These thoughts were offered at Franklin United Methodist Church on Sunday, July 7, 2019. This message was based upon a reading from The Beginner’s Bible: “A Tall Tower” (based upon Genesis 11).
I have developed a handout to accompany this teaching and, hopefully, further the discussion in your home or small group. You can download it here.
It is an amazing thing to think about: for the last three millennia, if not longer, people have grappled with the stories of Scripture. Reading and rereading them, each generation finding meaning and a unique take away for their day.
It is humbling to think of the generations of persons, in all the varied places in the world where the Scriptures have been read, who have read these texts and grappled with their meaning.
What is even more amazing, I think, is how the Holy Spirit can continue to give new insights and speak a new word through stories that have been told over and over and over again..
Today’s story is short and familiar
Everyone on earth was speaking one language and they grew cocky, arrogant, full of pride. As a symbol of their own greatness, so I was always taught, they decided to build a tower that would reach to the heavens. In their hubris, they believed that they could build their own stairway into the heavens.
God comes down to see what they are up to. Seeing the vanity of the people, God decides to “take them down a few notches” by confusing their language. It is hard to be arrogant when no one can understand your boasting. This confusion also scatters the people across the earth so that humanity’s power, which is great when we work together, is dispersed throughout the world.
This is how I was taught the story. It is, I was told, primarily a story about a prideful people who are taught a lesson in humility. But as I reread the story this week, I was drawn to a different reading of the story that speaks prophetically, I think, to us in our time and place.
This story, as I read it this time, isn’t so much about a prideful people. The people in this story are scared of what lies beyond. These people are not arrogant. They are afraid.
Context here is key.
Our story for today, picks up after the flood. Noah and his family have exited the ark and the people—remember, the only people left on earth so the story goes—are together in one place. “All people on earth had one language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). As their number grew they traveled eastward and settled in a valley.
Fearful of what might lie outside the valley, the people agreed, saying as if in one voice, “let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth” (Genesis 11:4). The people wanted to make their mark on Creation and make a name of themselves not because they were full of pride. Although building a tower to reach the sky in a valley seems arrogant to me, the primary purpose for building wasn’t their pride. They were afraid to go any farther. This city would be the place where they display their greatness, not because they were full of hubris, but because they doubted whether or not they’d be able to do anything, or be anything, if they dispersed across the land as God had commanded.
When Noah and his family left the ark, God commanded them to “be fertile and multiply. Populate the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7). It was the same command God had given humanity in the beginning: “Be fertile and multiply: fill the earth and master it” (Genesis 1:28). Humanity’s purpose and calling is to populate and care for God’s creation.
God commanded the people to go, to disperse across the land and care for it, but when the people came across this valley, they settled there. They got comfortable. Unsure of what might lie beyond, the people decide to dig in their heals and build a city.
The people were worried about their legacy. They were uncertain whether there was anything really out there for them, so they settled. They built a city.
Have you ever let fear keep you from doing something you knew you were supposed to do?
Have you ever let fear keep you from doing something God has called and/or commanded you to do?
The people, humanity was afraid; they refused to go any farther. Humanity settled. They built a city and a tower and let it be a symbol of who they were as a people instead of caring for Creation as God had commanded.
[God] came down to see the city and the tower that the humans built. And [God] said, ‘There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let’s go down and mix up their language there so they won’t understand each other’s language.’ Then the Lord dispersed them from there over all of the earth, and they stopped building the city.Genesis 11:6-7, Common English Bible
God confused their language not as punishment, but so that they might begin to live into their call. The confusion was the prod, the push, the spark to go and do and be what they were called to go and do and be. God created the confusion and the chaos not as an act of punitive discipline but as a directive to get the people to move from where they were settled so that they could live into their calling.
Had humanity stayed in that place, they would have exploited and hurt the land; so, God confused their language for the sake of Creation. God disoriented them and gifted them with a new language that they might go and care for Creation. God confounded them so that they might live into their calling and purpose.
What would it take to move us out of the places we’ve settled that we might live into God’s call for our lives?
For Moses it took a burning bush. For Abraham and Sarah, the promise of a child. For Peter, it took Jesus walking on the water for him to get out of the boat. For the disciples who hid in an upper-room, it would take a rush of wind and fire alighting on their heads. For Paul, it took a lightning bolt and blindness. What would it take for us?
What would it take to confuse, befuddle, and disorient us enough to move us from what we think we want and know about ourselves to a place where we might live into God’s call and truly care for all of God’s good Creation?
What would it take for us to move beyond the self-serving places we’ve settled that we might live fully, in love, for the sake of others?
What would it take?
What if God came, took on flesh and showed us the way? Would that work?
Is the example and atonement, the life and love of God found in Jesus Christ enough?
Would that be enough to get us to care for earth? Would that be enough for us to care for our neighbor, the stranger, the immigrant, the other?
What would it take?