“The Will to Tower”
May 23, 2021, Pentecost Sunday
Having visited Haiti twice on Campus Ministry trips, I decided to live there for a few months after college. I worked at Wings of Hope, a home for disabled children that is well known to a number of folks here at UPC. It was during this time that I met Sam and Kay Leaman and Sandy Alexander for the first time when they came on what would be the first of many UPC trips.
When somebody says that they spent a number of months in Haiti, you wouldn’t be out of line to assume that such a person must know an awful lot of French. Nope – not me. I had two semesters worth of C grades in French on my UNC transcript tucked in my back pocket. Language was never my strong suit.
When I arrived at Wings of Hope I was quickly mobbed by children who didn’t speak a lick of English. It took me a few days but I began to discern a pattern – a certain word they kept using as they tugged on my sleeve. One boy in particular, Firenzi, was the main culprit. He kept putting his fingers to his mouth and saying “Sirèt, Sirèt”
Finally my curiosity got the better of me and I asked Maya, the director who had excellent English, “Why does this seven-year-old boy keep asking me for a cigarette.”
Maya laughed and laughed – he is a big man and he has a big laugh. He then said loud enough for everybody in the entire four story home to hear “He’s not asking you for a cigarette…he’s asking you for ‘Sirèt,’ for candy. To the children here, you came from America, so clearly your pockets are loaded with candy.”
Oooooohhhhhh – that makes much more sense…but why does language have to be so hard? Wouldn’t it be easier if we all just spoke the same one? Maybe…maybe not. A reading from Genesis, chapter 11:
1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
4Then 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.’
5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And 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. 7Come, 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. 9Therefore 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.
A few weeks back I invoked the work of 20th Century theologian Paul Tillich. For those of you who enjoy such things, rejoice – for those who find it tiresome, well, pray that it blesses the person next to you. Because Today we’re invoking the work of H. Richard Niebuhr.
One of his books is called Radical Monotheism and Western Culture. In it, Niebuhr examines what it means for human creatures to have faith. A quote: Faith is “the attitude and action of confidence in certain realities as the source of value and the object of loyalty.”  Defined this way, the question is not whether you have faith or not; it’s impossible not to have faith in something. Something must be the center of value and decision-making for you. The question is who or what do you place that faith in?
Niebuhr claims that human faith generally falls into three categories. Polytheism, Henotheism and then radical monotheism. For the purposes of the Tower of Babel text, I want us to consider henotheistic faith today.
Henotheistic faith is social faith – the object of faith and value is not the self, but rather the tribe or community to which one belongs. The Henotheist values his life only insofar as it contributes to the continued existence and glorification of that community. Given the time in which Niebuhr wrote this book, it’s not difficult to see how the rise of modern nationalism informed his theology. It’s not uncommon for the human being to elevate the nation as the object of faith, as the absolute center of value.
Radical Monotheism, on the other hand, recognizes that the true center of value is the ground of being itself. Nations come and nations go – only God outlasts them all. For the Radical Monotheist, it is impossible to elevate one community above another.
So the Henotheist elevates one particular society’s value above all others.
A Radical Monotheist places faith in the God from whom all peoples and societies emerges.
I’ll invite you to hold those two categories in mind as we consider this mythical story in the 11th chapter of Genesis.
Immediately prior to the Tower of Babel text is the Flood. Noah and his family disembark from their floating Zoo and the marching orders are pretty clear. Fill the earth – spread out – scatter to the north, south, east and west – go and do not stop.
No sooner do we turn the page then we have folks settling in the Plain of Shinar – and by the way Shinar means “we shall rebel” so there’s a hint for you.
They immediately begin to build a city with a tower “reaching up to the heavens”…but did you hear their reason for this building campaign? “Let us make a name for ourselves;” they say, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
Scattered – exactly like God intended.
But they would rather settle instead and something about this really bother God.
Some have suggested that the Tower is an attempt to storm the heavens.
But the text makes a show of God having to come down from the heavens to get a better look at this supposedly magnificent tower.
While their “will to tower” poses no threat to God, still, something sure does bother God here.
Niebuhr’s theology might offer us a window into why?
Perhaps here on the plains of Shinar we are experiencing how humans have this knack for constructing a tribe or a city or a nation and making that their god, the object commanding absolute faith – “let us make a name for ourselves” they said.
God sees this and says “this is only the beginning of what they will do.” God sees this and resolves to do something about it. God confuses their language, the people can no longer understand one another and they leave off building the tower and once again they spread across the earth, exactly as God intended.
Okay – brass tacks – what is this story doing in Scripture? I mean, on the one hand it must be something of a myth to explain why humans all speak different languages. But I wonder if there isn’t more going on in here. Could this also be a warning about putting our faith in something far too small – something that cannot bear the weight of all our search for meaning. Perhaps the confusion of the languages isn’t so much a punishment but rather a protective measure, a course correction to get us back on track. God confuses their language and now they have no choice but to disperse. No longer will humans be able to create a single society to make a name for themselves – now there will be multiple nations, a system of checks and balances to that impulse towards idolatry.
But – this is also the world we know – of nation making war against nation; of Israel and Palestine locked in seemingly endless struggle. We might rightly ask, ‘Is this any better than the Babel Co-Op? Is this what God wanted for us?’
The year was 1895. Japan defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War. As part of the treaty, China ceded Taiwan to Japanese control.
On May 29, the Japanese Army landed near a little fishing village on the northern tip of the island. The local village folk decided to appease the invading army for peace. Five brothers of the leading family volunteered to approach the Japanese camp and convey the goodwill of the villagers.
‘This is what I am going to tell the Japanese,’ said the eldest brother. ‘We are only fishermen and farmers. We have neither soldiers nor guns. We will not resist you. Just tell us what you need, food or money. We will give it to you. But please don’t harm us.’
‘Easier said than done,’ responded the village elder. ‘We speak Taiwanese; they speak Japanese. How are you going to talk with them?’ The eldest brother smiled, ‘I heard that the Japanese know Chinese characters,’ he informed them. ‘We bring a brush with us and make our wishes known to them by writing Chinese characters.’
Taking with them a brush, an ink slab and some paper, the brothers set out to meet the Japanese troops. When they arrived, they were quickly surrounded by armed soldiers. No sooner had the brothers raised these tools above their heads than the sound of shots rang out.
This was the ominous beginning of colonial rule in Taiwan that would last fifty years.
Suddenly we’ve moved from the shallow end of misunderstandings about candy to the deep end where miscommunication has some dire consequences.
Most times humans are not terribly thoughtful. When we give ourselves lock, stock and barrel to the lesser gods of our tribe or nation, well, terrible things can happen. The thoughtful human being, however, may have an experience that breaks this cycle. The constant push-pull of one tribe against the other can lead the thoughtful human being to ponder ‘What is the source from which all the peoples of the earth come? How might we put our faith in that God and break this cycle of competition and violence? Niebuhr calls this moment the “twilight of the gods.” It is the moment when the tribe or nation we had once valued above all else fail to provide meaning for all of life’s experiences. When these lesser gods pass away, we may at long last be ready to turn towards the one God of all heaven and earth.
Today is Pentecost. Nancy shared with our children how, on Pentecost, the Spirit made it possible for the disciples to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the peoples of every nation, of every language. Some have interpreted this as a reversal of Babel. But think about this for a moment. Pentecost did not help all of those different people hear and understand one another. The Spirit enabled them to hear the Gospel, to hear the voice of God whose care is for the peoples of all the nations of the earth.
It seems to me that Pentecost is less a reversal of Babel but a continuation of it – an opportunity to sink our faith in something deeper than our conflicted clans.
Sky was from Taiwan. The history of his people is a bloody one defined by the Japanese occupation. So what were we thinking putting Sky in the same house with Hiro, a student from Japan.
This was part of a program called Christmas International House at the first church I served. This was a ministry of hospitality. Internationals studying in the US who could not return home for the winter break applied and then came and stayed with host families in the church. During the day these 15 students came together to experience the Kansas City community.
When deciding which students stayed where, I confess that the weight of history was a non-factor…it had more to do with which host families wanted boys vs. girls, or which students are allergic to cats. Every year, we rolled the dice when we threw these students together, knowing there can be significant tensions between their peoples. Sometimes, though – in true Pentecost fashion, the Holy Spirit decides to show up.
After two weeks of living together, of spending most every minute of the day together, the students gathered in our Fellowship Hall for the International Potluck and closing ceremony. One-by-One they each stepped up to a table, and in place of tongues of fire, they lit a candle for peace and they were invited to say a few words about their experience.
Sky said “These past two weeks, I’ve had such a good time with you guys… and that is surprising to me.” Turning to Hiro, he said “You’re Japanese, I’m not supposed to like you – but I do. I’ve always been told not to trust the Japanese, but I consider you my friend.” As he lit his candle, Sky continued “I’m not a Christian, so I do not know the Bible well, but I do know the story of the Tower of Babel – where God confused everyone’s languages and made us all different. I also know the story of Pentecost – where God made it so every person could hear about Jesus…and how they all gathered around a common cause. I’m not a Christian,” he concluded, “so I hope it’s okay if I say this, but I think we just might have made it.”
Perhaps this is more what God had in mind? Not that our differences would give us cause for conflict. Japan over Taiwan and a thousand others tell the same story of us making our name great at the expense of another. From time to time, this God-given diversity enables people like Sky to catch a glimpse of the God of heaven and earth who stands exalted above all the nations, the only one who is worthy of our ultimate faith and allegiance.
Today is Pentecost when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit that scatters us in service to the Gospel. And who knows, when we are guided by that Spirit – when we labor on behalf of the Gospel of Jesus Christ rather than the towers of our own design – maybe nothing we propose to do will be out of our reach?
 H. Richard Niebuhr, p. 17
 Song, p. 27-28.
 Bratcher, p. 9