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Babel And Being Human

Author's Note: This is a transcript of a sermon I was blessed to preach to the students, staff and faculty of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. While specifically referencing ordination within the Christian tradition, I hope the more universal themes of this reflection might be inspiring to you.

Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as humans migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘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 shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Good Morning everyone, it is such a pleasure to be with you this morning and an honor to be given the chance to speak to you all. As we begin, I want us to spend a few moments in reflection of this piece of art. Simply entitled the “The Tower,” this work was created by Mell Meleen, an artist whose works I find fascinating. She based this piece of the story we just heard, and this quote from Wolfgang Von Hohberg which says “What use are fortress or trench, can moat or wall prevail against the lightning hurled by Heaven’s Lord and Master? ”

In her explanation of this work, she points out a few things. The first is this mythological motif from the Hindu Tradition that says that God has one eye closed, blocking out the sins and failings of humanity. But at times the Eye of God opens and seeing what is truly taking place, with swiftness, the justice of God arrives. You can also see in the upper corner you will see an image of a dove, with an olive branch in its mouth, flying away after having been trapped. Meleen shares that this is to represent the idea that while security and power and wealth may come from strong towers and high walls, true peace, true hope, true love, cannot exist until the tower crumbles and the dove is set free.

Friends I invite you to spend some moments contemplating this image while I read for you again the story of the Tower of Babel. I am going to use a little poetic license and tell you the story in narrative form. I invite you to open your hearts and listen if you can, with childlike wonder, and let us see if there is something here for us to learn together.

Once upon a time, when the world was still young and the song of creation was still whispered in the wind, there was a great and powerful people who arose in the West And traveled to the uncharted lands of the Eastern, until they settled in the valley that would future generations would call be Shinar.

Now, the sages and scholars of these people would be quick to tell you (if you had asked them) that they were the descendants of a great race of giants, warriors and leaders unlike the world had ever seen. They would boast of how their first matriarchs had once co-mingled with the Sons of God, who had gifted them with powers of metallurgy, magic and warcraft. These same sages and scholars would be less likely to tell that these warriors of renown and these so-called gifts from the angels created from created havoc and bloodshed amongst the peoples of earth that one day the Eye of God had opened, and the rain began to fall and it did not stop until all had been washed away.

These people however, still grasping onto their great and glorious heritage, began to build an immense city with walls and aqueducts and temples and soon, the powerful and wealthy among them decided that they would build a tower. This tower would be unlike anything the world had ever seen, it would reach into the heavens and insert itself into your court of the Divine. In building this great wonder, instead of needing the Gods to come down to them, to descend to earth at the God’s convenience, these rich and powerful humans would be able to walk directly up to the heavenly throne, they would be able to appear before the Gods at their convenience and sit at table with the Divine whenever they chose. There would be no more need to wait, to pray to beg for the Divine to condescend to humanity. These people would finish what Adam and Eve had started with the eating of the apple so long ago. These humans would finally be like God.

So, with the plans drawn up and the architects ready, the slaves were called from the fields to begin the work of making bricks. Craftsmen and builders left their shops to join the project. Even children were forced to leave their play to collect mud and straw. As time wore on and the tower continued to rise, the wealthy and powerful celebrated their plan, but the poor and the needy began to suffer. As all work had been shifted to the building of the tower, the fields went unsown and the wheat was left unharvested. The animals had been let loose to fend for themselves and the garden beds had become overgrown with weeds. Commerce had ended, the markets were closed and holy celebrations that had once marked sacred time and space had all been forgotten.

Soon…there was only the tower, standing tall in the midst of a broken and suffering city. The stars watched in horror as the woods that had sung to God in the beginning of the creation were burned in the fires of this all-consuming project. It was as if humanity was on course to destroy itself, because a few people wanted to become like God.

And so the day came that the Divine intervened. The earth shook, the sky rang with claps of thunder and cracks of lightning. The language that the people spoke became confused and the tower came crashing down. The rich and the mighty will tell you that this story is one of judgment from The Divine One. The people had gotten too close, and the Heavens were threatened, and so their plans had to be thwarted and the tower was gone!

Among the enslaved, the poor and the forgotten however, the story is told in a different way. The day the tower fell was the day the rains finally came again, it was the day people could finally return to their homes and their health. It was the day they could all finally rest and return to tending their gardens, and tending each other. They were free.

As time passed, the story of the great tower shifted from history, into fable and slowly faded into myth, and many, many others would try to build similar monuments throughout the ages. Temples and statues and palaces would be constructed as symbols of the God-like authority that kings and rulers and generals have held over their peoples, but as much as each culture in succession has tried, in the end, they have always failed. Those who would assert their power and elevate themselves to a higher status than is fitting for them, will always come down like that tower of old, and when they come crashing down, the poor and the needy always rejoice, because their tyrants are finally gone. And they are once again free.

So friend, what does that have to do with us gathered here today?

Well, by virtue of your presence here, I assume you have felt the call to become a minister of the Church. You have come here to prepare for the day when you will kneel, and the mantle of ministry will be placed upon you. Hands will rest on your shoulders and surrounded by elders and other ministers, blessings will be recited over you. and the Holy Spirit, the Divine Source of All Life, will be invoked and asked to fall on you in a special way. Then, you will be invited to rise as a Minister, the person called to represent God wherever you go.

This will be a glorious day and we, your friends, faculty and staff will rejoice with you when it happens, but there is a dark side to it as well. For you see, when that happens…when all trust and authority and divine right are given to you, you will be tempted to see the line between yourself and God as something more blurry than it should be. You will be tempted to see yourself as more than you are and when your prayers go unanswered, or worse, when they are answered in a way you don't like, you may be tempted to issue your own divine utterances instead. You will consider decreeing your own laws, to build your own temples and to set yourself up as a tiny little god over those who trust you to lead them.

If that happens, I hope you will remember today…remember today when you are tempted to puff up and push out and dominate and control. Remember these words of warning.

As a minister of God you have been called, not to reach up and make yourself more Divine than the rest of us, but to teach all how to survive and thrive as human beings. You have not been called to build towers that will reach the heavens, but to tend gardens and to share your bread, to pray with the sick and sit with the dying. You have been divinely called to be the most human person that most will ever meet and to show to us all that God is not just in the great places of power and privilege, but here, with us, in our homes, our churches, our communities, our hearts. God is here in this place where we dwell with each other, where we show up for each other, where we struggle and are challenged by each other. Where we declare to one another in our words and deeds what it means to love and be loved. You are not called to try and reach up to some God living fair away from us, you have been called to show that God has been down here with us all along. Loving us in our humanness and healing us of our wounds.

St. Julian of Norwich tells us that God “our tender mother, looks after us with a tenderness that is far beyond any comparison” and that walking with us, “ She fills our understanding, directs our way, soothes our conscience, comforts our soul and illuminates our hearts." God is here, Immanuel God with us. And you are here to remind us just how close “with us,” really is.

As we go from this place, may we all remember who we are, and whose we are. May we eagerly answer our call to be exactly who we have been created to be. May each of us see the Divine in those around us, and may we each seek to sow love, pardon injury, spread hope, live out joy, and build God’s faithful kingdom, here on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so today.


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