Last week I had the great privilege of participating in a conference on race held nearby at Wheelock College. In one small group discussion we quickly found ourselves playing with fire. There were perhaps twenty of us. We were in a classroom, but had arranged our chairs in a circle. We were a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic group who ranged in age from high-schooler to senior citizens.
As we spoke, we admitted that the prospect of discussing race in a racially mixed environment is tricky and charged. It is easy to get it wrong ... easy to work from incorrect assumptions ... easy to reveal an unconscious bias, easy to hurt another’s feelings, easy to expose oneself as racially clumsy.
We admitted that as much as we wanted to be there—each of us was personally committed to being there ... personally committed to meeting and learning from the other—we were playing with fire, handling a dangerous topic ... we needed to be careful ... we were each on our guard ... we didn’t want anyone to get burnt.
The subject of race is hot, so hot, it can scorch, it can burn and scar you for life. Handling the fires of racial difference, of privilege and of disadvantage, is treacherous and tricky.
The truth is that we are—most of us—most comfortable, most at ease, in the company of “our own kind,” with other people who are like ourselves.
Whether by nature or nurture, humans have a tendency to gravitate toward our own kind: whether it be people of our own age, educational level, skin color or language. We are pretty tribal.
There is a mega church, a seekers’ church in the mid-west that understands this. The church undertakes to make church goers as comfortable as possible, by subtly guiding them to their own kind.
They station friendly parking attendants in the entrance to, and throughout, their spacious, landscaped parking lots. These attendants are trained to direct owners of luxury cars to park near each other; owners of SUV’s to park near each other; owners of economy cars are similarly directed to their corner of the parking lot. And, owners of beaters—of cars tattooed with dents and scrapes and rust—these, too, have a corner of the lot just for them.
Diversity can be difficult. It can be treacherous and it can just be arduous. Conversely, it is so much easier, less complicated and more relaxing simply to gravitate to our own kind.
In the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the author tells the story of Pentecost, the beginning, the birthday, the inauguration of the Christian Church.
Among a great many astounding and confounding biblical stories, the story of the Day of Pentecost ranks among the most astounding and the most confounding. It has elements that are mystical, if not magical ... elements that are bizarre and inexplicable.
It goes like this.
The followers of Jesus are all gathered in a room. They are praying. And something happens ... it is even a little embarrassing to describe.
First, “suddenly from heaven there comes into the room a sound like the rush of a violent wind.”
Next, “divided tongues, as of fire, appear among them, and a tongue rests on each of them.”
Third, “they begin to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gives them ability.”
Fourth—the climax and purpose of all this strangeness—people from every nation under heaven are there ... Parthians, Medes and Elamites are there ... (when was the last time you laid eyes on an Elamite?) Cappadocians, Mesopotamians and Phrygians are there ... (Phrygians! They last surfaced 8 centuries before in the Trojan War!)
That’s not the half of it: Pamphylians, Libyans, Egyptians, Cretans and a half a dozen other nationalities are there ... people representing some sixteen different languages, ethnicities, races, and nations are there ... the whole known world is there and here’s the kicker: they each hear the followers of Jesus speaking in their own native language.
Here’s the point—not the wind, not the fire ... but this: “the very first experience of the Christian church, its organizing moment, the inauguration of this grand venture … began as an experience both of diversity”1 and of understanding.
And you have to ask: is this God’s dearest and highest hope for us? Is this, the high and holy purpose of the Church not to settle on the meaning of atonement ... or on the definition of salvation ... or argue over adult verses infant baptism ... but this: to understand and to be understood across human differences?
The church has wrestled with diversity throughout its 2,000-year-old history, although, admittedly, not always with a lot of success.
All you need to do is to turn a few pages in the Acts of the Apostles to find the two earliest leaders of the early church—Peter and Paul—battling it out over diversity … over who is allowed in and who is not.
They argue over whether to accept Gentiles into the church or whether to reserve entrance to Jews. They argue about whether people with certain cultural food preferences can bring those preferences with them when they come into the church. They argue over whether men with foreskins should be allowed in. They argue over the nature of women’s leadership and authority.
Over and over again, however, the early church leaders invariably decide to err on the side of inclusion, rather than exclusion, expansiveness over narrowness.
This thing we call diversity has stood since the earliest days of the church as a kind of litmus test of our seriousness about the Christian message. Down through the ages, the key question with which the church has been confronted is not how we define the doctrines of the atonement, or redemption or salvation …
Rather, the key question has been and is: can the church transcend the artificial boundaries that we humans create and erect in every other realm of our existence – boundaries of nation, and race, and ethnicity, and gender, and geography, and history, and class, and sexual orientation,”2 of ability and of language?
The question has been and remains, whether the church can soar above these social artifices and act like what we were created to be: one family, God’s family.
Apparently, it is pretty natural for us to sort ourselves out by kind: Citizens here; aliens there. English only. White only. Women and Indians to the balcony. Blacks to the back of the bus. Gays to the South End. Italians to the North End. Tall men with good hair to the Presidency of the US, or if not that, to the House and Senate. Augusta National is for men ... SUVs, over there. Beaters, you go there.
We have private clubs to sort ourselves out by race, gender, income level, education, and interest. Apparently, it is instinctive for us to sort ourselves out by kind.
Pentecost is astounding and confounding, because it is so unnatural. It is counterintuitive. Pentecost is astounding and confounding until you realize this: Pentecost is divine. Pentecost is heavenly ... it is ordained of God and heaven-inspired.
On the Day of Pentecost, God ignited the church. God set the church on fire. The tongues of fire that claim us and call us into community are dangerous and tricky ... because they are borne from above ... from the very heart of God.
It is because the Christian life is unnatural, counterintuitive and fraught with danger ... that we train and practice for it.
We come to worship, to learn the language of heaven, to attune ourselves to God’s heart ... to learn the languages of privilege and disadvantage, of bias and stereotype ... to sensitize ourselves to each other’s age-old scars and freshly opened wounds ... to learn the language of what hurts and, by God’s grace, to learn the language of what heals and soothes.
Here’s what I know: the more fluent you and I become in the languages of diversity, the more we will be drawn to the heart and heat of the fire, to the beauty of the flames’ exotic dancing ...
And, if you dare to draw near, dare to come close, you too shall be warmed, lighted and ignited by these flames from God.
The Christian Church, from the day of its birth, has been a venture that experiences human differences, not as a burden to be borne, not as a problem to be overcome … but as a precious and exotic gift from the God of all creation.
1 I am indebted in this sermon to Hubert G. Locke, former chair of the board of trustees of Pacific School of Religion, for his Chapel Sermon, preached at PSR on October 20, 1998.