Sunday, February 16, 2014

Beyond Words

Beyond Words
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 16, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 11: 1-9
Acts 2: 1-8

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

1 Now the whole earth had one language and few words. 2 And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 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. 4 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, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name 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.[1]

It's funny the difference a week makes. I've come full circle this week. I was worried this time last week because I was thinking to myself, I've got my first baptism with so much about it to say, and the next story in this series is the Tower of Babel. And I'm like what in the world? Do I put aside the schedule to accommodate the baptism? Because there just is no way to connect these things. I mean you have one story with God confusing the language of all the people's of the Earth and then on the other hand God marking us, cleansing us from our sins, claiming us as his own, a child becoming, through the sacrament, one of the children of God. I thought to myself why couldn't it be last week, where we had Noah, and the amazing cleansing water image, or the week before where with the Cain and Abel story we had God's eternal mark of protection, I even thought, why not next week, when we talk about Abraham and his blessing, and the covenant of faith that he forms with God? But here I get the sacrament of baptism paired with Tower of Babel. And then last Sunday afternoon I'm given a great idea, and I think to myself, is it possible that every single story in the Bible matches well with baptism, because if the Tower of Babel does, surprising to me, believe it or not, now that I have my idea of how to do it, and then I think how much a testament to the power of the sacrament it is. If all parts of the Biblical narrative fit it, does that in itself show the power of the simple act. My idea for the connection is this. . . God is showing us a way to communicate beyond words through the sacraments. Both Communion and Baptism, both instituted as sacraments by Christ, are ways that Christians throughout the world, and throughout time, transcending the limitations of language, and transcending human understandings of what communication is all about, through the sacraments Christians talk to each other, find understanding and connection with each other, and most importantly also find a sure connection with God, and from God the connection comes, and to God we get a chance to commune, amazing. In Baptism we get what the people of Babel were seeking, that bridge to heaven, that connection to God, that reconnection, but on God's terms, in God's terms, not our own. We can't really put the power of the sacraments in words, instead they have to be experienced and remembered experientially, in the way that we can't build a bridge to heaven ourselves, we can't make it on our own, our bricks are insufficient just like our language is insufficient. And hence, through the sacraments we get to communicate beyond words. We get to speak and be spoken to in the heavenly terms of salvation. Pretty cool image huh. . . so I was all ready to talk about that, and excited to do so, but then we decided after all, and I think rightly so, to postpone the baptism until next week in order to better prepare our boys, and myself for what it is all about. And so after all that, having come full circle, I have to again figure out what to say about Babel, now that I'm unfettered as I had originally hoped from the requirements of the real sacramental occasion within life of the church. Be careful what you wish for. . . right.
I think there are real parallels between this story and it's placement right after Noah and the Ark, and Cain and Abel, right after the Garden of Eden. In both you have a seeming punishment by God, and then a subsequent generation trying to find their place in the world where they do not understand God, and the way God works. In both stories you have human beings trying to act as the bridger of the gap between God and humanity. Cain and Abel tried to provide offerings to God to bridge that Gap made by sin, and the builders of the Tower try to literally bridge the gap between heaven and earth by building the tower. The problem of both it would seem is that God doesn't work that way. It isn't about what we can do to get to God, but what God does to get to us. The fact that God is all around us waiting for us to turn to him, rather than at the heights of some monument that we build by our own skill.
If we look at it this way, there are obvious similarities between The Tower of Babel and Cain and Abel, but the differences really put those similarities in the right context. The difference that I'm talking about is the outcome. We can easily overlook the issue of the offering in Cain and Abel, the issue of trying to earn God's favor through our own efforts, in our own way, because we get blinded by the murder. Obviously the murder of Abel by Cain, brother on brother is the center piece of that story. We quickly jump to that aspect and often miss asking the question of what exactly Cain and Abel were after in giving their offerings in the first place. We can get blinded to that by the ugliness of envy and jealousy. We can miss the disease for the symptoms, seeing how envy and jealousy result in murder, and miss the controlling notion that creates the envy in the first place, Cain and Abel trying to earn God's affections through their offering. . . but when you look at Babel you get a different picture.
You don't have envy among the people in the Tower of Babel. You don't have jealousy in the Tower of Babel. You don't have murder in the Tower of Babel. So we say to ourselves what's the problem? Why God? Why punish? Why scatter? Why confuse the tongues? What's wrong here? You could easily say that the problems that arose between Cain and Abel have now been put aside, that the violence of the pre Noah era has been put aside, that now human beings are working together. Doesn't God want human beings to work together? Doesn't God want us all to get along? Doesn't God want peace among the people? Unity among the people? Compromising and getting things done among the people? It seems to us like God would be for all of those things. . . especially when you think that God rebuked Cain for his violence, and that he flooded the world in response to the violent ways of human beings. But now here human beings are finally working together, are finally getting somewhere, are finally creating something, and God doesn't like it. The question calls out to us, why?
I'm not sure. . . but there is more to the Cain and Abel story than the murder, just like there is more to the Adam and Eve story than the bite of the apple. God works in ways, and wants us to be a part of those ways. Those ways are perfect, and ours are not, unless they are perfectly aligned with God. Look at how the people, look at why the people build this tower.  They say,
Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves

Let us do this for us. Let us build a city for us, let us reach to the heavens to make a name for us. It would seem that there is more to righteousness than peace. It would seem that there is more to righteousness than merely getting along. It would seem that there is more to righteousness than building amazing structures that show off our skill and our abilities, our greatness. And I'm still not sure, but I think this is really great and important to remember.
There are alot of people who think that salvation comes from compromise. There are alot of people who think that solutions to the world's problems occur when people get along. There are alot of people who think that if people in congress would just agree, we could get things done, if there just was a little more civility, that there must be some happy middle ground that we can find and step forward, find a way towards progress. The tower of Babel story seems to scream that there is more to it than just getting along. I remember there was a quote from Cal Ripken, he said, "Practice doesn't make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect." Compromise doesn't equal right, consensus is not the same thing as being right, just because everyone agrees that we could make a name for ourselves by building this tower, doesn't mean that we should build the tower. This is probably one of the most difficult concepts for human beings to grasp.
I know it is for my students. It is hard to wrap our heads around. Humility is needed. Just because no one believes it doesn't mean it's not true, and conversely, just because every one believes it doesn't mean it is true. Knowing it, acknowledging truth, is not what makes it so. When I said that to my students they were like, yeah of course. They understood the theory, but they couldn't really grasp it in reality, they are too trapped in relativity and point of view. So I put them on opposite sides of the room. I put 12 of them on one side and then just one on the other. I asked the 12 to declare that 2+2=5. . .and then the one to declare that 2+2=4. How is that for consensus. I asked them, does that happen? What about this, now he, the one, starts to feel self conscious, he starts to doubt, what he knows is true, and the majority convinces him that he is wrong. And he goes to the other side, now no one is saying that 2+2=4. . . does that mean it isn't true? Lights went on, they kinda got it, at least a glimpse of the possibility.  
So what happens when truth goes out of style? What happens when human beings all start to speak the same language, but it is a language full of lies, delusion, and illusion? Every body agrees, so there is consensus, and work can begin, the shovels are ready, the contracts have been approved, so now you can go for it, start building. But it is the wrong building, built for the wrong reasons. . . God points that out the fact that this is a huge problem. The only way to stop the building is to disrupt it, confuse the people, because division is better than being wrong. Disunity is better than being falsely righteous. Conflict is better than false peace. This message isn't popular these days. We'd rather get along. It is safer. We would rather believe that the best of us know better, but then again we remember last week, the imagination of man's hearts. . .
So if our hearts cannot be trusted, and the checks and balances of the herd are not enough, what can we hope for, from where do these answers come? We need a way instead to commune with the right. We need a way to understand God's will so that it, and not the consensus of our wills may be done. We need a way to know truth. We need that bridge, and Christ becomes that bridge, not built by us, but made by God, made of God, God himself. . .. . . Actual Righteousness, and a Connecting Example, and an indwelling helper, allowing us to see. . . Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, or in other words, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is through them we must communicate lest we proceed in dreadful error. This story comes full circle in Acts as Paula read for us today. All of a sudden infused with the Holy Spirit our voices could again be understood by each other again. God's words could be understood through us. There is hope in the culmination of the story, but short of that we often can go astray trying to build our own towers, our own perfection, our own Utopias, they all continually are falling short, and leading towards confusion of the truth.  Let us then instead all seek not consensus of the things of man, but to become aware of the ways of God, truth that sometimes cannot be captured in words, words are merely symbols we make to point us toward truth, but in truth itself, indwelling within each of us, but not of us, of God, experienced only through coming to know real relationship with the totality of the triune God, again we will be ready to experience again what Baptism is all about next week, celebrating anew, and remembering our own beginning. Thanks be to God,  Amen.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Ge 11:1). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.