Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
Our text for this morning is from the 11th chapter
of Genesis, and it helps to know that the first 11 chapters of Genesis
is considered by scholars to be "pre-history". That is to say, these are
not historical events you can place on a calendar, even though we know
people have tried, but it just comes off looking silly. And we know
these stores from this pre-history, stories of creation, stories of the
garden of even, the origin of sin, when the serpant gave Adam and Eve
cable T.V. and Adam discovered ESPN and Eve discovered the shopping
Until God caused a blackout, and 9 months later Cain and Abel were born
:) My version is a little different than yours, perhaps :) And then the
great flood followed by the great mess in the bottom of Noah's boat. So
these are stories that may not describe historical or geological events,
but that does not make them any less valuable to us today. For if you
ask not 'when did this happen?', 'how did this happen?', 'where did this
happen?', but rather 'what does this mean?', then you get all kinds of
insights into the purpose of creation, the meaning of life, the origins
of the soul -- you see, things we can't put on a calendar.
So the last story in this pre-history is perhaps less familiar, and that
is the story of the tower of Babel. As short as it is mysterious, just 9
verses. So I invite you to follow along in your own bible or the pew
Bible, as I read it for us:
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.’
So I have 2 questions:
Why did God find this tower to be so problematic? What's wrong with
building a tower?
Secondly, why would anyone pick this story for Earth Day? I mean, what
does building a tower have to do with protecting the earth? What were
they thinking? Oh yeah, I was the one who picked this story for earth
day :) It's not a part of any curriculum or study materials or worship
materials for this Sunday, so why did I pick it?
When you answer that first question of why does God object to the
building of this tower, you get the answer to the second.
The story of the tower of Babel has long been told as an illustration of
the hubris of humanity -- the idea that whatever we can do as humans, we
should be able to do, we are free to do. I call it the "2nd Amendment of
human desires" -- "The freedom to do stupid things, being necessary to
preserve our happiness, the right of the people to do as they please
shall not be abridged".
Cloning animals? Sure, why not -- if we can do it, we should. Genetic
modification of food that has taken millions of years to evolve? Well,
why not? If we can do it, we should. Nuclear weapons for us and them and
everyone else? Sure, why not -- if they can, why not. Paying shady
characters to scout Texas football players for the Ducks? Well sure, why
not?! Burning fossil fuels as fast as we can get it out of the ground?
And you see, the latter is perhaps particularly the ultimate human
hubris. So hear again the key verse of this text -- verse 6 (the last
half) says: "This is only the beginning of what they will do. Nothing
that they propose to do will now be impossible for them". And I invite
you to just hold that, reflect on that, meditate on that, as we watch
about a 6-minute video that came from ABC News, that talks about climate
change, and puts it in new light from the perspective of a couple of
Click here to open
video in separate window
"I hope we are smarter than that". I do too.
There are many lessons I think we can learn from the story of the tower
of Babel that apply here, but the one we seem prone to ignore is the
danger of hubris. What will happen if we keep building and consuming and
burning and expanding, as if there were no limit on what we can do? How
high we can build, how low we can drill, how fast we can drive, how slow
we can save, how much we can pollute, how little we can preserve?
This, you see, is God's objection to the tower of Babel, and it is at
the heart of the climate debate. There are limits on what we can do. The
time has clearly come when we must say that we can no longer do whatever
it is that we want to do without any regard to its impact upon the
earth. The tower we are building will collapse. Not because God wills
it, but because the earth will not allow it.
Claus Nobel, who is the great-grandson of Alfred Nobel (the founder of
the Nobel prize) was in Eugene yesterday. He was here for the opening
dedication for the Nobel Peace Laureate monument at Alton Baker Park (go
and take a look, look for the plaque that we sponsored). And he also
spoke at Wellsprings School at their Peace & Justice event, where I also
was talking about the homeless. And Claus told this wonderful story
about a 'Eureka!' moment that came to him and literally changed his
life. It was in 1972, he was at an international conference sponsored by
the United Nations, and there was a Norwegian scientist there who had a
specialty on studying the oceans. This Norwegian scientist said 'we
cannot build a tower high enough that will take the smoke out of the
earth's atmosphere. We cannot build a pipe long enough that will take
the sewage away from the oceans. And we are literally killing the oceans
-- they are dying'.
And so Claus had this 'aha!' moment -- he knew what he had to do. Using
his family name and connections, he went to the Nobel Committee and got
an appointment with the chair of the committee and told him this story,
and said we have to do something, we have to create a Nobel Prize for
the environment. This gentleman, and 80 year-old man just nodded
politely and patted Claus on the shoulder and said "Now, now, young man,
it is a beautiful day outside, go out and enjoy the earth and this
wonderful environment, see the pretty Swedish girls and have fun, all
will be well". And dismissed him.
Fortunately there was a younger man there who also heard this story, and
who became later the new chair of the Nobel Committee, and invited Claus
back to present his idea to the entire Nobel Committee, and they voted
on it -- and he lost. But he said 'we're getting closer, we're getting
farther'. And so Claus has continued this mission, and he's created a
new organization called "World Peace One" that he seeks to hopefully
build even to be larger than the Nobel Organization, and one of the
things he wants to do is to provide this prize for the environment.
So, as the video says, the debate on climate change
is over. It's an accepted reality within the scientific community -
politicians maybe haven't gotten it yet, but you know, they're slow
learners, they'll catch up. So the only conversation, really, is how
much is human-caused, and what can we do about it?
In the face of melting glaciers larger than the United States, we feel
so small, so helpless. Is there anything we can do as individuals that
will make a difference? Well, in reality, no, this is a global problem.
And yet there's Eve, and James, and those stories you heard about
individuals who are making a difference. And we know collectively, we
can all make a difference. Pete Seeger had a wonderful folk song in the
late 1960s that said "If 2 and 2 and 50 make a million. . . . we'll see
that day come 'round". Well, it's not very good match, but you get the
idea, right? Working together, we can make a difference.
And here's the good news: we are part of a much larger movement -- the
Disciples of Christ -- calling themselves a movement for wholeness in a
fragmented world. We are part of a body of Christ that is global. We are
part of the most powerful nation in the world, with the largest
percentage of Christians of any nation. If we change the mind-set of the
church, we will change the mind-set of the country.
And there are all kinds of signs that this is happening. Catholics,
Protestants, Evangelicals coming together in new ways. Groups that
traditionally have not always gotten along, but are now working together
on this issue to give more attention to climate change.
Henri Nowan, a Roman Catholic priest, author, renowned as a great spiritual director,
sums up the basic theological principle which unites all faith
traditions -- he says: "Our hard and very urgent task is to realize that
nature is not primarily a property to be possessed, but a gift to be
received with admiration and gratitude".
And you see, this is the message of Jesus, as true today as when he
first spoke it, that Solomon, in all his glory, could not match the
beauty of a single wildflower. The more we study the great vastness of
the Universe, the more we realize how precious and wonderful and special
and incredible that this life on earth is. Who can 'own' the gift of
nature? See, we can only enjoy it, share it, celebrate it, but it is not
ours to own.
The admiration, the wonder, the respect of the natural world and all of
its miraculous beauty, of God's gift to all of humanity, indeed to all
living things, is the starting point for a healthy relationship with the
earth. But admiration for the beauty of the earth is not enough. Chad
Meyers, the Biblical Scholar that was here last weekend speaking at
First United Methodist Church challenges us to think about our faith and
the economy. He says: "We read the gospels as if we didn't participate
in an economy, and we have participated in the economy as if there were
And the result is that we Christians have been trapped in the same
damaging lifestyle of consumerism and consumption that is literally
gobbling up the glaciers and the world around us. So returning to our
spiritual roots, to the economics of Jesus, rather than the economics of
Caesar, learning to share rather than to hoard. To sacrifice for others
rather than to hoard it for ourselves. To see our wealth in our
relationships, not in our possessions. Our good in what we do, not in
what we have. In what we give, not in what we keep.
This is our call as Christian people. If we live rightly in our
relationships with others, and lightly in our relationship with the
earth, we will make a difference. For 2 and 2 and 50 will make a
million. And we'll see that day come 'round.
This earth, God's gift to us, is the only one we will ever have. Let us
then live as if we intend to keep it for all generations to share, to
enjoy, and to celebrate as God's gift to all.
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