Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. According to Luke, on the Festival of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, the Holy Spirit descended upon the first followers of Jesus. The church was sent to be Christ’s body in the world. As we celebrate today, on this joyful day, it is also an opportunity to consider our call to be God’s people in the world.
Apparently, over these years I’ve become famous/infamous among you for my midwest stories. Fine, in these last days, I repent. Today’s sermon: LA Stories! My call to be Christian was definitively shaped here in Los Angeles.
In the Spring of 1992 I had just moved to Los Angeles. I was a database programmer and systems analyst, working in an Orange County office, while living in Redondo Beach. Yes, my LA experience was about traffic and the 405 from the start. On one terrible day that spring it was much, much worse. Following the acquittal of four white police officers who had beaten a black man, Rodney King, the city erupted in anger. That day, I drove home early because a curfew was being imposed on much of the county that evening. A populace like Los Angeles only functions when everyone doesn’t try to do the same thing at the same time. On that day we did. All people were gathered in one place as I “drove” inch by inch on the 405. National Guard vehicles zoomed down the shoulders of what was otherwise a ten lane parking lot. I had plenty of time to behold a city in flames, dark clouds billowing over south central Los Angles.
I was a classic rock fan in those days. Jim Lad was a local radio personality. He tried to help keep the peace that afternoon by playing music of his generation. John Lennon, "Let it Be." That moment is seared into my memory. “I want to make a difference,” I thought to myself, or maybe it was the Spirit who thought it into me. Maybe it was just the Beetles, but that moment was one step in my call to ordained ministry, my part in this diverse tapestry of people called church. This is who we are all called to be as church: the people God, gathered by Christ, sent by the Spirit to make a difference in a hurting world.
In those days I was attending a Presbyterian church close by. In hindsight, it was more white Evangelical than Presbyterian — now don’t get sassy, we have plenty of Methodist churches just like that too. One post-riot effort was a city wide volunteer cleanup. Rodney King himself, put the best words to it, pleading with the city: “Can’t we all just get along?” Several weeks later, late to the game, my church managed to try.
By then, most of the work was done, but we did locate a yet untouched lot, hauled ourselves into a sixteen passenger church van, and moved some burnt wood and rubbish around for a couple hours. Then, of course, we circled up and prayed. We prayed visibly and loudly. The lot was well chosen for that, right off a major intersection. Yes, we were Christians, the holy apostolic church making a difference, out of our pews, outside of our zip code, pushed beyond our comfort zones. We had checked off all the church “you should be doing” boxes you could want. I believe our leader was a student at Fuller Seminary. Conservative or liberal it wouldn’t have mattered. We are fed the same stuff. Yes, there we were, the church circled up in the Spirit, gathered around our living Lord. Or were we?
I was mortified. To this day I take Jesus’ teaching in Matthew to heart that outside of our places of worship, we should pray in private to avoid the temptation of prideful faith. Yet, it was more than that, there was something in that moment deeply wrong. I didn’t have words or understanding yet for what that wrong was.
Exegesis/Opening the Scriptures (1)
In our tradition, there is no better analysis of what goes wrong in our humanity than the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. These ancient texts are not stories about how things came to be; they are stories about how things always are. We are created in the image of God and given astonishing freedom and dignity, each and every one of us is sacred. Yet, there is this warning: “Sin is always lurking at your door and you must master it.”
With God given freedom, so God commands responsibility. Adam and Eve fail the test of personal responsibility: neither admit responsibility for what they’ve done. The result is the experience of shame, which was not God’s intention for us. Then there is Cain. Cain kills his brother, Abel. He fails the test of moral responsibility: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is of course, yes, yes you are.
Next, the story of Noah and the great flood. The earth is a violent mess. We’ll start over, God says. Noah is given grace enough to save his family and as many creatures of the earth as he can. But Noah takes his grace and fails the test of collective responsibility. He doesn’t help rebuild society when the flood is over. He’s saved his kin so he unloads the Ark, thanks his God, and plants a vineyard, apparently living out his latter days as a drunkard.
Freedom, grace, and the drama of human responsibility: do we have enough now to decipher my problem with the church? Let’s try something easier first. The pandemic question: “Why should I wear a mask? I'm free to do what I want.” A second is like it: “Why should I get vaccinated?” Well, because we are called to personal responsibility, we are one another’s keeper, and we have collective responsibility to our church, to our society, and to our world to rebuild and tend to the health of the planet. So yes, remarkably helpful; but my happy post-riot Jesus prayer circle passed all those tests too, at least superficially. Now what?
The Bible predicts another kind of human behavior in a tower called Babel. Given the opportunity — meaning: power — we seek to create a universal culture in place of a universal God. We have a tendency to gather all people into one “city” or one language and impose our way of being on others. At the top of the great ziggurat of ancient Babylon was a chamber to be occupied by God. When humanity gives birth to an “ism,” we build a tower of culture, put one particular image of ourselves at the top and rank all those lower as lesser. Colonial racism puts the white male at the top; rationalism puts secular reason at the top; fundamentalism puts certainty at the top; gendered homophobia puts reproductive sex at the top. We impose a uniformity of the powerful on God’s given diversity. And every once in a while God comes down, laughs, and throws the whole thing to the ground, which is exactly 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 and every human soul.
Now, I think we may have some traction for my church quandary. The church, when it’s people are of the majority, has a tendency to imagine a universal savior as someone not unlike themselves. That church, however liberal or progressive it imagines itself to be, can never dismantle racism or any ‘ism, because they are part of the problem. My church, gathered that day in south central Los Angeles, however well meaning, was circling an image of Jesus who was our cultural ideal: white, straight, masculine, strong, self made, emotionally objective yet compassionate — and if a gospel had been discovered that secretly revealed our Lord had a quiet loving wife at home, two and half kids and played the guitar on youth retreats, there would have been little objection. This is of course, NOT who Jesus was or is. We can’t put our own image there. That spot it already taken. Jesus was a first century Jew — not a Christian — a Jew of ancient Palestine who spoke Aramaic, grew up and died in poverty and was absolutely nothing like me or you.
The church, empowered by the Spirit, is called to be the people gathered around the broken and risen body of that particular Jesus. And if we truly become that Christ’s church rather than my culture’s church, who might we become? We might just behold the world and the church as it truly is: an astonishing, kaleidoscopic multiplicity of life and beauty, languages and cultures. We might in fact be able to make a difference in this glorious, yet hurting creation.
When I first moved to Los Angles there was an altar to the universal Christian America to which I paid homage at least twice a month. In my Midwestern English the word is: “the mall.” It was amazing to me that here in Southern California you could buy any product at any time, as soon as it was available. In Torrance there was a mall that had at one point become the largest in the country. It had been two malls, actually. The tower builders realized they could join the two together by building across Carson boulevard. So joined, it was massive. There were even two of many stores. Hungry for a Cinnabon? No problem, there is one in each wing. The shirt you want isn’t in your size? Try the second Macy’s, just past the middle food court.
It was also a culture in deep decay. The building was all cinder block, concrete, 1970’s ugly. No natural light. A whole wing of the structure was closing, slowly, store by store. Now, this isn’t a perfect metaphor so don’t press it too far, but that whole building has now been remodeled. Light everywhere, skylights, multi-ethnic food courts, and bathed in that light one can behold the true beauty of Southern California, the multiplicity of faces and languages, the diversity of its people.
I wonder if our American Christianity could be so transformed, by returning our real, particular Jesus to the center. In the Spirit of that Christ and our universal God, our gathering would be a celebration of human dignity in the light of all of our differences. One day I remember I tried to count all the people there, more languages in one place than I had heard my entire life. There were Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Pontus and Asia, Egypt and Arabia and visitors from Rome, more than a few from Iowa, Illinois and Ohio, a couple of Oklahomans, Jews and proselytes, and one frightened white boy from Missouri … and today, joining them, are four new Christians, each unique and beautiful as God made them. What a people Pentecost will make of us! Let us together make a difference for the good in this hurting world. And to God alone will be the glory, now and forever. Amen.
(1) See Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation: Genesis the Book of Beginnings, and Dignity of Difference: How to avoid the Clash of Civilizations; Willie James Jenkins, After Whiteness: and Education in Belonging.
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess