Faulty Towers

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.

"Faulty Towers"

Why do we build towers?  Different people have different answers to that question.  Ask the engineers who are designing the Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia, a structure that is intended to be one kilometer high, taller than the Burj Kalifa, current tallest building in the world.  The Kingdom Tower engineers might say, we’re building a tower a kilometer high because we can.  And because we want to claim the world’s tallest building as our own.  Competition. 

Why do we build towers?  Dig around in the 15th and 17th centuries of Prague and someone who lived then will tell you of their habit of throwing unpopular political or religious figures out of windows, to be dispatched by the mob below, (called the defenstrations of Prague) and they would say: “The taller the tower, the harder they fall.” 

Why do we build towers?  Ask William the Conqueror and he’ll say he built the Tower of London as a fortress to protect his reign.  Eventually the tower became a convenient multi-purpose place to lop off the heads of anyone who defied who was in power.  Towers are built for military might and to keep the little people in line.

Ask the enchantress in the fairytale and she will say: “I needed a tower to lock up Rapunzel to keep her magic hair all to myself and to protect my interests.”

Why do we build towers?  The architects of the new tower to be built at Ground Zero in New York will say they build as a memorial to those who died in the Twin Towers, a sign of resilience of a city who climbed back on its feet, a sign of hope that the phoenix can rise from the ashes. 

Why do we build towers?  We build towers for many mixed, complicated reasons.  “Let us build ourselves a tower whose top will reach into the heavens…” (Think: hypothetical space elevator.) Some say that the ancient tower was built so that humanity could reach all the way up to the door of heaven and lock God in.  That way God won’t be down here meddling in our business in that troublesome way known only to God.  “Let us build ourselves a tower…so that we can make a name for ourselves.”  We build towers, perhaps, to make ourselves feel worthy. We build towers, perhaps, to keep God at bay, because we can’t tolerate feeling so small and out of control and pitiful and ashamed when God shows up.

Why do we build towers? Lots of reasons.  What I’m really curious about is: Why did the Old Cambridge Baptist Church build this tower?  A really big stone tower, slightly unwieldy, and subject to fits of disintegration on a regular basis. What’s up with that?  I’m sure the answers to that question are many, but here’s what I’ve been thinking.

Harvard Square is really old.  Established in 1630 as Newtowne, it was the first planned town in English North America.  First Parish was established in 1632 and First Congregational Church between 1633 and 1636.  Harvard College was established in 1636. A latecomer on the scene, Christ Church Episcopal was established in 1759.  They had a few rough years during the American Revolution, but managed to keep their toehold in Harvard Square.  And a very latecomer, Old Cambridge Baptist Church was established as a daughter church of the First Baptist Church in Cambridge in 1844.  They were a bit tardy to the party, but the Baptists had arrived in Harvard Square. 

Remember, the Baptists in Massachusetts had a colorful history.  The Baptists had not been warmly embraced by the Puritans.  Roger Williams, the patron saint of Baptists in the United States, had come to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a Puritan minister.  A brilliant and charismatic leader, Williams refused the offer to become the pastor of the Puritan church in Boston because he thought they weren’t holy enough.  Ultimately, our man Roger was run out of the colony for his refusal to stop his criticism of the political and religious establishment.  He wandered South and established the Colony of Providence Plantation and there established the first Baptist church in America in 1636.  It was a long time before the Baptists were welcomed back to Massachusetts, and not with the most open of arms.  FBC Cambridge, OCBC’s mother church, didn’t get started until 1817.

It might be safe to say that when the Baptists finally showed up in Harvard Square they had a tiny little ax to grind.  All that complicated history of religious intolerance and rejection, all of the perceived pompousness of those who were the “established” churches in the area, all of the need to prove their worthiness as a valid religious organization that was on par with the other long term religious residents of Harvard Square…all of that came together.  By the time this building was begun on this site in 1869, let’s just say that the feisty DNA of the Baptists in Harvard Square was firmly at work.  And I suspect it showed up in the building.

“Let us build a tower,” they said.  A stone tower.  A big stone tower.  A tower that says “We have arrived,” a tower that says “You ain’t gon’ be running these Baptists out of town,” a tower that is a fortress, made of stone, tall enough to be seen from the center of Harvard Square, a tower that says: “Let us point the people’s vision heavenward to behold the amazing glory of God, a tower that glorifies the one great God, God’s own tower…” …a tower that will make a name for ourselves.  You gotta love that gutsy, oppositional, defiant, spirited determination of the Baptists in this place.

And so architect Alexander Esty designed this glorious Gothic revival building for the Baptists, a design with a stone tower.  A tower that is stunningly beautiful and a maintenance nightmare.  A tower that has needed repeated, dramatic repair over the years.  (Just ask the Building and Long Range Planning Team for details.) A tower that is more expensive to take down than to keep maintained. A tower that proclaims that the Baptists are HERE and, oh, right, that God is our God.  A beloved, faulty tower.

Why do we build towers? Because.  And let’s face it, whatever reasons drive our tower building, the truth is, all of our towers are faulty towers.  Our faulty towers crumble, erode, lean, or fall down.  Or someone builds a tower that’s larger than ours and no matter how fabulous our tower is we are still diminished by the bigger tower.  We build our towers to make a name for ourselves, but in the end, the towers cannot give us our worth. 

Why do we build towers? On our best days, we build towers to express our amazing creativity, to put forth the very best of what we have to offer.  But there is a shadow side to our desire to convey our excellence. “Let us build a tower, so that we can make a name for ourselves.”  Our tower building can also be an expression of a frantic effort to make a name for ourselves, to prove that we are worthy.  It is that desperate attempt to prove to God and to the world that we are worth something, that tips the balance from seeking to express our best selves, the pursuit of excellence, over into what becomes perfectionism, or as Richard puts it: “Pathological perfectionism.” 

How do we sort out the difference between excellence that calls forth our best and the ragged, exhausting pursuit of perfectionism that leaves us feeling that we are never enough? 

In her book The Gifts of Perfection, Brene Brown says “perfection is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth.  Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.  It’s a shield.”[1]  A shield that might look something like a tower.  A tower we think will protect us and proclaim our worth.  A faulty tower. 

Dr. Brown says that what counters the striving to be perfect is living wholeheartedly.  “Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness.  It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.  It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”[2]

Driven by perfectionism, we build towers that will give us worth, but in the end we just end up feeling divided and disconnected from others, scattered across the landscape, alone and isolated.  We counter our addiction to perfection with the message of grace: that what we do, who we are, is enough.

The line between committing out our excellent best and pathological perfectionism is a thin one.  How do we sort out the difference between excellence and perfectionism?  I look to Spain for an example that inspires me.  You see, I’ve developed a little crush recently on the architect Antonio Gaudi.   Gaudi is the bomb.  I think I’m more in love with him than with Roger Williams.  Gaudi was a mad, creative genius.  His buildings in Spain mirror the natural Catalan landscape of his origins, and are stunning, organic structures that seem to spring up like mixed media art projects in 3-D form.[3] When I first saw pictures of Gaudi’s work I was almost repelled by it, but the more I looked, the more mesmerized I became by its creative, powerful originality.  Gaudi’s masterwork, the Sagrada Familia, pictured on your bulletin cover, is still under construction in Barcelona, Spain.  (Who’s going to Spain next year?  Please send me a picture of you all in front of the Sagrada Familia.)  A creative mash up of fairy tale towers, sculptures, and insides that look like flowers and trees makes the Sagrada Familia one of the most fascinating faulty towers anywhere. 

The bascilica won’t be complete until 2026, nearly 150 years after its beginning.  Gaudi was fond of saying: “My client isn’t in a hurry.”  God was his client, of course.  “My client isn’t in a hurry.” Gaudi was a deeply religious man, who devoted the rest his life to the creation of his masterpiece.  At the time of his tragic death, (he was hit by a tram car, and people mistook him for a beggar) Gaudi was living on the construction site of the Sagrada Familia, where he had set up his bed.  When designing the church, Gaudi planned for the stunning Tower of the Savior to be one yard shorter than the nearby Montjuïc mountain.  Gaudi made sure that his glorious creation did not outshine that of the Master Creator. 

Gaudi gave his work his creative all, his architectural and engineering brilliance were expressions of his devotion to excellence.  I can’t say that Gaudi wasn’t also a perfectionist, or that his work was an expression of pathological perfectionism, or that he wasn’t trying to make a name for himself. But he was somehow able to hold his attachment to outcome of his lifework in a light way.  This suggests to me a deep creative freedom that I long to emulate.  Freedom from attaching our worth to the outcome of the towers we construct.  Freedom from the obsessive attempts to control outcomes.  Freedom to devote one’s self passionately to life as a work of art no matter what happens with the results, especially when our grand life projects are incomplete. 

The church we build has its faulty towers.  In spite of the passion, devotion, and commitment to excellence we bring, the church we build has faulty towers.  Yet, in acknowledging that, and not judging our worth by the church we build, we leave space to praise God.  We leave space for God to tell us that we are enough. 

In her recent book Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber says that on Sunday mornings people come to worship at the House for All Sinners and Saints, they are randomly handed a part of the liturgy to read.  Whether they’re good at it or not, whether they’ve ever done it before or not, they come up front, do their bit, and then sit back down.  Bolz-Weber says: “Our church is anti-excellence, pro-participation.”[4]  (How many of you twitched when I read that quote?)  For perfectionists, embracing that “anti-excellence, pro-participation” approach can feel like stepping off of a cliff. Now you know I’m not saying we should not be sloppy slackers about how we do church, or work, or lives our lives.  I am suggesting that we pry our sweaty little fists off of those outcomes that boost our self worth. It’s a spiritual practice, isn’t it: professing that our worth is a given, a gift of God’s love…not something we can earn.

I’ve also been thinking of Martha Jane Hackett as I wrote this sermon.  That beloved saint of this church, who gave so much of herself to OCBC, who did what she could to set up an interim period that would be intentional, and who at her death managed to let go of the outcomes she so deeply desired for OCBC.  She entrusted the outcome, the future of this church, one of her beloved life projects, into the care of God.  She inspires us to give it out all, and yet to hold the outcome lightly.

In building this church together, we bring our excellent best, and yet our value does not ride on how well it all goes.  Our value comes from God’s forgiving, embracing, welcoming, abundant love for us.  And so as we create the beloved community let us leave space for the gifts of imperfection.  As someone once said: “To expect perfection from imperfect human beings is perfectly ridiculous.” 

And so we build our beautiful, faulty towers, knowing their imperfection is part of their charming worth.  Knowing that our worth in God’s eyes doesn’t have to be earned by our fancy, faulty towers.  Thank God.  AMEN. 


[1] Brene Brown.  2010.  The Gifts of Imperfection.  Hazelden. P. 56.

[2] Ibid., p.1.

[3] Thanks to artist Junelle Jacobsen for this analogy (and for introducing me to Gaudi) in Studying Under the Masters on Jeanne Oliver’s Ning site.

[4] Nadia Bolz-Weber.  2013.  Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint.  Jericho Books.

  • Pastor Meg Hess