The Gift of Being Human (Genesis 11:1-9)

This sermon was preached by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali on May 11, 2014, at University United Methodist Church.

O God, in the stillness, come meet us.  Amen.

¿Está lejos del centro? Our host mother asked.

My friend Rosanne and I looked frantically at one another.  Do we know the word lejos?  What does that mean?  We were in Mexico for a short immersion trip while we were in high school and between the two of us, we were doing pretty well figuring out what was going on and responding. 

The first major problem was when we met our host family at the airport.

They eagerly approached us and said, “¿Rosana?”  My friend Rosanne proudly pointed to herself and they embraced her.  Then, they started saying, “¿Jill (He-yah)?”  He-yah?  We didn’t know that word at all and we raced over to our Spanish teacher for assistance before she left us to go to her host family for the night.  It turns out that He-yah is how you say Jill in Spanish if you say it phonetically.

But, here in our host home, our Spanish teacher wasn’t around to ask for help.  So, a conversation of charades and using opposite words commenced.

“¿Cerca de?”  Our host mother said hopefully showing us with her fingers a small space on the table.  Then she spread her arms wide and said, “¡Lejos de!”

Oh!  We got it!  We were excited to respond, “¡Si, mama! Está lejos del centro.”  The irony of our conversation was probably that our host mother already knew that whatever we were talking about was lejos del centro!

Because of that conversation, I will always humbly remember that lejos means “far away!” and the grace that our host mother extended to us to teach us that word.  I will also always remember the thrill when we finally understood and could respond!

Languages, cultures, people, humility, pride: what it means to be human.

These are some of the themes from our scripture reading this morning.  The story is actually pretty familiar, even in secular culture.  We often hear about the Tower of Babel.  The problem, however, when a story is too familiar is that we simply go with the common interpretation instead of looking closely at the story to see what it is actually saying.  This morning, I want us to peel the layers of this story slowly and see anew what God is saying to us through it!

First, we need some context.  This story is closely related to the two chapters that precede it.  In chapter 9, the flood has just ceased and the water has finally receded enough for Noah and his family to get off the arc.  The first thing they do is build an altar to the Lord.

God blesses Noah and his family and tells them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth!”  God also tells them that they can eat plants and animals, but that they must hold human life with the utmost respect and care.

Chapter 10 goes on to describe the genealogy of Noah’s family for several generations as well as where they eventually settled and what people groups they create.  It’s easy to just gloss over this chapter and not really see its significance until we get to chapter 11 and the story we read today.

As we begin reading chapter 11, it seems that the scattering of Noah’s family that is described in chapter 10 is a little out of place chronologically.  Verse one begins with “the whole earth had one language and the same words.”

This is likely because the story of Genesis is pulled together from several authors and the placement of chapter 10 had more to do with literary reasons that the historical chronology of the story.  For now, just remember this vision of Noah’s family scattering as we turn to the story we read this morning.

Since this story, commonly called “The Tower of Babel” is a familiar one; listen closely to what it actually says.

The story starts out by giving us the impression that the whole earth is one family, one people group and they understand each other perfectly since they speak one language and use the same words.  They are traveling together, exploring this big world and they come to a plain in the land of Shinar.  They decide it is a good place, so they settle there. They start working together.  “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.”  And, they do.

So far, the story appears to be going well.  All of humanity living in harmony, united for a common purpose!

The next sentence changes things.  In verse 4, they say, “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 will be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

This sentence is critical, as it reveals their motivation for their unity and gives us two hints about how to interpret God’s actions later in the story.

Their motivation for unity is focused on themselves.  First, they want to build a tower with its top in the heavens in order to make a name for themselves.  Building tall towers was common at this time.  But the desire to make a name for themselves reveals a certain self-centeredness, an ego-trip, PRIDE in their own capabilities.

Second, they have a fear of being scattered upon the face of the whole earth.  They think that if they build a tower to the heavens and make a big enough name for themselves, they won’t be scattered; they will get to stay where they want to stay. 

My first question is why do they think they will be scattered?  Well, think back to chapter 9.  What did God say to Noah and his family when they got off the arc?  The same words that God told Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”  It appears they have a divine mandate that they are trying to run away from.  God has already told them to scatter, to fill the earth.  Instead, they are traveling as a family pack and trying to stick together.  They FEAR the changes to their lives that scattering will bring.

While they are building, God comes down from heaven to see the tower.  (Ironic, right!?  Apparently, the tower did not reach the heavens.  This line has great theological significance.  Even though the humans are trying to build the tower up as high as the heavens, even their strongest unified efforts do not make them as high as God.  God still has to come down to see.

When God sees what they are doing, God is not pleased.  God seems to be disturbed by their unity, by the fact that they are one people and have one language.  God says, “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” 

The solution is for God to make them do what God already told them to do in chapter 9 when they got off the arc.  Scatter!  God confuses their language, so they don’t understand one another and off they go to the many places God already had in mind for them to live so that they could fill the earth.

So, I wonder is this really a punishment as it is often interpreted?  It seems to me that it is not actually a punishment.  By making them to scatter, God is simply fulfilling the intention God has had for humanity since the beginning of creation.  After all, the mandate to Adam and Eve was also, “Go forth and multiply and fill the earth!”

What is more curious to me is that God appears to be displeased by unity—or at least displeased by the kind of unity that they are exhibiting.  God is more pleased by the scattering, this diversity of peoples and languages.

Let us remember that their unity is based on two things: 1) pride in making a name for themselves and 2) fear of fulfilling the command to fill the earth that God has given them.  The things that unite them are things that go against the will of God.

The kind of unity they are exhibiting by building a tower to the heavens is the kind of unity that has brought about much tragedy in our world.  It is a unity based on exclusive pride, superiority, and fear of the other.  This is the kind of unity that has given way to Nazi sense of superiority which led them to kill millions of Jews.  This is the kind of unity that has given way to ethnic purges throughout Africa, Southern Europe, and the Middle East.  This is the kind of unity that has given way to the killing fields in Southeast Asia.

When we think of these examples, we can echo God’s sentiments, ““This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”  

We know the truth that humans have a great capacity for sin, disobedience, and evil.  When we are united around the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons, the potential for horrendous harm is there. 

Yet, unity is not wrong.  In fact, the stories of Jesus’s life and ministry bring us back to unity.  Unity in the midst of diversity. 

Jesus is always doing things like talking to women in public, mingling with non-Jewish believers, eating in the homes of rich thieves, and allowing the lepers to touch him.  Jesus is always reaching out to be united with others.  And it is Jesus who prays things like, “That they [Christian believers] may be one as we are one.”   The difference between the unity that Jesus teaches and lives and the unity of the people building the Tower of Babel is who they are united around.

The people building the Tower of Babel are united around themselves.  Jesus is modeling a different kind of unity—unity in Christ that allows for difference, multiplicity, and diversity.

The story of Pentecost, which this Easter season is leading up to, may be the ultimate example of the kind of unity that God celebrates.  The people come to the city of Jerusalem from many different places and they speak in many languages, but low and behold through the power of the Holy Spirit, they can all understand one another!  But the mandate of their unity is to go forth and share the good news with people from all nations.  The diverse languages do not go away; in fact their diverse languages are the tool that they need to fulfill the divine mandate to make disciples of all nations!

When I reflect on experiences like learning what “lejos” means in Mexico, I realize that part of the what many languages teaches us as human beings is humility, the willingness to listen deeply, and the opportunity to work intentionally and faithfully to unite. 

Being in diverse community is not always easy, but it is part of the gift of being human.  The human condition is complex and so often, we only focus on our capacity for evil and destruction.

Our vision at UUMC is to grow as a church where people of all cultures, all nations, and all ages can come together to love and serve God and neighbor.  To do this, we must embrace the gift of being human and humbly acknowledge that we are different, yet also embrace the opportunity for us to unite through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

It is this Spirit that helps us celebrate cultures and languages in worship.  It is this Spirit that enables us gives thanks when someone born in another country walks in our doors.  It is this Spirit that unites us and makes us one body, one people, one church!

 Copyright 2014 by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali