Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
June 9, 2019
The text for today is the last of what is called the Pre-history which is considered to be Genesis chapter 1-11. This small story which consists of only nine verses is sandwiched right in the middle of the Table of Nations and a list of two genealogies, one for the line of Noah and the other for the descendants of Shem.
(Note: the unique formatting of this sermon is intentional)
Listen for a word from God.
Genesis 11:1-9 as translated by Johanna Bos
1. And all the land was of one tongue
And one speech
2. When they migrated from the East
They found a valley in the land of Shinar
And they settled there
3. They said to one another
Come, Let us build bricks
And let us burn them well.
And brick was their stone and
Bitumen was their mortar
4. They said:
Come, let us build a city
And a tower with its top in the sky
And make for ourselves a name;
Lest we be scattered on the face of the land.
5. Then the Holy one came down to see the city and the tower
Which the children of humanity built.
6. And the Holy One said
Look, one people and one tongue for all:
This is the beginning of their making
And now there will be no stopping them
In all that they plan to make.
7. Come let us go down
And let us make their tongue into a babbel there,
So that no one will understand
The tongue of their neighbor.
8. Then the Holy One scattered them from there
On the face of all the land
And they ceased building the city
9. Therefore, its name is called Babel
For there the Holy One made into a babble
The tongues of all the land
And from there the Holy one scattered them
On the face of all the land.
Trouble in The Text
We have all heard this story before
The people are full of pride
Patting themselves on the back
Wondering how they can make themselves even greater.
So they decide to build a tower,
A big city
And an even greater nation.
They want to protect themselves,
Keep all the “others” out,
And remain together.
They want to protect themselves
So they can be solid in their unity,
Or solid in their conformity?
They want to fortify themselves.
They are one,
And unified in their goal.
Does this sound familiar?
And the story continues…
God comes down,
And sees the “unity”, sees the oneness as conformity not unity
God sees that the people are trying to magnify their power and control.
As they try to make their own way to heaven.
There is an attitude of,
I don’t need help, We can do it on our own.
But God was seriously alarmed by the building of the tower and the even greater city.
God saw the unity was not all inclusive
And not working toward God’s original plan.
But the tower and the city were a play to reach the heavens.
With the desire to make a great name for themselves.
The builders of the tower were hoping
For fuller, more enhanced and
More productive lives as they used their advances in technology for their own greater good.
Many of you might know the LPTS professor Johanna Bos
Who taught Hebrew and Exegesis for 40 years at the seminary.
Now I never had the opportunity to learn from her,
But I am lucky to have several of her books on my shelf at home.
Bos speaks to the obvious irony within this passage.
Babylon literally means the gate of the gods.
A place where humans can meet the gods
and be in relationship with one another.
The biblical author inserts a satirical play on the word Babylon and suggests that it means a place of babbel.
The building of the tower of Babel results in total babbel.
The place which was seen as the way to the gods,
turns out to be a place of disarray
and results in the scattering of the people.
Oh the irony…
The people were showing their excessive arrogance and their desire for greatness.
The experience of the common dwelling place and the common language only encouraged their prideful attitude and fueled their expansion.
The result is exactly what the people were hoping to prevent
as they sought to make a name for themselves.
The conformity of the people could only remain solid if they can keep hold of the same language in the same location while working toward the same goal
Humankind recognized the power that lay within everyone’s compliance.
God recognized that same power,
And God intervened.
Trouble in the World
Doesn’t this all sound a little too familiar? Sounds a little like Make America Great Again,
I feel like I am reading a modern day New York Times Story
Not a story from Ancient Israel.
I find it remarkable that these stories are still happening today!
We can see these events happening in the United States and all over the world today.
It is not unity but exclusivity and conformity.
Instead of the unification of people that unites all people,
Many are pushed to the outside,
Pushed away for their differences and
Excluded from the pack.
Those people don’t look the same as us
What is that language they are speaking?
Speak our language!
This sounds like the fear that we hear when we turn on the radio or the news.
Fear to protect what is mine
An attitude that says, I dare you to take what is mine.
We can pick up any newspaper today and see stories
Of how we need to be united in our beliefs
We need to close the borders so they can’t disrupt the building of our tower.
We see this in our immigration policies
And the fight to remain unified in the cry to “Be a Real American!”
But what kind of unity are we really going for?
A homogenous group of people that looks alike
And act alike?
We claim to be a Christian nation
As we try to be the best and
As we literally reach for the stars.
We want to outpace the competition.
Yet how can we be claim to be Christian and be willing to literally step on those that are not concretely conforming to our specific goal.
So how can we see where to go? As a nation, and as Christians?
Conformity is not the same thing as unity.
Grace in the Text
I believe that the danger in looking at this text is that it is easy to see a punishing God
A God that becomes angry at humankind,
Changes their language to confusing babbel
And scatters them all to the ends of the earth
But we can see the evidence of grace when we look beyond the text
Several commentators are looking at this story not as sin and punishment,
but as God caring for the Earth.
Does the concentration of all the people directly benefit the earth as it becomes one big parking lot as we clamor to climb the tower to heaven?
In the flood story, Genesis chapter 9 God says, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”
God wanted the people to be the caretakers of the earth
Caretakers of all God had created, which includes the people of the earth.
We too are part of God’s creation.
But the people that we see in this story were more concerned with becoming one and
Making themselves great.
I believe the narrator was trying to convey that the unity was not bad, but it was the goal of the unity that misdirected.
The phrase “all the earth” or “all the land” appears in 4 of the 9 versus in this passage
While the narrator puts the people’s emphasis on their distinct oneness
God puts the emphasis on the care for the Earth
God’s intent was that the people would spread through all the land
to fulfill the charge to be caretakers.
In this text, God puts the earth at the center of attention, not the people.
It is the cultivating of the land and the caretaking of creation that causes God to intervene, not the unity.
In ancient Israel, the cultivation of earth was key to its survival, and the people’s survival.
So it makes sense that it would be at the center of a story meant to encourage the caretaking of the earth.
Two weeks ago, Rebecca Barnes spoke of God’s will for humans to take care of the earth. In Genesis 2:5, which is the verse that Rebecca referred to, the Hebrew word abad means “to till” or “to serve.” I believe that it also fits in this context. God created and needed someone as caretaker for all of creation.
The narrator of this biblical text knew that the survival of the people was directly related to the survival of creation. This is still rings true today.
Grace in the World
We don’t all want to live in a homogeneous world with an earth that has not been cared for in a sustainable way.
There are many of us who see value in our diversity and value in the earth on which we live and grow.
There are many of us that feel more complete when we can lean into the different experiences of those we seek to be with and work together from the spirit of unity to care for our creation.
Roger and I met in 1997 in a group called Up With People.
The group consisted of 140 youth, ages 18-25, from 21 countries. We travelled for a year together, doing service projects, singing, dancing, learning from each other and living with a new host family every week.
This group was an example of a group of people working towards unity.
Working to break down barriers,
And learning to respect each other’s cultures
We were building bridges within our own unique community.
English was the language that we all came in which we communicated.
While we shared a common language, we all went home with our different languages to the cultures we grew up in, but with a new respect for our individual diversity and how powerful it was when we were unified in our goal.
This didn’t happen without some growing pains.
There were tears, some anger, a lot of laughing and hours and hours of listening. But from within our diversity, we became united in our goal to learn to love each other as we worked and lived side by side.
It was a powerful year and one that changed me in so many ways…other than meeting my husband.
I believe that this is the kind of unity that God wants us to engage in. I didn’t understand the implications of this group when I was 19. It sounds cliché, but I can see the value and enormous possibilities that can happen when people of every nation come together.
So if God is uninterested in human ambition and complete unity. Where do we go?
How do we work towards the unity that God intended. A unity that focuses on the earth and the caretaking of all of God’s creation?
No matter where we live today and under what circumstances we live,
The health of the earth is of utmost importance.
Yet our differences and the lack of unity and solidarity keeps us from being caretakers of earth and all of God’s creation. Which includes each other. We too are a part of that creation that needs to be cared for.
So this is of course Pentecost Sunday
I chose this passage, because I just spent 4 months working and studying the book of Genesis and I have to admit that I am a lot more comfortable with Genesis than Acts.
Maybe Next year I can preach on the New Testament.
But how does this relate to what we normally celebrate on this day.
What does the Holy Spirit have to do with this story of the Tower of Babel?
Luckily Mr. Walter Bruggemann helped me to understand the link between these two passages
Bruggemann says that the miracle of Acts 2 is on the listening; not on the speaking.
The miracle of Pentecost lies in the gift of hearing
Hearing the new words of those that speak another language and come from a different culture than our own.
The gift of being able to listen to those that might think differently than us.
A fresh capacity to listen because the Spirit of God blows over us and quiets the chaos
Having the gift of a fresh capacity to listen is like taking a deep breath.
Taking the time to sit with each other
Listening for the will of God
And feeling the breath of the Holy Spirit
Wash over the chaos of our relationships
And all of creation.
The unity that can be found in our diversity
Can be a welcome change
As we seek to follow the will of God
Working as a unit
From within our diversity
To care for all of creation in the way God originally intended.
– Erin Veliquette