The Tower of Babel was written over 2700 years ago, probably around 600 BC.
It’s a story about people who come together, around a common purpose, which is building city and a tower that will reach so high that they’ll be able to see God.
They also want to be together. To unite under a common purpose.
They want to make a name for themselves and not be scattered.
But then, the story goes, God feels threatened by this new initiative.
God worries about what they might be able to accomplish next.
So God goes down, confuses their language, and scatters them to the corners of the earth.
This is not just a biblical story, but a story that appears around the globe.
In Cholula Mexico, there is an ancient story about the first people who wandered the land in search of the sun. They built a tower to reach the sky, but the God of the heavens was threatened and angered by their arrogance, and destroyed the tower and scattered their people.
The Toltecs have a story in which people are building a great tower when the gods confound their language and they can’t understand each other, and they’re all scatted to different parts of the earth.
There’s story about Montezuma and HIS attempt to unite his people and build a great tower to protect them from the next flood. But then the Great Spirit destroys the tower with lightning.
In Zambia, ancient sources tell of a story about people who tried to build a tower to the gods, but then the gods, threatened by the people’s creation, knocked them off the scaffolding and killed their builders.
There are legends like this from the Ashanti people, from the Kongo, from Tanzania, from Myanmar, and from Papua New Guinea, among others.
And what they all have in common is
1) a group of people who unite around a common goal, usually involving the pursuit of knowledge or the pursuit of connection with each other and with God. And then
2) A God or gods who are either jealous or threatened by this initative and use their power to confuse the people or destroy their work.
So what is it about this story that it’s so compelling and so ingrained in our human DNA that it appears in cultures around the world?
What it is about human nature that compels us to tell this PARTICULAR story?
The story of human creation and divine destruction?
3. Many scholars believe this is a simple origin story about why we all speak different languages.
And that’s possible.
But here’s the thing. You could tell THAT story any number of ways.
You could say that an earthquake happened and people were divided by big rifts in the ground.
You could say that an evil ruler came along and divided people unfairly and banished them to different places.
You could say that people ate some kind of poisonous mushroom that numbed their mouth so they talked like this and could no longer understand each other.
Why tell the story that GOD was threatened by human unity and chose to scatter them and shatter their plans?
It certainly is a way to explain our diversity. And it points to God’s power, which is something that a lot of ancient stories do.
And… I think there’s something much more subtle going on here that can point us to why this is a part not only of the bible, but of our human narrative.
For the most part, we human beings have a hard time understanding what God wants of us.
We have a hard time hearing the voice of God separate from our own voice.
There’s a great story about a group of wise people who visit a magical well where it’s said that if you speak your desires into it, you’ll hear back the voice of God.
So each one, one after another, goes to the well and speaks to God.
And each one comes back and tells the others what God told them.
And the old Christian woman of the group says – God is a wise old woman. And she is Christian.
And the young buddhist monk says, no – he is young and male and buddhist.
And on and on.
Because when they speak to God, the voice they hear back is themselves.
So what if, the role of God in this story is NOT actually played by God throughout history, but it’s played by another saboteur.
What if the actions of God in the story are actually OUR actions.
When people come together and unite for a common purpose be it building a city or a tower or forming a support group or fighting hunger in the city… whatever it is.
What typically sabotages that effort?
Is it God?
Sometimes it’s circumstances. Sometimes it’s other people. And often times, it’s US.
If we read the Chrsitian scriptures and listen to the teachings of Jesus, God empowers us to connect and work together across our differences.
God sends the holy spirit on the day of Pentecost so that we might understand each other better.
Perhaps this story is not about God at all, but about our own choices to push back against change.
And our own choices to divide into groups of people that are just like us and our choices not to understand those who are different from us.
And our choices to play small so that we stay safe.
We’ve all experienced the challenge of change, whether it’s working as as group or individually.
How many of you have tried to stop smoking?
How many of you have tried to lose 5 pounds?
How many of you have tried to turn down chocolate cake?
We know these decisions are healthy for us, and yet we resist.
Organizations do the same thing.
How many of you have tried to pass new bylaws in an organization and met resistance.
Even in the this church, which, as churches go, has a phenomenal openness to change – how many of you in leadership have felt some resistance to changing a policy or a way of doing things here?
Resistance happens without fail.
The way one of my mentors explained to me was like a train system. We get a group together. We tell them – we’re getting on a train and going to Chicago.
Is everyone on board with going to Chicago.
Everyone’s on board.
Until about an hour into the trip, when someone says, “Hey – but can we go to Los Angeles instead?”
“No! We’re going to Chicago.”
“But can we go to Los Angeles? Because we really like Los Angeles. We’ve been there before. We’re familiar with it. It’s comfortable for us. I really think we should go to Los Angeles.”
And someone else will say, “Well, Chicago sounded nice, but I really want to just go back to Albuquerque.”
“No! WE’re going to Chicago. WE all agreed. We’re going to Chicago.”
“Well, I think Albuquerque is the place to go.”
Suddenly, the group is not speaking the same language. And they’re scattered.
But Is that God? Or is it something else?
I want to put it out there to you today that the sabotaging force is NOT God.
And the people building the city or the tower are NOT evil. What’s wrong with making a name for ourselves if we’re making a name for ourselves by being the most generous congregation in the city?
What’s wrong with building a community and putting up a tower that says God is still speaking and making a name for ourselves as a community that welcomes everyone.
The force of sabotage is NOT God.
It’s us. And it is part of our human nature.
It is expected.
And it’s a simple side effect of the way that our brains are wired.
And, it’s not impossible to overcome if we work together and focus and persist, even when other people or circumstances or our own fears get in the way.
This text, at its core, is not about a jealous God. It’s a projection of the authors’ own fears of change.
These stories, worldwide, reflect what is so basic to humanity – a desire to maintain the status quo.
We’ve just projected our very HUMAN fear of change onto God.
Remember that our brains are wired for SURVIVAL.
We may want to thrive and make the world a better place, but our brains, our hardwiring is most interested in just keeping us alive.
And thank God.
God created us in this way. Or evolution did. Or both.
We were created in such a way that the vast majority of our mental processes are unconscious.
When I walk across the stage, I don’t think consciously about putting each foot in front of the other or moving my joints or managing the distance or the level changes, if any.
My brain does that automatically.
I don’t have to think about it.
This is one of the reasons why racism is so hard to combat. Because our brain makes snap judgments based on past experiences and cultural norms that we’ve incorporated throughout our lives.
We don’t think consciously, there is a white man or there is an African-American man and he is safe or he is not safe. We just judge. And it takes a lot of conscious mental effort to overcome our ingrained biases.
Research shows that about 95% of all of our brain activity is beyond conscious awareness.
And thank goodness. Because we don’t have the time or the energy to think through every single movement or judgment. If we did, we would be totally paralyzed. WE couldn’t accomplish anything.
The unfortunate part is that THAT part of our brain, the unconscious part of our brains is wired for survival.
It’s wired to keep us alive.
And as long as we’re breathing and not starving to death, its’ content to keep everything the same.
My brain’s not going to start changing my depth perception tomorrow as long as I’m surviving.
Likewise, it’s not going to change my habit of choosing cake over vegetables as long as I’m surviving.
Our unconscious brains lives by the motto – “If it a’int broke – don’t fix it.”
Human organizations reflect the same pattern.
It’s REALLY hard to affect change in organizations, in communities, and in cultures in general because organizations are made up of people whose brains are screaming at them, “Keep everything the same. Things are working just fine.”
Even IF some of our habits are unhealthy. Even IF some of our habits include activities that hurt other people.
Survival brain doesn’t care.
The survival brain says, don’t push things out of balance.
Don’t rock the boat.
If it aint broke, don’t fix it.
Don’t play too big or take too many risks.
Because hey – we’re breathing and fed and have access to water already. There’s no need to push our luck.
But that’s not the voice of God.
That’s our projection ONTO the voice of God. Because like the people at the well, we tend to think God sounds just like us.
But God isn’t about separating us. Or knocking down our creations.
God isn’t about destroying projects where people are trying to unite around a common goal.
And we know this, because when Jesus came along 600 years after this story was written, he did everything in his power to fight back against our unconscious bias against change.
He fought to make it 100% clear that God is not a God that calls us to play small.
That God is NOT a God who when we’re uniting around a common cause smites us down.
Jesus pushed us to remember that as loud as the voices are in our heads that tell us to be cautious, to hold back and keep things the way they are, that the movement of the Spirit nudges us in a different direction.
And if we listen, we can change lives for the better.
Jesus challenged the status quo at every turn.
He told people to give up their wealth.
He told people to go against their culture and eat with people who were outcast.
He pushed the boundaries of cultural norms, having people from different ethnicities and genders spending time together in the same place, which was totally taboo at the time.
He told the Disciples to give up their livlihoods – to drop their nets and follow him.
He told PETER to come to him and walk on water – to take a step out of the boat and put his food on the ocean in the middle of a storm.
These are not rationally sound decisions. They don’t match with what we know keeps us safe.
They are not decisions that the survival brain will support.
And yet Jesus calls us to make them anyway.
Jesus told us that the world as it is is NOT okay. He believed in us. God believes in us.
And God believes that we can do better.
God also calls us to unite in community, because change is nearly impossible alone.
So my challenge to us this week is to listen a little bit less to the voices that wrote the Tower of Babel story. To the voices in our own heads that tell us, keep things just the way they are.
And to listen a little bit more to the Holy Spirit and to the teachings of Jesus who called us to radical action on behalf of those most in need.
May we rock the boat of apathy, build cities and towers for justice, and push one another to embrace the radical message of Jesus that calls us to move in a new direction.