10/14/2018 - More Than I Needed - Genesis 11:1-9

More Than I Needed

Genesis 11:1-9

October 14, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

The image on the bulletin cover is of a windigo. This one is an abstract sculpture at the Albany Institute.  Judy told me about its existence.  I’m grateful because all the images of windigo that I found on the internet are way too gruesome to put on a worship bulletin cover.

In Algonquian folklore, the windigo is a mythical monster native to the northern forests of the Great Lakes region and the Atlantic coast of the United States and Canada.  It may appear as a monster with some characteristics of a human or as a spirit who has possessed a human being and made them monstrous. I have only been introduced to this concept recently, but from what I understand, it is probable that the idea of windigo began when people were hungry, in the winter when food was in short supply. The monster windigo became a way to tell the story of the power of hunger, but also a cultural warning about sharing resources and not being selfish.

Basil Johnston was a Canadian Ojibwa scholar.  In one of his eleven books on First Nations mythology, he devoted an entire chapter to windigos. He says that almost all windigos are self-created.  A windigo is a human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point that satisfaction is no longer possible. That is why windigos are always hungry no matter how much they eat.[1]  They are pictured as simultaneously gluttonous and emaciated from starvation because they can never get enough.

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: “Windigo is the name for that within us which cares more for its own survival than for anything else…. The very word…can be derived from roots meaning…’thinking only of oneself.’”[2]  Dr. Kimmerer is Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at SUNY-ESF and an enrolled member of the Potawatomi Nation and, by the way, a personal and professional friend of Kathy and Judy.

You might be wondering why I’m talking about Native American concept so much, why it is on the cover of our bulletin.  I have two reasons.  First, the windigo fits the image of a monster, a scary thing suited both to Halloween and to the idea of scarcity.  It is an image for our spiritual journey this season, a journey away from a mindset of scarcity and selfishness.  Second, there are often some similarities in old stories from different cultures, not perhaps in the stories themselves, but in the warnings they contain.  Having the windigo in our minds may help us understand the story from Genesis 11 in new ways.

The story seems simple enough.  Way back near the beginning, when everyone spoke the same language, the people of earth learned how to make bricks.  Doing what people always do with the technology at hand, they used it to its fullest. They determined to build a city and a skyscraper with the bricks.  Somehow, they thought that in building this tower they would make a name for themselves and they could stay together in that one place forever.  For reasons that aren’t spelled out within the story, God is not happy with this plan, so God makes it impossible for them to work together by disrupting their language.  They can no longer understand each other and, as a result, they are scattered across the earth, which is what they had been afraid of in the first place.

Without context, it seems like the humans are finally getting along and working together, which we might think God would be happy about, but instead it seems like God throws a temper tantrum and messes everything up.  That doesn’t really sound like a story that would have been saved and preserved in the Bible, so how else might we understand it?

If we read Genesis from the beginning to this point, we might see this story in a different light.   In Genesis chapter 1, just after humans were created, it says, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’  And then came the rebellion of Adam and Eve and Cain murdering his brother Abel and a level of evil among humans that resulted in a world-wide flood.  After the flood, God determined never again to destroy the world.  It was a huge do-over for God and for the creation.  In Genesis chapter 9, God says to Noah and his family the same words God had said to the first human beings “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”

Then in Genesis 11 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.” (11:4) The reason given for building this city and tower is fear, the fear of being scattered. So, they are united, but their unity is around resisting God’s intentions and their motivation for that is fear. 

One scholar says, “The setting for this passage is the ripple effect of sin in the world. It is far more about human beings and their capacity for sin and disobedience. The very real concern here is about the tremendous capacity of human beings to bring disruption into the world, the incredible and sometimes horrifying ability of human beings to perpetrate the most unspeakable actions against each other.”[3]

God is not throwing a hissy fit, but rather God has a justified concern about the nature of human beings to do evil, and the propensity of humans with power and united by fear to commit atrocities and cause suffering and even to put the creation itself at risk. 

The tower-builders are like the windigos, they care more for their own survival than for anything else.  Walter Brueggemann suggests they have a “fortress mentality that seeks to survive by its own resources. . . it is a unity grounded in fear and characterized by coercion.  A human unity without the vision of God’s will is likely to be ordered in oppressive conformity.”[4] “A human unity without the vision of God’s will is likely to mean oppressive conformity – we have seen that to be true, haven’t we?

The tower-builders were afraid of the unknown, afraid of living in another place where they did not have a reputation, afraid of taking up their God-given task of filling the earth. In strong contrast, the very next chapter begins to tell the story of Abraham whom God tells to leave home and set out for a land that God would show him. For generations, that action has been cited as evidence of Abraham’s faithfulness. 

Fear of the unknown, fear of hunger, the concern for self-preservation – all of these have been part of what it means to be human for a very long time. 

The litany of confession we heard a few minutes ago, emphasized “more time, more power, more work, more money.”  I suspect that most of us here are not really driven by a desire for more, more, more.  We are not greedy or selfish, but we may feel that we have to work harder to maintain what we already have.  It may seem that there is not enough time to do what we need to do or want to do, not enough money to provide a secure retirement or a better future for the next generation. 

Somehow, living in this country with so much wealth and so many resources, we have been made to feel that there is not enough.  We are constantly warned of imminent danger and potential loss by loud voices all around us that want us to be afraid, very afraid.  Those are the voices of windigos. 

But I think of Abraham, who refused to be controlled by his fear of the unknown, but set out to find what God would show him. I think of the faith of the disciples commanded by Jesus to scatter to the ends of the earth.  I wonder how to move from the mindset of scarcity and fear that entraps so many of us to one of confident living within God’s abundance. 

And then I remember a woman named Comfort.  She is from Ghana, but I met her in Tijuana.  She was one of thousands of people who went to Brazil before the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.  Those were years when jobs in construction and hospitality industries were plentiful.  When those jobs dried up, the migrants moved again. Comfort walked for months, from Brazil to Columbia to Panama to Costa Rica to Honduras to Guatemala to Mexico, a journey of 6,000 miles.    When I asked how she had made such a journey, she said “God provided for me, more than I needed.”  She emphasized more than I needed.  That was all she said at first.  But later, I asked her to tell me more. 

She said that her daily prayer was that God would provide helpers for her. She set out from Brazil, walking with a few others.  I think they had made it as far as Panama when her companions suddenly abandoned her. She found herself completely alone in the jungle. At first, she tried to continue on her own, but she stepped into a fast-moving river to cross it and became convinced that she would drown.  So, she stopped walking.  She sat down in the jungle, by herself, and she prayed.  She told God that she needed one of those helpers to come to her now.  And she stayed in place and prayed and sang hymns like It is Well with My Soul and Great is Thy Faithfulness. 

She stayed in place like that for four days and nights.  Alone, in the jungle, trusting that God would provide. On the fourth day, some Chinese people wandered by.  They asked what she was doing there and she explained.  One asked if she had any water left, and when she said no, he pulled out his canteen and gave it to her.  Another pulled food out of a backpack for her. They helped her make it to a refugee camp in Costa Rica.  By the time they got there, she could no longer walk.  She spent 8 days in the hospital recovering from a lung infection and other illnesses from her time in the jungle. Eventually she continued her journey north to Mexico with the ultimate goal of being united with a cousin in Arizona.

Comfort said that every time she felt like giving up, God stepped in and delivered her.  She said she heard God’s voice again and again in many ways, telling her that God was with her.  She still feels that way, stuck on the other side of the last border, just 300 miles from her cousin in Phoenix.

I am amazed at her faith, amazed that she could stay in one place, alone, in the jungle and trust that God would deliver her.  And I then I remember what she said at first about this experience – that God provided more than she needed.  Now friends, that is not how I would tell the story if it happened to me.  I might say that I almost died, that I was grateful to be alive, but I’m pretty sure I would not say that God provided more than I needed. 

I wonder if that is an important clue to moving away from a scarcity mindset.  What if I imitated the faith of Abraham, moving into an unknown future?  What if I adopted the confidence of Comfort, trusting that God will provide help when I need it?  What if I intentionally saw the creation through the lens of abundance, of God’s good gifts shared with me and with many, provided for the well-being of all creation? What if, on a daily basis, I sang Great is thy Faithfulness and It is Well with my Soul and gave thanks for the living of that day.  Maybe then I would come to say “God has provided more than I needed.”    

[1] Basil Johnston, The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001), p. 222

[2] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass:  Indigenous Wisdom:  Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis:  Milkweed Editions, 2013) p. 306.

[3] Dennis Bratcher, http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cpentecostot.html

[4] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1982), p. 100.