Hello, out there! I hope this finds you well and safe and finding good things to do with your time. I am Jim Jelinek, and with my colleague The Rev. Alan Neale, we serve the people and community of Trinity Church, Newport, RI. Today’s reflection is based on a reading from the Book of Genesis [11:1-9] which is a lesson appointed for the Vigil or Early Service for Pentecost:
“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. 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.” The Word of the Lord.
Many years ago I was attending a liturgy in Grace Cathedral, and our Bishop, William Swing was preaching. He came up with a line that I had never heard before, and it may have been original with him, perhaps not. I have heard it several times since then and I still enjoy it. +Bill asked a simple question: “Do you know how to make God laugh?” We looked at each other, stared at him in the brief pause he allowed for the question to sink in. “Do you know how to make God laugh? Tell God your five-year plan!” Well, he certainly made us laugh.
I have not read this myth in a very long time, and I think I have only preached on it once or twice in fifty years of ministry, so when I was looking around for something to write about I came across this and thought I would give it a try. I don’t have any Bible commentaries here, so I am going to make a guess at some of the dimensions of this story. I am guessing that it is very old, one of the earliest texts in its conception and its writing, because the language in places is very repetitious. What I find amusing about it is this: to whom is the Lord speaking? “Look, they are one people.” Is the Lord telling himself to Look? I have to guess so. And though the Lord has already come down to see what’s going on, he says, “Come, let us go down.” He is using the sovereign we/us language, I guess, and is musing about what to do next.
In our modern world, where planning is usually seen as a good thing this story sounds a little strange. Is there anything intrinsically wrong with making bricks, making them good and strong, and building a city with them? Not really. Ambition can be a very good thing in the human mind and heart. I think that if they had stopped with just building the city, if they had been content with that, they would not have gotten on God’s last nerve. But then there’s the matter of the tower! They wanted to build something to storm the heavens, God’s realm, and enter it by force rather than by invitation. That’s an entirely different thing.
It is an odd coincidence that this week in our world Elon Musk and his engineers and scientists and astronauts are trying to launch a rocket to escape the earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull and go as far as a space station circling the globe. Is that the same thing? I do not think so.
This whole matter of space travel is about exploration, not conquest, trying to see how far humans can travel and what happens to the human mind and body during such travel, during such aloneness. And in the process of developing such aircraft and pressurized clothing and special food, there have been countless by-products that have enriched human life dramatically.
Another parallel right now is the tremendous effort being made in laboratories all over the world to try to come up with a vaccine to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Every time we learn more ways to save human life we have the opportunity to make our species stronger and healthier.
This story is a myth about our human relationship with God, and though it is set in history, it is not historical. But just because it is not historical does not mean it isn’t true. This myth is all about knowing our place and being clear about our motives.
One of the fascinating dimensions of this is language. So many of us have studied foreign languages and our own so that we can communicate with each other clearly, so that we can understand one another, have compassion for another, make peace with each other.
One more thought about conquest, because we do use that word when talking about mountain climbing. But I would venture that no one conquers Mt. Everest; people scale it, climb it, and bear many hardships and stresses all the way up. To conquer is to overcome, to take over, and Everest will always be there for one more climber to scale. The mountain will not be diminished nor tamed by anyone. I would venture that those who make such a climb do not even conquer their fears, for if they did they would be likely to get careless and sloppy and plunge to their deaths. They learn how to manage their fear and use it to keep their minds sharp and clear and focused.
So, let your ambition take you into new ventures, new experiences, and do good things for others, but remember that this story is to remind us not to get too big for our britches.
Let us pray.
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. [A Prayer of Self-Dedication, BCP, p. 832]
May God bless and keep you always! +JLJ