Summit Presbyterian Church
June 4, 2017
Genesis 11: 1-11; Acts 2: 1-21
For the Common Good
The tower of Babel is a puzzling story. In a way it’s like other ancient myths, a kind of “just so story” that explains why people are scattered across the earth, speaking different languages. In the Biblical story, it helps move humankind from from the Garden where Adam and Eve and the snake talked with each other under the tree - - to the many languages and civilizations of the ancient world. But theologically, it’s hard to defend or explain. Why did God confuse their language and interrupt their city-building project? They were doing so well! Some folks say it’s because their project was too grand, they were trying to be God-like in building a tower to the heavens. Others have detected an anti-urban bias in the writers; throughout history, cities have been considered hotbeds of evil by those who don’t live in them. Others say that God saw a rival in a united humanity: “this is only they beginning of what they will do,” God says — “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”
I have my own theory, a kind of midrash, a story from the story. It’a based on a poignant detail in the text that I noticed for the first time this week. Those busy beavers in the land of Shinar were messing around with bitumen — a fossil fuel. Bitumen is a hydrocarbon, viscous and black, 83% carbon, 10 % hydrogen with smaller amounts oxygen and other elements. (That’s my google factoid for the week. You know I always try and give you one!). It’s a thick kind of petroleum, the product of very long dead plants. The United People of Shinar were using bitumen as mortar, as they built their tower of bricks fired in ovens. It was clever of them, for bitumen is very good at keeping water out of towers, something we know at Summit is extremely important. They hadn’t yet discovered the use of bitumen — or related hydrocarbons - as fuels, but surely God knew it was only a matter of time. Only a matter of time before those humans figured out how to dig up the dead on a massive scale, drilling and mining fossils that had cooked underneath mud and water and stone for hundreds of millions of years, turning into oil and gas and coal even before dinosaurs roamed the earth. Surely God knew it was only a matter of time before human beings learned how to unleash the massive energy and also the massive danger held by those fossils. So when those humans on the plain of Shinar started messing with bitumen, perhaps God slowed them down in an act of wisdom and mercy. To give them time and space in order to gain knowledge, wisdom, spiritual and moral maturity. So God confused their language. Rather than one there were now many languages, each with its own beauty and precision. God led them throughout the world so they could build civilizations and cultures of all kinds, each with their own ingenious inventions, sculptures and paintings and music, writings and food and philosophy. God also showed God’s self to them in many and various ways: speaking through the heavens, with the firmament proclaiming God’s handiwork; giving the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai; sending Jesus the Son to live among them, to die and rise from the dead; revealing the Qu’ran to Muhammed; and more. Over time, these scattered peoples came together, in ways both violent and peaceful, constructive and destructive. They learned each other’s languages and discovered new ones to share. The most important new language they learned was a way of investigating the universe: Observing. Developing an hypothesis about the way things worked. Testing the hypothesis with experiments. Repeating those experiments, sharing the results, asking for criticism, refining the theories, building on common knowledge. This way of learning - called science - proved to be very powerful, and when humans began to dig up the coal in earnest and discovered oil and gas and applied the science it was only the beginning of what humans could do. Indeed it seemed that nothing they proposed was impossible for them! Flying through the air. Diving to the bottom of the sea. Going to the moon. Finding cures for all kinds of diseases. Speaking and looking at each other even when they were were separated by vast oceans. Making life long and comfortable for billions of people who now finally had enough to eat. The marriage of fossil fuels and science didn’t bring blessings only: their power was used for evil as well as good, as people continued to kill, enslave and oppress one another. But truly, human beings had made a name for themselves.
But the same method of investigation that had unleashed the power of those fossils began to warn of danger. After many, many observations, experiments and computer models, scientists around the world agreed: burning all those fossils was warming the earth. The release of all that long buried carbon and methane was changing the climate. Melting the ice at the poles and on the mountains. Raising sea levels. Bringing longer droughts, heavier rains, wilder storms, higher floods, stronger heat waves. Changing the chemistry of the ocean, killing life within it. Changing the timing of the seasons, bringing plants and animals to the edge of extinction. They warned of ecological collapse, of famine and floods and chaos that would threaten all cultures and civilizations, indeed, human life on earth. Scientists could only make well educated guesses as to how and how soon such collapse would come. But nearly all agreed that if humans kept burning those fossil fuels unchecked, catastrophe was coming. Not many days from now.
And so, after many delays, aborted meetings and lots of squabbling, the scientists and leaders of all the nations of the earth came together. Like those long-ago folks on the plain of Shinar, they gathered for common project. This time they were in Paris, creating an agreement that would lead the world away from fossil fuels. An agreement to unleash the power of wind and sun, water and atoms. Every nation came up with their own plan. All commitments were voluntary. Most everyone agreed that the plans weren’t strong enough, that more would need to be done to avoid catastrophe, but it was a start. Every nation under heaven signed except two: Syria, who was engulfed in civil war; and Nicaragua, who wanted to go on record as saying it wasn’t strong enough. The peoples of the world (along with lots of translators) came together in a common cause and hope.
But then a new leader of one of those nations, the nation that had released more carbon and methane in the air the any other nation; the richest nation in the world who had benefited the most from the blessings of fossil fuels; the most heavily armed nation in history; the one whose voluntary plan to turn from fossil fuels was really quite modest and would even be good for the economy; the leader of that nation said, “it’s not fair.” And he withdrew that nation from the common project.
So here we are. In middle of the story - or maybe near the end, we don’t yet know. It’s not yet clear if God’s delaying tactic at Babel was enough. If we’ve been able to accumulate enough common wisdom and spiritual maturity and courage to do what needs to be done, with or without the President of the United States and his partners in congress. But the story of Babel, and my creative expansion of it, are not the only stories we have this morning. We also have the story of Pentecost, when people from every nation under heaven were gathered, and the power of the Holy Spirit led them to hear and understand all that the disciples prophesied. The miracle, the blessing, wasn’t just linguistic. I wasn’t just that they could all hear in their own language or speak in a different one. The miracle of Pentecost is that they all could hear and understand what the Spirit was saying. We don’t have the exact words of the Apostles in Acts 2:1-11. But we know the good news they proclaimed. We’ve heard it and seen it and been transformed by it: that Christ offers the repentance that leads to life: that God forgives our sin, allowing us to let go of the guilt and shame that keeps us from doing the right thing. That Jesus rose from the dead, showing that nothing is impossible with God, that torture and death and military might do not have the last word. That the Holy Spirit is at work among all peoples, putting no nation first and no nation last. This is the good news that we hear on Pentecost.
And because of that good news, we have hope. We have hope — indeed confidence - that the world can turn away from fossil fuels and harness the power of the sun and the wind; we have have the technology and if we propose it together it will not be impossible. We have hope - indeed, confidence — that we can come together across divisions of nation and language and religion and class to care for creation and build a more just and peaceful world. We have hope, even confidence, that we can lose our lifestyle — what is wasteful and excessive in it - in order to gain life. We have hope because the Holy Spirit is among us, with a power and energy even greater than all the power locked up in fossil fuels or in atoms.
So, to work. Beginning with our baptismal vow to renounce evil and it’s power in the world. Coming together for the common good in ways large and small: voting, calling our senators, marching peacefully in the streets, turning off the lights and adjusting our thermostats and making do with less. Gathering together with our differences and across divisions so we may work for the common good in our common home. Inspired by the power and the love of the Holy Spirit.