9-16-18 “Glorious Diversity”
So our reading today takes place in the years following the great flood story. Many, if not most, ancient civilizations had their own myths and legends related to a great flood that covered the entire earth - the causes, characters, and heroes in those stories vary from culture to culture. But what that tells us is that, regardless of how we understand or what we believe about the story,
a massive flood of some kind surely did in fact take place that impacted ancient civilizations in different ways.
And this story, as it has been carried forward in Judeo-Christian contexts, is a story of how God, after destroying all of creation with a flood, sent this one surviving family to repopulate the earth - that they were to “be fertile, multiply, and fill the earth.” So the family of Noah got down to business, as it were, and soon we read about the descendants of this second, first family.
And we learn that Noah’s grandson Cush fathered a man named Nimrod, who is described in Genesis 10 as both a great hunter and the first great warrior. And it tells us that Nimrod became the builder of and ruler over five great cities, one of which is Babel, in the valley of Shinar. And as Nimrod and his people built and settled Babel, they lost site of God’s mission, “to be fertile, multiply, and fill the earth.” Instead, they declared,
“Come, 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.”
So, rather than fulfilling the mission that God had called them to, they decided to make a name for themselves, and build a great city and great tower, so that they wouldn’t be dispersed all over the earth. Now, a tower can be viewed in various ways. A tower might be considered a monument - like the Washington Monument in our nation’s capital - in this case a monument to them and to their newfound technology of brick and mortar. A tower could serve as a rallying point that identifies or defines a community in a specific place, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Or a tower could serve a security purpose, as a lookout post that enabled them to see if other nations were advancing on them, so that they might be prepared for war. Nowhere, as is commonly suggested in this passage, does it say that they in any way were seeking to build a tower to heaven in order to be like God. This was all about doing their own thing, about hubris, and not the God thing that they were called to.
Now, as you can imagine, many theologians and biblical scholars have written about this story. There are as many opinions about this piece as there
are writers who tackle the subject. Let me offer this perspective to you through the lens of Creation Spirituality that we’re exploring in this series. We have talked in earlier weeks about the fact that Creation Spirituality holds that God is both immanent and transcendent, that it, God is both here and everywhere at once. God didn’t just create and walk away - God is no absentee landlord - but God is present here.
And it also holds that in creating all that is, God declared it, and us, good and very good. That is, God’s plan for creation, God’s desire for creation is good as God is good. And that creation is a diverse creation. From the multitude of flora and fauna we see in the natural world, we know that God values diversity in all of creation. And the fact that scripture tells us that we are made in the image of God, and that we as humans are also very diverse, indicates that God loves and images us as diverse as well. In fact, one of the key principles of Creation Spirituality is that diversity is the nature of Creation. It is the DNA of creation.
So, when the people of Babel, under the leadership of Nimrod, decide to build a city and a tower and to remain right where they are, they are in fact, rejecting God’s desired diversity in the world. They are seeking to halt the expansion where it is. They are attempting to stop their growth right there. They are hoping to “make a name for themselves” rather than honoring the name and the will of the God.
But while we honor and celebrate diversity, we are told that we are one; that in God we are one people. Some might wonder, how can we be one and be diverse? How can we celebrate diversity and yet claim to be one? Let’s look at that. Being one does not mean being the same, right? I mean, not all people are the same. Not all men are unwilling to ask for directions when they’re lost. Not all blonds are dingy airheads, nor do all blonds have more fun, as the old hair color ads used to suggest. Not all tall people are good basketball players, not all short people make good jockeys. Peoples and groups of peoples, regardless of how they are categorized, are not monolithic blocs or automatons who just think, move, or act with a hive mentality. That’s one of the dangers we expose when our thinking moves into “us versus them” territory.
Yet, as the song says, “we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” Our closing song today talks of “One love! One heart! Let’s get together and feel all right.” Theologian Steve Goodier, in talking about oneness and diversity, poses the question of how are we to find peace with others, peace with ourselves, when both the ideas of “oneness” and “diversity” are at the core of division for some people?
“Where is true peace to be found?” he asks. Then he offers that, “Archbishop Desmond Tutu might say it can be found in the African concept of ‘ubuntu.’
“Tutu says, "Ubuntu is a concept that we have in our Bantu languages at home. Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone.
We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate.”
“He also says that if the world had more ubuntu, there would be no war. The powerful would help the weak. That is where peace is to be found.
“A story from World War II shines a spotlight on ubuntu. In 1942, the American consul ordered citizens home from the Persian Gulf, for fear they might get caught in the spreading conflict. Travel was difficult,
and some civilians secured passage on the troop ship Mauritania. Passengers included thousands of Allied soldiers, 500 German prisoners of war and 25 civilian women and children.
“The ship traveled slowly and cautiously, constantly in danger from hostile submarines patrolling the ocean depths. It was Christmas Eve and they had traveled for a full two months. They had only made it as far as the coastal waters of New Zealand and all on board were homesick, anxious and frightened.
“Someone came up with the idea of asking the captain for permission to sing Christmas carols for the German prisoners, who were surely as homesick and lonely as the passengers. Permission was granted and a small choral group made its way to the quarters where the unsuspecting prisoners were held. They decided to sing ‘Silent Night’ first, as it was written in Germany by Joseph Mohr and was equally well known by the prisoners.
“Within seconds of beginning the carol,” Goodier continues, “a deafening clatter shook the floor. Hundreds of German soldiers sprang up and crowded
the tiny windows in order to better see and hear the choristers. Tears streamed unashamedly down their faces. At that moment, everyone on both sides of the wall experienced the universal truth – that at the core of our being, all people everywhere are one. They experienced ubuntu. Hope and love broke down the barriers between warring nations and, for that moment at least, all were one family.”
[Note - 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the song, “Silent Night,” and our Advent Worship will celebrate that this year.]
And as Goodier concludes, “We are meant to be one. And only after we realize that amazing truth can we find what we need – true peace.”
The overwhelming lesson of this story of the tower
is that it reveals in a graphic fashion humanity’s sinful nature and why we act the way we do. They rejected God's will. It is obvious from the garden onward that God's intention for humankind was to scatter and have dominion over the earth.
But Noah's descendants rejected that plan, and determined they would stay together. That decision was unanimous, but it was an empty unanimity. Here at the start of the story we see in humankind a solidarity we can only imagine in our current world! It’s a very prosaic lesson in the fact that a group can be unified in the wrong direction and around the wrong goals. Nazi leadership in WWII were unified. Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group Al Qaeda were unified. Simple unity is not enough.
The people of Babel were filled with a humanistic pride. Humanism is defined in all sorts of ways these days, but in the sense that humanism makes human beings the measure of all things and self-sufficient, then the folks who built the tower were filled with a proud humanism. This tower was a monument to their illusion that they could do without God. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, says Nimrod built the tower to defy God and escape any further flood.
The whole project was human-centered from the start; verse 3 makes a point of the fact that they did not use natural building materials but manmade bricks instead. Even their technology was moving away from God.
Theologian Helmut Thielicke puts his finger on the heart of the story when he says “the people had displaced God from the center of their lives, and thus unbalanced, the spiritual centrifugal forces flung them into the darkness of the world. When they put God out of their lives, life, like some old unbalanced [washing machine], began whirling faster and faster, thumping and shaking and flinging itself to pieces into the darkness.”
God’s desire for the world, then and now, is a celebration of diversity. And diversity within the world, within creation, is reflected both in the diversity found within Christianity, as well as the diversity found in the many streams of religion and faith found in the Deep Ecumenism of the sacred faiths around the world.
Creation Spirituality unleashes vitality, creativity and a sense of playfulness. It is generous, mutually affirming of diversity, and non-competitive. Unlike fall and redemption spiritualities, it doesn’t set up competitive dualisms between male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, white/black, Christian/non-Christian, us and them. It’s egalitarian and pluralistic, rejoicing in the manyness of beings that interconnect in a rich cosmic community. It allows us to lay aside our defenses, our needs to control, dominate and destroy the other. It is the spirituality that is needed for an ecologically sensitive, peacemaking, and just world community. It’s a spirituality that is needed to celebrate the One love, one heart of God that celebrates, not the babel of a divisive unity, but the beautiful diversity of God’s creation. Amen.