Preached at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Orinda on Zoom/Facebook on May 31st, 2020, on the feast of Pentecost.
Lectionary texts available HERE.
“the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the crowds, Jesus came and stood among them”
*plz be seated*
I’m a child of the suburbs and I have a great affection for suburbia. Suburbia is hard to talk about generally—there are many kinds of suburbs and many kinds of people living in them, but my particular corner of suburbia looked pretty much like the picture you have in your minds. I lived at the street-end of a long cul-de-sac. Every single one of the thirteen houses had kids living in them. Every single one of those families looked and sounded and acted like mine and so just about all of us were friends. This was not just true of the cul-de-sac but of the entire neighborhood. It was miles of cul-de-sacs with a pool and a clubhouse and a park in the middle of it and you’d see roving bands of pre-teens all summer long with bikes and skateboards and scooters and just about everybody you’d see, even the strangers, was a “potential friend”. It was a charmed time. It was cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac of my neighbors, and it was lovely.
When I graduated from high school and left that neighborhood and headed off to college—it was different, but in an unexpected way, more of the same. There were 7000 of us at the College of William & Mary and it was, in truth, far far more diverse than the neighborhood of my adolescence—there were people of every race, of every gender identity and sexual orientation, people from every class and social background, international and domestic students, people from urban and suburban and rural contexts, and political affiliation. But the thread binding us all was that we all made it to William & Mary. It was the benefit of the doubt that I gave to every one of my fellow students—I could waltz across campus and even the people who were strangers to me felt like my neighbors—I never doubted that, just by virtue of being at W&M, that they all belonged here.
I was in for a surprise when I moved to West Berkeley after college. Our diocesan-sponsored intentional community was located in the cute little vicarage next to Good Shepherd, Episcopal Church which is right there near the corner of University Avenue and San Pablo Avenue, just ten blocks from 580.
There were homeless people who lived in our neighborhood and who wandered our streets. Some of them slept on the Church property, one right outside my bedroom window. I could hear him snoring when I cracked my window at night before I’d get in bed. During the day the day-laborers gathered on the corner right out from of the Church and on a series of corners up and down Ninth Street. On Fridays, the lunch program at Good Shepherd would bring 40 some-odd people to the Church building and who would hang out on the block for a couple of hours before and after the lunch itself.
These people didn’t look like me, they didn’t talk like me, they didn’t act or move or relate like me and I was afraid of them. All of them. And for no particular reason other than that they were different from me. I was nerve-wracked, constantly, living in that neighborhood. I wish I could say something else for myself. I wish it. All of the means by which I was equipped to determine somebody’s relative neighborliness failed me in that context. We didn’t look the same, talk the same, act the same, we came from different worlds. We didn’t have the benefit of a common institution or a common identity or a common project. And all the narratives from my childhood about—euphemisms about crime and homelessness and loitering and safety, won out over my rational brain, and I was afraid. I didn’t think it at the time and I can only articulate it in hindsight, but I didn’t consider those homeless folks, those day laborers to be my neighbors. And I’m ashamed to admit that. I spent a lot of time cloistered in that house with the front door locked, something I never did in Hampton Park or in Williamsburg Virginia or in North Berkeley.
We’ve been under a shelter-in-place order for ten weeks now, and I’ve been spending a lot of time cloistered in my apartment, again. I’ll go for… days at a time, without even unlocking my front door and it’s got me remembering some of those feelings from my time behind the locked doors of the vicarage. We have lots to be nervous about these days, but there is a difference, I think, between seasonal agoraphobia and an abiding xenophobia. There is a difference between on the one hand, a healthy distancing—out of love—from people who I consider to be my neighbors, and on the other hand, intentionally, if even thoughtlessly, de-neighboring a particular group of people so that I needn’t behold myself to their well-being or even so that I might think that their very presence is a threat to me and my safety.
This distinction is in part the story of Pentecost and it’s the story that America is writing is real time as we contend with pandemic, with uprisings and riots in cities all across America, with a political gridlock that feels intractable. Who… do we consider to be our neighbors? And who have we let ourselves off the hook of considering as our neighbors?
Our Gospel this morning reads: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”” Immediately prior, Jesus has been executed, his tomb is found empty, and they are afraid for their safety. The problem is that in the original translation—hey, even in the modern day translation, we changed it because it sounds so… awful—it does not say “the doors were locked for fear of the authorities”, it says that “the doors were locked for fear of the Jews.” Not… any particular Jews… not … The Jews.
This kind of prejudice on the individual level looks like locking a door for fear of… a certain people. But when that individual level prejudice gets tooled with money and power, when it finds itself as the common prejudice of a community of people, when it finds itself installed in the institutions and structures of our social and political and economic life, when this prejudice finds itself adopted into the narrative canon of a town, of a county, of a country, of a people, then it becomes a systematized oppression. And we are seeing this systematized oppression enacted on a national scale, through our institutions and our policies, through economic practices and healthcare disparities, through very stereotypes that border on incitement that are purveyed by people in the highest levels of public service. This systematized oppression works.
It worked in the early Church. “The Jews” as an entire category faced violence, condemnation, and discrimination then and still now today for the prejudices embedded in even our Holy Scriptures and in the rhetoric of the Church. And it works today—if you’ve turned on the news or the radio, you have seen that systematized oppression at work in our public life.
You see, the sinister and subtle logic of oppression—that makes it so hard for me or for any of us to see—says that we are allowed not to see particular kinds of people as our neighbors, both on the individual level (though none of us would want to claim that) but also on the collective level. Oppression relies on the reduction of people from their status as a full person beloved of God, to looter or loiterer or thug. Oppression relies on reducing people to their skewed perception in the eyes of the person who called the police on them. The logic of oppression says that we are off the hook from seeing everybody we encounter as our neighbor.
Our Christianity runs in opposition to this logic of oppression. Our Christian faith would challenge us to stretch our idea of who is our neighbor beyond the terms that society would set for it. Christianity doesn’t make sense if I only have to love some of my neighbors as myself. Christianity doesn’t make sense, if Jesus’ resurrection and ascension promises salvation for only some people. Christianity doesn’t make sense if we can selectively amputate parts of the Body of Christ. Christianity stakes it’s claim on the irrational, countercultural, absolutely wild belief that there is nobody who we are off the hook from seeing as our neighbor. The story of Pentecost is foundational to this Christian counterlogic.
In the weeks that followed Jesus’ execution, resurrection, and his going up to be with God—the ascension—the apostles were left bereft in figuring out how to be the church without him, and not the Church simply amongst themselves, amongst people who looked and talked and acted like they did, but the Church among the diversity of the entire region, a series of nations spread across hundreds of miles and separated by borders and language and ethnicity. All these different people were gathered together in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit descended on them as tongues of fire and they began to hear and understand one another in their different languages. Not the same language, but to hear and to understand in different languages. They were shocked in their understanding of one another—Cretans, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Egyptians, Libyans, Arabs, Romans, all of them—accounting for God and for their faith. They were so dumb-founded in this understanding that people thought they were drunk.
This… maybe… is the our challenge to be neighborly in a deeper and braver and more expansive way. This is our challenge to be neighborly in a way that goes further than where our civic understanding of neighborliness comes up short.
It grieves me to see what is happening in our country this week. It grieves me to think of the riots and the uprisings in Minneapolis and in Los Angeles and Seattle and New York and Oakland and in far more places than I could name. It grieves me to think about the black people who are killed by law enforcement over skittles or cigarettes, it grieves me to think of the young black people who see the footage of the killings and who are learning that that is how their country sees them. It all feels so bad and so big and so scary that it makes me want to lock the literal and proverbial door on all of it, to bury my head in the sand, to consolidate my own sense of safety, my own optimistic narratives about this country. But I know that this country already had far too many locked doors in it, our communities, our cities, our institutions have locked far too many people out already. We don’t need anymore locked doors.
Black people have, for as long as this country has existed, been telling us that they are locked out of the American dream, that they have been written out of our conception of Neighbor. And in this moment, their pleas to be heard have reached a volume that even behind our locked doors we can hear. It would be easy to deploy any number of the euphemisms we use—about crime or looting or protest—and to decide that they are not your neighbor. Don’t. Don’t decide that.
Imagine that we all want the same things—safety, acceptance, to take care of our families and to see our communities thrive. Wonder how long those pleas were ignored before they took to the public protest. Dare to stretch your conception of neighbor big enough to all of it and ask, then, what is your responsibility to that neighbor?
George Floyd was somebody’s neighbor. Breonna Taylor was somebody’s neighbor. Ahmaud Arbery was somebody’s neighbor. Were they mine? Were they yours?
I don’t know what to do about any of this, I think it is too big for any one of us to wrap our arms around on our own. But my final exhortation is this: if you are interested in pursuing this further, if you feel compelling to talk and learn and work and do more about the topic of racism in American and our Christian responsibility in it, then I would as that you reach out to me–write to me, email me, text me, be in touch however, and together with your fellow parishioners and the staff, we will see where we can begin. We will find a starting place for everyone. I don’t know where that beginning point is, but I am quite sure that on this day of Pentecost 2020, it is the work that is set before us, if we choose to unlock the door to it.