Sermon Babel Fell
Copyright Sarah Person
Delivered April 14, 2013 First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro
We are a fragile and persistent life form scattered over this earth. We may not speak one language, but we are globally connected through technology and our connections can topple governments, or reach across oceans to save lives. From out in space, we can still see the faint but precise square in the midst of the Iraqi plain. It is all that remains of the great temple Etemenanki, in all likelihood the original tower of Babel. It was a temple to Marduk in the city of Babylon, probably built in the 6th century before the Common Era. Etemenanki means temple of the foundation of heaven and earth. During their captivity in Babylon, the Hebrews would surely have seen the Great Ziggurat, built by the Sumerians and not quite finished. It must have resembled a mountain and a perfect symbol of arrogance.
Through all the vicissitudes of war and conquest, the great tower was not destroyed as much as disassembled and neglected. The story of Babel tells us we had one language, and therefore everything was possible. It tells us why we lost our one language; why we couldn’t talk to anyone outside of our own people anymore. God wanted us to be confused so that we could not accomplish the impossible. When I look at our communication towers, and consider our satellites in space, I think we have been striving to rebuild Babel ever since. What’s more, I think we are intended to do so. Think of it as a great cosmic challenge!
In reality, there might have indeed been one language or proto-language for human beings. A decade ago scientists reported that, “Echoes of the earliest language spoken by ancient humans tens of thousands of years ago have been preserved in the distinctive clicking sounds still spoken by some African tribes today….” “Although separated by thousands of miles, … groups use the same sort of click sounds and accompanying consonants to communicate, yet their DNA shows that they are unrelated and must have been geographically separated for at least 40,000 years.” The language tells us that at one point, thousands of miles and 40,000 years ago, these people, the people we all came from, were one.
Today, says one of my colleagues from Nigeria, there are hundreds of languages spoken in that African country alone; not just an accent, but different speech. She says nine miles in any direction, inhabitants speak a different language from hers.
We are built to communicate. From birth to kindergarten, we are wired to receive and make speech, with words or gestures. It is one of our great human survival mechanisms. Take care of me and I will take care of you. Some day, just for fun, if you have a computer, do a search for “Twin Talking Babies – Part 2” and you’ll see what I mean. We spend years learning, focusing and refining this one skill: to connect with someone else so that we can thrive. But we grow up, and it breaks down. We become mysteries to one another. We can’t connect the way we used to. We get tangled up about money or intimacy or boredom or sadness. We can speak the same language but lose the power to communicate.
Any of us who has been a teenager or raised a teenager knows what I mean. We have trouble connecting with our children, especially when they think they don’t need us to take care of them anymore. Even here in our community where we bring our best adult selves, we can misunderstand and be misunderstood with great regularity. There are things we encounter every day that we don’t or can’t talk about, and they gain a tremendous amount of power over us. Not talking about a thing gives it power. Maybe it’s time to figure out why.
I spent this past weekend in a sexuality and faith training program called “Our Whole Lives.” Twenty-two adults from Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches spent the weekend talking about how to be present and honest and straightforward about one of the most complex aspects of our humanity, our sexuality. Being able to talk about this gives our youth power. Not talking about this gives it the power to hurt our children. As a demonization, we have chosen to teach our children about self-worth, responsibility, health, justice and inclusivity when we talk about our bodies, our human needs and our relationships.
If you have been paying attention to the news around us in the past weeks and months, you know the horrendous consequences for our young people, and ourselves, when they and we do not bring our values to our most intimate connections. That is the most obvious example of what happens when we don’t talk.
A year ago I provided clergy support at a True Colors youth conference in Storrs Connecticut. True Colors is a non-profit organization providing a lifeline to vulnerable LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered) children and youth. There were several thousand youth who had descended on the University of Connecticut campus.
The kids were colorful, lively and saucy and I felt completely energized and a little like a minnow surrounded by exotic tropical fish. They wore rainbows of color in their hair and clothes and piercings and skin. More than one lovely young person leaned over the table to tell me sincerely that some of her best friends believed in God while other cherubs with gleams in their eyes just asked for free condoms.
There was an undercurrent flowing beneath all our grinning and conversations. Sometimes the urgency was not open, but instead a kind of non-verbal reaching out. We were trying to connect, but our language was worlds apart. When this happens under ordinary circumstances, we look to find commonalities – some things we can assume about one another. We try to convey, “our outward trappings may be different, but underneath we are all the same.” But the truth is; we are vastly different and to pretend otherwise is a lie. (Try to find a hymn about that in our hymnal!) We do not speak the same language or live the same lives. And we need to learn the pain and the value of this before we can celebrate it. Not talking about it gives it power. Talking about our difference is the first step in saying it is important and saying we care.
Speech can fail us. The way we communicate – the attitudes we demonstrate – when speech fails us can betray us even more. I think of myself as the norm. I am at a tremendous disadvantage. You see, people who are the norm do not have as much experience trying to build bridges to people who are other, because, in their insulated lives, they do not have to. Until I become something other than the norm, I will never know the fear and despair and courage and bone-deep beauty behind those cheerful and saucy facades. When speech fails me, and I am trying to connect with those who are not like me, I cannot fall back on any assumption of familiarity – that there is something I have in common with a teen with rainbows in his hair who has been kicked out of his home. We who are the norm do not like to be uncomfortable. We like to think our normal talk and our normal clothes and our normal shoes will take us anywhere and everywhere. But the truth is, we cannot go everywhere and understand anything unless we admit we have to work at it. Babel was abandoned out of confusion, and we perpetuate that confusion almost every time we open our mouths.
What if we could somehow rebuild Babel brick by brick? What if we could find the power to say the things that needed to be said? In the undercurrent beneath their words, these children were saying “I am safe here.” I was saying “Of course you are, everyone is.” They were saying, “No, I spend a good part of my life not safe. From people like you.” They were saying “This is who I mean to be, accept me anyway.” I was saying “Of course I welcome you.” They were saying, “No, you have to love me. You cannot love me until you know, really know.” They were saying “This is who I have been. This is who I am not anymore. This is who I mean to be. Love me anyway.” I had no time and no words to convince them I could. These children are in a holy place and I have to take off my normal shoes and tread carefully if I am truly to open my heart to them. Because it takes time to learn the pain. Because speech alone cannot overcome time and difference. Because silence cannot overcome time and difference. Because in the end, we must. We must overcome all of our assumptions about what isokay to talk about and what is not.
So, what is it that we don’t talk about? What is it that we can’t talk about? What causes lumps to form in our throats and our voices to go unheard? Today is a day to stop and ask why. Because not talking about a thing gives it power. Let’s devote some time to things that go unsaid here; between each other, between our families and friends. It is long past time to rob them of their power.
At the end of the last day of the conference, on the way to my car, lugging an attaché case that seemed to have gained 15 pounds, a cheerful couple of teens called out from behind me to ask if I’d like a free hug. I dropped the case, turned around and said God, yes, and got two of the best.
 Nicholas Wade, In Click Languages, Echoes of the Tongues of the Ancients, New York Times, March 18, 2003.