Genesis 10:32-11:9; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13;
I shared a thought recently with our men’s group that I’ve been puzzling over since my father passed away. Even in his last months, my father loved watching Gunsmoke. I couldn’t stand the show growing up, old-fashioned black-and-white westerns.
Matt Dillion, the US Marshall of Dodge City, Kansas, was a strong silent type of man, bringing order to the Wild West. Dillion was a loyal friend with a benevolent heart, regretful when violence was needed. He was steadfast, even-tempered, honest, incorruptible, and dedicated to the cause of bringing order to the “untamed wilderness.” It has dawned on me that my father, a small-town Presbyterian pastor highly regarded in his community, was also a benevolent man with a bit of Puritan longing to bring good order to the world. I can see what he admired about Marshall Dillion.
My sister had become my father’s caregiver in those last months. My father was a staunch advocate of CNN, and my sister, for Fox News. Gunsmoke kept the family peace, and she took up knitting. Sometimes we comprised and tuned into M.A.S.H. After I had spent half a lifetime in the real American West, I understood, with an almost gut-level revulsion, that those lily-white stories were demeaning to the first inhabitants of the West. However, I had a troubling revelation in a moment of sanctimonious grumping.
So, how did I escape when my family acquired two televisions? I watched Star Trek on the downstairs TV, playing in the captain's chair! Captain James T. Kirk. Replace revolvers with lasers, and a Western becomes science fiction. There are notable differences. In the ’60s, the script permitted Kirk more emotion than Marshall Dillion’s archetypical mid-century male. Airing amid the American civil rights movement, Kirk was now surrounded on the bridge by racial and “alien” diversity. One well-known episode sparked outrage when Kirk kissed a woman of another skin color — green. Substitute a trans character, and The Trek might be banned in some Florida classrooms today.
The point I’m driving at is that my father and I admired our heroes because of an in-cultured version of what it meant for us to be good, successful people. The magnanimous white straight male, the goal of the Anglo-Christian life, was in the center chair leading the cast to a better universe.
In his book After Whiteness: A Theological Education in Belonging, Willie James Jennings describes a new faculty interview at an unnamed divinity school he served (1). The seminary’s stated goal was a diverse faculty. Two candidates were interviewed for a highly specialized faculty position in original language textual criticism. One was a white male, the other a black female. The woman brought a much-needed spirit with exceptional qualifications. “She wanted to talk about herself as integral to her work” as an original language specialist, “specifically about the racial condition of the West and how ancient texts and modern interpretations play into that condition."
The male, however, brought something even more compelling. He was a brilliant scholar, to be sure. He was also a tall, young dark-haired baritone, “perfectly groomed and suited as a professor in the middle of a celebrated career.” At one point in the interview, the committee asked about his year and a half studying in Germany. He said, “My seminars in Germany were ‘no holds barred,’ vigorous debates about the highest technicalities and most important ideas in my field.”
Jennings writes that the candidate put together the fragments of the ideal Western scholar — 1.5 years in Germany — even though born and raised in America, he somehow spoke with a subtle German accent — master of his corner of theology and biblical languages, blue suit, brown wings tips, slow speech, legs crossed, quiet confidence and comportment. Never mind the dubious help of a ‘no holds barred’ spirit in forming pastors, the faculty smiled and laughed with him as if they were meeting Captain Kirk himself. He got the job, of course, and Jennings, the black scholar of African studies, admits with self-aware frustration that he couldn’t help but admire the power of that interview too.
This isn’t a sermon about critical race theory, though it could be. I’m talking about idolatry (1 Cor. 12:2). There is, of course, nothing wrong with that which is admirable in our culture and our heroes (2). We should not be ashamed of who we are unless, as Toni Morrison once said, “We can only be tall because someone else is on their knees.” The problem at the heart of misplaced desire is, time and again, a singular vision of what it means to be truly human; typically, it is the one embedded in us without our permission by the majority demographic. The sin is becoming afraid of, or ashamed to be, Other. At Pentecost, this disease can be healed.
I came to the remarkable conclusion just recently that I have heard the story of Pentecost wrong all my life. I imagined the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples and, though they preached in different languages, all heard as one. King James English. Of course, that’s not what the text says: “How is it that we hear each of us in our native language?” (Act 2:8). Likewise, I read the Tower of Babel story in Genesis as if God’s curse on the tower builders was the unwanted multiplicity of humanity (3). No, in Genesis, multiplicity is first (Gen. 10:32); that is God's gift. We hear this affirmed so beautifully in Paul; there are many gifts, one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4). God throws down the tower builders’ desire to gather all in one place, culture, and language. The Holy Spirit doesn't reverse this; Pentecost affirms the God-given dignity of difference when those differences are rendered toward the good (1 Cor. 12:7).
When humanity gives birth to an "ism," or an Empire, we build a tower of culture, put one particular image of ourselves at the top, and rank all those lower as lesser. We impose an artificial uniformity on God's given diversity (Sacks). And every once in a while, God comes down, laughs, and throws the whole thing to the ground, which is precisely where we are supposed to be because that's where our God, our universal God walks in the cool of the evening breeze, hidden beneath the particularity of each human soul. On Pentecost, the One who occupied the center chair of our faith has been taken into heaven. We are not permitted, however, to take our seats there ourselves, though we try. Instead, the Spirit has come, blowing us into the world, blessed to be a blessing.
Jesus, whom our faith and joy desire, is unlike us and, in that unlikeness, affirms the dignify of difference. Jesus was a first-century Jewish teacher, not a Christian, who spoke Aramaic, grew up and died in the poverty of ancient Galilee. The church, empowered by the Spirit, is called to be the people gathered around the broken and risen body of this particular Jesus (Jennings). And in so doing, we are freed to behold the world and the church as it truly is: an astonishing, kaleidoscopic multiplicity of life and beauty, languages and culture.
Who is the Holy Spirit? The Lord and Giver of Life. In Acts, the Spirit is the one who sends the disciples to be with lands and folks with whom they’d rather not. When I left home, I ended up in Chicago. The big city was unlike my rural life. It took years to love public transportation. At one point in Chicago, I thought, I’ll go anywhere now but California, that land of fruits and nuts. In California, I heard the call to ministry. Here I am, Lord, send me, but please not to Texas. I am a graduate of Austin Seminary. I’ve decided to stop tempting the Spirit. When I first moved to California, I was terrified to go to the mall. There were more languages in one place than I had heard my entire life. It was Pentecost at Macy's! I now understand this is the beauty of God’s creation, where no wildflower or blade of grass is the same. The church for whom that beauty is joy can heal the world.
— Rev. Mark F. Sturgess, Pentecost, 5/28/23, SLO UMC
(1) Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), chapter 1.
(2)This spirit is missing in the confrontational approach of some Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consulting, such as Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility. The hard learned lesson of pastoral work is that people can not hear you when they are walking away from you.
(3) The title of this sermon is taken from Jonathans Sacks book: The Dignity of Difference: How To Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, revised edition (London: Continuum Publishing, 2002). Chapter 3, The Dignity of Difference: Exorcising Plato’s Ghost has provided an important way forward for my reading of these texts. See also, Theodore Hiebert, The Beginning of Difference: (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019).
Photograph CBS via the Getty, from the New Yorker