Monday, May 20, 2013

Tower of Babel from Genesis 11

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there... 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.” 8So 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. 

People don't like change. The builders of the Tower of Babel created a monument to sameness as they sought to keep their family and friends from being scattered throughout the earth. But, the change they feared happens at God's hand. It describes the change in understanding as the world goes from a small Earth with one language to a multicultural world with many people, languages and traditions. Biblically, the Babel narrative is placed in the Old Testament between the story of Noah’s sons and God’s call to Abram to leave his country, implying there are other countries. It describes a paradigm shift as the world becomes a much bigger place—bigger than a singular tribe and its own story.

Before Babel the Bible is mainly about a small group of people. After Babel it’s a multicultural world of Egyptians and Canaanites and beyond. It shows the world expanding in much the way our own experience of the world is changing through cheap travel and improved communication technology.

The Hebrews build the tower to keep them contained, to keep them from scattering. They burn their bricks and begin piling them in a careful and orderly way to build the tower. It was their beacon. It was their boundary. It was the symbol of their unity, but it was also the symbol of their fear

They feared the big world that was beyond the edges of their knowledge. So they tried to build something that would prevent them from encountering that world.

In fact, when we read the opening of Genesis 11 we read that the whole Earth had one language and the same words. But safa, the hebrew word for language  can also be translated as edge. The opening of the story could also be translated as the whole earth had one edge and the same words, indicating that the tower builders were concerned with protecting their edges, their boundaries.

Who can blame them? When we go to a country beyond our own borders, there’s no telling what might happen. We might order the wrong food, end up lost or be without a restroom for far too long.  We may get sick or be unable to read the road signs. We may not know the words for contact solution, toilet paper or scrambled eggs. In other words, we are vulnerable.

The tower builders wanted to remain secure, not vulnerable. Their fear pulls them together and keeps them close, but God scatters them by confusing their language. God disorders their order, disrupts their plans. They are left looking at each other in confusion and wondering what it all means. If at the beginning of Genesis God orders the chaos, in this chapter, God creates a new kind of chaos. Why? What does this mean?

What does this mean? It’s a question we ask ourselves all the time. When a toddler first begins to speak, his or language is often not understandable. So we look inquisitively at the parent and silently ask, What does she mean? 

We ask the same question in church and in prayer. What do God’s words mean for my life? What is the meaning of my illness or healing? What is the meaning of my job loss or sudden raise? Sometimes the answer reinforces what we know. Other times it breaks what we think we know wide open. It is when we experience disorder, both good and bad, that we ask this question. It is when we experience disorder that we change the most.

I confronted this question head on when my family and I went to visit the World Trade Center site. I was a little leery of visiting, fearing that there would be an undercurrent of hostility. I worried that it might be like the Tower of Babel—a monument to a culture that wanted to stay isolated, to lift itself above others, to insulate itself our of fear.

But when I got there, it wasn’t like that at all. The line was filled with people from all over the world—Arabs and Asians and Africans and Americans. The workers who took the tickets and answered questions varied. Some wore headscarves and others spoke with accents and others fit the true, red, what and blue American stereotype to a T.

As I stood at the memorial pool, I traced the names that were engraved on the railing along the outside. I realized that they weren’t all traditional American names. They were names from around the world.

That visit made me realize that I was connected to all the earth (to use the Genesis lingo), that the edges or boundaries are more often than not illusions of our own human making.  Reading the names showed me how narrow my own vision was of that event. I had reduced it to a polar tragedy of us versus them rather than a world event with a web of connections reaching out to all the world.

I was very much like the Tower of Babel builders in my thinking without even intending to be. In that moment, Jesus' call to love my neighbor seemed like a much bigger endeavor. I stood there with the brand new impression of the impact of the tragedy of 9/11 and wondered, what does this mean?

That moment disordered my thinking and gave me a new understanding as to who I was as an American in the world, as a Christian in the world and who we all are in a big world that belongs to God. At that moment, I felt so connected to people I hadn’t ever met. I was moved by their loss.  My eyes filled with tears.

For that moment, I experienced a world without edges. A world with many languages. A world that is disorderly yet loved by God. My people aren't at the center of all the earth. It is God’s people. It's God's world. It's bigger and richer than I can begin to imagine.

This is an excerpt from my sermon delivered at Emsworth UP Church 
Check out this blog to see other sermons from Emsworth's regular pastor, the Rev. Susan Rothenberg. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

For the Love of Soup

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

My grandmother always wanted to cook for her family. As the mother of six boys, this must have felt like a natural way to demonstrate her love. No matter what time of day I visited, she’d feed me. We shared political conversations over hot chocolate stirred with candy canes and discussions of relationships with hamloaf. We ate Rice Krispy treats with chocolate chips while my kids played. 

Each time she would try to send food home with me, usually soup. She'd recite a litany of soups that were in her freezer ranging from carrot ginger (delicious) to the frightening food processor concoction salad soup (I was only offered that once, but it was memorable). 

More often than not, I'd turn her down. I felt guilty about taking food from her.  "No thanks," I’d say, "we have plenty of food." Or, "I already have dinner planned," even if I didn’t.

I said those things because as a young wife and mom I thought I should already have dinner planned for the day, if not the week. Once, I was talking about this with a friend who was far wiser than I. She looked at me like I had three heads when I told her I always turned down the food. 

Don’t you know taking is a form of giving? 

The question stunned me. I never had thought of it that way. I thought my taking a dinner was an admission of defeat, a way of saying that I didn’t or couldn’t do it on my own. I never thought that I was denying my grandmother the opportunity to give her love to me in something tangible, to bless me with something she made. I didn’t think that taking her food was a way of strengthening our relationship. I was more concerned about the image I was trying to live up to than what the offer of frozen soup might mean to her. 

So often, this is the nature of my sin, to think only about myself. To be so concerned about my image or what people or thinking that I fail to be who I truly am. It is better to give than to receive, right? Giving is empowering. Receiving is humbling. I like to be the giver not the receiver.

Jesus says, Love one another just as I have loved you.
In the gospels, we see Jesus give and receive--serve AND sit back and be served. Love gives selflessly. But love also receives gracefully. I am called to use my gifts to bless others and drop my pretenses long enough to be blessed. Loving fully means recognizing that blessing and relationship can come in the form of a hamloaf or a Rice Krispy treat. Or even salad soup.