Third Sunday – March 17, 2019

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…diversity was God’s idea!

March 17, 2019

Scripture: Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then 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.” 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. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So, the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore, 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.   

        In preparing for today’s service I found that I was profoundly beset with conflicting emotions.  For it is always difficult to speak of something that is so much a core-concern of mine and yet so seldom spoken of plainly in public discourse. And particularly so when it concerns a topic that can turn profoundly on a phrase or on a single misunderstood word.  A topic that can garner support, or engender deep division as it can so quickly raise the specter of historical hatred and abuse, and with roots that go back to the very beginning of the human story.  For ours truly is a story of small clans or tribes pitted against all forms of danger and forces seeking to do harm, causing beliefs and attitudes to form that were directly intended to preserve the safety and survival of the tribe itself.

        And somehow, so many hundreds of thousands of years later, humanity having all together been a part of the emergence of social and religious systems of understanding, many of which I believe were inspired by God’s attempts to reveal Godself, systems that spoke to a need to reach out in love not fear, in acceptance not rejection, in broadening one’s horizons, rather than remaining confined to the smoky fire-lit half-darkness of the ‘cave’…somehow we are still in a struggle as to whether we believe that God was in fact attempting to teach us love of one another, or instead if our ‘safer lot’, is to remain in tribal cocoons of like-minded, like-speaking, like-looking, like-believing, and non-diverse individuals.

        I found myself over the past couple of days truly struggling with this profound disconnect in our society between people who it seems only several years ago did not have the current level of tribal concern, or in fact animosity towards those who were in any way different then themselves.  I found myself deeply grieving over the renewal of indiscriminate faith-based rocket attacks between the State of Israel and the Gaza strip…attacks that are never, ever free of unintended casualties.  And I found myself profoundly discouraged by the latest account on Friday morning of yet another White Nationalist, claiming to be a Christian, who felt it was his sacred duty to God to attempt to kill as many Muslims as he was able by targeting two mosques in New Zealand.

        Something is terribly wrong my friends, and it is happening all around us with ever greater frequency and intensity.  The age-old social practice of keeping tribal loyalties and identities safe and secured against the rest is not only alive, but also threatens to destroy much of the social and cultural progress that was made since the latter third of the last century.  Division and hatred are increasingly simmering just below the surface of ‘polite society’, and eruptions of that deadly pestilence is becoming more and more frequent with only the slightest of provocation…we seem to be losing our ability to function with, or to truly trust anyone who is not, ‘one of our own’.

And yet, the message of that one man who called for something different, still stands in stark contrast to all who hate…and still calls out to those who look to follow after him, to do so in the truth of the gospel, rather than in one of many heresies of tribal identity…still calls for us to stand in solidarity, practicing love not war, seeking justice not retribution, following the Spirit, not tasting of the venom of prejudice or greed.

So…yes, I have been struggling to find a way to move forward against such a strong and determined opponent, but as the old maxim preaches, ‘…it is better to light one candle…than to stand and curse the darkness’.  And as we seek to encounter our Lord in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup this day, I wish to begin the fight…to stand in challenge of that which is so opposed to love, to stand in the breach between those who seek to divide and injure, and those who are injured as a result of that hatred.  To proclaim that we are one family in God, one family-human who must seek after and doggedly pursue a new way of living, a new way of loving, a new way of becoming that blessed community that I believe is the true desire of our Lord.  To that end, let us take up the fact that Creation has always found its greatest strength, and displays its most incredible beauty, in ‘diversity’.

‘Diversity’ is one of those terms we have all heard repeated more of late.  As our culture has changed and evolved, and in fact as previous understandings have come under closer scrutiny, this notion of difference in nationality, race, religious affiliation, and even gender or sexual orientation, have all moved to the forefront of our social consciousness and attention.  And at that forefront, and leading the discussion have been issues revolving around race with respect to claims of voter suppression…of nation of origin with concerns over immigration…and of religious issues brought to the fore through recent attempts at Muslim bans and an ongoing rejection of LGBTQ concerns in favor of heterosexuality and ‘family-values’.

        And all of these have to do with, and in fact highlight how we deal with difference in the living out of our lives…in our thoughts, our words, our actions, and in our relationships, both with people who are much like ourselves, as well as with others who are not.  And notably, as far as faith is concerned, there is also the issue of how we engage or choose not to engage with politics or policies that create or reinforce division and the marginalization of others around us.  For according to the call of the gospel, truly all are to be welcomed to the table which we claim belongs to our Lord.

And, contrary to the way some view them, these are not small or trifling matters at all.  As the decisions we make and the words and actions we use do affect others, do have an effect on real people, real families, and with very human needs and concerns.  And while it may seem as though diversity is a relatively new concept, it is not so at all.  What may make it seem so I think, is both an increasing consciousness of these differences between peoples, as well as perhaps the emergence of a weakening of the rationale that historically supported a culture of the rejection of ‘others’, and particularly so among the youth and young adults of our society. 

I can only hope, however that hope is tenuous at best, that there may be an increasing willingness on the part of some in the dominant center of American culture to remove the ‘blinders’ and finally accept responsibility for beginning to purposely change our cultural narrative…a narrative that too often has only ever acknowledged one race and one faith as valid or acceptable…white…and Christian. 

But getting back to the point I was trying to make with the selection of my title, that in fact I believe that ‘…diversity was God’s idea!’, I would like to call your attention to a very old and familiar story from your Sunday School days.  And that is the story of the Tower of Babel.  Found in the eleventh chapter of Genesis, the story is one of a number of ancient stories passed on down through the ages.  Similar to the ‘second’ Creation account in the beginning of Genesis starting at Chapter 2 and verse 5, often looked upon as a later and revised story seeking to explain the presence of evil or sin, or the story of the great flood, preserved in ancient myths of multiple cultures, probably to explain some sort of ancient cataclysmic event in early human history such as a tsunami or an exceedingly heavy and unexpected flooding of the Nile river plain.  And then we get to the story of the Tower of Babel.  A story that was always fascinating to me, as it seemed to deal with power and conflict between God and his Creation, seemed to be directed towards the idea of the folly of challenging the strength and wisdom of God, let alone conspire to create a world that had no need of God, as an initial reading of this account seems to hint.

However, in Seminary I was exposed to the idea that this explanation was perhaps not the only possible one.  I was taught that perhaps the Tower of Babel was not solely a narrative of the power of God versus the whims of humanity, but perhaps, and maybe even instead, a search for the reasons behind why there was such wide diversity not only in Creation itself, but across the whole spectrum of the human experience. An experience characterized by so many different peoples, so many nations, and so many different languages. 

Just perhaps the Tower story was an attempt by humanity to understand why God built such diversity into the human story from the beginning.  And just maybe the Tower story can help us to begin to appreciate just how vast and how varied are the potential ‘images’ of our God which we as the family of God have been created to reflect

Perhaps this story, tucked away in the beginning of the biblical account of the history of humankind can give us a rationale from which to begin to view the whole of the human story as one of incredible variety and incredible beauty.  Perhaps we can use this singular origin story as a point of departure, from which humanity then moved through many eons of vast migrations, many resulting in evolutionary changes that easily explain the amazing and wonderful diversity of the human race.

For each one of us is the latest and current result of untold countless generations of ancestors, all of whom contributed to making each and every human being distinct and holy.  Just look at the propensity of DNA testing companies that have seemingly sprung up out of nowhere.  And look as well, at the incredibly wide diversity of peoples and places of origin which seem to be the underlying story of pretty much everyone who decides to take the test.  We all are ‘diverse mixtures’ of so many peoples from so many places.  Somehow that ‘Tower’ was taken down and our ancestors were then scattered over the face of the entire earth, creating and learning new languages and evolving in ways that made each people better suited to live and to thrive within their own particular location and environment.

        I feel strongly that this scripture story can easily and honestly be read as an affirmation of the strength, wonder, beauty, and endurance of diversity across the whole of our human history.  But it goes about making that affirmation in an interesting way.  For if you read the Tower story carefully and listen to the words of humanity as opposed to the result of the Tower destruction for a moment, you will see that the reasons God offered for the Tower breakup were quite profound and in some ways relate directly to our theme of diversity.

For survival reasons and for the safety of the ‘tribe’, groupings of humans have always been protective of their own small group identity, and careful to watch for anything from the outside of the group that might threaten the group’s safety.  Driven by fear and powered by adrenaline, these self-protective impulses depend upon a clear definition of group identity…everyone knows who is a part of the tribe and who is not.  Those within the ‘tribe’ vow allegiance to ‘that tribe’ and make a commitment to protect it against any outside foe or challenger.

And in our passage today we heard early echoes of this same tribal mentality in the words of those engaged in building the Tower.  You will remember the first words of our story that spoke of everyone having a common language.  Everyone knew the tribal language and everyone spoke it.  There was a distinct homogeneity to the language and culture which was viewed as a source of power and strength, even though as we shall see, it also belied a certain weakness in this first rejection of ‘diversity’.  A common language or shared dialect is a sure sign of a tribe’s hold over the members of the tribe…if you do not speak the same way, then you are an outsider.  In fact, it often seems as though dominant tribes require those who are members to speak as one, discouraging variation, discouraging slang, discouraging any diversity in communication.  Which makes me wonder I guess if there are not more than the usual ‘educational reasons’ for the seeming frequent calls I hear today, usually under one’s breath of course, that those not of those who came earlier to this land, ‘should learn to speak English!’, often preceded or followed by an unnecessary expletive.  Language is one of those things that easily exposes our fears when it comes to diversity.

And then we hear, in the argument for why humanity wanted to build the Tower in the first place, the rationale that doing so would allow them to not only build a city with a Tower reaching to the heavens, but that doing so would also allow them to make a ‘name’ for themselves…a name, brand, or mark signifying the exclusiveness of their particular tribe. 

Which again does not sound all that harmful until you look closely at what the builders were actually arguing for.  To my reading they were in fact seeking to isolate or protect themselves against all others, even powers from on high.  Seeking to establish themselves as lords of their own destiny, answering to no one else whatsoever.  And there is already a term in common usage for this way of thinking, this way of behaving as a group unto themselves, a way of being as a people, or as a nation, that in truth has been the source of some of the greatest evil visited upon members of the human race throughout history, from ancient times, through the horrors of mid-twentieth Century Europe, and on to calls for the same abusive behavior across the globe in our own day.  In fact, this same term was claimed by the author of the ‘manifesto’ which was posted by the one responsible for the tragic carnage in New Zealand.

And that term, that way of thinking or behaving that so closely parallels the mindset of our Tower builders is ‘Nationalism’.  Now, aside from my opinion that Nationalism is at its root, a self-defeating ideology, and apart from the fact that it leads to weakness and increasing insecurity, nonetheless, nationalistic tendencies seem to be growing moment by moment, both with the breakdown of the fabric of global leadership, and the rise of far-right isolationists on every continent.  It seems ironic that as technology has enabled the world to become a larger community in general, there are opposing forces increasingly seeking to isolate and diminish that same community.  Both democratic and non-democratic societies or countries across the globe such as Russia and China are actually engaging this fight to divide humanity through government sponsored attempts to censor or to limit access to the internet, policing it so heavily that such a government is then able to keep an eye on every individual…allowing them to quickly root out and deal with dissidents who may be opposed to the regime.

Many are the examples of the dangers of nationalism, in particular because it so often requires a ‘buy-in’ to the dominant narrative, even when that narrative may not in fact reflect the truth, and even though it is never grounded in love.  We see that in our own country where the push towards ‘nationalism’, which is mistakenly equated with patriotism, really means a push for a return to a time when the dominant race had more control and was less encumbered with the challenges posed by increasing diversity.  And ironically, as a nation that from the beginning has been a widely varied collection of peoples and races, somehow certain somewhat similar physical types and characteristics have been able to coalesce around a ‘common dominant identity’, even though upon arrival many of these same peoples were profoundly discriminated against by the original colonialists or their descendants.  By this account, there really is no basis or justification whatsoever for nationalistic sympathies or behaviors in this land of ours…or in the faithful practice of our faith in a God of love.  And yet, abject fear of, and mistreatment of the ‘other’ does not seem to be lessening its grip on the minds and in the hearts of many.  Diversity and differing ways of speaking, believing, worshipping, or appearing are still under attack by the tribe currently in power.

Which brings us to an interesting place.  For it seems that somehow, the ancient ‘Tower’ has been re-built!  In fact, additions to its underlying infrastructure seem to be constantly under construction, as those few who insist on its re-creation keep on building higher and higher.  Which makes one to wonder if perhaps they are seeking to climb high enough so as not to hear the continued cries and anguish of those upon whose backs the Tower has been reconstructed and upon which it still stands. 

We, as followers of the One who came to teach us that all of God’s Creation is a wonderfully diverse and inter-related set of relationships, each dependent upon the other and all of it governed by an underlying love, must insist that ‘true diversity’ be allowed ever to emerge and to flourish, even to the extent that it threatens to topple that Tower once again.

We are one family, created in the incredibly diverse and wondrous image of God, called to love every one another who crosses our path, and called to walk on paths that are unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable in order to reach out and to touch those of our family we otherwise might not have had occasion to meet and to embrace.  We must reject nationalism and isolationism outright, seeking to be builders not of an exclusive tower with our name on top, but rather of a blessed community based in love and founded upon justice for all…

This is our call, and this is the only path we can righteously travel.  May God grant us the strength and boldness to be those who, like our Lord, destroyed the Tower of Hate and Division…once…and for all…peoples.

…amen

An Order for the Lord’s Supper

 ‘…diversity was God’s idea!’

(Note: ‘Leader’ in regular print, ‘All’ please respond with print that is in bold)

Opening Words

Friends: This is the joyful feast that is offered to every single child of God…every individual regardless of age, gender, race, creed or orientation.  This is God’s table to which you have been invited and are welcomed! And  though our table today is different and not what we might expect as a table of our Lord’s blessing, nonetheless we approach it in order to celebrate the goodness and grace with which our Lord has so richly blessed us, as well as to be reminded of the deep call upon our hearts to serve every one another in love, as we diligently seek after blessed community even in times of deep division, through the embrace of the wonder and beauty of diversity.  And as we do, we affirm that we will seek to accept the difficult call to engage as one people and one voice to stand against all forms of division and discrimination that so injures the many as it seeks to uplift and strengthen the ‘one’.

We confess that for far too long we have gone along with attempts to marginalize our brothers and sisters, to downplay the importance of the beauty and variety of the diversity which you placed at the core of your Creation, the beauty and variation you proclaimed was ‘indeed, very good’!  Teach us Lord to seek your Spirit’s guidance and wisdom in challenging all that would seek to isolate or divide us as your called community of love.  Help us ever to seek the strength to bear witness to love, not hate, unity, not division, courage, and not fear in the face of those who would seek build a ‘Tower of Division and Nationalism’ grounded in a denial of the strength and power of your wondrous diversity. Give us a sure faith that takes you at your word, and a boldness to stand against all that would hinder the building of just and loving community.

People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.

Lord may we find it in our hearts to stand against age-old fears and habits of isolationism, to set aside tribal behaviors based in fear and in the rejection of the ‘other’.  Help us to see that your plan from the start was to create one diverse and holy community, drawing strength from all that you have gifted the family of humanity with…rich with the full variety of Creation’s blessings, inviting all, accepting all, at your holy table.

Embolden us to bring forth your word and your call for love in the face of opposition from those who hate, those who are fearful, and those who refuse to acknowledge the crisis that rabid Nationalism poses on our own doorstep.  Empower us Lord to set aside all fear as we turn and follow closely the example of selfless and wildly inclusive love you first set for us. Show us the way to open our hearts and to set aside all fear in the pursuit of your kingdom, that all our efforts might yield the fruits of peace as we break one loaf and share one cup.

This morning’s altar truly is one of our Lord’s tables. It is intended to reveal that tribalism and nationalistic tendencies which can only survive in the abject denial of your wondrous and creative diversity, are deeply harmful illnesses plaguing our culture and society as a whole.  It is intended to be a stark reminder that those who are injured by this rejection of any and all who do not look, act, talk, or believe just as we do are in fact our neighbors and our friends, our fellow church members, or perhaps, just folks from down the street. 

For the preparation of our table today I have put a three-part picture of many-colored hands which I choose to see as reaching towards God…hands of diverse color and race, all reaching towards and appealing for justice and peace from the heart of our Lord.  Surrounding it are phrases and sound-bites from the last couple of years that vividly demonstrate all that has been said and thought within the margins of our culture since then.  Reminders of anti-religious bias, of racism, of White-Supremacy, and Nationalism.

But the despair reflected in those thoughts that are spread across the bottom of our table does not have to be the last word or even the next word.  In spite of the energy and vitriol being expended to divide and separate, we, as followers of Jesus are called to witness by our lives together the love that knows no such boundaries, that hesitates not to welcome the stranger, that gives of life freely that others might have the chance to live at all.  For the table our Lord invites us to, this table of promise and beauty under attack, is also capable of being a table of blessing and a table of challenge and victory in the midst of hatred and despair.  For it is indeed the table we come to today to receive the strength and grace of our Lord from in order that we might then go forth proclaiming loudly a message of justice, of inclusion, of love without condition, without specific color, and without hesitation. 

And it is from this table of diversity being the plan and purpose of God in Creation…that we receive the bread and wine of our sacrament this day…a table of challenge to stand up and be counted as those who refuse to cower in the safety of the tribe and instead to ‘throw wide the gates, to open the ancient doors, that the King of Glory might come in’…that we might therein dwell in unity and safe harbor.  It is a table of challenge to be sure, but a table of our Lord’s invitation as well.

And as we look to the true source of all love, let us ever affirm that the family of God in its entirety is worthy of God’s love and compassion, that all people have a place at the table of our Lord, and that every soul must be so welcomed to it…for we as people of faith must begin to find our way into that day of our Lord’s blessed community…community in which all feel free to come from the east and the west, and from the north and south.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus invites all those who trust in him to come and share this meal which he has prepared for us to receive even from this table of the call to celebrate and lift up the wondrous diversity of all Creation…but the wonder and beauty of all that was created in God’s image, most of all.

Our Lord invites all, without exception, and beckons us towards ever greater awareness and willingness to be vessels of sacrificial love as we reach across divides and chasms put in place by those who would discourage the flowering and fruit of diversity.  This table is holy because our Lord has made it so through our recognition of the seeming impossible challenge that it places before us, the challenge to fashion and create holy community grounded in, and sustained in love…and, because our Lord is always present in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the one cup.  Let us reverence this meal as we share it together…amen

 As we receive this meal, may our eyes be opened to the beauty and strength of diversity, the wonder of each one of our many sisters and brothers, the need to reach out in love without reservation that all may come to know the saving grace of our Lord. Amen

Responsive Litany for Diversity

(Leader read plain text, people respond with text that is bold & italics)

God, you have made people of every imaginable kind
Colors and shapes,
Privileged and marginalized,
Rich and poor.

We have differences of every imaginable kind
Perspectives and worldviews,Countries and cultures,
Philosophies and theologies.We acknowledge that we tend to fear what we don’t understand,
And that love is more powerful than fear.We acknowledge that we must work to understand each other
And that this work is Kingdom work.We acknowledge that each perspective brings your nature into clearer picture
And that we need each other’s points of view.

Help us to love one another
Even though we are different.Help us to celebrate one another
Even though we may not agree.Help us to be kind to one another
Even when we have been hurt.Help us to open the doors to our churches

Homes
Organizations
Governing bodies
Dinner tables
Even though it may feel awkward and impractical. 
We know that the diversity of the people of the world is a good gift
For our growth and edification;To help us see your vision for the world
Where there are neither slave nor free,
Male nor female,
One race nor the other;
But we are all free, beloved, and united
In the peace of Christ Jesus.  Amen

(From: A collection of litanies from Fran Pratt, October 13, 2016)

The Thanksgiving

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God

It is right to give God our thanks and praise

Prayer

It is right, it is good, it is joyful to be able to give thanks to you, Oh God of mystery and miracle.  When there was only darkness, you made light. When we cried out to you from captivity, you claimed us to be your own.  When we forgot our love for you, you did not forget us, but sent your prophets to turn us around. Over and over again you renewed your promises…with a bow in the sky, the parting of the sea, bread from heaven and your own beloved Son.  And so, we praise you, joining our voices with the songs of the angels and with all those who sing in heaven and on earth saying:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest.

(All please come forward and stand in a circle around the communion ‘table’)

The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread, and after giving thanks to God, broke it and said: “This is my body, which is for you; do this, remembering me.”

In the same way, he took the cup after supper, and said, “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood.  Whenever you drink it, do this, remembering me.”  Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.

(Distribution of the bread- all wait to be served before partaking)

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Everyone who comes to me will never be hungry; all who believe in me will never thirst.” (Partake of the bread)

(Distribution of the cup-all wait to be served before partaking)

Jesus said: I am the vine, you are the branches. Cut off from me you can do nothing.  This then is the cup of our salvation. (Partake of the cup)

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.  Amen

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