Jun 9th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Genesis 11:1-9
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” That’s how the story begins. But, not really. You have to go back one verse to get the set-up. “These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.” And way before that, you have to go all the way back to Genesis 1, where God tells the human beings, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God’s purpose and plan for human beings is clear: fill the earth, care for the earth, be responsible for the earth.
So, people are migrating from the east, we are told. They are on the move. They are meeting God’s charge and commission to “spread abroad” and “to fill the earth and subdue it.”
And then, they stop. “As they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.” The Hebrew word is yasab, which means “to dwell” or “to sit.” The bottom line is that the people have stopped moving – stopped spreading abroad – stopped filling the earth.
What comes next? “Let’s make bricks.” That one will come back to haunt their descendants who will be making bricks in Egypt. “We’ve got bitumen to hold the bricks together.” Another use of bitumen, or “pitch,” would be to waterproof a basket for a baby in a river. Don’t forget: this story is being written most likely during the captivity in Babylon, long after Moses and the exodus from Egypt.
“Hey, with bricks and mortar, let’s build a city!” And right smack dab in the middle of it, let’s build a tower – a ziggurat – that will reach all the way up to heaven. And we’ll plaster our name on it, so that everyone will be impressed with our achievement and pay attention to us.” And then they say, “because if we don’t, we will be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”
Wait a minute. Isn’t that what God wanted them to do? Didn’t God want them to fill the earth, to spread abroad, to have dominion, to be responsible?
Then, we are told, God comes down to see their city. In an older translation, it said, “God stooped down.” God had to stoop down to see the greatness of humankind. It’s a wonderful image.
God comes down, sees their city, and is, frankly, impressed. “…This is only the beginning of what they will do. Nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” They have stopped moving. They are building. They are challenging God’s intention for them.
So, what does God do? God got them moving again. God confused their language. That is to say, God gifted them with differing languages. Various languages appeared and we are left to assume that the people who could understand each other, gathered together, and moved in a particular direction. Humankind was no longer settled and sitting. They were moving again, spreading abroad, doing what God had commanded and commissioned them to do.
We usually think of scattering and dividing as negative actions, the result and consequence of disobedience. We think that the reason God varied their languages is because God was angry, or outraged, or irate. But that’s not in the text. God varied their languages so that they would continue meeting the challenge of being obedient to the way and will of God.
We often see and think of diversity as less desirable than unity. We like the idea of everyone being the same, and thinking the same, and speaking the same. We don’t want people who aren’t just like us to intrude on our comforts and contentments.
But God sees diversity in a different way. God sees diversity as a holy thing. God sees diversity as a way for the world to be what God imagined it to be.
Just look at the world. If God did not see diversity as a good thing, there would be only cats. If God did not see diversity as a good thing, there would be only white flowers. If God did not see diversity as a good and noble thing, there would be blandness and featureless quality to creation.
And when we can escape our prejudices and preconceptions, we can begin to see the beauty and wonder in every kind of people of every kind of language. We don’t always believe that in our cozy mid-western town. We don’t always welcome those whose skin is a different color, or whose native culture differs from our own, or those whose native language is not English. We still make our disparaging comments about people who eat food that we do not eat, or observe holidays we do not observe, or who dress in clothing that is different from our own.
But when we can grow up into being the people God created us to be, we can begin to see the beauty and wonder in all people – from all places – of every language and custom – of every orientation. We begin to experience the wonder and splendor of the diversity in the world all around us. We begin to see the world as a multi-faceted jewel. We begin to understand the height and depth and breadth of this miraculous and mysterious creation.
Thomas Berry, one of the first ecotheologians, told us:
"Diversity is the magic. It is the first manifestation, the first beginning of the differentiation of a thing and of simple identity. The greater the diversity, the greater the perfection."
So, when the Day of Pentecost had come, and those first disciples began speaking in other languages, so that people from all over the known world could hear and understand, it is interesting that God did not create one universal language, but enabled people to hear the food news in their own language. If God was going to “undo” Babel, God would have given one, new universal language, to take people back to the days when that Tower was built.
But God didn’t do that. God made it so everyone could hear – could listen – in their own language. God celebrated the diversity of the world. God delighted in the good news of God’s love being heard be everyone, with the implication that this good news would not be spread abroad – and taken to every corner of the world – where disciples would be made, baptized, and taught.
On that Pentecost long ago, the Spirit came among the infant church in ways so powerful that it empowered a small band of believers to go out and change the world. Maybe we get so caught up in telling the story – year after year – that we fail to stop and think about what it truly means.
Perhaps Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave it to us in his words:
We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God's family.
We are a diverse and varied people. We are distinct and different, assorted and sundry. But we are one – bound together by the Spirit of God – and deeply loved by God Almighty. We are Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – citizens of Evansville, Newburgh, Boonville, Morganfield, Henderson, and the parts of Indiana belonging to Vanderburgh, Warrick, Posey, and Gibson counties. Former Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Evangelicals, and Lutherans. And together – each of us and all of us – have seen and heard and experienced for ourselves the deeds of God’s power.Like patches of assorted fabrics, combined to form a beautiful quilt, we are a diverse people, bound together by God’s Spirit, into a fabric of faith that we are to spread abroad in the world God made. Let us be God’s people, many and one. For now and evermore. Amen.