatch God seemed rather ridiculous to me. Even with the brightest minds, the wealthiest economies, the most united people, who could build a work so great that it could rival God’s creation?

As the psalmist sings,

O Lord, how manifold are your works!

In wisdom you have made them all;

the earth is full of your creatures.

Yonder is the sea, great and wide,

creeping things innumerable are there,

living things both small and great.

There go the ships,

and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

From lobsters to whales, there’s really nothing that could rival the monument of God’s creation.

When I was a kid, I use to laugh at the story of the Tower of Babel and their obvious pride, but now, I cannot help but wonder, are we really any different?

Speaking the single language of science and engineering, haven’t we thought that humanity can achieve anything?

Haven’t we all placed our trust and our faith in our wealth and in our technology?

Haven’t we all thought with pride that our country was the greatest country?

And haven’t we spent several generations now robbing the land of its resources, overfishing, over-logging, and over-mining, in order to build towers: skyscrapers pricking the heavens in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver?

We’ve all seen the destruction this pride has afforded our land and our culture.

The destruction of our fisheries like herring and cod, and the places and people that depend on them for their livelihood.

The destruction of our environment through oil mining, which contributing to climate change, is causing peoples’ homes in places like the Magdalen Islands to wash away into the sea.

Being great, is destroying us, leaving us confused, and scattered.

Like the people of the Tower of Babel, we cannot be both great and good.

As Christians and as Canadians, we are going to have to choose who we are going to be.

This morning, we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the day when God sends the Holy Spirit among God’s people, to empower them, and to breath into them new life.

Where God had given people a variety of languages that ended up causing them confusion and leaving them scattered, God now provides a single language to bring understanding and unity: the Holy Spirit.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are freed from the pride and idolatry of greatness. We are freed to become Good.

And, as the scripture tells us, no longer bound by the pretension of greatness, our sons and our daughters shall prophesy, and our young men shall see visions, and our old men shall dream dreams.

To the world, these prophesies, visions, and dreams will look like utopian thinking, to the world, they may seem wishful. Perhaps, like the disciples, they may even accuse us of being drunk.

But we shall know that it is not utopian, wishful thinking, or drunkenness, but the truth of the Spirit, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.

Jesus tells us, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The peace of Christ, is not like the peace of the world. It is not a peace maintained through fear, violence, or exploitation, it is not a peace founded on towers of pride or idolatry.

It is a peace that calls us not to be great, but to be good.

You cannot be both great and good.

So who are you going to be?

Jeffrey Metcalfe is the Incumbent of the Parish of the Magdalen Islands in the Diocese of Quebec. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.

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