Sermon Preached on October 20, 2019 – Creation VI
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
1 Corinthians 12:4-13
Building the Foundation of Heaven and Earth
This morning is our last Sunday in the Season of Creation, and our last story is this odd one about the Tower of Babel, where people begin to babble, literally, pun intended in both the original Hebrew and in English.
Just like the story of Adam and Eve from this same tradition, this story attempts to answer questions. “Why do people speak different languages?” If we are all descended from the first couple, and then from the descendants of Noah after the flood – shouldn’t everyone speak one language?
And the more significant question, “Why are those people so other?” The story is in part a commentary on the inhabitants of Babylon, whose city was dominated by a large ziggurat or sacred platform on which a temple was built. The base covered more than a half an acre. The standard form of sacred architecture in ancient Mesopotamia, this particular ziggurat was actually called “the temple of the foundation of heaven and earth.”
So according to our story, it’s from this huge, pretentious, “other” structure that the arrogant humans tried to reach the heavens themselves. And God wouldn’t have it. Rather than strike down the tower or destroy the people, God simply gives them a variety of languages. Keeping them from communicating will do it. They stop building the tower and scatter to the corners of the earth.
When I taught this story to the boys at St. Paul’s School for Boys in Maryland, they were only vaguely interested. Building a huge tower sounded kind of cool, but there’s no death and destruction in this story; so this story seemed relatively tame compared to others. I had access to a video of a reenactment of this story, it was a little silly, but it served its purpose.
The video opens with two construction workers who are working and occasionally looking over the edge with a certain amount of anxiety. From their expressions it appears to be a long way down. They talk about people looking like little bugs all the way down there. But they also talk about their families, and what they plan to do on the weekend, their favorite teams, their concerns about work, weather, the economy.
Nothing momentous, just the stuff that they hold in common, the stuff of being in community, being co-workers, even perhaps friends. And it’s clear they have worked comfortably side by side for a long time, they have this work down.
And then, as the story dictates, God intervenes, and suddenly they can no longer communicate. When one asks for a tool, the other looks confused and tries to hand him a sandwich. Nervous laughter – quit it. The second worker doesn’t understand, tries to hand him a sweatshirt. The first worker gets upset, stop joking around, we’re too high up for this, this is too dangerous. It quickly devolves from there. They begin to get angry with one another, they can’t communicate, they can’t trust one another to get the job done safely or at all. They both storm away to get off that tower before it becomes a deadly situation. No longer co-workers, no longer friends.
Now the boys got worked up, they couldn’t understand why two guys who had been friends would give up so easily. They could have found some way to communicate. They could have acted things out, they could have held up each tool until they agreed on the right one – after all they had been such a good team, such good friends. After a heated discussion, the boys decided it was the added risk of working at incredible heights that put too much weight on their communication for them to stick it out. There was too much at stake for them to stay and try to communicate in other ways.
The truths of this story are complex. There’s the warning against the arrogance of assuming we have the right to reach up into the heavens, of wanting to be like God. There’s also the truth that it’s our inability to speak to one another that separates us. All God had to do to stop humanity from accomplishing this momentous task was divide us by language. We took care of the rest. Distrust, anger, even fear of the other and those people, an inability to see each other as fully human – all from being unable to communicate.
Last Thursday Bishop Brown held a gathering for the clergy. Among other things, he talked about his recent visit to Capitol Hill. Because of Maine’s involvement in resettling refugees and asylum seekers, Bishop Brown was one of four bishops invited by The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations to talk with legislators about raising immigration limits. Bishop Brown talked about his experience meeting with our four legislators, all four of whom support lifting the current restrictions on immigration. There was another common theme in his conversations with our leaders – each commented on how divisive and contentious conversation in the political arena has become.
Not only in Washington, but even when they return to Maine – they are disheartened by the same vitriol in the public square. It’s their hope that we can help, as people and communities of faith – that we might find ways to create and support civility in our public conversations. That we might model decency and kindness in our interactions with people with whom we disagree – and lead the way back to common courtesy and civil discourse.
This is where our story of the tower of Babel has something to teach us. For when the people are scattered – they create a new kind of hubris that destroys. Seems we didn’t learn anything when we fled the tower. We simply took the initial arrogance of “we can build a tower to the sky,” and turned it to an arrogance that sets us against each other. Now we’re arrogant, proud and convinced we are right in our differences: we are the right people, we have the right political opinions, our language is superior to others, our religion is the only right way to worship.
Yet, if we’re one people now scattered by arrogance and divided primarily by language, then our divisions are man-made. Therefore, it’s in our power to overcome all that divides us. What would happen if we abandoned our fear of the other, and our need to be right? And recognized the connections we have, our commonality? What might be possible for us? What might we build? Not the world’s tallest skyscraper, to be like God, but perhaps something worthwhile like justice and peace.
Maybe there’s a graceful pathway here for us, a way forward together. A way back to some common language, a way to speak to each other, to see each other, to respect the other, the one with whom we disagree. At a time when virtually every conversation feels political, what if we were more careful? For instance, if we focused more on policies, and less on the people who propose them? And when discussing these policies, if we strive to recognize them less as manifestos of good or evil, and more as different approaches to the problems facing us all. At the very least, we can keep things in perspective, be calm in the midst of the political madness, and model this novel, composed behavior for others. That’s the kind of witness that can change the culture, calm the hysteria, and create the way forward to something better. Because we know that God is faithful, and we have our savior in Christ (not in politics). Christ has risen and salvation is offered to all people. ALL people. Even those with whom we disagree, those we think are wrong. What matters in the long run is how we treat one another, and the life we build together. And friends, we are in it for the long run.
Let us become fluent in the language of kindness, of mutual respect and consideration, which will translate across disagreement; heal our wounds, and restore the integrity of our human community. Building the true foundations of heaven and earth for all people.