Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 15, 2016
“The Silliness (Or Danger) of Seeking to be Great (Again)”
Genesis 11: 1-9 – Common English Bible
“All people on the earth had one language and the same words. 2 When they traveled east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them hard.” They used bricks for stones and asphalt for mortar. 4 They said, “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.”
5 Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the humans built. 6 And the Lord said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. 7 Come, let’s go down and mix up their language there so they won’t understand each other’s language.” 8 Then the Lord dispersed them from there over all of the earth, and they stopped building the city.9 Therefore, it is named Babel, because there the Lord mixed up the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord dispersed them over all the earth.
I love hearing family stories. Don’t you have your favorites? Grandma, tell us the story again of what it was like during the depression. How did you and grandpa meet again? Lots of whys and how comes. In our family, why is it that we eat hamburgers on Christmas Eve? How come our name is spelled differently? Lots of stories we’ve never heard are told when our families gather for funerals and memorial services. Sometimes we even feel a tinge of guilt for enjoying those times so much. But go on, tell us just one more story, grandma.
Well, when you look at our text today from the Book of Genesis, you can picture a family gathering when someone said “tell us again why there are so many languages and cultures.” Or maybe they asked “Why do our people live all over the world, not just where we grew up?” And so you heard the beginning. Well, a long time ago, “All people on earth had one language and the same words.” But they tried to build a great tower in order to make a great name for themselves. They claimed that then “we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.” I don’t know why that would be a problem in the first place, but the story concludes: Their efforts didn’t work because God intervened and said, “Let’s mix up their language so they won’t understand each other.” They will be frustrated and stop trying to build it.
I have to tell you, what sounds innocently enough like a little story to explain why we have so many languages and cultures doesn’t explain it. And generations of scholars have struggled to understand the meaning of this passage – which I found out too late to change my mind and try a different text. Well, I could have, but who doesn’t like a challenge. What’s this really about?
But it’s not all serious. It’s actually pretty funny. The people thought by building this great big huge tower with its top in the sky would be impressive enough to give them a great name. But God has to “come down to see” it. Which means to say, this “great” tower was so “eensy weensy” that God couldn’t see it from heaven. God gives shade! And yet, here’s the thing. In response to seeing it, God seems a little anxious or even afraid of what humans could potentially accomplish together.
Again, in a nutshell, Genesis chapter 11 says: The people want to build a great tower to give them a great name so they won’t be dispersed. God mixes up their language so they won’t be able to understand each other and they will give up. But underlying it all, the story seems to suggest the real problem is that God is afraid of what humans could actually do if they worked together. Isn’t that weird? I mean, isn’t that the kind of unity we dream of? Human beings that understand one another and work together? Talk about a wonderful vision!
There’s always been a tinge of paranoia in the stories told about God. Variations of paranoia, jealousy, indecisiveness, and even schizophrenia. Fear that “the humans” are plotting. Now of course, when the story says God “said” or God “thinks” or “God is,” remember, this is human beings trying to understand God. Not the literal actions of God. So the people who are trying to understand God are the ones who said God doesn’t want humans to work together to achieve great things. I still don’t get it. Why not? What could go wrong with that? What could go wrong with humans having too much power?
Oh, so maybe I do understand it. For example, in the drive to make America great again. Because, for whom would it be great again? And what exactly does the word “again” refer back to?
Now I see it! God might rightly be afraid of what humans could accomplish. Think of the repeated damage that has been caused by human arrogance. Especially with such silly priorities as towers as high as the sky so their name would be great.
So maybe is wasn’t human cooperation that God should fear but humans seeking to achieve false goals. I guess the idea could be that many languages and cultures might curb the human tendency to dominate. Yet today, the Day of Pentecost, we celebrate a kind of reversal of the division created at the Tower of Babel. The great act of God this time was unity – through demonstrations of fire, wind, and the Spirit. It was this kind of unity that went on to create the Church of Jesus Christ. People of every nation and language gathered in Jerusalem and they all understood each other. Of course, now what do we do with that power?
If God sought to create division so the people were thwarted from pursuing the goal of their silly tower, what would be the right goals? Funny you should ask! Our leadership teams have articulated four of them – four vision statements. We have been meeting this spring to ask the question “Where is God calling us to next?”
Starting with 20 people gathered around the room on a Saturday in early March, it was fascinating to watch as common themes emerged. Pages and pages of chart paper and dozens and dozens of sticky notes coalesced into a succession of statements condensed into the four you have in your bulletin today. But as I looked at each statement again this week, I was struck by the way each one begins. Take a look at your bulletin insert: #1 starts by asking us to be a church. #2. Be a church. #3. #4. Be a church. And then what that means.
All our conversations led to that common vision to clearly ground our identity as a church, which may seem obvious, but what that means is: our vision is not to be a social club where we only gather to see friends, or a Kiwanis type club that only does community service together, or to only align our values with a political platform. Our vision is to remember and always seek to be a church. First, foremost, and above everything else. How are we a people of faith?
Vision statement #2 gets at this more specifically. “A church full of people who live and proclaim the social justice witness of Jesus Christ.” Many people when asked to describe our church use the words social justice. That is an identity marker for Park Hill Congregational UCC. In our vision making, we could have said “well, we’ve been there, done that,” but we all decided we wanted to take it deeper. You might ask, How is social justice a vision when it’s already a statement of our core values? In the same way that Jesus spent his entire life proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He said, “It’s here, and not yet.”
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke so eloquently this week about just that: how progress brings backlash, illustrating this very point. Here, and not yet. The Emancipation Proclamation brought with it freedom as well as Jim Crow laws. Brown v. Board of Education was to finally end segregation in schools but it also fueled white flight and the growth of suburbs. Equal marriage laws have brought rights for some and found others the targets of the manufactured crisis of bathroom laws, which Lynch said were reminiscent of separate drinking fountains as a little girl found in her home state. But she concluded her speech by promising that the federal government “sees” transgender people. Few statements throughout this “crisis” have been more Christ-like.
Jesus’ very first proclamation of his mission in the Gospel of Luke was this: good news for the poor, the release of captives, the liberation of the oppressed, and recovery of sight to the blind. We ground our social justice vision in that very statement.
But in developing the language of our vision, the concept of blindness has been the one area of most discussion because it has prompted the most discomfort for us. That’s not a bad thing. It’s the challenge of interpretation.
But what is blindness? Who is blind? Is Jesus speaking here only of one’s physical inability to see through their eyes? Or is Jesus speaking of those who are blind in their heart – who can’t even see the way to their own love and acceptance? You know, to love ourselves as we love our neighbors?
Or is Jesus speaking of those who can’t see or refuse to see the often invisible among us – those who are suffering, lonely, homeless? Or any who are judged for their identity and all who are condemned for their loving. Jesus did this repeatedly throughout his ministry and so our vision is participate in the social justice witness of Jesus Christ and, like him, speak up on behalf of anyone excluded and denied their full humanity. Our vision statement reads “and challenging the blindness of anyone who excludes and denies the full humanity of all God’s people and the care of God’s earth.” To see one another with the love of Christ.
As our leadership teams deliberated our way into these vision statements, I was struck by how simple and yet how hard each of them will be to accomplish. Like #1. A church where everyone finds their place for ministry. Participation. What’s radical or ground breaking about that? But has there ever been a time when more things competed for our time and attention? Most people aren’t looking for more things to do, more places to be, more people to meet. They usually need less. The church can actually help with that as we consider choices and priorities for the health and wholeness of our families. But also, for the health and wholeness of our church, we need to find ways to engage with each other, otherwise, how can we be a church? And even more importantly, with people who are unable to come to church anymore.
And #3. A church community fully engaged in faith formation, again, among people with ever busier lives. What are the new ways we as churches can teach and nurture the Christian faith in children, youth, and adults? It is of most vital importance. Christianity cannot be assumed anymore. How do even teach that it is a value? More of the same won’t do it.
And finally #4. A church committed to developing and using our resources wisely. I am so proud of our church now being fully solar-powered. And that every measure of sustainability has been addressed from boilers to water sprinklers to light bulbs. What else can we do? I am happy we are now opening our doors even more to community groups that can utilize our beautiful space. Who else can we invite in? And yet, more basic, how do we ensure that smaller congregations such as ours are financially viable in the future? A difficult question for sure. We have a vision of a church that is strong and vibrant, where our youth today will bring their grandchildren. What do we need to do to realize that vision for them? Do we believe in that? It’s a difficult subject, but it’s our call to grow our giving capacity and build a long term structure of financial wellness so that we will be here for future generations.
Or is that the kind of thing God would condemn as a Tower of Babel? The building of a shrine to human achievement rather than fostering a dependence on God? Is a savings account or a capital reserve faithful stewardship in the Kingdom of God?
Most interpretations of our story in Genesis seem to suggest that the problem it addresses is that if humans cooperated to build this great big tower, they’d realize they don’t need God anymore.
I don’t see why it would ever have to be either or. Certainly I understand the temptation of human pride. We see the pursuit of false “greatness” all the time. I know how highly we prize individual achievements. And how many fewer people see a need for God at all.
But I also know that if God isn’t at the core of our goals or our vision, none of the words we write will happen because we can’t make it happen on our own. And if we did, we would cease to be a church. Oh, we might limp along for a while as a place to meet our friends, we could maintain some integrity as a community service organization, and we could even have an impact with a political witness. But would we be a church?
Proverbs famously says, without a vision, the people will perish. Here’s praying that in the pursuit of our vision God will be honored and you will be included. That what we work together to build is worthy of the high calling of Jesus Christ and not the silliness of seeking of greatness.
We are a diverse community of seekers
Inspired by the teachings of Jesus
Called to bold acts of compassion and justice
Our Core Values
Spiritual Depth and Intellectual Integrity
Worship, Education, and Outreach that Transforms People and Society
Social Justice, Diversity, and Love of Neighbor
Being Open and Affirming to Everyone—Without Exception
Belief that These Values are Embodied in the Life of Jesus
Our Proposed Vision
1) Participation: A church where everyone finds their place for ministry.
Creating a loving community where everyone belongs and stands alongside each other in times of need, connecting new friends and longtime members to opportunities for discipleship, and developing effective structures for leadership.
2) Social Justice: A church full of people who live and proclaim the social justice witness of Jesus Christ.
Whether it’s at home or work, among our neighbors or on the front lines, our faith as Christians means fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ: good news for the poor, working for the release of captives, advocating the liberation of the oppressed, and challenging the blindness of anyone who excludes and denies the full humanity of all God’s people and the care of God’s earth (Luke 4: 18-19).
3) Education: A church community fully engaged in faith formation.
Nurturing the values of a compassionate Christianity for children and families, helping youth integrate progressive Christianity into their lives, and exploring a deeper spirituality in adults – through inspiring worship, engaging classes, meaningful service opportunities, and creative intergenerational activities.
4) Stewardship: A church committed to developing and using our resources wisely.
Expanding use of our building, securing our long-term financial health, growing our congregation, and nurturing our individual spiritual gifts and talents for the purpose of serving our neighbors.