Inspired Voices

Pentecost Sunday

“Inspired Voices”

Numbers 11: 24-30; Acts 2:1-21


Well, those of you who work or live downtown know that the DC Farmers’ Markets are in full swing. Farmers’ Markets are a big hit for everybody in Washington. At least the Foggy Bottom one supports Miriam’s Kitchen. You probably know from the bulletin announcements, if not from your own experience, the Foggy Bottom Farmers’ Market allows some of our Western members to glean from the leftover produce on Wednesday evenings as the farmers are taking down their booths and bring the fresh produce back to Miriam’s for the chefs to use on Thursday and Friday.

You’d’ve seen for yourself that the lettuces and spring onions were beautiful this week, but the strawberries are about done. We’re a few weeks away from tomatoes. Local, heirloom tomatoes are about as good as it gets. As you probably know from walking through the grocery store, if not the farmer’s market or your own garden, heirloom tomatoes are found in every color and shape. Some are orange, some are striped yellow and green, there’s a dusty rose colored variety — I suppose that someone has catalogued the range. Part of their appeal is that one tomato in the bin is never the same as another. This makes for a lovely presentation on your plate, and gives you a delicious surprise in every bite. I don’t know any tomato lover who’d disagree that heirloom tomatoes are, in short, a treat.

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a while back on the heirloom tomato craze. It said, “in the kingdom of vegetables, the heirloom tomato is high nobility.”[1] Then it went on to describe how heirlooms have a reputation for being “persnickety in the garden.” They’re prone to disease; the plants don’t always yield many good fruits; and, while their inconsistency is delightful to many of us, it’s not so much to cooks who would like to prepare a special recipe in a uniform and cost-effective quantity. So, to counter these protests, growers have created hybridized heirlooms that lift up certain qualities of a variety so that they’re more disease-resistant and more abundantly productive, and so that there’s a particular, distinct flavor and look in each packet of seeds. Tomato purists cringe at what they say amounts to “heirloom heresy.”

While so many of us all love the unique and distinctive properties of that which is not quite so fruitful; inconsistency in the tomato business just doesn’t pay. And just as growers and cost conscious chefs are increasingly disinclined to celebrate a range of difference in their tomato stash, a lot of us have an innate desire for sameness. Too many of us prefer to be with people who are pretty much like us, or at least maybe have our certain, chosen mindset if not demographic profile.



This preference for sameness has historically challenged the church. A recent topic that percolates among my clergy friends is how we’re allowing – or, in some cases, encouraging – some of our churches reject the idea of serving “all” to promote an agenda that appeals to a particular population, in spite of the richness that that diversity brings to the dinner table, worship service or committee meeting. This is how we get coffee house churches and missional churches, high liturgy/ high music in some and praise bands in others. It’s how we have a focus on feeding the homeless in the church on one corner and a focus on personal bible studies and spiritual small groups on the other end of town. It’s how we have self-identified liberal congregations in Foggy Bottom and most-believed to be conservative ones in Georgetown. The marketing genius in me agrees that some sort of differentiation amongst our congregations is helpful for a Christian or seeker identify which church community would provide her the best home. But one of the problems we are facing as a denomination as well as a wider church is how many of our churches have chosen to move along the diversification continuum to become churches that ultimately exclude.

I wonder how all of this might unwittingly effect a shutting of doors to the Holy Spirit.

Nearly 2000 years ago, when the day of Pentecost came, the text tells us that Parthians, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judeans and Cappodocians, all those folks and then some, were all gathered in one place…. and suddenly… the Holy Spirit showed up.  It was when the people of all nations, of all tribes, were gathered together, present and accounted for, speaking and heard, that the Holy Spirit arrived. Now, we know the Holy Spirit comes and blows wherever it wills, from the moaning camp sites of the Israelites on their way to freedom to that room on this 50th day after the Barley Harvest at Passover. But we also know that amazing things happened – the great birth of the church happened; three thousand people were baptized into the body of Jesus Christ that has continued to strengthen and grow to this day, when all were welcome and accounted for.

The question of each of us, as we celebrate the Holy Spirit in our church today, is, “How big is your all?” Or, more precisely, how are you including each and every one?

It is not unusual for us leave the “all” to another, even in matters of the church. It’s not unusual for us to want to select a core group of experienced or especially knowledgeable professionals to lead our congregations, then give other ones permission to show up on Sundays — and rarely in between. This happens not only when times are tough and we might really need particular expertise to hang around. This happens every day when one or a few voices dominate the conversation leaving the less assertive among us to carry off in a new direction. We effect a mental hybridization of our membership and create a core of those we pretty much say are the only ones capable of leading us along the path that they seem to have identified as right. Inputs and outputs within the church become skewed by a bandy of purportedly knowledgeable voices who overpower those who might have offered a meaningful perspective into the heart of a matter. Eventually, this can lead to a crisis in congregations as the direction of a church becomes misdirected toward the domineering voice rather than the majority one. Divergent winds cease to blow. New voices fade. A whole population of members not represented by the force go unserved and potentially go away.

Now, often those strong-voiced, well positioned ones wholeheartedly believe that they represent the group’s best interest, but too often their “I know best” becomes “the way it ought to be” and “the way it ought to be” becomes code for “that person or that small group of persons’ ideas are the only ones that matter.” So the most assertive or longstanding voices become presented as the agreed upon mindset and a rich, basket of organic thought digresses into a predictable offering of what is actually not agreeable at all.

I can’t help but remind us all of a Capitol favorite, Being There, starring Peter Sellers and Shirley McLain.

=  A certain scene opens as a simple, now-wayfaring man named Chance (mistakenly called Chauncey Gardiner) is being interviewed by a political pundit, Gary Burns.

=  Mr. Burns: “Well, I suppose that since the President quoted you, that you’re inclined to agree with his view of the economy.” Chauncey responds, “Oh? Oh, uh, which view?” (The audience applauds.)

=  Mr. Burns continues, “The president compared the economy of this country with a garden. And he stated that after a period of decline, a period of natural growth would follow.” Chauncey: “Yes, it is possible for everything to grow strong and there is plenty of room for new trees and new flowers of all kinds.” Mr. Burns: “So you’re saying, Mr. Gardiner, that this is just a new season in the garden, so to speak.” Chauncey replied, “Yes. Yes. A garden needs a lot of care and a lot of love. And if you give your garden a lot of love, things grow. But first, some things must wither…uh some trees die. Fresh young saplings take their place. They become very beautiful.”

=  Cut to a skeptical attorney in his apartment. “There’s that gardener!” The attorney’s girlfriend: “Yes, he does talk like one, but I think he’s brilliant.”

=  Cut to Chance’s former maid sitting with friends in a drawing room: “It sure it a white man’s world in America. I raised that boy since he was the size of a pistol. I say right now, he never learned to read and write. No sir. There’s no brain at all. Rice stuffed between the ears. Short changed by the Lord. Dumb as anything. Look at him now. Yes! All u gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want.”

=  Cut to Ben, the well regarded aristocrat who had befriended Chance and unwittingly rested upon his counsel: “Ah, Chauncey, you have the gift of being natural. That’s a great talent, my boy.”


In the film, Being There, the gift of being natural led the most prominent of Washington, DC and Wall Street to take in Chance, presume his brilliance, and rely on his simple wisdom to make critical business and policy decisions. Funny how Chance became Chauncey Gardiner: a man of quiet wisdom to those within his circle of conversation while a simpleton to those with a bird’s-eye view to the truth.

A perspective that lures us toward a dominant voice, whether it’s a voice of historically proven wisdom or avant-garde intrigue leads us to miss the benefits of our diversity and certainly results in a side-step of “all”. Our systems – even our agricultural ones – are created to leverage difference so that no one perspective or product takes over and effectively quashes another. The most humble among us, the most unusual among us, the most quiet among us, are often the ones who turn us on our ear so that we hear a perspective so wildly different from our own that it sends us to a rightful challenge, a fresh place, a new potential future.

This coming week, delegates and commissioners will be gathering in Detroit for the PCUSA’s 221st General Assembly. There, voices will be heard on all sides of the debate on overtures that could help to prevent gun violence, and those that will elevate the label of apartheid against Israel, and among the many other issues that will be discussed are those that will grant pastors the right to perform marriage of our gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer friends without consequence of censure. You can be proud that Western Presbyterian Church has been on the forefront of that conversation for many years now, actively encouraging National Capital Presbytery’s work to insure that all people, regardless of their gender identity or relationship preference have a right to full participation in the life of the church and their lives in society, including the right to marry whom they choose.

One of the most difficult overtures being presented in the next two weeks is one that is positioned as mutual forbearance – requesting that the denomination engage in further prayer, discussion, and discernment over the definition of marriage in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Progressive Christians – Christians who are working hard to make progress toward the vision of Jesus Christ – rightly reject this overture urging that GLTBQ Presbyterians have waited long enough for full inclusion. The question we hear include, “Are GLTBQ Presbyterians who’ve been denied justice expected to wait patiently for their oppressors to die before the PCUSA will show them the dignity they deserve? Are they expected to wait patiently for future church leaders to emerge who will have the courage we lack? Are they expected to wait patiently for a time when it will be economically and culturally costless for the Presbyterian Church to do the right thing?” The progressive voice as an inspired voice of our church wonders why anyone should have to wait any longer, patiently or not.

If we become captivated by the hyperbolic effects of Pentecost – the wind and the flames reported from that day in the room – we become distracted from what could be the most important point. The Holy Spirit calls us to celebrate the beauty of our diversity – of our “all” especially on Pentecost Sunday, reminding us that church isn’t the church of the Holy Spirit unless all are welcome, all are loved, all are respected, all are heard: all ages, all races, all ethnicities, all relationship preferences, all across the economic spectrum, both genders and all gender identities. When all is a reality, the real force of the Holy Spirit sweeps through a place and all voices are inspired to affect a new hope for their collective future.

How big is your all? May your all be big enough to embrace all people into your heart. May your all be big enough to inspire you to lift your voice to insure that all people feel embraced here at Western Presbyterian Church. May the Holy Spirit create here at Western Presbyterian Church a body of inspired voices who never hold our breath until all people to be embraced equally throughout our denomination, the wider church and the world.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Chaker, Anne Marie, “You Say Tomato. They Say Phony,” The Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2010, found on: