Paula Northwood June 9, 2019
Scripture Genesis 11:1–9
Many people take the Bible very seriously and might have trouble accepting that early writers would take up valuable scroll time telling a joke. But the satirical story of the Tower of Babel does just that.
The iconic story of the Tower of Babel—common to the holy literature of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—describes the universal wish of all humankind to reach towards the heavens, to surpass themselves. To do so, the builders adopted a global and inclusive approach to develop the skills and knowledge to accomplish that unprecedented feat. Instead of God applauding the effort, in the most popular interpretation of the story, God undermined those universal aspirations and the arrogance behind it by turning the builders into factious groups, each of which developed their own language, making them incapable of communicating with one another. It’s meant to be a funny story about why humans speak so many languages. We may have difficulty grasping the humor, but we all can think of stories about how we miscommunicate.
A good friend of mine, a college professor, often took students on camping trips. On one particular trip the students were sitting around the campfire talking about how they loved their pets. A few students were talking about their love of cats when a foreign exchange student from China said, “I love cats, too! They are very delicious!”
Mark Nepo, in his recent book More Together Than Alone, shares a different version of the Tower of Babel. It goes like this:
In the beginning, everyone spoke the same language. Thousands of years ago in the land of Uruk, which was in what is now Iraq, the early human family, still of one tribe, devoted themselves to building a single tower that would be taller than any structure ever built. Their hope was to create a visible landmark, so that anyone losing their way could simply turn and look to the tower and find their way home.
The entire tribe was united behind this purpose. But it took much longer than anyone imagined. By the time the third generation assumed the task, the tower, still incomplete, was so high that it took a worker almost a year to carry the next brick to its place.
But the grandchildren of the original builders really didn’t carry the same devotion for the job. It felt more like a chore for them, having to build someone else’s dream. Without their own devotion, it wasn’t long before the press of the task consumed them. Finally, one day, a worker carrying the next brick fell, and they mourned the brick over the worker.
A whole year wasted! What a tragedy!
Shortly after this brick-carrier died, the now heartless workers, pressed to finish someone else’s dream, decided to loot Heaven, upon which God confounded or confused their tongues. They instantly lost the ability to understand each other. The tower was never finished and the human family, no longer able to speak to one another, dispersed across the Earth.
According to Nepo, the moment they valued the brick over the person, they lost the ability to understand each other. When we find ourselves unable to hear, understand or even care for another person because we disagree on any issue, we need to ask: What is the brick I am carrying, and has it become too important?
Last Sunday, I spoke about how we, as a culture, have moved from the convergence of shared large cultural identities to the divergence of individual preference. As a liberal church, we have been influenced by culture and been tempted to give individual subjective feelings supreme authority. It is easy to understand how this happened, particularly in Congregational churches, where we value individual freedom and local autonomy. Over the years, I have heard many of you say that you love Plymouth because “you can believe anything you want.” While there is a great deal of personal freedom in the expression of one’s beliefs, we do expect people to join in a covenant of walking together in God’s ways and to follow the purposes of this church. We are bound to each other in a commitment of love and respect.
Today is also Pentecost Sunday, and I think what took place at Pentecost is the opposite of the Tower of Babel. If you remember Acts chapter two, we have the followers of Jesus gathered to celebrate Jewish Pentecost, called Shavuot. It’s the Festival of Weeks or First Fruits, when they often recited the book of Ruth. But in the year of our text, something terrible has happened. Their leader has just been executed and they are trying to make sense of this. They thought Jesus was the Messiah and that he would bring about a new kingdom or realm of peace, of shalom. They are heartbroken. Some of them claimed to have had a supernatural experience with Jesus, which only complicated matters. But here they were, from varying parts of the world, gathered together, and they did not understand each other both literally and figuratively. In some cases, they did not speak the same language, and, in other cases, they just did not understand each other because they disagreed about who Jesus was.
And then something unbelievable happened. Later, some said it sounded like a whirlwind. Others would say they felt on fire, . . . but they all said they suddenly understood each other! They made sense to each other!
As a result, they made a commitment to become a community. They broke bread and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. And from there, they went on to share with the world the life-giving message of Jesus about the love God.
Prior to this Pentecost moment, the followers of Jesus were trying to make sense of what had happened. Many had known Jesus personally, all had had some kind of a spiritual experience, but they did not understand each other. I think I have told this story before from the Jewish Midrash about the group of folks who went out in a boat. One of them took a drill and began to drill a hole under his seat. His companions yelled at him, “What are you doing?” The man replied, “Why do you care? I am just drilling under my own seat!”
These early followers began to realize that, in spite of their different experiences, they were in the same boat and their actions affected each other. They would need to come to some common understanding in order to bring forth this new faith. Many stories in our ancient texts invite us to examine our freedom as individuals and respond with personal sacrifice and spiritual practices that curb personal desires in favor of the greater purpose for all. It wasn’t that we needed to think the same—but that we needed to love the same. This was one of the teachings that Jesus kept repeating. No greater love can a person have than to lay down one’s life for another.
I think this congregation does very well when it comes to responding to each other’s needs in times of tragedy and grief. And this congregation has a reputation for responding to the needs of our community. What’s interesting to me is that when it comes to the building and ways of worshipping, we resort to personal desires. We are quick to say when we don’t like something. So how do we come together when we all have learned to come with the cultural disposition to have our personal preferences affirmed rather than challenged? How do we move from the “me” to the “we”?
According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in our reading this morning [as quoted in Nepo’s More Together Than Alone], it will take education, not meditation. That’s surprising coming from the Dalai Lama. I think it’s about remembering whose we are. We belong to God. That seems to be the first step in remembering. In God’s eyes, we all have the same value, and our wellbeing depends on each other.
Every day we are faced with choices that determine if we can live together or not. The struggle between “self-interest” and “care for the other” lives in each heart. The life of relationships, family and this church depend on what we choose. We are asked to value life and people over things. We are asked to put the brick down. Any religious system can join us or tear us apart, depending on which path it supports. The threat of self-centered living is grave. We know this. It’s our self-centered living that is destroying our planet.
To live within community requires constraint on the part of the individual. To support this planet will require restraint on the part of all of us. Choosing individual restraint is countercultural, and it is difficult for us because we are used to instant gratification. So we gather in community every week, or as much as we can, to be reminded that this is the community to which we belong. It’s a community that walks in covenant together with the purpose of care for each other and our neighbors. It is a place where we cultivate a spirit of gratitude, love, joy, compassion and inclusion.
Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “I believe what the self-centered have torn down, the other-centered will build up.” The other-centered! Let us continue to choose to be an “other-centered” community.
Psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés tells the story of an old man who on his deathbed calls all his loved ones together. He gives each a short, sturdy stick. He asks them each to break them. They do with ease. He says this is how it is when the soul is alone. He gives them more sticks and instructs them to make a bundle. He asks them to break the bundle, and, when they can’t, he smiles. “When we stay together, we can’t be broken.”
Now, more than ever, we need each other. In a time when Christendom is on the decline and the political landscape is complex, we need to speak to each other in a new language: not the language that keeps us stuck, repeating the same narratives of hurt and betrayal, or “this is the way we have always done it” or “I don’t like this or that,” but a new language, one that rings with hope for a new way of being community. We need words that inspire us to really love each other and our neighbors, words that open our ears to hear new things, words that light a fire in our souls, words that speak loving-kindness! Come, Holy Spirit! Amen.
Mark Nepo, More Together Than Alone (New York: Atria Books, 2018).