July 29, 2018 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Genesis 11:1-9 (The Voice)
In the 1980s there was a phenomenon called the Cola Wars. It was started by Pepsi Cola through an advertising campaign called “The Pepsi Challenge.” Pepsi would set up booths in malls, shopping centers, and on sidewalks where people could engage in a blind taste test between Pepsi and Coke, to see which was better tasting. And as it would happen, in the Pepsi Challenge commercials, Pepsi won out every time. Coke, of course, retaliated with its own campaigns and advertisements, thus, the Cola War. This Cola War only added to the popularity of cola beverages across our nation and around the world. If you traveled around our country about this time, you would hear the variation in the ways people ordered colas in restaurants and convenient stores: Soda, Pop, Soda-pop. And in the deep South, where the Cola War was a little bit too serious, some would order their preferred beverage to the exclusion of all others: Coke or Pepsi… with the occasional Dr. Pepper thrown in. My point is not to promote the cola industry, not at all. My point is that though different people used different words for ordering the same product, for the most part it was understood what was wanted with minimal confusion. There might be a bit of picking when someone ordered pop in soda country and vise versa, but the person received their soft drink.
There are people who dedicate their lives to studying these variation in language and the effects of accent and regional dialects, called Sociolinguists or Phoneticists. They are fascinated by the unique words and phrases that will rise up in different regions or areas that speak the same general language. A well-known and beloved musical, My Fair Lady, features a phonetics specialist, Henry Higgins, teaching a young woman, Eliza Doolittle, to change her accent and dialect for one more socially acceptable in wealthy circles. Slowly, Henry teaches Eliza to have the same words, pronunciations, and mannerisms of Henry’s culture and society. It is hard work for both Eliza and Henry to conform Eliza’s language to Henry’s, to teach her to use the same words in the same way and with the same accent.
The same words…is it even possible to say a people all speak the same words? Of course, groups can speak the same language, but can we say they all have the same words? Even in families there are variations in word usage. People pick up words at work, at school, or from their friends, and therefore have a few different words and phrases in their vocabulary than the rest of their immediate family. Of course, many groups can be identified by their words: sports cultures such as surfers or snow boarders, the medical field, the sciences, mathematics…any specialization has its own set of words and phrases known and used within the specialization. Just look at us United Methodists: General Conference, UMCOR, General boards, Book of Discipline, and so on. Our common words connect us, create a culture and build community. However, we don’t exist in only one of these specialized communities (at least not most of us). And though we have words in common with these special groups, we don’t speak the same words all the time, or even most of the time.
Our scripture reading today, however, uses exactly that description to speak of the people of Genesis 11 in this rich and deep Primeval story. The narrative begins by stating that all the people not only had the same language, they had the same words. What does it take for all the people to have the same words? No variations? No dialects? All people have the same words? The people in our story appear to be afraid of being dispersed, of being scattered (which is closer to the Hebrew). They are deliberately seeking a way to remain unified as a people, to be secure and absolutely together. In order to accomplish this, they bake bricks and build a city with a tall tower rising from it, a tower that reaches to the sky. At first glance we might think this is a good thing, all the people living together, speaking the same language, working together to build and to create. But that opening description should give us pause—not just the same language, the same words. There is something that hints of oppression and coercion in that. And then, of course, there is God’s reaction.
As the people build this tall tower to the sky, God comes down (the tower is still not tall enough to reach God) to check everything out, and God is not pleased. Why? God’s explanation is rather vague. What we need to remember is that we are only in the 11th chapter of the Book of Genesis. The creation story still echoes in the background of this telling. In the creation story, God creates humankind in God’s image and God gives a blessing with a command. “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Take charge…” God then re-issues this blessing and command in chapter 9 of Genesis, verse 1, as Noah and his family leave the ark. God has created humanity as God’s image here on this planet, God’s representatives. We are stewards of the planet. We cannot fulfill our nature, live into our divine image, if we all congregate in one place.
Further, the creation story lifts up for us the wondrous imagination of our Creator, the beauty of God’s creative Spirit. God calls into being the wild variety of plant, animal, and insect life all around us. God created the plant-life, of every kind, says Genesis 1. God created the animal-life, of every kind. God created every creeping thing upon the face of the earth. What wonderful variety! What glorious diversity! And yet, all this diversity is connected to one another. What affects one can affect all. Some might call that the “Circle of Life.” All are called into being by the same Creator. All are shaped of the dust of the earth—the molecules, the atoms of creation. Glorious diversity. Beautiful unity. Why should humanity consider itself any different?
What God sees when God ‘comes down’ is a humanity living in fear—a tribalism that is stifling their divine image. They are so obsessed with staying together they have gone beyond same language to insisting upon the same words. They are so desperate to stay together that they build up fortifications and huddle inside. This story shines a light on what can happen when we fail to balance diversity and unity, when a stress on unity devolves into an obsession with uniformity…with sameness. We are witnessing this in our world around us and in our denomination today. A fear of the different, the ‘other,’ has arisen and given way to a fear of diversity. This fear is practically sold as a commodity—the other might hurt you so you should cast them out and create a safe uniformity where you can control all the factors. It’s not possible to control all the factors, to force uniformity! We are witnessing this rise of tribalism in its ugliest sense.
This is a denial of our created nature. As we embraced on July 1st, we are created in God’s wondrous image—each and every one of us. God is diversity and unity in God’s very being—Three in One and One in Three—Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer—Lover, Beloved, Love—Parent, Child, Spirit. We are created in God’s good image…so Tov. When we claim this innate divinity, this goodness in ourselves, we are then called to recognize it in the other, EVERY other. In the glorious diversity these others bring we also see this unity—the goodness, the holiness, the image of God radiating within them. In fact, the more we encounter the glorious diversity of God’s creation and all the wondrous ‘others,’ the more we glimpse God. It is like putting together this amazing puzzle with a myriad of pieces, full of color and sound and movement and meaning. When we return to the reality of our creation and embrace the goodness of all that God called into being, we restore the balance of diversity and unity.
This is so much more than whether we order soda or pop or coffee or tea or (better yet) water. This is so much more than if we say Toe-mato or Tom-ah-to. It is even more than whether we say ‘hello’ or ‘hola’ or ‘bon jour’ or ‘wagwan (Jamaican greeting).’ This is opening our eyes to perceive that Kingdom we talked about in our children’s time, to celebrate that Kingdom all around us. This is living into that kingdom here and now as a witness to the world! We start here and now, right in these much loved walls. The Church is called to be little kingdoms of God alive and vibrant in this world. We are the Church-you, me, us, not these walls, no matter how beautiful and beloved they are. We are the Church, God’s Beloved Community! Let us celebrate our glorious diversity and beautiful unity.
And the whole church cried out, Amen! Amen!