Sunday’s sermon: Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Diversity

Text used – Genesis 11:1-9

  • I have a children’s books in my office. Okay, let’s be honest, I have a lot of children’s books in my office … but there’s a particular book that I want to tell you about this morning!
    • Written by Jennifer Grant and illustrated by Benjamin Schipper: Maybe God is Like That Too[1]
      • Story about a little boy → first 2 pages: “I live in the city, where the sidewalks and subway cars and buildings and buses are packed with people – but I’ve never seen God before. ‘Grandma, does God live in the city?’ I asked one morning at breakfast. ‘Yes, God is here,’ she says. ‘You just need to know where to look.’”
        • Grandma tells the boy about the fruits of the spirit: patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control → “Wherever you see these, God is there, too.”
      • Boy proceeds to go through his day noticing the places in his city and in his life where those things are present
        • All sorts of different people
        • All sorts of different places
        • All sorts of different situations
      • Last page (as the boy is going to sleep for the night): “I don’t see God the way I see my friends or the streetlights or the river, but I see signs of God’s Spirit all around me, right here in the city. I know what God is like. Maybe I can be like that, too.”
      • Book all about noticing and giving thanks for all the many and varied ways God shows up in the world around us → the diversity of God’s presence in our lives and in our world
  • As we continue to make our way through our National Parks on our road trip summer sermon series (using Brad Lyons’ and Bruce Barkhauer’s book America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks[2]), today we’re visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and we’re visiting this park with the theme of diversity in mind.
    • Makes a lot of sense – Great Smoky Mtns (which straddles the state line between NC and TN) = most visited of all 61 National Parks[3] → This park sees the incredible diversity of 11 million visitors every year. But it’s not just the vast variety of visitors that has us reflecting on this park through the lens of diversity.
      • [READ “Great Smoky Mountains,” pp.119-121] → Truly, Great Smoky Mountains National Park seems to be one of the most perfect places in the United States to celebrate the beauty and breathtaking nature of diversity in the world around us.
        • Diversity in the natural world – plant life, animals, bugs
        • Diversity in the terrain – mountains and forests, city life butting right up to the edge of wilderness
        • Diversity of seasons – the stunning differences between summer and winter (well-known for those of us around here but on the most beautiful summer day or the most breathtaking winter morning, it’s a diversity that still makes us stop and pause and appreciate, doesn’t it?)
  • And with all this talk about the power and significance and allure of diversity that God created in the natural world around us, how can we not turn our minds to the power and significance and allure of diversity that God created within the human family? à where our Scripture reading comes into play this morning: the story of the Tower of Babel
    • Crazy little story nestled in the beginning of the First Testament btwn the stories of Noah and the flood and Abraham and the covenant
    • Main problem in the story = hinted at in the very 1st verse: All people on the earth had one language and the same words.[4]
      • Heb. here is very telling, even though it sounds basically the same in our English translation[5]
        • “one language” = “one” + “lip, edge, border” → That second word is a word used to describe a boundary, a point of separation – a way to tell the difference between this and that, between you and me, between similar and other.
        • “same words” = “one” (yup, same word) + “words” → But the Hebrew here is broader than just words like the things that we read and hear and speak. This is one of those Hebrew words that contains an abundance of meaning. It’s the Hebrew word for speech, matter, message, promise, purpose, request. It’s a word that implies a wide array of things that can be spoken. So the Hebrew here gives the impression of a people without much diversity. Not only are the people of Babel of the same language, they’re also at least in majority agreement on the larger issues of being a society together.
      • Great description of Babel from scholar: In Genesis, the story is that people were multiplying at a great rate. They were a fine and wonderful people, but they were also a scared people. They were afraid of being scattered to the farthest reaches of the known world. So they decided to build a huge city, a fortress for themselves and for their God. God say that they were one people and had only one language. God was concerned about the possibility of the people not learning anything new, since they already seemed to be a nice homogenous community. God was concerned about the hubris of the people speaking for God. So God decided to add diversity to the mix.[6] → I love this description because it makes it clear that diversity is an intentional gift from God. God created diversity. God gave humanity diversity for our own benefit and the benefit of the world. So often today, diversity gets treated as a burden or as a box that needs to be checked or as a step in a training process or as something that needs to be fought against. But the first and most important lesson that we have to take away from the story of the Tower of Babel is that diversity is a gift from God.
    • Flip side: story of the Tower of Babel = also cautionary tale – text: [The people] said, “Come, let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.” Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the humans built. And the Lord said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them.”[7] → This is a difficult part of the story, especially when we read this translation: “This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them.” I mean, when we first read it, we think, “Wait a minute. Doesn’t God want people to be successful? Doesn’t God want people to be able to learn and do great things? Doesn’t God want people to be great?” And the answer is yes … to a point. Let’s dig into that a little further.
      • Another translation of this passage (from pew Bibles): Then [the people] 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.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And 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.”[8]
        • First hint at trouble = people’s declaration: “Let us make a name for ourselves.” → They are not building this tower to honor God or to bring them closer to God. They’re building it for recognition … for exhibition … for their own glory. Actually, if you read the whole passage carefully, never once do the people even mention God. Only themselves.
        • See the recognition of this in God’s response: Heb. “this is only the beginning” (or “this is what they have begun to do”) = not a pleasant phrase[9]
          • Implies something that pierces, something that opens a wound → connotations of something irreverent or profane, of breaking one’s word (a great cultural dishonor)
          • In their act of building this tower for their own glory and gain, God could see that the people were on the precipice. They were teetering on the edge of reverting back to the vanity and greed and spiritual neglect that brought them to the point of Noah and the flood only a generation or so before. And since God had already promised Noah that God would never cause a great flood to wipe out the population again, God had to change course.
      • Scholar: Babel has come to represent individualism. … Our Babel component is our First-Worldness, our materialism, our economic and military domination. Our Babel component is everything that built up the Berlin wall, the Israel/Palestine wall, the U.S./Mexico wall, the disputes between Pakistan and India, the former rifts in Ireland and Northern Ireland, the plethora of denominations that seek unity only by throwing others out. Our Babel component is the fact that most Americans can only speak one language and we expect others to learn ours. We are addicted to Babel. … But Babel is also what makes injustice thrive. Babel is what makes a distinction between rich and poor. Babel is what makes people think they can own other people. Babel is what makes people think they can condemn other people. Babel is what makes enemies. Babel is what makes wars to happen. Babel is often lived out in individual and corporate sin, because we tend not to look to God, but to ourselves for the ultimate answers. And what we end up with is confusion. None of us speak the same language anymore. We all have a Babel component.[10]
        • Late Jonathan Sacks, British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, and author: The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing [God] to remake me in [God’s image]. → When our faith … no, not “faith” because “faith” implies a relationship and a trust, something personal and life-giving, something that brings wholeness. When our religiosity becomes about deciding who’s in and who’s out … when our religiosity becomes about excluding others from the love and saving grace of God instead of embodying that love and grace for all people … when our religiosity becomes about who can shout the loudest and who can sound the angriest about the growing diversity in the body of Christ – a diversity that is a gift from the God who created us all – then our religiosity has become a problem. Our religiosity has become our Babel. And it is time for God to reach down among us and shake things up.
          • Questions from our reflection this morning: In what ways do you notice and celebrate diversity in your life? How has coming up against something (or someone) different from you made your life richer? How will you help others see the beauty in the diversity of the human family?[11] Amen.

[1] Jennifer Grant. Maybe God is Like That Too. (Minneapolis: Sparkhouse Family), 2017.

[2] Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks. (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 2019.

[3] https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/national-parks-by-state.

[4] Gen 11:1.

[5] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/genesis-11-1-9/.

[6] Douglas M. Donley. “Day of Pentecost – Genesis 11:1-9 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 2.

[7] Gen 11:4-6.

[8] Gen 11:4-6 (NRSV).

[9] Levy exegesis.

[10] Donley, 2, 4.

[11] Lyons and Barkhauer, 121.