Ah, the Tower of Babel – and no, this is not going to be a sermon about the Congress of the United States of America!
This really is a great little story: nine verses of the tightest text you can imagine. After the flood people migrate from the east and build a city. They have the means to do it – bricks made of bitumen for mortar. Self-sufficient, one voice and language, they are unified — it is time to settle down on the plain east of Shinar: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”
Interesting, the humans are unified but scared of being scattered. The people are afraid of being alone on the plain in a cold cruel world of floods and so much unknown.
Isn’t that what people do when they are afraid? They circle the wagons, build protective walls and maybe even a tower to make themselves feel more powerful than they are. The unity is more like “homogeneity” – because when I’m scared I want to be with people like me!
Fear of being scattered — but wasn’t one of God’s first commands to humanity, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases:
Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of the Earth. (Gen. 1)
God’s invitation is to spread out and revel in the abundance – but this story indicates the human desire to just want to be with our own kind and protect ourselves.
So this story is less about God messing with human creativity and more about human pride and fear. Fear of isolation, fear of having no identity other than the name they make for themselves. And I thought God gave identity, that God was the source of it all.
This story is about how fear cuts us off from the abundance of God’s power and mercy. It is once again about God’s uncomfortable but gracious push outside the walls of narrow, selfishness.
There is no mention of God in the first half of the story. That is the problem, the dilemma here – humanity forgets its divine connection. This is a story of a people with no God. Hence they have no identity. They have forgotten who they are. So they have to make a name for themselves. They have become their own gods. And that is always a recipe for disaster.
These people put on a self-determined mask of strength, covering up the more basic fear of what might be out there, out beyond the plain of Shinar.
When in doubt – we get narrow.
When fear reigns, we watch out for those who are different: those wearing hoodies, or acting strange.
When you are building an empire, erecting a silo, or negotiating from narrow selfish-interest, you want unity at all cost; no defectors. (Maybe this is about Congress after all!)
But the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, proclaims that we find our true selves not behind walls of self-made isolation or self-sufficiency or narrow identity, but in the risk of scattering, the risk of being sent forth into a diverse world. And in realizing that we share, with all people, the stamp of divine production – that we’re all made in the likeness and image of God. That is what the baptism of Lotus and Shannon this morning should remind us of.
I am reading the essay of Hannah Arendt Eichmann in Jerusalem: the Banality of Evil (a little light reading!) Eichmann was one of the architects of the Nazi’s final solution – the extermination of the Jews.
What was Nazi Germany if not an attempt out of fear to dominate, to unify, to make sure all was pure? One people, pure DNA.
What was Jim Crow? What is racism?
What is fear of immigration? Let’s build walls around our country.
And you question if the Bible is true? We are living in Babel!
The humans say, “Let us build a tower with its top in the heavens.”
God says, “Let us go down and see.” Human presumption meets Divine exasperation. God peeks out over the edge of heaven and looks down to look at this puny construction project off in the distance, like an ant colony.
God has gifted us with imagination and great power to build just about anything, but in our frenzy to dominate and manipulate are we any closer to the Creator?
That is what is at stake here. We build big cities, big armies, big economies, bombs that can annihilate all creation. All for our protection, all to make names for ourselves – but are we any happier, are we any safer? So let’s just buy more, build more.
We surround ourselves with people like us: gated communities with community watchmen, segregated schools and churches, economic walls to secure our well being. And guess what? It’s not happening! We still think we need a gun or a security sign in our lawn.
We stay behind the walls of a liberal orthodoxy or we identify with the Tea Party. And declare that liberals who don’t want gun control aren’t really liberals and that conservatives who want to extend Medicaid are not pure enough conservatives.
Where do you get your bitumen (sources) to build your bricks (opinions)?
Maybe we need to be scattered. Scattered feels like a punishment, but it is really an act of grace! As Keith Logan said this past Wednesday at Bible and Bagels, “Homogeneity is safer. Diversity is much more uncomfortable but much more rewarding.” Yes, indeed.
Because it’s only when you are vulnerable, and forced to identify your deepest fears and your deepest needs, that you finally let go of any delusions and let God flood you with possibilities beyond the walls; let yourself be pushed beyond comfort zones into reality. You need to become disoriented in order to become reoriented. Change is hard – it feels bad – but it is the only way – divine and blessed.
I see this tension in my own life. My fears build up and I instinctively close off. But God is revealed in the risk to move outside into the wilderness.
This ancient story is all about fear. It’s not about them and then – it is about you and me and now, and and about us and what is happening today! About how we too have dismissed God to the fringes and actually have started to think that we are alone and if God is anywhere, God is remote. And I think that scares us silly that we are alone in a hostile universe and so we press for self-sufficiency, and build resumes and reputations, and seek like-minded people and think ourselves special – and we drink and smoke and buy and anesthetize ourselves by any means possible.
This church has no choice but to break down walls – and press towards becoming the beloved community. It will be hard – we will not be our grandfather’s Presbyterian Church – not even the progressive, liberal, white one. God is calling us beyond.
So this little children’s story is hard. Moving beyond fear is not easy – we have spent years erecting walls. But God wants more for you. And God is relentless.
Soon Abram and Sarai will be called on a journey beyond the plain into the unknown.
Soon Mary will take the risk and say; “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” Soon Jesus will be driven into the wilderness, then crucified.
Soon Christ will come to your walls, saying, “Drop your nets and follow…. Come and see.”
The beloved community is not safe behind bricks and mortar. The church is built only upon the foundation of Christ and the spirit which is poured out on all flesh – and in the diversity of language and culture; we hear and see anew the fresh work of the scattering of the children of God.
And like the scattering of every seed – the seeds that fall on the fertile soil of trust – not fear – those seeds will bear much fruit. So don’t be scared, people…let’s do some scattering!